Epistles: The Strange List of Widows (1 Timothy 5:1-16)

Most people read this chapter without thinking much about it. Almost no one has ever heard a sermon on it. But it is an important passage for helping us understand what the Bible is, and how we use it in the church today.

Various age groups (verses 1-2)

The church in Ephesus had a variety of problems, and Paul sent Timothy, one of his best assistants, to Ephesus to set matters back on track. Paul delegated his authority to Timothy, and he did not want Timothy to act arrogantly. So he advises:

“Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity” (NASB throughout).

This is good advice: treat people with respect, as if they are part of your own family. Even if you have authority over others, don’t just give orders. Instead, try to persuade people, and explain reasons for cooperation, instead of demanding it.

Maintain purity in your relationships—not only with young women, but with all people. Don’t take advantage of people who are weaker than you are.

Widows with families, and those without (verses 3-8)

Paul then gives advice on dealing with widows. From what he writes, we can see that there had been some sort of problem with widows in the church. He begins by implying that some widows should be treated differently from other widows: “Honor widows who are widows indeed.”

Some widows are not really widows, he seems to be saying. And then he explains: “but if any widow has children or grandchildren[1], they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.”

If the widow has family members who can take care of her, then they should be taking care of her. She is not a “real” widow, and the church does not need to treat her in the same way that the church deals with a widow who has no one to help her. The TNIV explains the idea in this way: “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.

What should Timothy do with widows who have no children to take care of them? “Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day.” The genuine widow is not only “alone”—without any family to support her—she is also pious, depending on God to take care of her, praying constantly.

But just as not all children are willing to take care of their familial responsibilities, not all widows are willing to dedicate their lives to God: “But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.” Some widows are more focused on worldly pleasures than on serving God. No matter whether they have children to support them or not, they are “dead”—they are not participating in the life that God has designed for them.

So what is Timothy supposed to do about it? “Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach.” But just what are “these things” that Timothy is to prescribe? Perhaps that a widow without children should look to God, rather than giving herself to wanton pleasures.

But Paul’s main concern here seems to be on widows who have children or grandchildren—Timothy is to “prescribe” to the children that they should take care of their widowed mother. This is made clear in the next verse:

“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This verse is often taken out of context to say that a man should provide for his wife and children. That is a valid application of the principle—but in this context, it means that children should provide for their widowed mother.

The problem in Ephesus apparently involved widows whose children claimed to be believers, and yet wanted the church to take care of their widowed mother. But if adult children won’t support their own mother, then they are acting worse than pagans, and presumably they should not be counted as believers; they are refusing to act in accordance with the faith.

The list of widows (verses 9-12)

Paul then refers to a “list”: “A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old.” As we read further, we will see what sort of list this is.

Just as Paul gave qualifying characteristics of church leaders in chapter 3, now he describes the sort of person who can be “on the list”:

  • As already mentioned, she must be 60 or older,
  • “having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works;
  • and if she has brought up children,[2]
  • if she has shown hospitality to strangers,
  • if she has washed the saints’ feet,[3]
  • if she has assisted those in distress,
  • and if she has devoted herself to every good work.”

Perhaps it is not yet clear what this “list of widows” is. But if we skip ahead to verse 16, we will see that it involves financial assistance from the church. Widows with adult children should be supported by their children; widows without children may be supported by the church.

How strict should Timothy be in including widows on this roster of support? What if she had been widowed twice—does she therefore not meet the description of being “the wife of one man”? Literally, she does not—but the Greek word was not used in such a literal way. A widow who remarried could still be considered “the wife of one man” if she was faithful to her second husband.[4] (The TNIV captures the meaning by saying “faithful to her husband.”)

What if the woman was age 59, but handicapped in some way? What if she never had any children to bring up? What if she had been a slave, or was too poor to “show hospitality to strangers”?

In a list like this, Paul is not trying to cover every possible situation. Rather, he is giving a general description, and he assumes that Timothy is sensible enough to make exceptions based on the circumstances. Similarly, we need to read with some common sense, not just in this list but also in chapter 3, making allowance for the situations we find ourselves in.

