Comparative Commentary on 1 Timothy                             Return to Home 

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.  © 2020


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Covering 5:9-5:16:




The eight additional requirements that a candidate for on-going church support must meet (5:9-10):  “(9) Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man,  (10) well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work.” 

            If one adds in the requirements already mentioned— no available support, a demonstrated record of piety in her old age and avoiding a life of public (and presumably sinful) self-centered behavior (5:5-6) there are actually at least eleven requirements that must be met of which these were only the first three: 



Analysis of these additional individual requirements


The fourth requirement for church support--the minimum age of sixty (5:9):  Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number.”  An interesting variety of ways are utilized by our translations in expressing the minimum age:  “at least” (GW, Holman, ISV, NET), “not less than” (ESV, NASB), not “under sixty” (WEB, Weymouth), and “over sixty” (NIV).


            Why was sixty selected as the minimum age?  A good part of the explanation surely lies in Paul’s instruction that “younger” widows should remarry.  It isn’t that the abandonment of any desire to remarry won’t come earlier than sixty, but that by sixty the probability is very strong that such dreams will have been laid aside if they had ever existed.  “At a much younger age than 60 a woman would cease to have any temptation to marry again,” is the way one analyst worded it.[1] 

            We must keep in mind that that was a very different society than the 21st century technological west, with aging being far more likely to have worn out interests and abilities that remain viable nowadays.  Not to mention that work opportunities are vastly larger for women today than it was in antiquity--providing those in decent health a far greater chance to find something available.

            Furthermore the specification of this age also severely limits the size of the supported group to one more likely to be within a congregation’s capacity.[2]  However charitable and humane a congregation’s desire might be, there still existed the element of what it was able to do.  There were practical financial limitations. 

            The average life expectancy was undoubtedly low.  But that figure is, in a way, very misleading for a major chunk of the population would die of childhood diseases and problems.  In other words, the number of years you would average would be dramatically lower at birth than at, say, ten years of age.  One estimate based on material published in the 1980s suggests that 36% of newborns would die that first year; 24% would die during the next year.[3] 

            Those age sixty—of both genders--represented perhaps 2% of the population and such a person had a one in three chance of dying by the end of the year.[4]  Hence the age minimum set by Paul reduced the number of individuals eligible for assistance to a financially realistic level.   


“Taken into the number” could easily refer to simply being taken into--counted or considered as--part of the group of church supported widows.  If that were all he is saying, would it not be more meaningful to speak of something along the line of “taken into the group of the assisted elderly”?

Something a bit more specific than this is intended.  The various translations describe it as “the list” (NASB, NET), “list of widows”/“widow’s list” (GW, ISV, NIV) or “official support list” (Holman).  In other words the document listing who is eligible for help—thereby protecting those administering it against inadvertently providing it to an unqualified individual.

“Paper” records similarly are conveyed by the other alternatives of “be enrolled” (ESV, WEB) or “be put on the roll” (Weymouth)—expressions which convey a more formal act beyond mere public recognition of membership.

These alternatives are quite right in following their course since the Greek verb being used “means to put the name of someone on a list in order to be identified as a member of a particular group.”[5]  Jouette M. Bassler notes that though the expression is found nowhere else in the New testament, “it appears frequently in other documents almost as a technical term for registration, e.g., onto a ship or into the cavalry.”[6] 


The fifth requirement for church support—having been married (5:9):  not unless she has been the wife of one man.” Though the language of “wife of one man” is still found (NASB, WEB), it is significantly more common to have “the wife of one husband” (ESV, Holman, ISV, NET).  After all, if she is a wife of anyone, who else would one expect her to be wife of other than her husband?

Others that invoke “husband” language do so with an additional “spin” on the meaning.  Some make it convey that she had been married only once:  “had only one husband” (GW).  In other words she had never been divorced and remarried—regardless of reason—and if she had outlived her first husband, she had never remarried.  It is hard to see how “had only one husband,” assuming we accept its editorializing interpretation, can apply to one of these situations without applying to the other as well.[7] 

Applying it to the divorced encounters the problem that the innocent party, at least, had the right to remarry after departing her adulterous spouse (Matthew 5:32; 19:9).  Did doing what Jesus authorized prohibit her from receiving financial assistance in her old age?  There would seem to be a rather weird paradox if that were the case:  Do what is right and you’ll be punished!

So far as if she had remarried after the death of the first husband, Paul himself explicitly implores younger women to do exactly that in this very epistle (1 Timothy 5:14).  Would not heeding his counsel result in that same woman being disqualified later in life from receiving congregational aid?  Again:  Do what I say is right and you’ll be punished for it!  For these reasons glossing the text as meaning “had only one husband” can safely be dismissed as beyond Paul’s true intention.[8]    

(We can surely dismiss out of hand that this is Paul’s unscrupulous means to minimize the number who could ultimately be helped—by making sure that in the future they would become “unqualified.”  Paul might be unjustly challenged on various points where we might have questions, but does anyone really believe that Paul could have been this much a scoundrel?  For no other word would do the situation justice.)   


Amusing to me is the fact that when we read of “husband of one wife” (3:1), a good number of interpreters insist that this only rules out the polygamist and has nothing to do with establishing whether the man even has to be married.  The only requirement becomes a negative one, not a polygamist.  As a verbal parallel, one would naturally expect “wife of one man/husband” to mean that she was in a polygamous marriage to multiple husbands at the same time.  That simply did not exist in that age. 

(Of course our objection represents a possible problem for me as well since I’ve argued that “husband of one wife” rules out both the single person and the polygamist.  In fairness, though, it should be noted that elder requirements are requirements they must meet at the time they are appointed, i.e., they must currently be in such a relationship.  In case of the widow, the very fact that she is a widow, shows that any marriage was in the past.  Whatever it means must refer—in her case--to a relationship that is now part of history rather than what is currently ongoing.)       


The other interpretation suggested for our text is that of sexual loyalty:  “faithful to her husband” (in the words of the NIV) and “must have been true to her one husband” (in Weymouth, but as part of verse 10 and not 9).  To look beyond our normal spectrum of comparisons, “faithful to her husband” is found in the Common English Bible and New Century Version.  This becomes “faithful in marriage” in the Contemporary English Version. 

Although there can be no doubt that Paul expected sexual loyalty by both partners, can we be that confident that this is the intended meaning?  Or perhaps we should say:  Do we have any other choice?  It fits perfectly and avoids the problems of the other approaches.

For it can’t refer to the number of times married for Paul had just urged—is demanded too strong a word, perhaps?—that younger women remarry.  Are we to believe that, having done so, she is to later to be banned from church assistance for having obeyed Paul’s instruction?  That seems so totally improbable/absurd that we are driven, through lack of options, to consider marital fidelity to be the point.

One can imagine several reasons for this.  If she had been faithful to her spouse, would that not be considerable evidence that she would be faithful to responsibilities as a church sponsored widow?  Furthermore if you permitted into the group ones that lacked that background, would not that be taken as a sign of “you have so little respect for those of us who were faithful spouses that you accept those who never had reverence for the institution!”  Even in our age it would seem disconcerting; in that age with its heavy emphasis on “face” and “public respectability” it would have been many fold worse.      


The sixth requirement for church support—well spoken of for how she has helped others (5:10):  well reported for good works.”  The degree of recognition she has is conveyed by “well reported,” language which conveys the idea that her constructive lifestyle is consistent and habitual and is widely recognized.

That specific wording is continued only by Weymouth.  “Well known” is the most preferred substitution, but with only three translations embracing it (Holman, ISV, NIV).  With an equal number of supporters is the wording “having (or) has a reputation” (ESV, NASB, NET).  The GW has the vaguer “people should tell about” her actions.  The WEB prefers to stress the moral recognition her actions has gained, “being approved” by her behavior of good works.   Luke T. Johnson suggests the translation of “reputation for good deeds.”[9]

This is--and was-her lifestyle, her routine mode of behavior before she even got old and needed help.  She has been doing these things for years. . . .  This woman did not arrive at widowhood without these things and then very quickly put them on so the elders would be willing to support her. . . .  She is going to continue to do these things as long as she is able.  Because she has made it routine in her life.”[10]     

This commentator argues that if we want to know what this meant in a woman of her time, that one should look at the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31.  “These lists could be about the same woman!  One shows her younger, with children, and a bustling household.  The other shows her older, having outlived her husband and her children, home no longer bustling with family, but full of other people she has found to serve.”[11]  And attempts to do so as health and opportunity admits. 

This makes sense because she is described as one who is still marked by “trust[ing] in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Timothy 5:5).  Is it credible that she would jettison the rest of her earlier standard behavior?  Inference, true enough, but the probability level is extremely high.   


Majority support for the description of her behavior as “good works” remains (ESV, Holman, NASB, NET, WEB).  “Good deeds” certainly conveys the idea equally well (NIV, Weymouth).  “Good actions” seems a bit weak (ISV) and even more so “good things” (GW).  

No effort is made to fully define what these “good works” consist of.  The expression itself functions to inform us of three things.  The first is the quality of the work—“good” . . . rather than idle or wasteful or futile . . . things that positively benefit others rather than merely “churns the waters” and are empty actions that have no particular positive value.

The second thing the expression reminds us is that these are “works”—actions.  Not mere wishes, hopes, or desires.  Something is actually done to accomplish the desired result.  The woman is utterly unlike the polite but negligent man in James who tells the destitute, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled” and does absolutely nothing to assist.  “What does it profit?” challenged James (2:16) and who can doubt for a second that Paul would have chimed in a hearty agreement?

The third thing to notice in “good works” is that it is in the plural, “works.”  It wasn’t a single action but a behavioral pattern.  Something that occurred time and again.  We today would say it “became a lifestyle.”    

            What follows in the text are examples of what these “good works” would be.[12]  There is no claim that this is an exhaustive list; rather, it functions as a representative sampling of such behaviors.


The seventh requirement for church support—raised children (5:10):  if she has brought up children.”  “Brought up children” (ESV, Holman, NASB, WEB, Weymouth) remains the preferred wording; the NIV modifies this to “bringing up children.”  “Raised” (ISV, NET) and “raising” (GW) is preferred by some.  The verb that is used means to “care for and nurture.”[13]

            This begins at birth of course and it should be noted that, in Rome at least, there was a marked disinclination to have children.  (See our discussion in chapter two on the popularity of abortion.)  The significant dangers of childbirth and the statistical odds of death before maturity could not help but give many women pause.  The usefulness and even urgent need for additional help in the family business (farming, fishing, etc.) was not so much at play in such an urban setting. 

            Furthermore, far more is envolved than mere having the children.  The wording is not “bore children,” but “brought up” or “raised” them.  That is only the beginning of what will take many years to complete—the encouraging, teaching, even “civilizing” the “self-centered critter” into a human who can rationally and responsibly interact with others and uphold his or her own responsibilities.  Birth alone does not create the bond; raising the child/children does. 

            Which brings us to another point:  some vigorously insist that they need not have been her own—indeed, probably weren’t.  The point is that she raised orphans.  Of course there is not the slightest hint that this is mind—though it would certainly have been counted as virtuous for her having taken this task on in addition to raising her own . . . or in place of, if she had not been able to bear any.

            Furthermore being placed virtually immediately after the marriage requirement, it would far more naturally be the physical fruit of that marriage that is under discussion; it makes far better interpretive sense.[14]  There is a perfectly fine Greek word for orphans that is used twice in the New Testament (ὀρφανοὺς – James 1:17 physically and John 14:18 spiritually) and it could have easily been used here if that had been the point in mind.      


The eighth requirement for church support—provided for the needs of visitors to their community (5:10):  if she has lodged strangers.”  Some form of the word “hospitality” is the overwhelmingly dominant alternative.  One had been “showing” (NIV) or “shown” it (ESV, Holman, NASB) . . . or “practiced” it (NET).  Modifying the wording to “hospitable,” one was either “being hospitable” (GW) or “has been hospitable” (WEB). 

None of these include the word “strangers” or a substitute for it except for WEB, where the complete reading is “has been hospitable to strangers” (WEB).  Weymouth offers a slightly different variant retaining both the hospitable element and the outsider one:  “received strangers hospitably.”

Standing alone is the “welcomed strangers” in the ISV.  This is almost the literal meaning of the Greek word used, with only “received” being substituted for “welcomed.”[15]

Dictionary wise, “hospitable” refers to the attitude—receiving them friendly and treating them well.  In this day and age and our industrialized society we are likely to take this as, at the most, receiving them as dinner guests, but which of us would automatically think of lodging them as normally included in the term? 

An earlier generation might have been a tad more understanding of the usage because the lodging of visiting kin was not all that uncommon, but even that seems far less the case today.  Although a “stranger” who is a Christian might be accommodated, that would be rare; the most likely time for it would be (for example) a once in a decade visit by a out-of-town preacher.  And our text seems to have in mind out of town Christians and not preachers alone or even in particular.  

It is the act and not the attitude or emotions accompanying it that are under consideration.  Hence if one wishes to make plain that the former is “center stage” in the reference, something along the line of “if she has shown hospitality by lodging strangers” would seem better.  Even superior would be, “if she has shown hospitality by lodging visiting strangers,” since those under discussion are surely those from other places and not locals.  For one thing the latter would be far, far less likely to be a “stranger.”  The odds would be from strong to overwhelming that someone from a distant community would be such.  


The individuals could be either (1) visiting Christians or (2) visitors/temporary residents with whom one has some vague tie of family relationship or friends of such family kin.  The sense of family obligation, however, would make it far more probable that such would almost automatically be granted, even if a tad grudgingly because of the inconvenience, financial limitations, size of home, or other reasons.  When one is dealing with visitors who one has no such ties to at all, the temptation to find an excuse would mushroom tremendously.  Hence the latter would be far more likely to be in mind, for these are the type of folk one could easiest dismiss as “not my responsibility at all.”


