In its concern for the widow the economy of Israel provided the foundation for the Christian Church in its service to her. It certainly cannot do less for her than what the Law of Moses provided. Indeed, with an abundance of grace through Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit at her disposal, the Church should much more efficiently care for the widow. Regrettably, though, common observation in today’s world suggests that such may not be the case, with but rare exceptions.
It is true, of course, that by now the State has assumed much of the responsibility which the Church at one time shouldered respecting providing for widows and other needy people. This means that believers make contributions to that cause through the payment of taxes. At least a percentage of their taxes eventually reach them in the form of either money or services. With that arrangement, though, servants of God miss the blessings that would be theirs if they willingly offered such funds as an act of worship to the Lord and purely out of love for those who can hardly help themselves.
Still, as the State increasingly reaches what may be the limit in the extent of its ability to impose ever higher taxes, calls for the Church to do more to assist the aged, disabled, widows, and orphans appear to be appropriate. Besides, government simply cannot provide the quality of care in the form of highly individualized attention that children of the Lord can. Likely there will always be a gap between what political bureaucracy can give and what the Church should stand ready to distribute. Not the least of that is demonstrating the love of God along with offering more tangible forms of assistance to the needy.
At the least, it is unthinkable that either the State or society in general would do more than the Church in caring for suffering humanity. By way of comparison, Thurston says that in the Greek world the State made provisions for older widows. However, children were expected to care for elderly parents. Some work was also open to them. Among the jobs they could do to earn money were to serve as midwives and messengers. Then, according to Thurston, “If a widow were above the age of sixty, she could earn money as a professional mourner at funerals” (Bonnie Bowman Thurston, The Widows: A Women’s Ministry in the Early Church [Minneapolis: Fortres Press, 1989], p. 11).
The lines below lead one to observe the over-lap between these governmental provisions and some of the benevolent policies of the Church in the New Testament. A search for specific information as to what the early Church did in its service to the widow leads one to focus on the insights of their care from the life of Jesus, instructions from the pen of James as to supplying their needs, the practices in the church at Jerusalem in the matter, and the guidelines Paul gave on ministry to them. These indicate the extent of the duties toward widows in today’s church.
Insights on the Care of Widows from the Life of Jesus
Insights on the care of widows from the life of Jesus reveals His condemnation of those who take advantage of them, His raising of a widow’s son from the dead, and His concern for His own mother as a widow.
Jesus’ Condemnation of Those Who Take Advantage of Widows
Reflecting the teachings of the Old Testament, Jesus soundly condemned those who find ways to cheat helpless widows. On an occasion with the students of His class gathered before Him He reflected His distaste over the conduct of some of the religious leaders of His day. He said to them:
Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely” (Luke 20:46, 47).
One may surmise that such men “devoured” the houses of widows by getting themselves named as executors of their estates. Once in that position, they not only took an ordinary fee for their services but embezzled funds far beyond that. In doing so they were much different from a pastor friend of mine. Following the death of a man in his church his widow came to him with an attractive offer. She declared that, since all of her children were now married and now that her husband was gone, she no longer needed the spacious house they had been living in. The pastor was shocked to hear her declare that she wanted to give it to him so his wife and four children would no longer need to lived in the cramped quarters of the small parsonage.
However, instantly he replied, “My dear sister, I could not possibly accept such a generous gift from you. Besides, you should not make major decisions like disposing of your house until your companion has been gone for at least a year. If after that time you still want to sell it, I have a close friend who as a realtor will help you market it. Then you should keep the money. You never know what needs you may have of it in the future.” Some minister might have readily accepted the offer concluding owning the large house was a provision of the Lord. Yet, to do so would have likely placed them beside those Jesus condemned for taking advantage of widows.
Jesus’ Raising of a Widow’s Son from the Dead
Jesus made special provisions for the care of a widow by raising her only son from the dead. She lived in a small town a few miles south of Nazareth in Galilee. Some time before she had lost her husband. It was a sad day indeed, then, when her only son died. Death robed her not only of the companionship of her husband and son, but it also took away the last hope she had for any means of financial support. In reporting the account Luke writes:
As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother (Luke 7:12-15).
