Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.
1 Timothy 5:3-4 ESV
It has been said that the true test of a civilization is the way it treats its elderly. Tragically, there have been many cases of physical and emotional abuse of the elderly in our nation. Even the church is sometimes guilty of a common form of abuse toward the elderly: apathy and neglect. And yet, the sheer length of Paul’s address on this topic in 1 Timothy 5:3-16 (14 verses) makes it abundantly clear that the manner in which we care for the elderly, especially widows, matters greatly in the sight of God. Here are just a few of the many biblical texts which speak to this fact:
Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
Psalm 68:5 ESV
Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. And all the people shall say, “Amen.”
Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
James 1:27 ESV
SUPPORT TRUE WIDOWS
In 1 Timothy 5:3, the Apostle Paul says that the church should “honor widows who are truly widows.” The Greek word translated “honor” has a double meaning. It refers to esteem attached to something or someone worthy of value, but it also possesses the idea of a price paid or received. In 1 Timothy 5:3 and the following verses, the word primarily refers to financial support being offered to widows. Therefore, Paul is commanding that the church should financially assist those widows who are truly in need.
According to Scripture, the church should not just honor any widow, but those who are “true widows.” A “true widow” is an elderly woman (60 years of age or older) who remained faithful in marriage to her husband who is now deceased (1 Timothy 5:9), and has a reputation for godliness: resisting the wickedness of feminism and devoting herself to diligently serving the church (1 Timothy 5:10). Furthermore, in addition to the death of her husband, a “true widow” is a woman who has been barren, or whose children and grandchildren have died (1 Timothy 5:4). And finally, she is a woman who is known for her faith in God and constant prayer (1 Timothy 5:5).
Undoubtedly, all parents contribute immeasurably to their children and grandchildren’s welfare. Therefore, there comes a time when it is the children and grandchildren’s responsibility “to make some return” to their widowed mother or grandmother “for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4). In light of this, the apostle plainly commands that the financial responsibility of caring for widows falls on the family first. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that if a person does not provide for his own family (and he is clearly including elderly parents and grandparents), “he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). And at the very end of this passage, in 1 Timothy 5:16, Paul stresses the importance of families taking responsibility for their own families even further by saying, “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.” Paul is preemptively answering questions that might arise: “What if there is no man as the head of the household? Should the church then support the widows in that family?” Paul’s answer is “no.” Instead, a believing woman, even in the first century, should do all that she can in order to assist the widows in her own family so that the church is free to minister to those widows who are truly in need.
DO NOT SUPPORT FALSE WIDOWS
In light of all this, the church only has the obligation to minister to “true widows,” not “false widows.” A “false widow” would be a woman who does not genuinely “require” the assistance of the church, such as widows with children/grandchildren (1 Timothy 5:4) and younger widows who should remarry (1 Timothy 5:11-15). In addition to this, a “false widow” is also a woman who does not “deserve” the assistance of the church, such as widows who are self-indulgent (1 Timothy 5:6) and feminist widows who deliberately chose not to have children (1 Timothy 5:4 & 14). Scripture is always wise and practical. God has provided clear instructions in order to protect his church from turning into a godless welfare agency that supports those who refuse to serve others, and even themselves. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, we find these profound words: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”
It is important to recognize that Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 5:3-16, regarding care for true widows, is not meant to be interpreted as a blanket prohibition against caring for “non-widows” who are in serious need. When it comes to benevolence, Scripture repeatedly highlights both the widow and the orphan due to their helpless state. The Bible is clear about what we are called to do with the poor who have deliberately refused to work: “Let them not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Therefore, the ministry of benevolence should be reserved not merely for the poor, but for the “helpless” poor. The helpless poor are those who are not physically or mentally capable of performing the quality of work necessary to provide for their own needs (such as invalids and those with serious mental disabilities). In addition to this, the helpless poor may also include those who are capable of work but are unable to procure it, despite their continual and diligent attempts to do so.
APPLYING THE PRINCIPLE
Tragically, our society often views the elderly as a hindrance to their own pursuit of personal comfort and pleasure. We eagerly seek to discard those whom we have determined no longer contribute to society in a meaningful way. Certainly, we have been guilty of directing this cruelty toward the elderly among us. We simply shut our eyes, refusing to acknowledge their invaluable contribution of wisdom, knowledge, and experience. But ironically, many are now making a similarly tragic mistake, only this time, they have redirected their cannons of cruelty toward our nation’s young working class. Our governing officials, while securing raises for their own salaries, have rendered millions unemployed by decreeing that countless hard working Americans and their respective trades are “nonessential.” Abortion clinics and their doctors remain “essential,” while churches and their pastors have been labeled “unnecessary.” It seems that our nation has quite the bad habit of rashly discarding those who do not serve our purposes.
As the church, we must be involved in practical good deeds that minister to orphans, widows, and now, millions more Americans who have been forced out of their jobs. And yet, we must minister wisely. If we choose to blatantly rebel against God’s clear commandments for benevolence, the “solution” that we provide may actually cause more harm than the “problem.” Just as it is wrong for the civil-state to take on the responsibilities that God has assigned to families (such as education and physical provision), it is wrong for the church to take on these responsibilities as well. Our nation is in desperate need of faithful households led by faithful men who take responsibility for the members of their own families. However, in order for this to actually happen, our nation must allow these fathers to get back to work.