The ninth requirement for church support—if she had been willing to do even the “menial” tasks that went with having visitors (5:10):  if she has washed the saints’ feet.”  This is retained by two versions (ESV, NET) and slightly modified into “washed the saints’ feet” by a number of others (Holman, ISV, NASB, WEB).  Since “saints” is a term that even the Biblically literate don’t normally use of everyday Christians, a few translations utilize language everyone would be more familiar with:  “washing the feet of the Lord’s people” (NIV) and “washed the feet of God’s people” (Weymouth).

The GW goes way beyond any of these by speaking of how these women had a reputation of “taking care of believers’ needs.”  Presumably they were trying to “translate” the specific way of being helpful from that common in a first century context--but alien in our own--into vaguer language that expressed the intended good will being manifested but which transcends that specific cultural context. 

The problem with this is that “taking care of believers’ needs” would seem more likely to be mentally “translated” by the hearer into something along the lines of giving them a meal, helping with their children or home repairs, or just about anything other than its original nature.  Hence if one wishes to maintain this kind of wording it would seem far better to render it along the lines of, “taking care of believers’ needs such as by washing their dusty feet when they arrive.”  This would combine the point Paul is making with the specific type of help that fits the first century.  


And this is exactly the kind of situation Paul has in mind.  We hear the term and our minds tend to drift to some kind of modern church ritual.  Actually it was an everyday occurrence.  People wore sandals.  Your feet were going to get dusty or dirty from any extended walking, especially in the countryside.[16] 

In a small or poorer household it would be a customary courtesy performed by the wife.  In a prosperous household this was typically done by a servant, over whom she had authority.  Hence, even if not carried out by her personally, it would be done at her instruction.  Either way, the necessary task got performed.

Not providing for it was discourteous at the best and an insult at the worst:  Consider Jesus’ remark to His Pharisee host, “you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head” (Luke 7:44). 

For a person of authority to do it himself was a show of conspicuous humility.  After Jesus had washed His disciples’ feet he made the point:  “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:13-14).  In other words He had humbled Himself to assure that this lowest of jobs be done and they should humble themselves to do whatever was needed as well.

The fact that these women are described as having washed their visitors’ feet--as if they did it personally--argues that the type of people under consideration were typically living in a poorer household.  Furthermore it is hard to imagine a grandmother’s needs getting “lost” if her children were prosperous.  It would simply be one more of the obligations that could easily be taken on as a matter of course.  Among those already financially “pushed,” things could easily become far less clear-cut in the children’s minds.

Her actions when younger displayed her personal intention to make sure whatever needed to be done, was taken care of—no matter how minor or menial it might be . . . whether in an economically better off family or not.[17]  If she took such care to assure that all the family’s lesser obligations were met, how could her children dare be callous as to the important ones, such as the protection of their parents?    


The tenth requirement for church support—having had an active role in helping those who had endured distress in its many forms--the sick, poor, and others (5:10):  if she has relieved the afflicted.”  When “afflicted” is utilized it is prefaced by “helped” (Holman), “cared for” (ESV), and “relieved” (WEB), in roughly increasing order of emphasis.  (In everyday English “relieved” surely sounds like greater effort being involved than either “helped” or “cared for!”) 

The second key word substituted for “afflicted” is “distress” or “distressed,” prefaced by “helped” (NET), “has assisted” (NASB), and “given relief to” (Weymouth), again in the order that the degree of effort expended seems to increase in each different rendering.

“Helped/helping the suffering” is the third most common substitution (GW, ISV).  “Helping those in trouble” is used only by the NIV and, in my mind at least, both “afflicted” and “distressed” would seem to imply significantly more turmoil and difficulty than the mere word “trouble.”      


            What she has done has not been merely “being a good neighbor”—at least not in the sense that we think of that expression in modern Western society.  It refers to something more concrete and substantial than giving a neighbor a ride to work, picking up their kids from school, or cutting their grass. 

The language is “afflicted:”  The person has a deep, difficult problem and, to the extent to which she is capable, she has tried to lift some of the burden.  A modern example might be that our neighbor is taking care of a sick relative who needs somebody close by at all times.  We take her place so she can get the shopping done, go to the doctor herself, or simply take a half-day “off” to relax without the constant potential for disruption.  It costs us, monetarily, nothing, but it “relieves” the afflicted or—in this example—the one who is the primary individual taking care of the afflicted.  The principle is the same.            

Some think that the original reference is to helping those who suffered persecution, but the actual wording permits it to cover a far wider range of topics.  Most folk in that time period were either “dirt poor” or relatively poor.  The afflictions that can arise from that condition are numerous, just as in our own age.  Whatever the specific source, this kind of woman did what she could to help out. 


The eleventh requirement for church support—if she had made a good faith effort to do all that she could to benefit others (5:10):  if she has diligently followed every good work.”  The degree of passion in doing so is manifest in the use of “diligently followed” (retained by WEB only).  The Greek term has “the sense of active pursuit or complete devotion to something.”[18] 

The bulk of translations substitute the similarly intense term “devoted” (ESV, ISV, Holman, NASB, Weymouth) or “devoting” (NIV).  In a different way, the ongoing effort is described as “always doing good things” (GW) and “has exhibited all kinds of good works” (NET). 


            The actions being described are labeled “good work/works” (ESV, Holman, NASB, NET, WEB, Weymouth), “good things” (GW), “good deeds” (NIV), or simply “doing good in every way” (ISV).

            Every good work.”  There is nothing verboten to her.  If she can help a bad situation get better, she is willing to make a good faith effort whatever it may require.  She can’t promise you perfection, but she can promise you sincerity and a whole hearted attempt. 



Is There a “Church Office” of Widows?



            The works envolved in her “office” would be those specified in verse 10.  First of all, the text conspicuously does not call it an office.  Second of all, those things listed in both verses 9 and 10 are presented as prerequisites of receiving ongoing church assistance.  In other words, the emphasis is on what she is already doing before she is placed on the official church “dole.”

Even if one argues that they occupy a church “office,” to call them leaders is highly misleading.  Verse 10 describes acts of service to others—analogous perhaps to the kinds of things that deacons would do.  But even deacons are only “leaders” in a relatively vague sense.  They are really implementers and carriers out of whatever needs to be done.  Similarly, if widows are being described as occupying an “office” at all it is of that kind—doing the “grunt work” needed to make an organization function and to fulfill its obligations.  “Leadership”—making policy decisions and setting the broad agenda—is not in their real purview nor that of deacons.  For that think eldership.       


            Sometimes the idea of church office is conveyed without actually using the term.  J. M. Holmes seems to have that (or a similar idea) in mind when she argues that, “1 Timothy 5:11-12 appears to assume a group of widows pledged to life-time celibacy.”[19]  At the very least the wording requires a recognized group within the church, receiving church support due to their age. 

I cite this particular source because the reference to “life-time celibacy” grates on my nerves.  In the context in which such an expression is used today we quite naturally think of some young woman who has made a vow to “life-time celibacy” as an expression of her religious zeal and commitment.  For her that is going to be a long, long time.  But Holmes concedes that “few of either sex lived until 60 in antiquity. . . .”[20]  To express that person’s commitment to “celibacy” as a “life-time” project does seem a great rhetorical stretch of normal English usage!   


            Others are convinced that something beyond normal charity must be under consideration—that a special group of women devoted to God’s service is now introduced . . . a new and different group:  “Now it is plain that χήρα here cannot stand simply for the desolate and destitute widow, whose maintenance has been the subject of the preceding verses; for the Church would not limit her charity to the needy by strict conditions like those of 1 Timothy 5:9-10.”[21] 

            Says who?  “Would not” seems rather contradictory to the fact that Paul had just done so!  If normal words mean anything.  The “good works” she had performed would continue.  They would be expressed through helping other members rather than her own family.  If a different group is now under discussion would we not expect to be informed of their obligations and duties?  And how they differ from those that are expected or anticipated from the first group.


            More challenging is Stuart Allen’s objection:  “A careful consideration of this passage leads one to think that a special set of widows is referred to here, not destitute widows generally, for it is inconceivable that a destitute woman would have to reach the age of sixty before she became eligible for any practical help from the church.”[22]  But there is an obvious difference between temporary help and permanent assistance and the qualifications for the latter are Paul’s concern.

            Actually there is a broader oddness here:  just as there is no mention or when or whether to give assistance to women over sixty, there is also no notice given to when or whether to give assistance to males over sixty.  It would strike me that if one has a viable solution to the later omission, one also has a viable solution to the question initially raised. 

            But what is that answer?  One reasonable answer would be that church assistance was normally considered—for both genders—to be a relatively short term affair.  The giving of special qualifications for those 60+ would, in significant part, be due to the recognition that at that age these individuals are going to be on church support until they die.  In other words, the specification of requirements is due to the duration aspect that is assumed.

            Of course that leaves us wondering about those males over 60 . . . who would surely be facing the same prospect of indefinite assistance.  Or is it assumed that males would typically die younger than females (that is true in the modern United States) and therefore the situation would be extraordinarily rare for them?       


            Evidence for the work of this church “office” from the epistle to Titus?  Ray Steadman believes that there is a distinct church office of widow and argues that we find more detail about its work in a later Pauline epistle:[23]      


In the letter to Titus, the apostle urges Titus to help the older women learn to teach the younger women.  In our congregation there are a lot of younger women who would love to know older women whom they could call up to ask for advice, to pour out their hearts to them and share their struggles and problems with them.  This is the kind of ministry the Word of God encourages older women, especially widows, to have -- to be available to the younger women of the congregation for prayer, for support, for teaching, for understanding.


            The text referred to (Titus 2:1-5) actually refers to “older women” and not to widows, a point Steadman clearly recognizes.  But if that far broader context is the intent, how does the passage give us any real information concerning the nature of the alleged ministry of widows?  How could it?  


            J. H. Bernard, who we quoted earlier, argues that there is no proper way to assume that these women became deaconesses but insists that they still entered into a clearly distinct church office:[24]


And thus we conclude that we have in this verse the earliest notice of the ordo viduarum [Latin:  order of widows], which is often mentioned in sub-Apostolic and early patristic literature.  They had a claim to maintenance, and in return were entrusted with certain duties, such as the care of orphans, and were expected to be diligent in intercessory prayer. 

For instance, Polycarp (Philippians 4) after speaking of priests and deacons, goes on to widows … “an altar of God,” because from their age and comparative leisure they were supposed to give special attention to prayer.  A form of prayer for the use of ‘widows’ is found in the Apostolical Constitutions (iii. 13).  A notice of them in Lucian (de morte Peregrini 12) in connexion with orphans suggests that they were in his time quite an established institution.

The order was at first restricted to αἱ ὄντως χῆραι, but after a time virgins and even young virgins seem to have been admitted, a practice which Tertullian deprecates.  Ignatius (Smyrn. 13) speaks of τὰς παρθένους τὰς λεγόμενας χήρας; but this may only mean that from the purity of their lives the enrolled widows might be counted virgins. In any case at this early stage of the Church’s life only αἱ ὅντως χῆραι, desolate widows, were admissible into the order, and the conditions of admission are before us—first, they must be at least sixty years old, and secondly, they must be univirae [Latin:  once married].


            That this group of widows was set up and intended to be a distinct church office is unprovable and the motivating factor underlying the assertion is simply that later such an office existed and that both situations envolved widows--at least in 1 Timothy.  (In contrast, in Titus 2 it envolves all “older women,” whether widowed or not.)  There is no real reason to assume that such a “position” in the sense that it existed later was even imagined by Paul. 

            To look back upon it as a precursor was easy to do because it had this element in common.  We grant the best of intentions.  We cannot grant scripturality for what came later for that is simply not found in--or justified by--our texts.  It is both institutionalized into an “office” and envolved specified obligations far beyond anything mentioned in the scriptural passages.        


            Newport J. D. White is one of many who believes that these widows would make a special point of regular religious and charitable activities including prayer and helping others within the limits of their time and physical capacity.  This is quite reasonable.  They are being supported at the church’s expense and would surely feel a moral obligation to do such things.  What more appropriate response to being assisted than to want to help others as well?

            But he also recognizes what is easily forgotten since similar aged females are under consideration in both cases:  “It is difficult to suppose that St. Paul, or any other practically minded administrator, would contemplate a presbyteral order of widows, the members of which would enter on their duties at the age of 60, an age relatively more advanced in the East and in the first century than in the West and in our own time.”[25]


            The problem of what to do with widows whose surviving family refuse to perform their duty to her.  There is a problem we do need to devote attention to, because it is one that clearly would occur occasionally and which Paul does not explicitly raise:  What if a woman met the standard of age and character but had children who refused to do their duty?  What was the church to do?  One can imagine them being provided for under the regular welfare assistance of the church, help that could go to anyone of any age, as needed.

            One can also imagine—but not prove—a silent proviso in Paul’s discussion of widows:  that her children/grandchildren are members of the church.  In this case the speculation is minimized.  Instead of being the justification for a whole type of church office for which there is nothing explicit or reasonably implicit in the text, it becomes a way to deal with those tragic cases where believers refuse to do their duty.  Need we add that one can hardly imagine them remaining members in “good standing” for very long?

            The “silent proviso” is only such in verses 3-8 however.  In the concluding verse 16 it is made quite explicit, “If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows.”

            That presents the reverse of what we began with:  What if their children are unbelievers who refuse to fulfill their responsibility?  We would have two possibilities.  The first one is that she would fall under the general benevolence responsibilities of the church, as already mentioned.  The other is that since the requirements are only set for the parents of believing children, that the church itself has the privilege of setting the criteria for permanent assistance to such a woman.  One finds it hard to imagine how those could possibly be different from those that are specified.        



Why, How and What the Church Provided



            Why such support was needed.  Unless one inherited a goodly amount, difficulties were inevitable.  (Even when there was a significant inheritance, there was the matter of who exactly got it and what part, if any, was to be under the widow’s direct control.)  When Jesus taught the disciples to pray “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), it was not just a lesson in dependence on God, it was also a reference to the situation faced by the bulk of the population—it was a subsistence economy.  The bulk or entirety of what one had would be used today or, if you wish, gathered for tomorrow’s single day use.