The evangelist does not record the reactions of the widow, but one can imagine that she was almost beside herself with joy. Not only was she instantly so happy that she could hardly control herself, but no doubt every day of her life for years to come praise ascended from her lips to the Lord for what He had done for her. As for her friends and neighbors in the town, Luke does say, “They were all filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said, ‘God has come to help his people’” (Luke 7:16).
Jesus’ Concern for His Own Mother as a Widow
Apparently, some time during His earthly life Jesus knew the sorrow of having to say goodbye to His step-father. Then, His mother, Mary, became a widow while He was yet alive. Amazingly, with the burden of the sins of the world resting on His shoulders while hanging on the cross He thought of what her life would be like as a destitute widow. Accordingly, He used some of the last of His ebbing strength to provide for her following His death. John reports, “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26, 27). Scripture elsewhere identified that disciple as John the Beloved. It seems useless to speculate as to why Mary’s other children did not assume the responsibility for her care.
Instructions from the Pen of James on the Care of Widows
The teaching of James as to the conduct of believers in caring for widows is both clear and simple. For him a genuine conversion experience produces concrete actions appropriate to the profession. He expresses keen displeasure toward those who make only a shallow commitment to the Lord. He writes:
"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:22-24).
On the other hand, the one who, reads, listens to, and lives by the teachings of the Bible will be a blessed person in deed. Anything short of that results in one’s religious profession being a useless thing.
For James, to live by the Bible leads to two things. First, it will provoke a believer to live a holy life. Then it will include a work toward seeing that widows and orphans do not suffer want. James declares,
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
One should be aware, though, that, as Teterud says, “To visit widows in their trouble is more than merely to make social calls, although it may begin here. To visit widows in the New Testament sense of the word means to become involved in their lives and to aid them in practical ways” (Wesley M. Teterud, Caring for Widows: You and Your Church Can Make a Difference [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994], p. 24).
Certainly Jesus had the same thing in mind when He spoke of the necessity of His followers “visiting” the sick and those in prison (Matt. 25:36b). Just before His reference to that He made clear the nature of such “visiting.” He explained that one day He would reward them, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me” (35, 36a). Obviously, He equated their attendance to the needs of fellow human beings to be the same as what they did for Him.
Even to this day things are very different for the sick and those in prison in some third world countries. I have seen those hospitals in parts of Africa where they don’t even feed their patients. The grounds outside are filled with members of families hovered over small fires as they prepared dishes of food for their ill loved ones inside. Further, life in the prisons of those areas of the world differs radically from elsewhere. In Paul’s day even he had to depend on his friends to provide clothing for him in prison. To Timothy he wrote, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas” (2 Tim. 4:13). If he occupied the dark, damp, dungeon part of the Mamertine Prison in Rome as he penned the letter, standing there, as I have, one can readily understand that his request was most urgent.
The Care of Widows in the Church at Jerusalem
Information concerning the care of widows in the church at Jerusalem comes from the account of the first church problem in the congregation there. Luke’s indicates the nature of the difficulty, how the members of the body solved it, and what the effects of the solution were.
Causes of the Problem Concerning the Care of Widows in the Church at Jerusalem
That a church in the New Testament had a problem appears as a surprise to some. On one occasion I heard a believer declare, “If Christians today stayed as full of the Holy Spirit as they did in the Bible, we would not experience any difficulties!” Of course, with those words he displayed his lack of biblical knowledge. The church at Corinth enjoyed a reputation as being a very spiritual one, yet Paul’s letters to its members make clear that it was filled with problems. One should not wonder, then, that the followers of Christ at Jerusalem knew what friction in its ranks was like. As Carter observes, “The apostolic church, like the church of every subsequent generation, had its problems” (Charles W. Carter, The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, Vol. IV [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964], p. 523).