Paul wants to ensure that the widows on the assistance roster really need to be there, and that people should not abuse the charity of the church. But something more than financial need is involved. Paul is also concerned about the behavior of the widows: “But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge.”

What is this “previous pledge”? It is apparently a vow to not marry again. Widows could not be on the support roster unless they had promised to remain widows for the rest of their lives. In return for support from the church, they were to spend their lives in prayer.

But Paul did not think that a woman of age 50 or 55 could be trusted to do this: she is likely to have “sensual desires” so strong that she will break her promise and remarry. She should not be on the roster of widows who received assistance from the church.[5]

Was Paul correct in his assumption about a woman’s sensual desires? Perhaps it was generally true in the first-century Ephesian church; we have no way of knowing. But we cannot assume that the same is true today. It is not true that all women under age 60 are so prone to sensual desires that they are unable to keep a pledge of celibacy.

Paul lived in a particular culture, received some of his ideas about women from his culture, and he was writing to people who lived in that same culture. His advice may have been good in his cultural setting, but it would be wrong for us to insist that his assumptions hold true in our culture as well.

When we read Scripture, we need to be aware that it was written in a certain cultural context, and that culture affected the way it was written—not just in language (Greek) but also in the way beliefs are explained. We today live in a different culture, and our culture affects the way that we read Scripture. We bring our own assumptions to the text. Neither culture is “correct,” and our goal in reading is not that we re-create the ancient culture, but to learn from how God inspired the ancient writers to instruct people in the ways of God in that situation.

The instructions are usually good for us as well, but sometimes they address social circumstances that are so unlike our own that we would be wrong to follow the instructions to the letter. Just as Timothy needed to use some common sense in applying the description of a “widow indeed,” we need to think about how we apply his instructions to our day.

Does that mean that we let modern culture tell us what is right and wrong? No—but neither can we assume that what was “right” in first-century Ephesus is necessarily right for the church today. Despite what Paul commanded Timothy to do, we do not set up a roster of widows age 60 and over who vow to remain unmarried. What was appropriate then, is not now.

Most Christians have not thought much about why we ignore this passage of Scripture. Even in fundamentalist churches, there is no movement to “get back to the original church” in regard to widows. Why not? It is because everyone reads with cultural assumptions, and people in the 19th and 20th centuries, for example, looked at this chapter with a filter that says “we don’t do this nowadays.”

And yet when they looked at 1 Timothy 2:12, they responded, “We ought to do this; this is inspired instruction from an apostle of Christ, and anyone who thinks otherwise is disobedient to the inspired Scriptures.” But they never gave much thought as to why they could ignore one passage, even though it contained several commands, and yet insist on the other, which simply stated Paul’s current policy. They were selectively literalist, because their own culture caused them to be more aware of some issues than others. They turned commands into suggestions, and suggestions into commands.

This is only to be expected. Writers and readers all live in a certain culture, and each culture affects which questions we address, the way in which we address them, and the way in which we read what others wrote in different settings. Our goal is not to do church and family in exactly the way it was done in Paul’s day, but to hear the Holy Spirit in applying the love of God in the situations we are in.

Advice for younger widows (verses 13-16)

As we continue reading this passage, we will see more about the situation Paul was addressing. He says this about the younger widows: “At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention.”

The problem was not just that young widows were a financial drain on the church—there was also a behavioral problem: the women were spreading gossip instead of praying, and teaching things they should not.[6] Paul concluded that this problem affected all women under age 60. His conclusion may have been true in first-century Ephesus, but we should not assume that it is true in all cultures and all ages.

What should younger widows do instead? “Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; for some have already turned aside to follow Satan.”

Paul states this as his preference (in this, it is similar to 1 Corinthians 7:7 and 7:26). God inspired Scripture to include opinions of the writer; not everything in Scripture is a command for all peoples in all situations.[7]

Paul’s desire is nearly impossible for a widow aged 55—she is not likely to “bear children” even if she does marry. Although Paul’s desire is in inspired Scripture, we cannot assume that his advice is always appropriate for the church today. Our circumstances are different.

Paul concludes: “If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed.”

His instructions here could apply quite well to a man who had dependent widows. So why did Paul specify a woman? I suspect it was because a specific woman was involved in the problem in Ephesus: a woman in the church did not want to support her own mother and/or grandmother, and expected the church to take care of them. Meanwhile, she and other women spent their time in spreading gossip and indulging in “wanton pleasures.”