            Of course, a goodly number were able to rise above this level, but everyone was all too aware there was no guarantee that they would stay there.  You gained a margin for survival, but the challenge was always to maintain it and, if possible, grow it larger.  After death the surviving widow faced an even greater challenge than when her husband was alive. 

            The husband was the overwhelmingly predominant income earner; with that gone there was no government program to provide systematic assistance.  (Rome itself was the only exception and the grain or bread it provided was only for perhaps 20% of the population.)  Hence it was either extended family, begging, or starvation.  Yes, there were successful businesswomen though they were typically women who carried on the family business after their husbands died.  Those of any great economic significance were rare.  In the New Testament, only Lydia can definitely be established as such a success, though Phoebe (Romans 16) likely fell into that category as well.[26]

            But that left the vast bulk of aging ladies facing a rocky and perilous future if their kin did not come to their aid.


The reason for the undefined “how.”  Details are conspicuously lacking as to the amount or form of assistance and how it was to be carried out—probably because they might legitimately vary from place to place and even individual widow to individual widow.  Also to be factored in was the locale’s financial resources.  What could be reasonably done by a large and prosperous group would be well beyond the resources of a smaller one where the income was a fraction.  Likewise the means and resources could drastically vary from a rural setting to an urban one.  But in all such situations something on a regular and systematic basis could be provided so far as food and such like.

            The situation remains the same in the bulk of the world.  Today far fewer women in the western world, however, fall into as drastic a danger as the situation that imperiled first century widows.  What with social security, welfare and food assistance and the such like, a valuable “cushion” is provided for survival.  But even here the margin can be narrow and some form of support useful and even essential to lift an abstract definition of “survival” into one that has real substance. 

            Even when little of substance is needed in dollar or food terms, human relationships and interactions remain an essential part of any human’s everyday life.  The visit.  The phone call.  Casual conversation.  Things about and beyond any food and financial assistance.  For older widows—younger ones too, for that matter--there may be members with specialized talents (attorneys, accountants, etc.) who can provide expert advice on those “weird problems” that ultimately affect everyone at some time or other.[27]   

            These often fall under the category of “things that money can’t buy”—or, at least, shouldn’t have to.  Things that can be provided at little or no cost and which will help the widow immeasurably.  But they require a congregation with members alert to who is in one of these categories potentially needing help and also of what resources are scattered among the membership.  In other words, individuals who know above and beyond the mere superficial about the group’s members.

            One can easily imagine deacons dividing up those who fall into such “special needs” categories and assuring that no one gets overlooked.  After all, “deacon” means “servant”—the one who “does the work” of getting things done.  In their absence one can imagine some alternative system being used informally to accomplish the same end.  Either way, the purpose would be to assure that, whenever possible, the reasonable needs of potentially neglected members are not overlooked.   


            The long-term nature of the assistance.   In other Biblical passages we read of church support for the needy of both genders and without any of the strict requirements laid down here in 1 Timothy.  This argues that what we have here is a narrowly designed program to meet a specific need that, in comparison with others, will be a comparatively uncommon occurrence in regard to amount of support and duration.  I think David Reagan hits well on matters related to this when he writes:[28]


If strictly applied, there are probably few widows that would be taken in by the church, and that seems to be the purpose of Paul’s teaching on the subject.  However, we must remember that Paul is speaking here of full support for the widows.  There would be other cases where temporary or partial help would not require such strong prohibitions.  In other words, helping a widow with an occasional utility bill would not require the same restrictions as providing full support would.


            In fact the latter would seem to fall under the category of “general benevolence” (i.e., for any Christian who needs it) rather than “specific benevolence” (for a targeted group of believers). 


The mechanism for support.  It should be stressed that it is the congregation that Timothy is working with that was to provide the assistance.  Our modern world invented a substitute for this strictly congregational system:  institutions that churches contributed to—whether they had needy or not and whether they had members resident in such settings.  If one believes that the scriptures provide a complete revelation of God’s will, it is hard to see how this “passing the buck” to a non-congregational enterprise can be justified.  The good will out of which donations are given is, of course, to be applauded but it does nothing to fulfill the obligation God gave the local congregation toward its needy.  Not to mention encouraging spiritual “empire building” among the institutions invented.  In its most extreme form, the departure from the Biblical pattern of fully independent congregations ultimately gave the world the Roman Catholic Church.

From the mid-1950s to say the mid-1980s the churches of Christ split over the issue of “institutionalization,” which centered around the creation of some large evangelistic or benevolent effort that would carry out activities that it would never be practical for an individual congregation to do by its own efforts alone.   The new institutions typically existed under a “sponsoring church” which collected funds from as many individual congregations as it could to pay for the institution’s bills and implement its programs.

Compared to earlier efforts in such a centralizing direction, these were “Empire State Buildings” in comparative size and goals.  What had previously been a divisive but manageable issue became an unmanageable one as the advocates increasingly insisted on everyone lining up in support or being branded an “anti” and ostracized.

Some of the basic scriptural problems with these new programs are illustrated by Don Martin in his discussion of the creation of one such institution, one specifically relevant to our present topic of the church’s obligation to the elderly:[29]     


The subject of Homes for Widows has had a troubling history among churches of Christ, which I want to address at this time.  The issue is not whether or not a local church can provide for widows indeed; the issue has become the indiscriminate, manufactured need, and institutionalization that also involves local churches in a working arrangement that violates autonomy, having one central overseeing eldership (cp. Acts 14: 23, I Pet. 5: 2f.).

I recall while preaching in Texas during the seventies, we were contacted by the Central Church of Christ in Houston.  The letter that they sent to many Churches of Christ was, “…an urgent appeal for financial help….”  Central said of itself, “…we are in a serious financial condition and must…ask its sister congregations for help.”  Did they have so many widows among their own number that they needed outside help?  No.

Central set up the Christian Home for the Aged as a separate entity, but its charter provided that it be overseen by the elders of the Central Church.  Central’s creation, Christian Home for the Aged, became a 232 bed building (1973), making it at that time (1973) the largest nursing home in the state of Texas.  The last addition in 1973 cost 3.7 million dollars.  Christian Home for the Aged sought out “widows” from more than 14 states and even 5 foreign countries (tract titled, Christian Home for Aged, A Status Report, July 1978).

I imagine that there are now homes for the aged begun and maintained by Churches of Christ that would make Christian Home for the Aged small by comparison.  Most of these homes offer church assisted and elder overseen work that is indiscriminate, not noticing I Timothy 5: 16.  Many members within contributing churches send their parents and grandparents to these homes and personally neglect them, allowing churches to do what Paul said was their first place responsibility.


Let us be fast to notice that I Timothy 5 does not contain the following now common situation:

1).  A local church seeking out widows from churches around the world,

2).  A local church establishing, staffing, maintaining, and elders overseeing an all out home for the aged, such as Christian Home for the Aged,

3).  Widows of all situations being allowed into the home and children and grandchildren not provided first place position in requiting the needs of their parents and/or grandparents.

4).  A local church designingly starting a work too big for them and then involving other churches to meet their financial responsibilities in such a home entity circumstance,

5).  The eldership of one local church continuing to oversee the work in which many local churches are on an on going basis involved,

6).  A local church establishing and maintaining a separate home and then accepting widows who are not even Christians. 


It is sad, indeed, that some have pushed their institutionalized, man-conceived version of world wide, indiscriminate widow care that involves churches of Christ forming an unscriptural union having one central eldership to the point of fracture, disruption, and division.  Again, the division and disagreement is not over what is taught, a local church taking care of their own widows in the manner taught in I Timothy 5, but rather some ambitious men being determined to do and bind on others what is not taught!  (Cf. Rev. 22:18, 19, Col. 3:17.)

In general, church benevolence is seen in the New Testament as being simple, but effective.  In the first place, such benevolence appears to have been the exception, not an assiduous, continuous operation, not based on actual need.  Hence, there are only about three recorded cases, spanning a period of about thirty years (Acts 4; 11; I Cor. 16).

Each local church is seen taking care of their own needy members (cp. Acts 4:32-37).  In instances when the need was greater than one church could handle, other churches are seen helping, but this help was obviously temporary and not permanent and church autonomy was not compromised (cp. Acts 11: 27-30, I Cor. 16:1f.). 

These churches did not build “Church of Christ Hospitals” or “Homes for the Aged” and they did not form a “Church of Christ Brotherhood World-Wide Work.”  The early churches focused on their needy as far as the treasury was concerned and did not attempt to serve as a modern Red Cross agency or general Eleemosynary Society taking care of the physical needs of the world.


            That is a longer extract than we like to use, yet it concisely deals with the scriptural difficulties in the creation of such non-church structures--or should I say semi-church, since such activities are run by an institution answerable only to its “sponsoring church”?  If good intentions proved scripturality, there would be absolutely nothing challengeable.  But if the scriptures are designed to be a permanently binding revelation of what the church is to believe and how it is to operate, it seems extraordinarily difficult to seriously embrace such premises while simultaneously operating humanly invented institutions at variance with it.


            What were the church supported widows to do after gaining their support from the church?   Interestingly we are told nothing about this.  However if the qualifying traits of verse 10 were so important and praiseworthy that they persistently exhibited them, it is hard to imagine that they did not welcome opportunities to persist in similar “good works” to the limits of their physical ability.  What is expected is left up to the good judgment of those ladies and to the specific needs and opportunities of the individual congregation.  They were an available “human resource.”  Are we to believe for a second they avoided happily helping with whatever was within the range of their skill?



* * * * * *


The two major reasons to avoid enrolling “younger widows” on the church’s permanent relief roll (5:11-15).  The first reason was to deny such individuals ongoing help—they were too likely to remarry and not allow the spiritual costs to inhibit them in their means of obtaining and maintaining such a remarried state (5:11-12): 

 But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry,  (12) having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith.”


             “Refuse:”  What is to be “refused[d] the younger widows” is, contextually, a place on the elderly church aid list.  Varied translations sometimes either add that in some form—for example, “refuse to put younger widows on the list” (NASB)—or drop the word “refuse” entirely but convey it by such wording as “do not put them on the list” (NIV).  Whichever approach is taken, it is made clear that there is no place for such individual among those receiving this particular type of assistance.


             “The younger widows:”  We really know nothing of the widows as to their living conditions and financial status.  As one analyst noted, “Whether they tended to head their own households or what other living arrangements they made cannot be determined.”[30]

            The reason for the ambiguity could be for either of two reasons or, more likely, both combined.  First of all, Paul was interested in behavioral patterns not in providing us data that is irrelevant to those patterns.  Second of all, just as in our own age these things probably differed substantially from person to person.  What they shared was a common danger if they remained unmarried.

            Paul provides a quite rational and fully coherent reason for the prohibition:  Speaking of the group—rather than every single member of the group—you are inevitably going to run into problems with those who allow wasted time, sexual interests, and the opportunity for self-advancement to cause them to cast aside their faith (verse 15).  Not content with this, some feel the need to graft onto this a supplemental factor—that discredit might rub off on the elders for having any public contact at all with women they are not married to:  There was the very[31]  


real  and serious possibility of  [allegations of scandal] created by the combination of an elderly male leadership that supports sexually interested younger women.  The following warning to the rabbinic scholar in Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 2 captures the cultural sensibilities involved:


“Let no man be alone with any woman in an inn, even with his sisters, or his daughter or his mother-in-law because of public opinion.  Let no man chat with a woman in the market place, even if she is his wife, and needless to say, with another woman, because of public opinion.  Let no man walk behind a woman in the market place, even behind his wife, and needless to say another woman, because of public opinion.”    


            It is hard for me to believe that this objection existed where Timothy preached.  In a major city like Ephesus was it possible for any man to walk through the crowded streets without having a woman in front of them . . . or for any woman not having a man behind them?  Would the equivalent of town criers be sent through the streets hollering:  “Proof!  Proof positive that everyone in the streets at all is committing adultery!” (?) 

            Or in a more rural setting, remember the case of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well?  The disciples had gone to search out food and left Jesus behind at the well (John 4:8).  Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, ‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’  For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.’ ”  Not that “males have no public dealings with women” but that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”

            Shall we even mention the traveling parties in which many of Jesus and his male apostles were accompanied by married women? 

            Yes moral paranoia can rule the day—but where is the evidence that the danger of this motivated what Paul had to say?  For the reasons we have mentioned, it seems thoroughly unrealistic.       


            What age bracket does he have in mind in speaking of “younger women”?   Paul limits permanent church support to those widows who are at least sixty (5:9).  Hence “young” widows would be anyone under sixty.  Even so Paul’s argument is especially concerned with a smaller number of them.  His insistence that, if possible, they remarry and have children (5:14) argues that he is most concerned with those women still capable of childbearing. 

            That obviously varied from woman to woman.  However, we can provide a reasonable estimate of what “young” was considered as measured by the ability to have children:  The well respected physician Soranus of Ephesus (98-138 A.D.) was one of the most respected physicians in Rome and had a specialty in gynecology.  His work on the subject has survived and in it (Gynaecology 1.20), he wrote that menopause occurred sometime between age 40 and 50.[32]  Under the version of the lex Julia adopted by the emperor Augustus (18-17 B.C.), required that all Roman women under 50 had to be married or remarried or suffer certain legal disabilities.[33]  Since it did so to maximize the population, it worked on the assumption that a significant percentage had the potential to become pregnant into the fourth decade of their life.

            What was their chance of actually getting pregnant?  A widely circulated study has concluded that it is greatly reduced by the 35-39 age spectrum:  1 in 3 were pregnant within their first year of marriage; 2 in 3 were not.  (Far less well known is that the numbers were based on a widespread collection of French data covering the years 1670 to 1830.  In other words a pre-technological age, as was the first century.)  Contemporary studies have shown that 89 percent of women are still fertile at 38 and that the typical age for menopause is now somewhere between 40 and 45[34] --not all that different from the first century analysis of Soranus.     