Church Growth: Rapid growth in the size of the congregation in the church at Jerusalem contributed to the development of the problem recorded in Acts 6. Such is sometimes the case now as then. Luke explains, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). Before he has reported people were added to the church; now he says the number was multiplied!
Ethnic Friction: However, ethnic friction also played a part in the development of the problem in the church at Jerusalem. Again, that is no less true in congregations all over the world today. Jealousies, ill feelings between the “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists” lurked in the background. The Hebraic Jewish believers considered themselves somewhat superior to others. Their place of birth was Palestine. Still today native born Israelis call themselves Sabrah and consider more recent immigrants to the country almost as second-class citizens. They had continued to speak the mother tongue of Hebrew or Aramiac. Besides, they had remained in the Promised Land while others had migrated elsewhere before returning to the homeland. They likely constituted the majority in the congregation.
On the other hand, the Grecian Jewish converts had likely been born in some country far away where their parents had fled during the great Dispersions of history. They had naturally absorbed the culture of their adopted land and spoke Greek more than Hebrew. Unsanctified human nature considered these people to be inferior to the Sabrah. Being in the minority in the church at Jerusalem and experiencing a language barrier likely disposed them to be extra-sensitive regarding possible neglect of their widows by the welfare program of the congregation.
Financial Inequities: Yet the record does not suggest any paranoia on the part of the Grecian Jews. It appears that financial inequity in distributing such funds caused their complaint. Church leaders offer no denial of their charges of neglect in the proceedings. They could have responded by declaring that, at least, the church had been following Scripture which shows God's special concern for widows, orphans, and the poor, as discussed above. They had attended to a genuine need in the congregation. There was no State assistance for widows and they could get no jobs. It is not surprising that Luke took note of this whole affair. After all, in his gospel he mentions widows nine times compared to only three in the other gospels combined.
Administrative Weakness: In moving toward a solution to the problem the apostles readily admit another cause. It was that of administrative weaknesses. To their credit they make no attempt to justify themselves nor do they do brand the critics as "troublemakers." Rather, somewhat apologetically they explain to the congregation that the ministers of the church had their hands full in attending to prayer and preaching. They said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2b). For them ministerial priorities must remain in the giving of themselves to prayer and teaching the Word.
The Solution to the Problem
With what was no doubt wisdom form the Lord, the apostles suggested that the best solution to the problem was in refining the organizational structure of the church. The proposed change would allow others to assist them in the administration of the congregation’s welfare program for widows. Their plan called for the members of the congregation to select seven of the most godly laymen from among themselves. The apostles, then, would assign the daily detailed operation of that ministry to them. The pattern of the work of the Levites who assisted the priests in routine duties at the Tabernacle served as a precedent for the plan.
The Results of Their Action
Among the results of the solution to the problem was the obvious fact that the widows were more adequately taken care of. Another was that the Word of God grew, continued to spread. Evangelism increased as the number of believers multiplied. For the first time the book of Acts records that even some priests were converted (Acts 6:7b)!
"This was one of the greatest miracles wrought by the grace of Christ: that persons so intent on the destruction of Christ, his apostles, and his doctrine, should at last espouse that doctrine is astonishing; and that they who had withstood the evidence of the miracles of Christ should have yielded to the doctrine of his death and resurrection, is worthy of note. And from this we may learn that it is not by miracles (alone) that sinners are to be converted unto God, but by the preaching of Christ dying for their offences, and rising again for their justification" (Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, Vol. V [Nashfille: Abingdon Press, n. d.], p. 725).
I might add that conversions also resulted from seeing people in the church solve their problems in such a commendable way, witnessing evidences of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.
New Testament Church Policies as to Care of Widows
Notable practices in caring for widows in the churches of New Testament times were both personal and congregational. The example of a lady named Dorcas provides a precedent for Christian ladies to attend to their needs on an individual basis. Paul offers a detailed discussion of church policies which govern the care of widows in New Testament times (1 Tim. 5:3-16). His guidelines focus on the responsibilities of relatives of the widow as well as those of the congregation. They also distinguish between the treatment of older and younger widows.
