1 Timothy 5:1-16
Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity. Honour widows that are widows indeed. But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to show piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God. Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth. And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless. But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside after Satan. If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed, (vv. 1-16)
We hear a great deal today in many quarters about the Social Gospel, and by that is meant the implication that the one great business of the church of God in the world is to try to better the temporal circumstances of those among whom it ministers. Many churches have given up, to a large extent, the preaching of the gospel of Christ in order to devote themselves to this Social Gospel. There should be no question as to the fact that from the earliest days of the church, immediately following Pentecost, Christians did recognize that they had a responsibility to those among them who were in need and distress. We are told in Galatians 6:10, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” But our great business is to go into all the world and preach the gospel. The Lord Himself gives gifts to teach and preach that the church may be built up in the things of God.
As Christians go on with the Lord, they will recognize their duty toward those in less comfortable circumstances than themselves. In other passages of the New Testament we have emphasized for us our responsibility as Christians to think of the needy and the suffering.
I remember years ago when working among the Navaho Indians in the southwest down in Arizona and New Mexico, we were having a workers’ conference at one time. There came out from the East a representative of one of the larger denominations which was given to a great extent to this so-called “Social Gospel.” He was speaking one afternoon, and said that he had been shocked as he traveled over the reservation and saw something of the filth and poverty in which many of the Indians lived. Turning to one of the missionaries he said, “My brother, I think your first responsibility is to teach these people the use of soap and water and a toothbrush, and the use of vermin-destroying fluids of some kind or another. You will never be able to make Christians out of them until you show them how to improve their homes and teach them to value cleanliness and decency.”
When the man sat down, one of the young Navaho preachers got up and said something like this: “I was very much interested in what our friend from the East had to say. I never thought our responsibility was to go about and preach a gospel of soap and water. I thought it was to carry the gospel of the cleansing blood of Christ. But after we get one of our Navaho people saved, if he has been used to living in filth, when we go back to visit him we find things are all changed. When they get cleaned up inside then they want things clean outside.” He added, “I don’t want to take issue with our friend who has come to visit us, but I think he is putting the cart before the horse when he insists on the Social Gospel first instead of the gospel of the grace of God.”
Now that young Navaho was right. Many of us with years of experience have observed that there is nothing that changes the outward circumstances of people like having them get right with God in their hearts. But on the other hand, when we do get right with God, we ought to remember that we do have certain social responsibilities.
By the way, while I am speaking of this, let me add one other testimony to that of the Navaho. Many years ago when I was a Salvation Army officer we had gathered for an officers’ council—that is what others would call a ministerial association—and General William Booth himself was addressing us. He talked about the social program that he had proposed in a book that had just then been published titled In Darkest England and the Way Out. General Booth said, “My Comrades, never allow yourselves to put social work before the gospel of the grace of God.” Then to illustrate what he meant he said, “Take a man who has ruined himself by strong drink, has become a confirmed drunkard, beggared his family so that his wife has been separated from him, and his children are in orphan homes. He is just a common drunkard on the street. Take that man and sober him up, get him to sign the pledge and promise never to take another drink, move him out into the country in a new environment, settle him down in a little cottage, teach him a trade if he does not know one, bring back his wife and children, make his home a comfortable one, and then let him die in his sin and go to hell at last! Really it is not worthwhile, and I for one would not attempt it.”
That was General Booth speaking. He was emphasizing the mistake of meeting the physical needs of people rather than the spiritual needs. First of all, get men right with God and other things will follow in due order.
In our epistle the Apostle is putting before Timothy some principles for the church of God. First we have three verses that deal with the matter of Christian courtesy. “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity. Honour widows that are widows indeed.” The Christian company was necessarily separated from the world without. When a person became a child of God in those days, he was soon outside the synagogue if a Jew and outside the fellowship of idolatry if a Gentile. These Christians were brought together in very intimate association, and their communion one with another was most precious and intense. But there is always the possibility that when people are thus linked together that they will forget that natural courtesy that should be shown to one another. The Spirit of God stresses the importance of this.
“Rebuke not an elder.” I take it he does not mean an official elder, because he contrasts an elder man with a younger man. He means: Do not rebuke one advanced in years. If such an one needs a word of admonition, go to him in a kindly manner and speak to him as one would speak to a father. But never, as a young man, upbraid an older man, because if you do it will only show your own ill-breeding and your lack of subjection to the Spirit of God. Deal with younger men as brethren. Timothy was a preacher of the Word. He was to look at all younger men in the fellowship as brothers in Christ and treat them as such. He was not to take a place of authority among them, domineering over them, but he was to seek to work with them as on one common level and recognize them as brothers in Christ.
He was to esteem older women as he would his own mother. What a beautiful ideal! He was to look upon a lady who had grown old in the service of the Lord with the same reverent feeling that he would look upon the countenance of his own mother and be ready to help her in any way he could. He was to treat younger women as though they were his sisters, with all purity. That is, never to act toward any young woman in a way he would not like some other man to behave to his own sister.