            The moral censure is strong.  Not against them being widows but them allowing their status to drive a wedge between themselves and their Lord—“when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry” (5:11).  They are in a unique, exclusive relationship of one woman and her Lord (i.e., she is a Christian with no husband) and she is going to allow herself to be torn away from it.  The implicit marital image is further conveyed by the sexual allusion to “grow(ing) wanton.”     

            Only the WEB retains the “wanton,” but the point is emphatically reflected when others substitute “sensual desires” (NASB, NIV) or “natural desires” (GW).  The latter affirms the normality of the desires while retaining the criticism of how they are being expressed.  Although “passions” (ESV, NET) is sometimes use of an enthusiasm for sports, politics, or any other specialized interest, its is more typically found in this kind of sensual context. 

Stripping the language from “sensual/natural desires” down to mere “desire” (Holman) runs the danger of scrubbing the text of its underlying warning about allowing sexual interests to destroy one’s spirituality rather that recognizing that both have their legitimate place in the human life. 

The motivating factor in the rejection of Christ is totally removed when one changes the text to “as soon as they begin to chafe against the yoke of Christ, they want to marry” (Weymouth).  This isn’t “modern speech,” this is—if anything—cloaking Paul’s point.  (Perhaps part of that period’s common desire to minimize the existence of sexuality?)


The translations have different methods of showing how these desires work “against Christ” (the WEB, again, being the only translation preserving that word choice).  The image of being “drawn away” or “draw away” or “lead away” are invoked by, respectively, Holman, ESV, and NET.  This alienation is “against” (WEB), “in disregard of” (NASB) or “from” Christ (ESV, Holman, NET).

At greater length, we read of how those desires “overcome their dedication to Christ” (NIV).  Also how they “cause them to lose their devotion” to Him (ISV) or “become stronger than their devotion to Christ” (GW).  These last three certainly make explicit the fact that what happens is not only in disregard of what Christ wants but results in a complete rejection of Him.  Whether the rejection is part of the means of gaining a new spouse or whether it is out of the desire to please (or retain?) the new spouse the result is the same. 

She repudiates what was intended to be a commitment of spiritual loyalty to last the rest of her life.  Obviously that danger is minimized when the woman is of such an age that the situation described is extremely unlikely to arise—or even wished to occur on her own part.[35]  The latter has become reconciled with what the remainder of her life will be like.  


            The result of this alienation between the widow and Christ is that she falls into “condemnation” (5:12).  This is a wording widely preferred (ESV, Holman, ISV, NASB, WEB).  The GW modifies this slightly to “condemn themselves.”  The change to her behavior will “bring/incur judgment (NET, NIV).  Since this has the traditional overtone of incurring condemnatory judgment it seems better to make that condemnation explicit.  “Incur disapproval” (Weymouth) isn’t quite as emphatically a negative description as that conveyed by “condemnation.”  Since “disapproval” in this context is certainly intended to include this, “rejection” or “condemnation” seems far better in order to make it explici.

            Paul is not saying that marriage is itself evil or wrong, but that it brings condemnation for the reason about to be mentioned—an abandonment of the Lord.  It is not a matter of being loyal to both husband and Christ, but a relationship in which only the husband is of key importance.

            The “condemnation” can be taken in two different ways—not really contradictory, but supplemental.   The first is that it brings disapproval, criticism, and condemnation in “the court of public reputation.”[36]  This does not likely refer to the surrounding polytheistic world—why should they be upset because you have abandoned the cause of Christ?—but to the Christian world, i.e., the community of your fellow believers. 

            More importantly it brings God’s condemnation and rejection.  How in the world could He possibly approve of someone rejecting His Son for marriage or any other reason?  It should bring condemnation from Christians in general, of course, but even if it doesn’t, that still leaves God to answer to. 


            This condemnation occurs because in their new marriage (verse 11), they “cast off their first faith.”  None of our translations retain the “cast off” language, but some make the point perhaps even more emphatic:  They speak of how she has “abandoned” (ESV), “renounced” (Holman), or “rejected [or was] rejecting” it (GW, WEB).  Although making the rejection still clear, less stress on the degree of it seems to be found in those that speak of how she had “broken” (NIV, Weymouth) or was “breaking” that commitment (NET).  The other alternative presented is that she “set aside” her relationship (ISV, NASB). 


            Those keeping “faith” as the description of what is being rejected, vary between “former faith” (ESV), “the Christian faith” (GW), and “the faith they first accepted” (GW).  “Pledge” language” is a common substitute:  “first pledge” (NIV, WEB), “original pledge” (Holman), “previous pledge” (NASB), or “former pledge” (NET).  Weymouth opts for “their original vow,” which has the virtue of acknowledging the marital/divorce image underlying the picture of the self-centered widow abandoning her previous commitments to the Lord.  The most long-winded is the ISV’s “have set aside their prior commitment to the Messiah.”


            “Faith/pledge” as a reference to a pledge of loyalty to the “elderly widow church group?”   Even as a vow of perpetual celibacy?   To you and I, hearing this will likely produce a gasp of, “Where in the world did that come from?”  Yet there are those who are convinced that this is the case and an indication of a distinct group being formed as an “order” within the church community.  Indeed those who translate “their first faith” as something along the lines of “their first pledge” could well have this scenario in their minds.

            Even Baptists are sometimes willing to see something attractive in this analysis.   The able Greek scholar A. T. Roberson wrote, “Their first faith (την πρωτην πιστιν — tēn prōtēn pistin).  ‘Their first pledge’ (promise, contract) to Christ.  It is like breaking the marriage contract.  Evidently one of the pledges on joining the order of widows was not to marry.  Parry suggests a kind of ordination as with deacons and bishops. . . .”[37]  (Initial observation:  Surely breaking their “conversion contract/pledge” to Christ would fit at least as well!)  

            Or as the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary puts it:  cast off their first faith — namely, pledged to Christ and the service of the Church. . . .  The widow-presbyteresses, moreover, engaged to remain single, not as though single life were holier than married life (according to Rome’s teaching), but because the interests of Christ’s cause made it desirable (see on 1 Timothy 3:2).  They had pledged ‘their first faith’ to Christ as presbyteress widows; they now wish to transfer their faith to a husband (compare 1 Corinthians 7:321 Corinthians 7:34).”[38]  (Initial observation:  The younger widows would not be transferring “their faith to a husband,” so why would it have been doing so for the older ones?)


            In analysizing the weakness of this approach let us begin by first going back to our actual text.  We have here the Greek word pistinπίστιν – and it is used six times in 1 Timothy:

                        1:19 --  KJV: Holding faith, and a good

                        1:19 -- KJV: concerning faith have made shipwreck    

                        5:8   -- KJV: he hath denied the faith, and

                        5:12 -- KJV: they have cast off their first faith

                        6:11 -- KJV: godliness, faith, love

                        6:21 -- KJV: concerning the faith.  Grace

            In its normal connotation, and from its identical use in all other passages in the same epistle, one would naturally expect “their first faith” to mean their dedication to the Lord.  Their full commitment to the faith at “first” was now altered and seriously different—compromised (verses 13-14) or rejected (verse 15).  This was true regardless of whether they had officially been listed among the church supported widows.  Their behavior was a repudiation of their “first” (= earlier, preexisting) commitment in either case.  Hence to assume that they had made an additional “pledge” of some type to “join” the elderly “group” is unneeded.


It is common to assume that Paul is dealing with straightening out an existing problem among those who are church supported widows.  Although not impossible, it does seem extremely improbable:  For one thing, if this were the case wouldn’t it be far more likely for Paul to simply say “church support for widows has unfortunately been abused and here is how and why it should be straightened out”?  Isn’t what we have an extraordinarily indirect way to deal with the matter if that is the issue?  Doesn’t it make better interpretive sense that the congregation is considering how to set up an ongoing system of widow relief—including how broadly the qualifications should be?

The fact remains that the system is normally assumed to already exist and that a sufficient number of widows had already abused it to cause Paul to have to deal with its weaknesses.  At least equally rational is that some form of program for temporary aid to widows in general existed and that there was now the recognition that something long term was needed for the subset of more chronologically mature ladies. 

To seek counsel from the apostle would have been simple prudence.  Indeed does it seem outlandish that, if a formal system for such contingencies had not yet been set up, that Timothy would write for such advice? 

It is also assumed that there was an entry “pledge”  that each woman had to take.  If it was as to duties of “church widow” (in whatever sense one describes the “position” — from simply descriptive to a formal “church office”) we are faced with the very real problem that duties are conspicuously not prescribed.  Zilch.  Zero.  We aren’t told what they were now to do, but only what they had already been doing.

Since they clearly had major worries now removed, that they would continue to act in a similar manner is only logical.  So long as their health and individual talents were cooperative, this certainly makes sense . . . as well as helping out in whatever other ways they could.  But again we stress that this is not beginning something new, but the continuation of a well established lifestyle.  Beyond this very broad generalization, the specification of expected duties seems especially presumptuous due to our absolute lack of information.


When a formal “pledge” is assumed, it seems to invariably envolve a pledge of perpetual sexual abstinence.  Margaret Y. MacDonald conveys well the typical evaluation:[39]


It is likely that this pledge was an oath of celibacy, taken on the occasion of their enrollment.  Some young widows had apparently violated this pledge.  It is probably that, at one time, young widows were enrolled.  In fact, such enrolled young widows probably played an active role in community life.  But, by setting the age at sixty years of age or over, the author is preventing any new young widows from participating in the office.  As is the case in his definition of real widows, the author appears to be limiting participation in and reliance on the church on the part of widows to a minimum.


That Paul wished to limit church responsibility to what it could realistically handle makes inherent sense.  The church is not like the government, which can simply print more money.  Its resources are finite.    

As to the hypothetical pledge, Paul was repeatedly on record as approving and endorsing marriage--even remarriage (1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 27-28).  Why would he demand a pledge not to do what he regarded as commend-worthy even if it was not for himself?  If Paul was the least consistent, then their remarriage would not have carried the automatic stain of sin.  Only remarriage at the cost of repudiating one’s faith in order to gain that mate--“turning aside after Satan” by so doing (5:15), “casting off their first faith” (5:12).  Hence remarriage itself wasn’t sinful.  It was the price of securing a remarriage that was sinful.

Hence if one is going to insist that there was a “pledge” envolved at all in becoming part of the “widow community,” it would make far better contextual sense for it to have been one of good “Christianly” behavior in general, avoiding the various evils that discredit one’s faith and undermines that of others as well (for example, the kind of misconduct mentioned in verse 13).  But even that option falters seriously:  Is not that the kind of behavior any Christian, of any age, with or without church financial help would be expected to uphold?  Without an additional “pledge” being given?       


            The root of the potential trouble with a widow’s remarriage:  The core problem is not that they marry, but that it costs them their faith.  This may be because there is enough of the world left in their soul that they would be willing to cast off their spirituality for temporal gain.  It is doubtful that people actually pick up new bad habits when they get along in years.  More likely we are seeing pre-existing weakness magnified or simply given another opportunity to sprout forth.  In other words their weakness is internal and could easily have sprung out at an earlier date if the circumstances had been right. 

            The other source of danger lies in who they marry—not necessarily the specific person, but rather the type of person—a non-Christian who will, through lack of encouragement at the very least, discourage them from further following the Lord.  That is the “gentle” interpretation that can be put on the passage and there are abundant enough cases for us to recognize that it happens easily enough. 

However our text, by its stress on her evil and the lack of any explicit negative remark about the attitude or behavior of the unbeliever, places the responsibility on her shoulders.  She has made the decision that this remarriage is so vital that she will let absolutely nothing stand in the way, including commitment to her religion.  

Approaching the text from this “angle,” makes one wonder whether the apostasy is so much caused by his subverting her steadfastness as by her willingness to do anything and everything to gain that husband.  Perhaps even doing what he has not actually demanded in the first place?  Remember the ancient who sold his heritage for a bowl of food?  Unfortunately there are also those who sell their souls for a marriage ring as well.


The second reason to deny such widows assistance—they are far too likely to fall into an evil lifestyle (5:13):  And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.”  He has discussed the danger that the younger ones would apostasize as a means of getting a husband.  But now, in effect, he warns:  “But even if that doesn’t happen, they are still subject to a grave danger of being destructive influences within the community”—the community of faith and the wider society as well since these behaviors would surely not be limited to just one of them! 

Either of two assumptions is possible.  The first is that a permanent long term support for widows program is not yet in existence and the congregation is seeing the need for one.  Paul is providing counsel for establishing it.  These women are part of what currently exists and the question is whether they will be limited to short term relief (as other needy) or be part of the permanent group.  This is the view I take.

The dominant opinion is that there is already one and these women are part of it.  The fact that Paul does not speak in terms of “how you should remove people from your church aid” but “how you should add people to it” makes this strike me as extremely improbable.

Either way, that the congregation would be encouraging them to make use of their time for the benefit of the congregation and its members makes full sense.  Hence that what Paul is doing in this verse is showing why a blanket permanent admission of younger widows to the church dole simply won’t work--instead they have to have a well established “track record” of constructively utilizing their talents.  The words of a commentator who believes they already were on that permanent list is just as applicable to the scenario I have suggested:[40]


            This is probably a reference to their perverting the task of visitation to which they had been assigned.  Instead of ministering comfort to needy souls from the wisdom of Scripture and Christian teaching, they poked around in matters that were none of their concern, spreading rumors and so on.  They may have even been spreading some of the false teaching that was causing such trouble in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3-4; 2:12-15). . . .

            We may not face the same exact problems today, but it is still the case that trouble often finds those who have a lot of free time.  This is particularly true for the spiritually immature, which is likely why the young widows were stirring up such trouble.  Then as now, when we as the body of Christ do not redeem the time in these evil days by filling our schedules with good works (Ephesians 5:15-16), we run the risk of serving sin when we have nothing else to do.



