What is Paul saying?
V3 and v16 act as bookends to his teaching about widows, framed with the phrase “widows who are really in need.” The teaching is:
- v3-8 Families should take care of their own widows for this pleases God.
- v9-10 The “list of widows” should only include older widows who live a pure life.
- v11-15 Younger widows should remarry, so that they do not become busybodies or “abandon their devotion to Christ.”
- v16 Summary. Families should take care of their own widows, so that the church can take of those widows who truly have no one else.
The weight of the teaching is encouraging families to take care of their own grandmothers and mothers. The obscure “list of widows” teaching is secondary to that principle.
List of widows
So, what was the “list of widows”? It seems to be some sort of approved list of widows that the church will take care of. In Acts 6, the church in Jerusalem had an issue with widows too. Some of the Greek widows were being overlooked in the daily food distribution. Was the creation of a list of “registered” widows part of the solution to that problem? Was Paul advising Timothy on how to implement the same idea?
As always with the Epistles, we’re hindered by the shared understanding that Paul and his audience already possess. Paul mentioned “the list of widows” without preamble, so it was likely that Timothy was already familiar with the concept. Paul is simply “colouring in” a few more details, since both he and Timothy already know the overall shape.
We however don’t know the overall shape — we only have the few brush strokes that Paul just added. And from those brush strokes, we’re trying to guess the whole picture. That is bound to lead to some confusion.
For example, we have this most confusing text:
For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge.(v11b-12).
Timothy would have read that and understood it completely, but we are just left with a great many questions. Why would it be wrong to widows to get married again after being put on the list? How would that be abandoning their “devotion to Christ”? How do they “break their first pledge” (“cast off their first faith” NKJV)? Is this talking of their trust in Jesus? Their previous marriage vows? Or was there some promise that accompanied entry onto the list?
We know that Paul is not against re-marriage — his primary advice for young widows is that they do remarry. It’s specifically being placed on the list that he counsels against. Why would that be? Perhaps being placed on the list involved some declaration of exclusive devotion to Christ — which would be negated by remarriage. If they remarry, they break this promise? This is a possible explanation, but it’s still difficult to understand the phrase “first pledge” — in what sense would the widow’s pledge on entering the list be their “first pledge”?
The exact meaning of those verses might be difficult to decide without the shared knowledge that Paul and Timothy already possessed. The overall meaning is still quite clear (young widows should remarry), but the exact reasoning is opaque.
We must also be careful with what the passage does NOT say. For example, what should happen to older widows who do not show the virtues listed in v9? Or to young widows who do not remarry? The passage doesn’t say — it certainly does not say that those widows should be ignored or left to starve. This passage doesn’t give any teaching in regards to those widows, in which case, other clearer passages should obviously be applied — the myriad of commands to take care of widows and orphans spring to mind.
Personal and corporate responsibility
There is another interest process on display here: institutionalization, i.e. taking a personal responsibility (care of widows) and making it a corporate (church) responsibility.
This has good and bad sides. The good side is that institutions tend to be better organised — people are not forgotten — and robust — the ministry still happen even if one individual is sick or absent. Institutional also combines people into teams, which are more capable than a single individuals.
The bad side of institutions can be bureaucracy — the institution becomes more important than the task it was created to perform — and heartlessness, the requirements and outcomes become paramount. Institutions are more open to abuse — “gaming” the system.
Clearly, the scheme the church had for taking care of widows was not meant to take away personal responsibility. Families were still to take care of their own. The institution was to catch those who had no one else. It supplemented personal responsibility — it did not replace it.