Legitimate help for legitimate needs
Whenever we see someone with a financial need, there’s always an underlying tension to deal with.
What’s the best way to help them, without making them dependent or having my “help” end up being detrimental?
We want to help where we can…but only for legitimate needs. We silently wish for criteria or even a flow chart to make the “Do I help or not?” decision for us. But then we’re afraid that evaluating a person’s situation via a formula is too cold, not very loving, and when we consider each person’s financial need has different factors and influences…we quickly feel overwhelmed, even paralyzed.
The church family in Ephesus must have had similar struggles, because Paul spends a large section of his letter to Timothy discussing how to handle the support of widows within the church. As mentioned before, widowhood was a serious situation for women in the ancient world. They were not typically the direct heir of their husband’s will, and income generating options were limited, at best. Additionally, if the husband was poor, he may not have left much for his wife to live on.
Before we read Paul’s criteria to Timothy for helping widows within the church, we need to understand a little bit about life expectancy in the ancient world. Although the age of 60 was when a person was considered an “old man” or “old woman”, in the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the average life expectancy for a woman was 36 years. This was mainly due to the significant risk of dying during childbirth; however, the men were not fairing much better, as they were only living on average up to 45 years.
Ladies, imagine condensing your life down to just 36 years. Guys, yours to only 45 years. Needs, wants, plans, opportunities all look different on a shortened timeline. Keep that in mind as you read through Paul’s criteria:
1 Timothy 5:9-10
No widow should be placed on the official support list unless she is at least 60 years old, has been the wife of one husband, and is well known for good works – that is, if she has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to every good work.
There’s a fair bit of structure to this widow-helping program. With an official support list, we see that this program is to provide elderly widows with long-term support (nor does this prevent the church from assisting in one-time, immediate needs). The requirement for her to be the wife of one husband doesn’t mean she’s disqualified if her husband previously died, she re-married, and then her second husband died. Rather, this is a prohibition on support those who have been in polygamous relationships. This matches up well with the rest of Paul’s conduct expectations – he is instructing Timothy about the importance of asking “Does her life represent Jesus to others?”
However, he also gives Timothy this warning:
1 Timothy 5:11-13
But refuse to enroll younger widows; for when they are drawn away from Christ by desire, they want to marry, and will therefore receive condemnation because they have renounced their original pledge. At the same time, they also learn to be idle, going from house to house; they are not only idle, but are also gossips and busybodies, saying things they shouldn’t say.
This widow-helping program wasn’t going to be a monthly stipend check and then she does whatever she wants. The church family expected that those who received support would work on behalf of the church within the community. The widows would pledge their lives to this work, forsaking any additional marriage relationship…in a sense, they were “married to Christ”. However, the normal desires of family life would likely be too much for the younger widows to fully abstain from once they made their pledge. Additionally, the younger widows would not have developed the discipline that the older women had learned. As widow-representatives, the reputation of Jesus and the entire church would be severely damaged by them saying things they shouldn’t say.
1 Timothy 5:14-16
Therefore, I want younger women to marry, have children, manage their households, and give the adversary no opportunity to accuse us. For some have already turned away to follow Satan. If any believing woman has widows, she should help them, and the church should not be burdened, so that it can help those who are genuinely widows.
The purpose of this criteria is to ensure that the church can help those who are genuinely widows. We want to meet legitimate needs; therefore, we must have a way of evaluating the requests that come to the church.
God likes order. We see it in creation. We see it the structure of relationships. We shouldn’t be all that surprised when we find that He also expects our giving to be thoughtful and purposeful.