            The evil of learning  and practicing the wrong time wasting lifestyle:  “they learn to be idle” (5:13).  Comparative translations:  The “learn” language strongly predominates (ESV, Holman, ISV, NASB, NET, WEB, Weymouth).  The NIV invokes near parallel language, “they get into the habit” (NIV) while the GW scraps idle language entirely and simply asserts, “they have nothing else to do.” 

            The “learn” language is significant.  It shows that this is not the way they had been prior to this.  Now that they have “time on their hands,” to the maximum extent practical they use it in wasteful behavior.  The youthful adage used to be, “idle hands are the devil’s toys.”  It’s still true even when, theoretically, “you are old enough to know better.”

            The term “learn to be” is odd in this context for how much “learning” is envolved in knowing how to be idle?  One suggestion has been that, “ . . . [T]he problem is that this idleness made them do the wrong activities. . . .  They fill their time with the wrong kind of work; it was worthless as such and therefore similar to idleness.  According to Roman imperial ideology, idleness among rich women was considered a vice and not a virtue.”[41]

            Let us try to “polish” this just a little:  It was nothing worth doing.  Hence it was wasted time and is that not, almost by definition, the same thing as “idleness”?  And, by constant repetition of such ill advised behaviors, it becomes a habit and by becoming a habit one “learns to be idle?”

            Others suspect we have here a fundamental aversion to the very idea of work.  As the old but still useful Adam Clarke said, “They do not love work, and they will not work.”[42]  Their dream is to be free of all responsibility and obligation and now they think they have obtained it. 

            But this scenario also interlocks well with what has already been suggested.  With the rarest of exceptions we, as human beings, are inherently social creatures . . . we are going to seek human company.  Without any burden of duty on our back, we do not have much of anything constructive to carry into these interactions.  We do have our suspicions, rumors we have heard, and negative interpretations of those we dislike.  So these become “food for the mill.”  “Idle” speculations become the sustenance for an “idle” life of doing nothing truly constructive.    


            Comparative translations:  The evil of “wandering about from house to house” is rebuked (5:13).  The “house to house” image is retained by all with one of the nine translations retaining “wandering.”  The closest substitutes are that of “going about from house to house (ESV, NIV, WEB), “going around from house to house” (NET), and going from house to house” (Holman, ISV).  All these certainly carry with it the “wandering” imagery.  The remaining translations are content with referring to how they “go round” from place to place (GW, NASB, Weymouth).                             


            The link between this and the verbal sins they are accused of.  This is a pivotal link between the initial admonition and all else that is said in this verse.  “Wandering about from house to house” is the result of being “idle” and having nothing to do.  As one cynic reasonably argued, “Being idle, what else is there to do in a day without television, stereos, movie theaters, malls, cars, and all those goodies?”  As the same writer commented, today we even have means of spreading tales without even leaving our homes, “I saw a note on a Baptist church bulletin board years ago that there is no better machine for picking up dirt than the telephone.  Now Paul did not know of the telephone so I think he just knew women of his own day.”[43]
            In the latest technological means of communication we might well wander around electronically while they had to do it physically.  In both cases they simply wander around until they can find the opportunity to waste someone else’s time as well as their own.  Here you really have only two major options:  With nothing constructive to talk about you can either share the latest “gossip” based upon real or imagined events or be a “busybody” and make things difficult for whoever you with, “helping” them with your “well intended constructive criticism.”  (Uh-huh, unquestionably.  Feel free to laugh.)  In between the gossiping and the busybodying, is it any surprise that things are said “which . . . ought not” be said?     


            It is almost as if, having nothing constructive to share, we have the (near) inherent compulsion to say something, useful or not?  Or is it that having too much time on our hands, our mouths tend to run faster than they ought . . . and on matters they shouldn’t?  However, one prefers to word the problem, the situation occurs easily enough at virtually any age.  Especially when circumstances provide little to “keep one busy.”

            One older philosopher professor brought out this point by noting how it happened to herself as well, even when you would think that with her particular background the temptation would be somewhere between minimal and non-existent:[44]    


The gossipy ways of widows is explained as resulting from going from house to house.  I came to understand perfectly this seemingly strange passage when the big Northridge, California, earthquake occurred two months after I was widowed.  The part of my family I was living with fled from California.  I was taken in by different well-wishers.  Well, mea culpa!  In the house I would visit second, I would talk about the troubles in house one, and in house three, of the troubles in houses one and two, and so on.



            The result of their behavior is that their very lifestyle centers around being “idle” (5:13).  This second reference to being idle in verse 13 is commonly found in this verbal form (Holman, NASB, WEB, Weymouth) while others prefer to replace it with a reference to how they are “idlers (ESV, NIV).

            Going “off the reservation” into something different is NET when it substitutes “lazy.”  The GW restructures the sentence so there is only one reference to idleness instead of two and the ISV omits the second reference entirely.  On the other hand an additional mention makes sense due to the description of how “they keep busy” given in the rest of the verse.  Being engaged in worthless activities are they not engaged in “idle” behavior (= not doing anything worth doing in the first place)?  The “Reader’s Digest” version would be that they are idle—and stay idle, but their idleness feeds the weeds of worse behavior at the same time.

            Mentioning idleness twice in this verse certainly makes inherent sense:  It is because they are idle that they “wander about from house to house.”  Then the word is repeated, to indicate that this darting about for no good reason reinforces their bad traits.  Instead of being constructively engaged, they are “spinning their wheels” and when one is done at one home one rushes off somewhere else—one’s own home or someone else’s is irrelevant—and the same pattern is repeated.  Indeed the repetition acts to reinforce the bad behavior just as it does of any other habit.                       


            The first evil to grow out of their time wasting is that of being “gossips” (5:13).  The plural “gossips” is everywhere (ESV, ISV, NASB, NET, NIV, WEB, Weymouth), though one does shorten it to the singular “gossip” (GW).  Only the NIV tries to break new ground by substituting, “talk nonsense” (NIV).

            In modern English “gossip” is usually related to:  “Did you know that so-and-so actually did such-and-such!  Can you believe it for a second?”   And, of course, they do (more or less) or they wouldn’t so “lovingly” cherish every last drop of the alleged scandalous behavior.

            Anyone who has lived very long knows full well that much of this is utter nonsense—things misunderstood, misinterpreted, or if it concerns a bitter enemy outright invented out of whole cloth “to give them their just deserts.”  So even in “conventional” gossip there often is that major element of “nonsense” that the NIV refers to.

            Arichea and Hatton in their translator’s Handbook on this epistle note that though “gossip” would be one form of what is under consideration, that the word actually “translates a noun derived from a verb that means ‘to talk nonsense,’ that is, to speak without making sense and without any understanding of what is being said.”  They suggest that the intended implication is likely “to include any speech activity that is not only nonsensical but irresponsible as well.”[45]   

Thinking of irresponsibility, consider many of the conspiracy theories that are out and about in our world.  For every geuine one, magnify it by a 100 or a 1,000 and you’ll find the “ghost conspiracies” far outnumber the real thing.  These are often “nonsense.” 

As I was initially writing this, just a few days before I had read of supposed massive tunnel complexes hidden beneath America’s Walmart stores.  Walmart has its share of faults, of course, but hidden complexes working in alignment with a vast government conspiracy?  No . . . I really don’t think so.  This is nonsense, but it is obvious that—with a certain mind set—it makes a delightful piece of idle “gossip.”  Especially if the gossipers are incredibly desperate for something new to share. 

After all, you can’t keep repeating the same tale over and over.  You have to find something new to keep the conversations going.

This kind of imaginative inventor--of what “could be” or “might be” rather than “what is”--can be tragic when (soon to be) former friends enter the picture and they become the target of the inventor’s overworked exaggeration:[46]  


            They have nothing productive to do, and so they put their noses into the affairs of others.  They then pass these things on, stirring up the nest of hornets in the neighborhood.  Just because a family has a fight, it doesn’t mean they are at the end of their marriage, but when that fight is broadcast around the neighborhood, it suddenly becomes an issue which is no longer tucked away and gone.  Rather, it can explode into all kinds of other unnecessary and untrue accusations.  And this is all because the idle widows keep “saying things which they ought not.”   



            The second evil to grow out of their time wasting is that of being “busybodies” (5:13).  All translations retain that wording (ESV, Holman, NASB, NET, NIV, WEB, Weymouth) except for two outliers. 

The GW opts for, “get involved in other people’s business.”  That could convey the “busybody” concept of needless and unrequested intervention in the affairs of another, but “busybody” requires that element and therefore is preferable.  One could accomplish the inclusion of that element by modifying the GW to “get involved needlessly in other people’s business.”

The ISV, therefore, is significantly better when it substitutes, “keep busy by interfering in other people's lives.”  A pretty good definition of what a “busybody” is--though busybody should be easily understandable and a whole lot more compact way of saying it! 

The people haven’t asked for your advice.  You simply take it upon yourself to offer it.  That far too easily results in nagging at them to embrace it and annoyance at their refusal to see what is so clear to your outside eyes.  The irony is that in some cases your judgment will be “dead on.”  Unfortunately the kind of personality Paul is describing is motivated not by superior judgment or experience but by the desire to always be envolved—anywhere and everywhere.  That kind of personality is far, far more likely to make situations worse rather than actually improve them.  


            If you have nothing constructive to do, the only alternative is to find something else to fill the empty hours.  If finances are limited—as they are with most folk—it inevitably has to involve interactions with others.  And if you don’t ever have some positive purpose or goal in doing so, you “spin your wheels” to find something. 

            And what is “better” than a juicy piece of gossip or giving your “friends and neighbors” the benefit of your benevolent and insightful experience?  You know how to deal with Problem P.  Of course you do.  Of course you have had absolutely zero experience with anything similar.  But “trust me, I understand these things.”

            The kind of people Paul rebukes are those who are self-blinded by pride, social status, supposed education, or long-term religiosity into believing that because they have the answer to some questions, they can almost infallibly deal with them all.  That doesn’t work anywhere.  Not even in Rome.


            Although our current text is centered on women Paul did not consider being a busy body as just a woman’s potential failing.  In 2 Thessalonians 3 he seems, if anything, to be focusing on the male capacity to fall into such a trap:


            But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.  10 For even when we were with you, we commanded you this:  If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. 11 For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. 12 Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread.           


            Regardless of which gender is envolved it remains a character fault--period.


            Before passing on it should be noted that a few believe that we have completely misunderstood the true meaning of “busybodies,” which they insist is a mistranslation.  The first obvious problem is that a seeming multitude of scholars have either used that term or substituted a conceptual equivalent.  In a collection of sixty translations I found none that departed from either the term or the concept.[47]

            This is the case for “mistranslation” and a summary of arguments against it:[48]


            Not everyone is convinced that “gossips and busybodies” is the best translation of phluaroi kai periergoi in this context. Lloyd Pietersen argues that given the magical practices in Ephesus described in the book of Acts (Acts 19, especially v.19), and the possible alternative meanings of the words, phluaroi should be rendered, “those who talk nonsense” and periergoi should be translated “those who practise magic.”  [Footnote:  The word periergos can mean “of things belonging to magic” and is used that way in Acts 19:19.  Additional footnote:  It is true that periergos can mean “of things belonging to magic.”  But Paul certainly uses the verbal form (periergazomenous the present middle participle of periergazomai) to mean “busybody” in 2 Thessalonians 3:11.] 

            Pietersen believes that most interpreters of the pastoral epistles have been hermeneutically blinded by patriarchal assumptions so that they see stereotypical versions of women in 1 Timothy 5.  He suggests instead that the writer of 1 Timothy “is exercising pastoral care in seeking to warn his congregation concerning the dangers of falling back into magical practices from which they have escaped.

            This interpretation is possible but unlikely. It seems to me that the traditional rendering is correct for at least three reasons.  First, this verse has a preponderance of phrases that naturally point to aimless living (“getting into the habit of being idle,” “going about from house to house,” “saying things they ought not to”).  Second, these phrases are used in conjunction with two words that regularly mean “gossips and busybodies.”  Third, the situation envisioned, that is, widows being supported too early in life, would very naturally yield temptations to carelessly meddle in other people’s lives.

            It is more likely, therefore, that Paul is actually warning against younger widows becoming gossips and busybodies.  William Mounce adds, “If the problem was as serious as magic, a harsher and more direct condemnation would be expected.”

            It must be noted that Paul is not saying that all women are naturally gossips and busybodies but that they would be tempted to be so if financially supported too early in life.  A life without work would produce that temptation in any person, regardless of gender.  We will see below that Paul is certainly not gender specific in his denunciation of meddling in the Thessalonian correspondence.  Gossips come in both sexes.



            Added to the evils of  this lifestyle is that of “saying things which they ought not” (5:13).  That they are “saying things” is sometimes replaced with “talking about things” (NASB, NET) and “speaking of things” (Weymouth), with every one else using the other language.

            These things they “ought not” to speak of (NIV, WEB) is occasionally fleshed out with the addition of “ought not to be spoken of” (Weymouth), but commonly becomes “should not” (ESV, ISV, NET) or the contraction “shouldn’t” (GW, Holman).  The only one breaking ground into a new way of conveyin they central point is the NASB when it speaks of how these widows would be “talking about things not proper to mention. 


            Just because something may be true, this may not be the right time or place to say it.  To provide a ludicrous example:  As you drag a drowning man out of the water you utter the pious words, “You know it is time to repent!”  The assertion is is true enough, but hardly the appropriate time to say it.  How about later, when the person fully recognizes how close to death he came?

            The old adage about “there’s a time and place for everything” has a lot of truth to it.  In the middle of a crisis, the “game” is to get through it intact.  Then comes the time for figuring out how to avoid it happening again . . . or how to act if it does.

