19 Jan 2020
A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy 5:9-16. b). Widows to be registered.
The focus in verses 3-8 has been on the financial maintenance of widows, which in the first instance is the duty of their relatives and only becomes the duty of the church if the widow has no relatives. This concern does not recur in this paragraph, except as a kind of appendix in verse 16. Instead, this paragraph introduces new concerns. We read now of a ‘list’, ‘roll’ or ‘register’ of widows (9a, 11). of a quite different set of qualifications (9b,10), of a ‘pledge’ to remain single (12), apparently in order to give themselves to service, and of the non-eligibility of ‘younger widows’ (11-15). From this it seems that the register is not for widows needing support, but for widows capable of offering service.
There is some evidence that such an identifiable group existed in the early church. For example, Luke refers to ‘all the widows’ in Joppa as if they were a known and even registered group. It is possible that Dorcas was one of them; she was certainly ‘full of good works and acts of charity (Acts 9:36, 39, 41). Writing to Timothy, Paul’s references to a register, and to conditions for registration, certainly suggest the beginnings of a defined group, but it is an exaggeration to say that ‘at Ephesus there is now an officially recognised order of widows’. At the beginning of the second century Ignatius sent a greeting ‘to the virgins who are called widows’ in Smyrna, and Polycarp wrote to the Philippians that ‘the widows must think soberly about the faith of the Lord and pray unceasingly for everyone’ and stay away from all evil. It is not until the end of the second century, however, that Tertullian gives us unequivocal evidence that an order of widows existed. In his time and in the third century the registered widows gave themselves to prayer, nursed the sick, cared for the orphans, visited Christians in prison, evangelized pagan women, and taught female converts in preparation for their baptism.
Although there may not have been an ‘order’ of widows in Paul’s time, there certainly was a ‘register’ of them, and he lists the three qualifications for registration, namely seniority, married fidelity, and good works. The first concerned the widow’s age. *No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty* (9a) and is therefore unlikely to wish to re-marry. Secondly, she must have been *faithful to her husband* (9b) – see the corresponding expression ‘the husband of but one wife’ (3:2). As argued in the comment on that text, this cannot mean that she has not re-married, since in verse 14 Paul counsels the younger widows to re-marry, but rather that she has been faithful.
Thirdly, in order to be registered, a widow must be *well known for her good deeds*. As examples Paul mentions what Newport White calls ‘commonplace duties’, a selection which he regards as ‘characteristic of the sanity of apostolic Christianity’. The first is *bringing up children*, meaning to ‘care for them physically and spiritually’ (*teknotropheo*, BAGD), whether her own children or orphans. Secondly, *showing hospitality*, presumably to travellers, a quality specially necessary in presbyter-bishops and other leaders (3:2). Thirdly, *washing the feet of the saints*, a menial ministry usually reserved for slaves, but beautified by the example of Jesus (Jn.13:4ff.; cf.Lk.7:44). Her fourth good work must be *helping those in trouble*, referring to any kind of affliction or distress, including persecution. After these four specifics Paul adds the more general expression *devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds* (10). Such an experience of humble, unselfish and costly service would qualify a registered widow to undertake similar ministries as an accredited church worker. It would also necessitate a decision to remain unmarried, indeed to take a ‘pledge’ to this affect, so as to be fully available for service.
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 5:9-16. b). Widows to be registered (continued).
John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.