In the Example of Dorcas:
The Lord used Peter to raise a believer named Dorcas or Tabitha back to life again from the dead. Both names mean literally “gazelle.” The first appellation is from the Greek and the second is from Aramiac. She was a member of the Christian church at Joppa. The apostle was in the area when she died. The congregation sent for him to come for ministry in their grief. Luke reports that when Peter arrived, “All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them” (Acts 9:39). As a volunteer she had financed her own projects of charity for the widows. The account ends with the record of Dorcas’ resurrection from the dead in answer to the apostle’s prayer.
Paul’s Guidelines on the Care of Widows
According to Paul, responsibility for the care of widows is both individual and congregational in nature.
The Responsibilities of Relatives: The apostle makes clear that the first responsibility for the care of a widow belongs to her family relatives. He writes, “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1 Tim. 5:4). By doing so they repay their parents for the care they received during infancy, childhood, and youth. Further, God is well pleased with what they do. Yet Paul has a word for those who neglect the widow in their family. He says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (8). Christian standards in caring for widowed relatives must not be lower than those of unbelievers.
Another reason for the family to care for its own widows is so the church may better use its funds in helping those who have no family to assist them. The apostle writes, “If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need” (16).
Even when the State cares for them generally, they need much care and attention from their children. Yet, how sad that in some rest homes residents no longer have any family members visiting them even socially!
Congregational Responsibility: When families take the first responsibility to care for their widows, the church, then, is more able to care for those who have no such relatives to help them. It can devote its attention to widows who are genuinely destitute, desolate, left entirely alone (5). The congregation must “honor,” give proper recognition to those who are really in need. In this case such “honor” centers on providing financial support. Jesus taught that honoring father and mother includes giving them monetary assistance in old age (Mark 7:10-13).
Paul’s guidelines limit the responsibility of the church to the care of believing widows (1 Tim. 5:5-10).
Though a congregation will at times offer some assistance to the needy regardless of their spiritual standing, it can hardly fully support financially all of the widows in its community. Accordingly, the apostle lists requirements for being placed on the permanent welfare role of a church.
First, to qualify, in addition to being at least sixty years of age (9), a widow must be a believer. She needs to be one who “puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help” (5). Unbelieving women were excluded. Of them Paul explains, “The widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives” (6). Instead, widows included on the list need to be living holy lives, above reproach, not subject to just criticism for improper conduct (7). Her reputation must be that of one who has followed good works (10). These include having devotedly brought her children up in the Christian way. During her productive years she must have herself been given to hospitality by lodging traveling believers. In her world hotels were few and, doubling as houses of prostitution, generally unsuitable for Christians to stay in. In doing so she would have provided the common courtesy of washing their feet.
Further, her personal married life must have been exemplary. She must have been the wife of only one husband (9). Other Scripture makes clear that re-marriage after the loss of a husband in death does not exclude a widow from being placed on the church welfare roll for widows. Indeed, Paul advocates re-marriage for younger widows later in this passage. Nor is the apostle aiming to curb polyandry, the practice of one woman marrying several husbands, here. The practice was not a part of the Greek, Roman, or Jewish world at the time. Rather, the apostle focuses on the marital history of the widow. She must not have been divorced and have married again while her former husband still lived.
On the other hand, Paul advocates the exclusion of younger widows from the permanent welfare roll of the church (11). The relative freedom from responsibilities which that life would afford likely would not be the best for them. They might be attracted to it and even vow they would never marry again. However, they would probably come to regret their rash commitment. If they did re-marry, then, they would feel condemned for having turned away from it (11, 12). As a result they might become discouraged and even give up the faith. In fact that has already happened to some. The apostle says, “Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan” (15). Besides, the lack of the challenges of being a wife and a mother would lead to an unhealthy idleness for them (13). Having no life of their own to occupy their attention, they would become gossips and busy bodies concerning other people’s affairs.