            In the above two paragraphs we were talking about “saying things which they ought not to say” as connected to the timing of saying things.  But there are also those things we ought never to say at all.  Remember Jesus’ biting words about sarcastic insults (Matthew 5:22)?  Remember James on how the tongue can “defile the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).  James interlocks perfectly with Paul:  Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31).         

            There are things that can destroy relationships permanently--either yours with them or theirs with other people.  The medieval church writer Theophylact (1055-1107) describes these women in this manner:  “They carry the affairs of this house to that, and of that to this; they tell the affairs of all to all.”[49]  Inadvertently or for pure (malicious?) pleasure they light flames of anger.  Or perhaps even from plain old fashioned lack of good judgment as to when (if ever) it should be repeated.

            Furthermore there are words that can be spoken that not only do not change the other person’s opinion but are so harsh and unjust that you’ve assured they never will change their mind—at least not from anything you will say.  These are the kinds of words that ought never to be spoken by anyone.

            One resource I consulted argues that, “They may have even been spreading some of the false teaching that was causing such trouble in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3-4; 2:12-15), for most commentators believe that is what Paul means when he refers to the young widows ‘saying what they should not” (5:13).’ ”[50]  Even if that interpretation is that popular, it strikes me as improbable.  Note the wording in our verse, “not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.”  Would not being both “gossips and busybodies” automatically involve their “saying things which they ought not”?   Laying in the charge of doctrinal falsehood is, of course, not impossible but there seems little reason to assume its presence either.  They were finding plenty of ways to “get in bad with the Lord” without it!


            Question:  What is the relationship of the idleness to these behavior faults?  The easiest way to read the verse is that because they are idle they adopt these bad habits.  The GW is the most explicit, “they learn to go around from house to house since they have nothing else.”  Holman is one of those that conveys this idea but not as directly:  they are not only idle, but are also gossips and busybodies, saying things they shouldn't say.”  They are idlers first and then drift into these more dangerous, troublemaking behaviors. 

Some translations imply the reverse:  they waste so much time in doing these things that they don’t have time for anything else and therefore become idle.  The ISV is one that points in this direction:  they also learn how to be lazy while going from house to house.”

            In “real life” once can imagine it happening in either direction.


The third reason to deny them assistance—they are at an age when they still have the option of remarriage open to them and they can still establish a role model of exemplary behavior in their new relationship (5:14): “Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully.”

            How they should act in the new marriage is discussed under four points.  As the introduction to these, Paul states that “I desire” this to occur (5:14), not invoking the emphatic language of “must” or its conceptual equivalent of “command.” 

“I want” is widely maintained (GW, Holman, ISV, NASB, NET).  Alternatives are “I would have” (ESV; or “I would therefore have,” Weymouth), “I counsel” (NIV), and “I desire” (WEB). 

The lack of obligatory—“must”—language grows out of the fact that, however much this is a desirable and much preferred course, there will always be situations where, for one reason or another it is not practical.  Lack of a possible mate.  Lack of an appealing possible mate.  A very low sexual drive.  Tragic domestic circumstances in the first marriage.  Such situations might make the maintenance of singlehood the only practical course.  But the very fact that Paul “desires” such remarriage argues that he did not regard such situations to be very common.    

            The new bond must be exactly that—a marriage, not a mere “relationship:”  “I desire that the younger widows marry” (5:14).  The use of “younger widows” is dominant (ESV, GW, ISV, NASB, NIV, WEB), though a third opt for “younger women” (Holman, NET, Weymouth).  Similarly, “marry” is even more strongly predominant (ESV, GW, Holman, NET, NIV, WEB, Weymouth), with “get married” suggested (NASB), or, reflecting the specific context of Paul’s plea, “to remarry” (ISV).

            In the Greek, the term is “younger” with the reader left to fill in “younger what?  The context being widows that is the obvious word choice.[51]  Since his definition for receiving church assistance is at least sixty, this would argue that anyone beneath that age is considered in the “younger” class. 

On the other hand, the instruction to have children argues for an age considerably lower than this.  Say in the late 30s or early 40s.  The lack of specification of “widows” may, in part, be caused by the desire to include any of the never married within the logic of his argument.  He is not directly concerned with them, but no one is to make moral shipwreck of her faith, of whatever age or marital state.


            Second, the new relationship should envolve the continued willingness to have additional children:  “Bear children” (5:14).  The two preferred alternatives are “bear” (ESV, NASB, WEB, Weymouth) or “have” children (GW, Holman, ISV, NIV), with one hold out substituting “raise children” (NET), presumably on the grounds that bearing them is only the beginning.  (As the mother of a proud toddler knows only too well!)

            Yes, they can be a nuisance.  Yes, they can be a “handful.”  It comes with the territory.  I was reading a young newspaper columnist the other day who recalled how, in her blissful youthful ignorance, was so happy when her baby was born because “soon I’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep again.”  She added that it’s now five years later and she has a second child and still isn’t getting that good night’s sleep.

            In other words, having a child is only the beginning of raising the child.  To be blunt, civilizing the child as well since most children seem to be born self-serving anarchists.  It’s the price to be paid to have a next generation though.  And, to be quite cynical, it’s the legitimate price we pay for the joys of human sexuality.

            Aside:  The Romans were optimistic as to how old pregnancy was a reasonable possibility or probability, though this may have grown as much out of a determination to grow the size of the population than out of any realistic evaluation.  The official ideology and policy as laid down by the Emperor Augustus (Lex Julia et Papia Poppaea) was that all widows from 20-50 years of age were obligated to remarry.  Or, to be more exact, those elements of the population that were financially well off.[52]                                 


            Thirdly, they should embrace and carry out their household and family duties of whatever they may consist:  “Manage the house” (5:14).  The NASB’s “keep house” seems to reduce this instruction to her merely being a housekeeper.  Not that she isn’t, but that “manage” would seem to require much more.  “Manage” language is widely preserved with the main difference being whether it is over their “households” (Holman, ESV, NET, WEB) or “homes” (GW, ISV, NIV).  The power of the “manage” image is enhanced by those who alter the wording to “rule:”  “rule the household” (WEB) or “rule in domestic matters” (Weymouth).  

            Outside our “always consult” list, the classic KJV preferred “guide the house.”  “Rule” is preferred by the ASV and RSV.  Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament notes that this best conveys the meaning of the Greek.  It is used “only here in [the] New Testament.  Note that the wife is here put as ruler of the household, proper recognition of her influence, ‘new and improved position’ (Liddon).”[53]

            It is intriguing that Paul invokes the idea of “managing/ruling” the house.  That envolves not merely housekeeping or cooking, but also whatever is needed to keep the household on an even keel.  There may well be—the text surely assumes it!—that there will be areas where her knowledge and expertise is such that her judgment should rule the day and not that of a misguided husband who thinks being “head” of the house means making every decision on every topic.

            A successful marriage is based upon shared responsibility.  A useful illustration may be that of the President of the United States.  There are piles of topics that he has the legal authority to act upon—but which he’d be irresponsible or stupid if he did not carefully consult “subordinates” or allow their judgement to decide the matter rather than insisting on his own way.  It is not a matter of abdicating authority, but using it wisely.

            Truth be told I only had two rules in my house that I expected my wife to follow:  make sure the living room was always clean for possible visitors and, even more so:  don’t run up a debt we can’t afford to pay.  Beyond that, I was well aware that there were many subjects concerning everyday life where her practical judgment was light years beyond mine.  I should be so stupid as to insist upon my “ruling” the house at the cost of allowing an often better judgement to go to waste?  It would be absurd!          

            Before we pass on, it might be useful for the reader to consider the words of Apriel Fiet’s analysis of the Greek term under consideration.  Although the word form is as a verb here, the other usages of the term provide us additional data on what is conveyed by the use of the expression:[54]


            The word oikodespotes (and the verb form oikodespoteo) occurs almost exclusively in the Gospels, except for the one usage in 1 Timothy 5:14.  Six times it is translated “owner of the house” (Matthew 24:43; Mark 14:14; Luke 12:39, 13:25, 14:21, 22:11).  Three times it is translated “landowner” (Matthew 20:1, 11; Matthew 21:33).   It is also translated once as “master of the house” (Matthew 10:25), once as “householder” (Matthew 13:27), once as “master of the household” (Matthew 13:52), and once translated in verb form as “manage their households” (1 Timothy 5:14).

            In the Gospels, nearly every usage of this word is in the context of a parable. . . .  In the rest of the New Testament, this word occurs only once (as a verb), and it is in reference to the way Paul calls younger, remarried widows to function in their households.

            Every single time the word is used in the Gospels, it is used to refer to someone with authority.  It is a term of leadership and status.  The oikodespotes was one to be respected and honored.  And, in the case of God as oikodespotes, the parables make it clear that God has ultimate authority. . . .

            Given the way this word is used throughout the rest of Scripture, I don’t think it is accurate to translate this word “keep house.”  This word is one of leadership.  Leadership that seeks to emulate God’s perfect, self-giving leadership. Paul gives them authority in the home. 


            She does not, however, like the translation of “rule” because “this word is not license for domination.  It is a word that also values showing concern, care, and giving assistance.”[55]  Hence she opts for “manage” as not carrying the “baggage” we so easily attribute to “rule” (i.e., as equating to arbitrary and capricious rule).  I can understand her objection but I also realize that in modern American society raising children and assuring the household is well run are not looked upon with the degree of respect they should be.  “Rule the household” implicitly includes the recognition of her importance and authority.  “Manage” doesn’t quite do that as well. 

            Perhaps it all comes down to what we understand by the language we use.  If two people don’t understand the meaning the same way there will inevitably be problems.


            Fourthly, their behavior should avoid actions that can be used to discredit Christianity:  “Give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully” (5:14). 

            The “adversary” (ESV, Holman, NET, WEB, Weymouth) is slightly preferred by translations over the conceptual equivalent of “enemy” (GW, ISV, NASB, NIV).  To my ears, however, “adversary” suggests an intense hostility in the relationship superior to that of “enemy.”  In all fairness I can also well understand someone reversing that judgement:  arguing that “enemy” only connotes that we are opposed to each other while it is “adversary” that adds, if you will, a personal oppositional element--he is not only such “in theory” but is actively doing whatever he can to harm us.  Either way the two expressions are so close that one can easily see them as virtually synonymous.

            There are two options for the identity of the “adversary.”  Weymouth’s translation capitalizes “Adversary,” surely making a Satan/Devil-explicit reference.  Certainly Satan can speak and act against us.  The classic Biblical example is surely his intervention against Job when standing before God:


So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing?  10 Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  11 But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” (Job 1)


            The alternative to this is to identify the “adversary” as earthly foes of Christianity.  Sooner or later we will have human foes/adversaries who will not mind demeaning us and belittling us even if we give them no legitimate excuse.  How much brighter their fires of anger will glow if they actually have something valid to use!   

            The language of the adversary “speaking” would normally carry the connotation that you hear it or hear of it and that far better fits your neighbors and foes.  “Demonically inspired” insults could, admittedly, be the allusion, but ill-tempered human adversaries do this so easily on their own initiative that there seems no good reason to introduce that source into the discussion. 

            Furthermore the context points in that direction as well:  “. . . give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully.  For some have already turned aside after Satan” (verses 14b-15).  This would seem to best fit the idea of our hypercritical enemies using our misbehavior in following Satan’s preferences as a tool against us, to further lower our reputation.

            The main thing in favor of the Satanic interpretation is that “enemy” is singular—as if a particular person is guilty of it.  Of course this could be a “collective singular” (so to speak) that embodies in the behavior of a specific individual what a wider group is doing.[56]  (Hence the choice of some translations outside of our selection—such as Today’s English Version—of opting for the substitution of the plural, “enemies.”)  Even though we may hear second hand that “people” are saying such-and-such slanders of us, we are far more likely to hear it through the mouth of some specific individual.  Hence the reasonableness of “enemy” in the singular.  After all, how often does a crowd gather around us, accusing us of some specific wrong?   


            The tool of the adversary:  “reproaches.”  As to the type of misrepresentations used against us, the NKJV describes it as “speak reproachfully.”  “Reproachfully” is nowhere else retained and the singular form of “reproach” in only one case (NASB).  Most often the chosen substitute is “slander” (ESV, NIV, Weymouth), which is the kind of language we use for something that is not only “bad” but is extremely so as well. 

“Vilify us” brings out that aspect well (NET).  On a spectrum of descending severity, we then have “insulting” (WEB) and “accuse us” (Holman).  “Ridicule them” is chosen by two versions (GW, ISV), probably with the idea of someone poking sarcastic “fun” at our hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another.  In other words, it is used as a tool to make the “reproach” even more embarrassing and painful.  But that seems an incredibly specific form of “speak reproachfully” while the other alternatives leave us with a much wider and, inherently, more likely situation since the specific accusation could cover just about anything and should not be unduly narrowed.    


            As to the excuse for making the charge, it is described as giving the “opportunity” to do so by the NKJV, language used only by Holman, NET and NIV.  It is described as an “occasion” (ESV, NASB, WEB) and a “chance” (GW, ISV) by others. 

Although these are quite fine, Weymouth’s “furnish the Adversary with no excuse for slander” impresses me the most:  It brings out the reality that though there is no way to keep our adversaries from misrepresenting or even inventing some derogatory charge, that is not the kind of situation Paul is discussing.  The apostle is directly talking about our providing that foe with something to work with, an “excuse” if you will.            

Why in the world did we permit ourselves to do “that”—whatever it may have been—when we should have known it could be so easily twisted?  Worse yet:  When we knew it was misjudgment on our part—or even outright sin.  But did it anyway?  When you have a dedicated enemy out there, why in the world give him anything to work with?    


This is not just a theoretical discussion concerning younger widows—some had already turned in the wrong direction in their widowhood:  For some have already turned aside after Satan” (5:15).