Widows who had lost their companions and perhaps were left without any visible means of support were to be honored because of the place they held. Homes such as are in operation today to shelter those who have no means of support were not known at that time, and the church had a special responsibility toward the widows for whom no provision had been made. The church still has a definite duty to fulfill to those of its own who are left in poverty and distress because of the decease of their natural providers.
On the other hand, relatives are never to turn over the care of widows to the church if they, themselves, are able to look after these widows. “But if any widow have children or nephews [the word translated nephews really means “descendants”], let them learn first to show piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.” If there is an aged sister left a widow and she has sons or daughters or other descendants, they are to understand that they are morally responsible to keep her. They are not to turn her over to some institution to look after her.
The Jews have a very interesting story that they tell of a young Jew who had the responsibility to care for his aged father. The young man married, and his wife was very proud and greatly resented having the care of her father-in-law in the home and having part of their money go to his support. So she was constantly nagging her husband, begging him to send the old gentleman to the Poor Farm. Finally the young man turned to his father and said, “Father, I shall have to take you to the Poor Farm.” The old man wept and pleaded, saying, “My dear boy, I am already seventy-six years of age. Please care for me a few years or months longer. I don’t want to die in the Poor Farm.” But the young man said, “You will have to come with me.” So he placed his hand on the old man’s arm, and they started down the road. On they went, the young man dragging his father by force while the old gentleman complained until they got to a certain tree. Then the old man stopped and said, “No! No! No! I will not go any farther. I didn’t drag my father any farther than this tree!” Is not the lesson plain?
If you are not gracious and kind to the old, the day may come when you yourself will be old and you will reap as you sow. We who can do so are to care for our older relatives. This is just ordinary Christianity in action.
“Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.” That is, one who has been bereft of her husband in advanced age and feels her loss, but trusts in God and spends much time before Him in prayer is a blessing to the entire Christian community to which she belongs.
On the other hand, there are some widows who seem almost glad to have their liberty, and when the husband is dead they rejoice in their freedom. They give themselves to folly and pleasure. So we read, “But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” The church has no responsibility to support widows of that kind, and they themselves will have to answer to God for their careless behavior. Notice those words. They apply not only to careless widows but also to anyone else living in pleasure: “dead while she liveth!” The only right life is the life lived to the glory of God.
“And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless.” Again the Apostle stresses the responsibility of those who have others dependent upon them.
“But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” That is a serious word for anyone who refuses to labor and properly take care of wife or children or others dependent upon him. No matter what kind of religious profession a man makes, he has denied the faith and is worse than an utter unbeliever if he neglects his family and leaves them in want when by proper care he could meet their needs.
In the early church certain arrangements were made to provide for these widows. We see this in the sixth chapter of Acts. You remember the first murmuring in the church occurred because of some of the widows of the Greek-speaking Jews complained that they were not as well cared for as the widows of the Palestinian Jews, and that led to the appointment of the seven deacons to handle the distribution of the funds for this purpose.
The Apostle says, “Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.” It was these things that entitled a widow to the charity of the church: sixty years of age, presumably unable to earn her own living, a consistent record in the past—that is, she cared for strangers when she had a husband and a home. “If she have washed the saints’ feet.” It was an Oriental way of saying, “If she has been hospitable.” It was a custom in that time, when one wearing sandals entered a home, a servant would bring water, remove the sandals, and bathe the travel-worn feet of the visitor. If the widow had done all these things for the comfort and cheer of her guests, then she certainly was entitled to the care of the church in the time of her bereavement and poverty.
“But the younger widows refuse.” They presumably were able to earn their own living. It was not expected that the church should assume responsibility toward them. If so, it would have encouraged them in idleness. They would not have found it necessary to become employed in any useful calling. “For when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry.” In this way they might have brought discredit upon the church of God. God said to Israel, “Why gaddest thou about so much to change thy way?” (Jer. 2:36). These young widows, if they had no responsibility, would be in danger of wandering about from house to house. Not only would they be idle, but they might also become tattlers and busybodies, carrying tales from one home to another. When people have nothing else to do they generally set their tongues working overtime. “The tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things” (James 3:5). To avoid idle gossip the younger widows should be gainfully employed.
“I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside after Satan.” He had evidently heard of some in the church who had thus gone astray.
As he closes this section, Paul again points out the responsibility of the relatives to care for aging widows. “If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.” It is just another way of saying, “There will be plenty of people needing the help of their brethren and sisters in Christ, and therefore let those who should care for any who are in such needy circumstances take charge of these distressed ones and not put a needless burden on the church of God.” This was God’s order in the early church, and it is still His order today. It is the business of the church to consider the poor and needy and minister to them as far as it can. On the other hand, it is but right that the members of a family provide for the needs of those related to them, if they can do so, and relieve the church of this additional load.
As children of God we are never to be selfish or stingy in ministering to those who are in poverty and distress. But we are not to encourage laziness, nor should the church be held accountable to support those whose own children can assume their care.