Widows, Remarriage, and Gospel Community

My sister asked me yesterday about 1 Timothy 5 and Paul’s rules for remarriage.  I had never really “studied” this passage before, but I figured I’d post my thoughts here in case some of you had questions as well.  She and her fiance emailed me this question:

We both understand that basically Paul is saying that, in his opinion, to stay unmarried is better for the sake of Christ, but if you feel the need to get married, it’s okay.  However, for me…if I were reading this while in that predicament, I would feel a bit judged.  I feel like he’s saying that it is a weakness to remarry after my husband dies, just because I can’t handle the sexual temptations.  [Then] I’d be looked down upon.  It seems [that] he has a harsh tone.

Here’s my response:

The context of this chapter is Paul giving Timothy instructions for the church in Ephesus (where Timothy was pastoring).  All Scripture is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16-17), so this has application for our lives.  But on level one, it’s very contextual and it has ramifications for the Ephesian church first.  That’s why I call it “Level One.”

On this first level we are taught about how different age groups and life situations (married, single, divorced) should be influenced by the gospel, by the church community.  Verses 1-2 talk about respecting older people in the church and how we should treat younger people.  Verses 3-8 talk about honoring widows and how the church is to provide for them.  Paul says in verse 8 that if any man does not provide for his family (he is particularly thinking of a man who has a widow who is a family member) or his household (wife and kids), he’s really acting worse than an unbeliever.  In practice, Paul says, this man has denied his faith.

Paul goes on in verses 9-16.  He says, “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband” (ESV).  This word “enrolled” in Greek is katalego which means something to the extent of “to be on a public support list.”  In other words, there were widows who needed food, money, and shelter and so the Christian community helped those women.  Churches still do this today to some extent.  This is one way of influencing widows with the gospel.  Widows who are eligible for support, as you can tell from verses 9-10, are godly women who show that they live out the gospel.  In Romans 13, Paul talks about the submission to authorities, but he gives a blanket statment, in my opinion, in verse 7 when he says, “Pay…honor to whom honor is owed.”  Not everyone is deserving of honor.  Some people need to be mocked and/or rebuked for their ridiculous religiosity and Pharisaical lifestyle.  These widows, however, were owed honor because of their conduct.

In verses 11-16, Paul shifts his focus to “younger widows.”  These are women who are younger than sixty years old (cf. v. 9) but have had their husband die.  It would appear that Paul is saying it’s bad for them to marry again, but that’s not what he’s saying because verse 14 says quite the opposite: “I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.”  It certainly would be permissible for a woman who is older than 60 to marry, so long as they are not enslaved by the idea of marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12).  The key to understanding this passage is this phrase “when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry” (v. 11).  These widows are not like the widows in verses 9-10.  These particular widows (the younger ones) are passionate about something other than Jesus and because of this, they “incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith” (v. 12).  Furthermore, some of these women were not learning to be good wives who “train the young women, love their husbands and children, are self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands” (Titus 2:4-5).  They were learning “to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only [being] idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” (1 Tim. 5:13).  Evidently, there were women in Ephesus who got divorced, were helped by this support system offered by the church, and then reneged on their commitment to stay single by marrying an unbeliever.  The “passions” referred to in verse 11 may not be sexual temptations.  They might be the worries of the world like Jesus refers to in the Parable of the Sower.  They may be insecurities about being single.  It may be the fact that she doesn’t want bare minimum [i.e. church support] as a widow in a church system but that she wants a sugar daddy to take care of her.  It doesn’t seem that sexual temptation is [solely] the context here.

So in verses 14-15, Paul responds (my paraphrase), “I want them to marry a good man, have babies, manage their home, and not give Satan an opportunity to take them from the gospel community.  After all, some have already gone after Satan by marrying an unbeliever!  They have abused our support system!  Look at them now!”  That’s why in verse 16 Paul gives this command, “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them.  Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows.”  In the purest sense of the word, a widow is someone who has no help in the world (see 5:3-5).  If a widow has family members who can help, then she isn’t as underprivileged as a woman with three kids, a dead husband, no parents, and no siblings.  That’s really bad!  That’s a situation where the church needs to offer support and food and shelter and day care and vacation time.  If everyone who was a widow came to the church and asked for help, the situation that Paul described in verses 11-15 would happen all of the time.  He says, “We have to prevent this.  So if you have widows in your family, take care of them so they don’t come to us.  We love them and want them to be godly, but we can’t be burdened with widows all of the time.”

So what’s Level Two?  Level Two is for us today.  It’s our 21st century contextualization.  I think that our application is that we need to encourage marriage to women if they are widows, only if the man is a member of the gospel community and follows Jesus.  Marriage is good.  Paul is not judging anyone that they’d be less spiritual if they married after being a widow.  It’s as if Paul is asking the pointed question: “What’s better?  To be single and on financial support from the church or to burn with [any kind of] passion and be unequally yoked to an unbeliever and go after Satan and false religion?  I think it’s better to be single!”  So, Paul doesn’t want the church to support women who are young and widows for the very reason that he wants them to get married (v. 14)!  Marriage would be more sanctifying for them than to be on support from the local church, if the alternative was to be supported and then marry an ungodly man and take his religion (which is what many Christian woman did in the first century).

The second application is that if a woman is a widow, she needs family support.  Family is the first line of defense.  The third application is that if she is truly a widow (meaning she is completely alone in this world), then our local church communities must live out the gospel in a way that provides for them so that they experience Christ there and have no desire to leave the Christian community and “stray[ed] after Satan.”

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Dave C says:

    We’ve spent a few weeks in 1 Timothy at our church, and one thing I’d probably say to your sister is that she’s right about the tone that Paul seems to take throughout the letter. It certainly seems sharper, gruffer and more judgmental than, say, how he writes to the church in Ephesus itself.
    However, much of this is precisely because Paul is writing to Timothy, not the church as a whole. He has charged Timothy with the responsibilities of correcting false teaching, setting up a well-ordered assembly, setting up quality leadership, urging personal godliness and good attitudes about authority (both household and in the world outside). “Urge these things on them / insist on these things” is a catchcry, and Paul can afford to be blunter with Timothy than a larger gathering who may need persuading. In Ephesians, Paul teaches a church. In 1 and 2 Timothy, he addresses a teacher. The tome WILL be different. It doesn’t mean that Paul is more judgmental here than elsewhere – one just needs to remember to whom Paul was writing and why.

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  2. james says:

    That’s a good word, Dave. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  3. Pam says:

    Thank you Mr. Blog. I’ve been a widow for 11 years and struggled with feeling weak if I had the desire to remarry. I’m now 56…kids out of the house and still have the desire to remarry but only if it’s God’s plan. I had journaled the exact thought your sister asked. You know you search for someone to agree with you then jump on the band wagon. You have given me much food for thought….and food I would like to pick from the Bible smorgasbord:-). I think you just might be right. Thank you for your diligent study. I don’t think we really thank people enough who study. So for those late nights writing papers and eating ramen noodles….this widow thanks you. Maybe when you hear Well done my good and faithful servent I’ll be there to say YEAH!!! Go Blogger…

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