            For “turned aside” (Holman, NASB, WEB) others prefer “turned away” (GW, ISV, NIV).  Single versions opt for “wandered away” (NET), “strayed after” (ESV), and “gone astray” (Weymouth).  They all emphasize that at one point they were doing what they should, but have allowed themselves to adopt a behavioral lifestyle that has led them where they should never have gone.  After all, could adopting the way of life encouraged or endorsed by “Satan” (all translations), possibly result in something advantageous to us?   

            Note that Paul does not claim that this evil is universal even in the subject group.  Only “some” had done it—more than one but short of a majority.  In other words, a sufficient number to establish this as a dangerous pattern to be avoided by others.  “It was no theoretical danger Paul warned against.”[57]  It was already a grim reality.

            Nor need he just have Ephesus in mind when he writes these words.  He could have in mind the experience of one or more other places as well.[58]  Indeed, how could the danger the apostle describes avoid being duplicated in other places?  


When individuals assume their rightful responsibilities toward their senior kin, they allow the church to concentrate on those without such resources (5:16):  If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows.”


            The obligation applies to all believers with such relatives:  “Any believing man or woman” (5:16).  Only the WEB preserves the dual gender reference while all the eight others limit it to the woman.  The woman is described in only minutely varying language:  “who believes” (WEB), “is a believer” (GW, ISV, NASB, NIV), and “a believing woman” (NET, Weymouth).

            In favor of the genuineness of “man” in this passage is 1 Timothy 5:8:  But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  “Anyone” surely is so extensive in nature that it includes both genders!  Furthermore Jesus discusses those who would find an excuse not to do so:  “If a man says to his father or mother” (Mark 7:11).  He uses the term not for males in particular but for mankind / humankind / humanity in general.  It covers both men and women.  Even if the word is rejected here in verse 16, verse 8 still establishes that the principle is equally true of both male and female offspring.

            One close analyst of rival textual readings concedes that it is only possible rather than being probable that the male gender allusion is omitted here.  As he views it, in ultimate effect it makes no difference:  He points (as we just did) to the demand to take care of kin that is given in 5:8.  However he introduces it as grounds to argue that a dual gender reference is not essential here since the male obligation has already been established.[59]     

            The translation advisers Arichea and Hatton aren’t as emphatic.  Although they endorse that it is good for translators to leave the female gender identifier as standing alone, they concede that “there is a considerable degree of doubt over what is the best reading:”  the male only one, the female one, or the one that specifies both genders explicitly.[60]  (There is also the “women” rather than “woman” reading to add to the



            The major evidences for the possible alternatives are these: 


Woman (pistē):”  Sinaiticus (fourth century) and Alexandrinus (fifth century) Greek manuscripts.  Athanasius (373) cites it as does Pelagius (c. 450)

“Man (pistos):”  No Greek manuscripts.  Found however in Ambrose (397) and Augustine (430) and in Latin translations of Mopsuestia. 

“Man or woman” (pistospistē):  Ambrosiaster (after 384), Ambrose, John Chrysostom (407), a Latin translation of third century.  Earliest Greek manuscript is a bilingual one from the sixth century (Codex Claromontanus). 

                        “Women” [in the plural] (pistas):  No Greek manuscripts


            If one wishes a far more detailed summary of the evidence the following one by Bruce Perry should prove useful and is given below.[62]  He provides a similar analysis of the entire New Testament and also provides a listing of the extensive array of sources he is citing.[63]  


                                         1 Timothy 5:16:

TEXT:  “If any believing woman has [relatives who are] widows”
EVIDENCE:  S A C F G P 048 33 81 1739 1881 three lat earlier vg cop

NOTES:  “If any believing man or woman has [relatives who are] widows”
EVIDENCE:  D K L Psi 104 614 630 1241 2495 Byz Lect three lat syr(p,h)

NOTES:  “If any believing man has [relatives who are] widows”
EVIDENCE:  three lat later vg

COMMENTS:  Although it is possible that copyists accidently omitted “believing man and” when their eyes jumped from “believing man” to “believing woman,” it is more likely that other copyists added “believing man” to balance the command.


            Jova Payes takes such evidence and  provides this conclusion based upon dominant contemporary critical evaluation standards:  The first reading, then, is better attested, shorter, and more difficult; and in terms of probability is a natural impetus to explain the other variants.”[64] 


            Either with or without the male reference, the female allusion is important because it cautions us that obligations toward the older generation refer to both sides of the marriage and not only one.  There are no verbal games that can be played to exclude anyone.   Our normal relationship with our parents is designed to be replaced by our newly created family, but there are duties that do not cease to exist just because we have entered a new relationship.  If there is one that stands at the top of that list it is surely the one Paul is here invoking—the physical survival of the person who gave us birth.

            There may also be a reason deriving from the specific conditions in Ephesus where Paul would want to stress the application of these familial duties to women in particular.  In 2:9 Paul cautions that “the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing.”  In other words, there were women there with, as we would say today, “money to burn.” 

A person obsessed with such things might easily “be taking advantage of the widow system in that they are enrolling their widowed relatives in the church’s care, which frees up additional expendable income” for them to waste on luxuries.[65]  Now Paul doesn’t charge anyone with doing this, but it takes no great imagination to see how this could tempt at least some members.  And Paul specifying the feminine duty of helping one’s mother politely but firmly rules out the propriety of any such maneuver.  


            Leon Morris sees the female only reference as an indication not of parent-child responsibility, but as of who will be directly in charge of the care regardless of whose parent it may be:[66] 


The reference in the concluding verse to “any believing woman” is somewhat puzzling as one would have thought the duty of providing for one’s own family rested on male Christians as well as on women.  Probably Paul means that if there are widows in a household they will come under the immediate care of the housewife.


            In utilitarian, practical, terms one would anticipate such “household” duties falling under the direct attention of the wife regardless of whether it is her mother or his.  But in terms of establishing the duty that the mother of both husband and wife is to be cared for, that had already been established in verse 4:  But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God.”  “Children or grandchildren” is not limited in any manner.  The rhetoric covers both female and male offspring.

            We have already explained why we believe that women might be singled out in particular.  There we present a reasonable explanation from the female standpoint.  Here let us suggest one from the male one as well:  To prevent the believing male from using the fact that it is her parent--rather than his--as an excuse to refuse to accept responsibility for her care.  Wording it as Paul does, makes it crystal clear to him that the instruction applies to this situation as well.

            (One would like to think that the husband would not be so hard-hearted as for the issue to arise at all and for most—I hope—that would be the case.  But there would always be some for whom it would not be so.  I remember years ago that my daughter borrowed rent money from me, to be repaid as soon as they could.  To keep that reserve was really important at that time for we had little real “cushion” to fall back on.  But my daughter’s family needed it so we went out on the limb. 

(And her husband proceeded to cut the limb off.  Even though, as I recall, he was the only one working at the time, his response to her was:  “You promised it.  I didn’t.  It’s your obligation, not mine.”  Take that attitude toward the wife’s kin and you have exactly the kind of situation Paul’s words—directly or indirectly—address.)      


            The wealthy woman scenario.  In regard to 5:16, a different approach is favored by Reggie M. Kidd:  “The Pastorals insist that the support of destitute widows be handled first by immediate family members or by women of means.  Where familial or otherwise private and voluntary support cannot be found, the church’s wealth is to be made available.”[67]

            Rather than making the wife’s familial duty explicit to both wife and her husband, the text is to glossed by reading into it totally unrelated non-family women.  Since the context has been stressing family duties, there is nothing provided from which to justify this gloss.  Furthermore the fact that a “woman has widows”—to my ears at least—sure sounds like they are her widows, i.e., they have an inbuilt family relationship.

And even assuming I misunderstand that point, by specifying allegedly rich women, would not that be exempting similarly rich males?  On what possible basis would Paul want to do so?  (This problem could be gotten around if one embraces the traditional—rather than critical—textual reading “man or woman” but it would still require the imposition of “rich” or “well-to-do” into the intent of the text.)

Kidd’s only justification for an economic interjection is found by an appeal to the book of Acts:  “If Anna the widowed prophetess who lives in the temple precincts provides a paradigm for the destitute widow of 1 Timothy 5:3-5 (Luke 2:36-38), Tabitha/Dorcas, the Jewish-Christian woman who has support widows by her charity . . . is paradigmatic of 1 Timothy 5:16’s faithful woman. . . .”[68]  (Although he does not bother to provide a textual citation, the account is found in Acts 9:36-43 and clearly describes a generous and hard-working charitable woman.)

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with a prosperous woman providing assistance to elderly widows, but there is a profound distance between this being regarded as an additional opportunity to help others and the assumption that this is a duty and obligation that Paul is imposing in 1 Timothy 5.          


            The obligation is described broadly allowing the assistance to take any form needed or that is available to be given:  “Let them relieve them” (5:16).  Only in a single case is explicit “relieve them” language preserved (WEB), though another says it with a mildly different word selection, “relieve their wants” (Weymouth).  In other words, a genuine problem with preservation of life is envolved and you are capable of handling it.

Majority sentiment prefers replacement with “help them” (GW, Holman, ISV, NET, NIV).  “Let her care for them” (ESV) may better bring out the fact that physical assistance of the person is involved while “help them” and even “relieve them” might be misconstrued as just providing financial help.  (Not that that might not be envolved but in “real world” terms, such a needy widow may well not even have a roof over her head and the only “roof” we could actually provide would be our own.)

When the NASB adopts “she must assist them” the inclusion of “must” reinforces the element of absolute obligation that Paul has been trying to convey, far more than the “should help” or the equivalent found in certain others (GW, Holman, ISV, NIV). 


            This allows the organized church to target its funds and resources for those who have no one else to rely on:  “Do not let the church be burdened” (5:16).  One translation (WEB) substitutes “assembly” for “church”--which is useful in reminding us that the use of the term for the meeting place itself is one of the massive misuses of Biblical language found in our society.  Instead it describes the people who meet there.  All of our comparative texts preserve “burdened,” which shows that this will not just be an obligation, but one that could envolve considerable effort and might even be difficult to accomplish.


            Rather than “relieve” these needy (WEB, Weymouth), “help” is most often substituted to describe what is done (GW, Holman, ISV, NET, NIV).  “Care for” (ESV) and “assist” (NASB) are the other two alternatives.  “Relieve” and “care for” perhaps fit best the reality that these folk stand in unquestionable need of assistance.  The fact that this point is also made in the context, though, argues that a less direct reference certainly does no harm at this point.                    


            The nature of these as “really widows” has become those “really in need” (NIV, Weymouth) or “widows indeed” (NASB, WEB)—note the difference in meaning between “in need” and “indeed,” the former indicating their lack of resources while the latter stressing the genuineness of being widows.  The poverty element is placed upfront in describing them as “truly in need” (NET).  

That these women meet Paul’s definition of what fully justifies this classification is conveyed by “truly widows” (ESV), “genuinely widows” (Holman) and “have no families” (GW).  The ISV stresses both of these points by translating “those widows who have no other family members to care for them” (ISV).




In Depth:

The Family as the Basic “Safety Net”

For God’s People  



It should be noted that in addition to the quite natural desire to have someone to carry on one’s name or family tradition, the family also served other purposes in the ancient world.  It was the underlying societal “safety net” for the older generation. 

Just as the children relied upon their parents to get them safely through the first 15 or 20 years of their life, parents typically relied upon the children to get them through the last 15 or 20 years of their own life.  They had no social security and the government had neither the resources nor the conceptual mind frame where they would anticipate such to be its obligation.  After all, wasn’t that what the family was supposed to be for?

            Greco-Roman society recognized this.  As a review of what is probably the only book on Greco-Roman society’s treatment of the elderly sums it up,[69]


In both cultures there was the expectation that children would care for their elderly parents in reciprocity for the care they had received from them as children.  In Athens a statute from the period of Solon states that a son must care for his parents or be deprived of his citizenship.  In Egypt some parents handed over their possessions to their children in exchange for a promise of care and provision for their own old age.  In Rome no law compelled children to support their parents, but cases appear to have tested the issue and put the responsibility on the children when the parents were clearly in need and the children had the means to support them.


            Jews and Christians would both find in the Divine command to honor their parents, a demand applicable regardless of age—but surely especially when they most need it . . . such as often happens in old age.  Michael McKenzie provides this useful introduction to a subject that could be developed at far greater length.[70]


[The] Bible is consistent and clear in its message about those who are least able to fend for themselves.  In the Old Testament, God mentions widows and orphans among those who should be singled out for special care and protection (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 27:19).  Jesus continues this pattern of divine care by heaping scorn on those who would go so far as to foreclose on widows’ homes (Matthew 23:14).  James even says that caring for widows and orphans are the premier fruits of true worship of God (James 1:27).

Similarly, God reserves special wrath for people who would take advantage of either the blind or deaf, making their well-being a matter of justice (Exodus 19:14–15: Deuteronomy 27:18–19); that is, we owe justice to the widow, orphan, and those who may be disadvantaged in our society.  Since it is clear from even the most cursory reading of the Scriptures that God desires justice for all people, His special mention of it in this context is evidently a warning to those who would take advantage of the weakest members in our society — those least likely to stand up for themselves [or be able to]. . . .

Honoring parents is so important to Paul that, like James (regarding widows and orphans), he says those who neglect their immediate family (including parents) have “denied the faith” and are “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).  We should not be surprised at his severity.  Jesus had already said that all the commandments could be summarized into two — loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, and mind and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28–31; Luke 10:27–28).  If this neighbor-love (agape) is to be shown even to strangers (as demonstrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan), how much more should it be a consistent demonstration to those who have nurtured us all our lives?  Honoring and loving our parents thus represent two sides of the same coin. . . .

As those who wish to be faithful to the biblical witness, how then should we care for our elderly parents?  Scripture portrays our duties to parents and the elderly as a target with concentric rings, the immediate family occupying the “bulls-eye” and hence our highest priority, with others occupying more distant rings of the target, receiving less — but very real — attention (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:1–8).  Clearly, Paul’s scorn for those who would not even provide for their family indicates God’s highest priority:  people first should care for their families before worrying about matters of general social concern. . . .         