In view of all of this Paul says, “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander” (14). The apostle is much concerned here and elsewhere lest believers conduct themselves in such a way as to give the world an occasion for blaspheming the Name of Christ. Elsewhere he offers another reason for advising re-marriage for younger widows. There he writes, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8, 9).
Duties Toward Widows in Today’s Church
In many parts of the world the social and financial status of widows has changed little from that of Bible times. They have little if any State support. Few jobs are open to them. In such cases local churches and their denominations face the challenge of prayerfully pondering the scriptural teachings discussed above and devising programs to care for widows and orphans according to those biblical guidelines.
However, by no means are congregations where cultural changes have produced a world radically different from those of biblical days now relieved of responsibilities toward widows. They may have falsely concluded that social and moral support is about all they owe grieving widows and orphans now that the government rather than the church maintains permanent welfare rolls for them.
Even where “visiting” widows is limited to the social-type call aimed at cheering the sorrowful, believers often fall far short. As Teterud writes, “The typical problem in visiting widows is that the practice becomes short-lived. A widow receives many visitors before, during, and shortly after her husband’s death. But after the funeral visitors drop off as if the widow has the plague” (p. 24).
Further, in those visits people often say, “If I can help in any way, just let me know.” Such words are near meaningless. “We would like to have you over sometime,” fits into the same category. Why not offer a specific invitation rather than such an indefinite, general one? It is far better for a lady to declare, “My husband would like for us to come by so he can take your automobile to the shop to have the oil changed. Is that alright?”
Even the financial assistance furnished by the government is usually inadequate. Such needy ones, then, often live below the poverty level. What a church should do, then, is to organize itself so as to supplement in tangible ways the income widows and orphans receive from the state or nation. For example, Teterud suggests that a church organize teams to visit widows at least twice a year.
In their association with a grieving person Davis offers suggestions as to what they should not say:
1. I know just how you feel.
2. It was God’s will.
3. God needed him in heaven.
4. These things have a reason.
5. He is better off now.
6. You can marry again (Billie Davis, Teaching to Meet Crisis Need [Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1984], p. 99).
Instead, one of their purposes of such visits should be that of seeing if they have particular needs.
Teterud recommends that each team should have at least one widow as a member, reasoning that a widow would feel more free to open up to one who empathized with her to the greatest degree possible (pp. 26, 27). Further, if possible each team should have a list of resource people who are willing to give assistance to widows needing help. He writes, “Professionals such as attorneys, physicians, accountants, clergymen, bankers, and business people in the church can assist widows beyond their normal practices” (p. 28). A volunteer baby-sitting service for widowed mothers who must be away from home at times to attend to business, or when illness strikes, or who just need a break from home duties occasionally, would be of great help.
When it comes to its duties toward widows, today’s congregations have the challenge of the example of the Church in the Bible and beyond. Thurston recognizes that the first account of the Christian Church in service to widows is in Acts 6:1-7. She then concludes, “The church not only supported needy widows but by the second century it elevated them to the status of a clerical order” (p. 7). The New International Bible Dictionary says, “In the second and third centuries there was an order of widows in the church. Its members looked after the women of the congregation. This order was abolished by the Synod of Laodicea, A.D. 364. (“Widow,” The New International Bible Dictionary, rev. ed.)
The paragraphs above contain information as to what the early Church did in its service to the widow. They focus on the insights concerning their care from the life of Jesus, instructions from the pen of James as to supplying their needs, the practices in the church at Jerusalem in the matter, and the guidelines Paul gave on ministry to them. The account of activities of believers in Acts 6 details how the congregation in Jerusalem organized to better serve its widows. The passage in 1 Timothy 5 is a sequel to that in detailing policies associated with administering the welfare program for widows in the early Church. These indicate the extent of the duties toward widows in today’s church.
WORKS CITED IN THE SERIES
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Teterud, Wesley M. Caring for Widows: You and Your Church Can Make a Difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994.
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“Widow.” The New International Bible Dictionary, rev. ed.