Hands down, the telltale characteristic of a church that is genuinely following Jesus Christ is found in our Lord’s upper room comment, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Our Lord wasn’t concerned just with reputation, but with reality that fosters that reputation. This was a necessary adjunct to his immediately preceding command: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).
While ensuring that our doctrines are sound and our principles of gathering are biblical, we must not fail in this area of love—for if we do so (particularly with the most needy) we FAIL as a church—period!
Before I became a Christian, ironically, I thought of the church as being largely populated by old women, so when I became a Christian, to be a part of a younger congregation was a “validation” of the church’s relevance for people like me. However, God does not disparage older women. Have you ever noticed how often the God talks about widows in Scripture? He repeatedly points them out for special consideration. In fact, a major test of our true spiritual temperature is how we treat widows: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress . . .” (James 1:27 NASB).
God’s attitude toward widows in the Old Testament
God is concerned about practical justice and fair treatment for widows. “For the LORD your God . . . executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:17-18). He is concerned that their basic needs of life are provided for. “When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for . . . the widow, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deut. 24:19).
The Lord is particularly defensive on behalf of widows, that we have a heart for them. “Thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another’” (Zech. 7:9-10). To treat widows otherwise is considered by God to be evil.
It is true that these commands were given in the context of the Old Testament theocracy, where there was no governmental program for Social Security or old-age pension, but the picture comes through clearly that God holds His people responsible for the quality of life for widows. These commands, however, assume the primacy of family in supporting those in need within their ranks. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you” (Ex. 20:12). This fourth commandment was fundamental in establishing the family as the building block of Hebrew society.
Those outside this protective familial context, however, are not to be overlooked. If we remove the modern day politically correct perspectives, we can see some obvious implications for a rugged society reflected in Old Testament times: 1) there were probably many widows (because of the devastating effects of war on the male population) and 2) these widows in many cases would be at a distinct economic disadvantage in an agricultural society where economic prosperity came by the sweat of the brow.
God’s attitude toward widows in the New Testament
We see in the New Testament that a concern for widows continued among the people of God as the new church in Jerusalem grew. Believers began sharing their wealth, and food was distributed to those in need (Acts 4:32-37). In time, an inconsistency in this distribution arose along ethnic lines(Acts 6:1-6). Because the apostles held firmly to the love principle of John 13, they committed to finding a solution to the problem. They drew up a practical plan that resolved the issue so that all the widows received help.
Immediately after this incident the writer of Acts records that “[t]he word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem” (6:7). Could this be the point of Jesus’ words when He said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another”? This demonstration of love, so uncharacteristic in the culture of that day, was a tangible validation of the gospel message. Love really does change people and thus provides a strong attraction to people of the world.
The apostle James, in his ever-practical application of spiritual truth, emphasizes the indispensability of reaching out to widows (along with other needy people: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
The church’s responsibility
So important is this care for widows that Paul addresses the subject extensively in his “church leadership manual,” 1 Timothy 5. He teaches his young protégé about treating others across the universal human distinctions: age (older and younger) and sex (men and women). Then before addressing older men (or elders) in 5:17-22, he pauses to talk extensively about widows in 5:3-16. In both cases, he focuses on honoring those who deserve honor. The same Greek word is used in each, and means to honor, regard, reverence. And in both cases, at least some financial or material support is in view.
Paul outlines a number of principles for guiding the church in fulfilling this mandate.
The family’s primary responsibility
If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should look after the needs of the widow and not burden the church (5:4). Four reasons are given:
1. Piety (“fulfilling one’s religious or spiritual duties”) begins with those closest to you, in the home (5:5—see James 1:27).
2. This is an opportunity to repay parents for the obvious sacrifices they made for the children (5:5).
3. This is acceptable to God (5:5).
4. To not do this makes a person worse than an “unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8—see Mark 7:10-13).
Widows who qualify for church support
Who qualifies for being financially supported by the community of believers? Paul outlines the criteria:
- She must be alone, not having children or grandchildren, and a true believer who is characterized by prayer (5:5).
- She should not be someone characterized by a self-indulgent lifestyle (“wanton living”) (5:6).
- She must be elderly (5:9). Interestingly, the age Paul uses (60 years old) is close to that adopted in the U.S. and Canada for retirement age.
- She must be a “one-man” kind of woman (the structure of the underlying Greek is identical to that found in the qualification for elders (“one-woman” kind of man 1 Tim. 3:2). In other words, she was a devoted and faithful wife, not flirtatious in any way.
- She must have a reputation for good deeds, child-raising, hospitality, a humble servant attitude, etc. (5:10).
- She should not be self-centered, a busybody, or a gossip.
As with the qualifications for elders, many of these things are not black and white but require godly discernment in evaluating widows for being worthy of support.
The Scripture does not outline the extent of support that should be provided, but it is clear that financial or material support is in view. In today’s world (especially in North America), government support programs, personal savings and investments, pensions, and life insurances may provide much if not all of a qualifying widow’s needs. But for some there may be little or nothing. For these, the local church has a responsibility.
Sometimes the solution is regular financial support, either through an established benevolence fund or through making the needs known to the Christian community on a regular basis.
The church can provide material support in the form of home and car maintenance, transportation, and visitation.
Also, it is easy to forget about those widows who are home-bound or in nursing homes. Widows of full-time workers have unique financial needs, for when the husband dies, unfortunately the financial support connected with his active ministry is greatly reduced.
Practically speaking, the church might appoint a benevolence team that will be charged with discerning the real need and available resources. Yes, there may be some who take advantage of “the system.” I recently heard of one woman who showed up at church once a month to collect her “widow’s check.”
There will be many judgment calls, and much grace is needed. But godly elders and deacons will be able to find solutions similar to the way their ancient brothers did in Acts 6. The important thing is that the church be characterized by love, particularly toward those with the greatest needs—true widows.