            These fundamental core responsibilities have not been eliminated by the passage of two millennium nor will they ever lapse.  The ability of broader society to help is at an unprecedented level, but there is no way to assure that it will have the financial ability or ideological preference to fund things at their current level—especially as we older folks become an ever larger proportion of society.  The family unit pre-existed the modern state and will still be around when it is drastically modified or collapses back into something more “primitive.” 

            If an inter-generational father-mother/son-daughter chain ceases to exist due to drastic family limitation of size, the bedrock inter-generational safety net will also perish with it.  However much a government has or can help, this foundation provides a vital ongoing function.  That it has weakened should come as no surprise. 

When you have an average of less than 2 children per family (1.9 US; 1.7 England and Wales) and regard it as ideal--this kind of intergenerational linkage is ultimately destroyed because of lack of humanpower being available.  When you can exterminate going on a million unborn a year, where is the illogic in doing the same to the now “valueless” senior citizens in the name of providing them “mercy” and “so they won’t have to suffer”?  The emotional bond of respect and honor is shattered.

Fortunately many have not gone that route and many who have, have realized they seriously blundered.  On such there is the foundation for a restoration of sanity and respect.        


            Religion as an excuse to ignore such responsibilities:  Corban.”  We have stressed the positive nature of the Biblical evidence for the obligation toward parents.  Since religion can always be perverted in a self-serving or ideologically-driven direction, it really shouldn’t be all that surprising that a powerful faction of first century Jewish religious leaders had done so in regard to one’s parents. 

            In His ministry Jesus did not root the obligation in the fundamental “moral law” that even the unbeliever should—but doesn’t always—grasp (cf. Romans 2:14-15).   He roots it in the fundamental behavioral code delivered by God at Sinai:     


16 Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”  17 So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God.  But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

18 He said to Him, “Which ones?”  Jesus said, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 19 ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ”  (Matthew 19).


            In chapter 15 Jesus severely rebuked those who rejected such moral responsibility:


He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?  For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ [the same Greek word used by Paul in quoting it in Ephesians 6:2 and of having the right attitude of “honor” toward widows in 1 Timothy 5:3]; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’  But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honor his father or mother.  Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.

                Hypocrites!  Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying:

                ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth,
            And honor Me with their lips,
            But their heart is far from
            And in vain they worship Me,
            Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”



            Matthew 15 is of special interest because it directly concerns a situation in which the offspring can and should be helping the parent(s).  Jesus hits hard on the fact that not even doing it in the name of (promoting one’s) religion can make it right.  One can not properly use one’s spiritual “duties” as a legitimate excuse to avoiding one’s family duties.

            Commentators have sometimes speculated as to whether these were genuine commitments to give to the temple (“a gift to God”) and how the concept could be manipulated to allow monies and goods to be technically committed but only marginally have to be actually given.  In other words a ruse to avoid family commitments. 

            This could be the behavior of disgruntled and hateful offspring.  But human nature being what it is, one can also easily imagine certain individuals having so warped their definition of religion as to actually mean their words quite seriously--such is the depth of their delusion.  For that is exactly what their religion would have become—a “feel good” tool of self-deception, dishonoring to both parents and God Himself.

            Perhaps the closest modern equivalent would be in one of those churches that insist that your earthly prosperity hinges upon how much you give in the contribution.  If you divert finances to help kin, would you not be undermining how much you will be giving—thereby removing that bounty which you “would inevitably” have received otherwise? 

            One can imagine someone coming to that conclusion and rationalizing that their “responsibility” to give to the church far exceeded these temporal concerns.  Of course, in the real world God never promised Christians they would be superabundant in the current life.  Trading a wonderful dream of doing that for what is within your reach—do you really think God will find it acceptable?  I hope few of these folk ever fall into such a trap--but the evil side of “human nature” can be exceedingly self-centered can’t it?


            After I wrote the above paragraphs I came across a fascinating article by Bob Lupton who explains why the Pharasic gloss on the Torah could be highly appealing to the religious establishment of the day:[71]


Corban was a serious vow made publicly in the presence of witnesses while standing before the altar.  Such deferred offerings were of great benefit to the Temple.  A flock dedicated in the early spring included unborn lambs that would be nicely maturing by fall when the gift was delivered to the temple.  The donor retained responsibility for the stewardship of the dedicated property, while the priests could plan the Temple operating budget based on these pledged assets.


            This short-term use of the system would not get in the way of helping needy family except for that limited period of time, so one can understand the short term use of such rationalizations to soothe one’s conscious.  But what is keeping him from helping later—of which not a hint is given?  The man vows inability, with no hint that it is anything but permanent and unchanging.

            Furthermore, the donation could be knowingly “rigged” to benefit the “giver:”  the donated produce could become due only a number of years down the road and not in the short term at all.  A “temporary” hindrance becomes a permanent one![72] 


Corban had its incentives for the donor as well [as well as the Temple].  One could retain his pledged assets in his personal portfolio for years, use them as equity for conducting business, and exempt them from the tithe tax.  And, of course, making a visible display of philanthropy certainly did not hurt one’s public image.  A clause in policy even made provision for the redemption of dedicated land — for a price — should the donor wish to reclaim it.


            In addition, doesn’t Matthew 15 sound like he is announcing the attention to make it Corban after he has learned his kin are in need?  I was in a particularly cynical mood when I wrote that last sentence.  Perhaps he is not announcing his “pious” decision, already made . . . perhaps he is not consciously using his religious privilege at all--“corban” was not obligatory, but voluntary.  Perhaps he has simply come to despise his parents or because he’s a snob and wants to build up his own religious reputation. 
            Yes, this would complicate the situation, but not irredeemably.  If there was repentance.  At we noted above, even in the case of a multi-year pledge, there was still a partial door out of the unjust religious commitment—“redemption” and the providing of what was left to the needy.  It wouldn’t be as much as otherwise available, but there would at least be that much help!  Even more so if costs are further reduced by doing it inside his own household.


            Finally, Paul provides no explicit reason for the unwillingness to help one’s aging parents.  If there were any influenced by the “Corban” tradition, they might well be willing to invoke a kind of “Christianized parallel.”  But most Christians, even Jewish, were unlikely to be influenced by it.  But if they wanted to find a “Christian, religious” excuse there can be doubt they could.  (“To help the church,” remember?)  Or perhaps because the parent was unjust and unfair.  (Many are.)  That doesn’t change the fact that they are kin.  Paul delivers his teaching here in 1 Timothy in such a manner, that no matter what the excuse is . . . it’s still both wrong and rejected.             

            Nor does Paul tell us why there was a special danger that this fundamental moral duty might be neglected in Ephesus--and therefore it was necessary to give this admonition.  The fact that a warning is needed, however, argues that it was far too likely that similar excuse-mongers would exist in that city--those who would find a way to warp the Christian religion just as these twisted souls of Jesus’ day had warped the Jewish one.  Perhaps the presence of the words are simply an indication that the worst in self-serving human nature is always to be warned against.  For our capacity to make fools of ourselves is never totally eliminated.   





[1] Newport J. D. White on 5:9.  (Internet edition).


[2] Ibid. on 5:9.


[3] [Unidentified Author], “Estimated Life Expectancy in the Ancient World,” at:  (Accessed June:  2016).  Data adapted from “Frier’s Life Table for the Roman Empire,” page144 of T. G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society (1992) [based on data from Bruce Frier's Landlords and Tenants in Imperial Rome, 1980]; cf. Coale & Demeny, Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations, 2nd ed. (1983)].


[4] Ibid.    


[5] Arichea and Hatton, 117.


[6] Jouette M. Bassler, “Limits and Differentiation:  the Calculus of Widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16,” in A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff (Cleveland, Ohio:  The Pilgrim Press, 2003), n. 50, p. 135. 


[7] Mary Ann Beavis, “ ‘If Anyone Will Not Work, Let Them Not Eat:’  2 Thessalonians 3;10 and the Social Support of Women,” in A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff (Cleveland, Ohio:  The Pilgrim Press, 2003), 33, clearly applies it to the first case and just short of clearly applies it to the second one as well.


[8] Leon Morris, 335.


[9] Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 264.


[10] Angela [Unknown Last Name], “Lessons From the Window of 1 Timothy 5,” at:  (Accessed:  February 2020.)


[11] Ibid.


[12] Arichea and Hatton, 118.


[13] Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 265.


[14] Jouette M. Bassler, 144. 


[15] Arichea and Hatton, 118.


[16] Ibid.


[17] P. Paul Wolfe, “The Ethics of the Pastoral Epistles,” in Entrusted with the Gospel:  Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, edited by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Terry L. Wilder, (Nashville, Tennessee:  B&H Academic, 2010), 235, argues that it includes all such activities though without making any direct reference to personal economic status or lack of such.                                  


[18] Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 265.


[19] J. M. Holmes, Text in a Whirlwind:  A Critique of Four Exegetical Devices at 1 Timothy 1:9-15, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 196 (Sheffield, England:  Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 149.


[20] Ibid, 163.  Of interest is Holmes’ argument that self-indulgence  is the actual concern rather than sexual abstinence (164-167).  If one reworks her argument to mean that Paul is targeting any form of self-indulgence (including the sexually sinful) the argument would make more sense.


[21] J. H. Bernard, internet edition, on 5:9. 


[22] Stuart Allen, Pastoral Epistles, 291-292.


[23] Ray Stedman, “The Care and Feeding of Widows.”  (Internet.)


[24] J. H. Bernard, internet edition, on 5:9.   


[25] Newport J. D. White, internet edition, on 5:9.


[26] Ray Stedman, “The Care and Feeding of Widows.” (Internet.)


[27] Charles Harris, “The Life of the Widow.  Part 6:  Church Responsibility to Her,” at:  (Accessed:  January, 2016.)      


[28] David Reagan, “Widow Indeed,” at:  (Accessed:  January 2016.)   


[29] Don Martin, “1 Timothy 5:  Widows and Church Versus Individual Action,” at:  (Accessed:  January 2016.)   


[30] David C. Verner, Household, 137.


[31] Luke T. Johnson, Delegates, 182-183.


[32] Bruce W. Winter, Roman, 125.  


[33] Ibid.  


[34] Jean M. Twenge, “How Long Can You Wait To Have A Baby?” (Atlantic Magazine, July/August 2013), at:  (Accessed:  February 2020.)


[35] Robert G. Bratcher, 49.


[36] Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 266.


[37] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, internet edition.

[38] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, “Commentary on 1 Timothy,” Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871-1978), at:  (Accessed:  January 2020.)

[39] Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Pauline Churches:  A Socio-Historical Study of Institutionalization in the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline Writings (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1988), 186-187.


[40] [Unidentified Author], “Gossips and Busybodies (1 Timothy 5:13),” originally published in Tabletalk Magazine, part of Ligonier Ministries website, at:  (Accessed:  February 2020.)


[41] Marianne B. Kartzow, Gossip and Gender:  Othering of Speech in the Pastoral Epistles (Berlin, Germany:  Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 147.             


[42] Adam Clarke, Adam Clarke Commentary (1832), at:  (Accessed:  February 2020.)

[43] Stanley Derickson, internet edition.

[44] Ronda Chervin, “Spirituality for Widows,” posted as part of Homiletic & Pastoral Review Magazine, at:  (Dated:  June 10, 2013; accessed:  January 2016.)  


[45] Arichea and Hatton, 121-122.


[46] Charlie Garrett, “1 Timothy 5:13,” at:  (Dated:  January 24, 2018; accessed:  February 2020.) 


[47] For the list see  The Bible Gateway provides a similar list of individual verse translations for the entire New Testament.


[48] Matt Mitchell, “Greek Words for Gossip:  Phluareo and Phluaros (Part Two),” part of the Hot Orthodoxy Blog, at:  (Dated:  December 9, 2014; accessed:  February 2020.)


[49] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, “1 Timothy,” internet edition.


[50] [Unidentified Author], “Gossips and Busybodies (1 Timothy 5:13).” 


[51] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, internet edition.


[52] Marianne B. Kartzow, 145.             


[53] Internet edition.


[54] April Fiet, “1 Timothy 5:14:  The Role of Women and Leading the Family,” at:  (Dated:  November 6, 2014; accessed:  February 2020.)


[55] Ibid.


[56] Cf. the short discussion of alternatives in Arichea and Hatton, 122.


[57] James B. Coffman, Commentary on 1 Timothy 5, internet edition.


[58] J. H. Bernard, Cambridge Greek Testament:  1 Timothy, internet edition.  


[59] Philip W. Comfort, Text, 664.


[60] Arichea and Hatton, 123.


[61] Jova Payes, “Who Is to Care for the Widows?  (1 Timothy 5:16), at:  (Dated:  January 20, 2016; accessed:  November 2016.) 


[62] Bruce Perry, “Paul’s First Letter to Timothy,” in his Student’s Guide to New Testament Variants, at:  (Dated:  September 18, 1998; accessed:  February 2020.)


[63] Ibid.


[64] Jova Payes, “Who Is to Care for the Widows?  (1 Timothy 5:16).”    


[65] David E. Wilhite, “Tertullian on Widows:  A North African Appropriation of Pauline Household Economics,” in Engaging Economics:  New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception, edited by Bruce W. Longenecker and Kelly D. Liebengood (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 240.


[66] Leon Morris,  336.


[67] Reggie M. Kidd, Wealth and Beneficence in the Pastoral Epistles, SBL Dissertation Series 122 (Atlanta, Georgia:  Scholars Press, 1990), 102-103.   


[68] Ibid., n. 219, p. 103.


[69] T. Davina McClain, Review of Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.49, as reprinted at  (Accessed:  February 2015).


[70]  Michael McKenzie, “Care for the Elderly,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 21, Number 4, Article ID: DE425, at:  (Accessed:  February 2015).


[71] Bob Lupton, “Corban—A Stewardship Tool (Mark 7:1-13),” at:  (Dated:  November 2007; accessed:  September 2015.) 


[72] Ibid.