So Paul gave a few rules that would prevent such a problem—but the advice he gave for first-century Ephesus is not designed to be a policy manual for all churches in all cultures and all centuries. We should not assume that all Scripture is inspired for this particular purpose, or that it must be applied “to the letter.”

The challenge for us today

All of Paul’s letters were written to specific churches, to address specific situations. Some of his teachings apply today; others need to be adapted for our situations. This means that we need to read cautiously, and to read with humility.

An attitude of “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” may sound good at first, but it is erroneous and arrogant. The error can be shown in that we could find commands in Scripture that such people ignore. The arrogance is that such people think that their own understanding of Scripture settles the matter. They think they know everything that needs to be known.

Almost anyone in modern society is able to read Scripture, and able to benefit from the reading. Scripture has long been a key component in spiritual formation and growth. But a person could memorize the entire Bible and still not understand how and when to apply it. Reading, in itself, does not make anyone an expert in the subject.

Parts of Scripture are hard to understand, and some parts are easy to misunderstand. We read them and think we know what they mean, when we have missed the point entirely. Some expertise is needed—an expertise that we cannot expect every believer to acquire.

Every believer should try to understand, but with the humility that is aware that some misunderstanding might be present as well. So we need to read Scripture in a community, and listen to what others in the Christian community say about Scripture—especially those who have studied it more than we have. Scripture is like most any other subject: people who spend more time generally learn more, and people who enroll in formal study generally learn much more.

Each of us does something for our own health every day: we eat, we get some exercise, we avoid certain dangers. But when things go wrong, we usually seek professional help, from people who have more experience in dealing with this particular type of problem and how it might be fixed. The existence of experts does not minimize the importance of our daily attempts to take care of our health, but if we are willing to listen, the experts can help us make our daily routines more effective.

In the same way, the church has various levels of specialization in theology and Scripture. This does not mean that believers should roll over and play dead, passively absorbing whatever the “experts” teach. Rather, it means that believers should be willing to learn from people who have studied more, so that each believer might study Scripture more effectively, think about God more accurately, and live more fruitfully.

Although we do not maintain a list of widows in the way that Paul commanded for Ephesus, we can nevertheless learn much from this passage. Indeed, it is precisely because we do not maintain a list of widows, that we can learn from this passage about the nature of Scripture itself, what it was inspired to contain, and the care that we need as we read instructions written to other people in a different era and a different culture.


[1] The “children or grandchildren” under discussion here are presumably members of the church, who are willing to “practice piety” by taking care of their own family. Paul does not say what Timothy should do if the children are unbelievers who shirk their duty toward their widowed mother.

[2] The requirement that she has raised children is surprising, since another requirement is that if she has children, they should be supporting her. If we are strict about the requirements, she would qualify for the list only if all her children have died.

[3] Footwashing is a metaphor for serving others. If everyone in the church literally washed someone’s feet in an annual ceremony, everyone would meet this requirement and there would be no need to mention it.

[4] Paul uses a similar word in the qualifications for church leaders: “husband of one wife” (3:2). But Paul is not concerned about whether the person has been married before—the concern is for how the person is currently functioning in marriage. The TNIV says, “faithful to his wife.”

[5] We might think that the problem was the pledge, but Paul does not seem to entertain that thought. He believes that the pledge is necessary, and the problem is that people might break it.

[6] This is probably one of the reasons why Paul was not, at that time, allowing women to be teachers in the church (2:12). There was a problem in Ephesus specifically with women.

[7] 1 Timothy 2:12 is another example—it is given as Paul’s policy, not as a command for all situations. But even when Paul states something as a command, it may be colored with his own cultural assumptions and preferences. When he says, Greet one another with a holy kiss, he is phrasing his command with terminology appropriate to his culture, but not appropriate for ours.

We see another example in 1 Timothy 5:23: “Use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” This advice was intended for one specific person: Timothy. Nevertheless, it is part of inspired Scripture. We go wrong if we assume that everything in Scripture is designed directly for us.

This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you’d like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It’s accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.

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