Thursday, April 15, 2004

1 Timothy -- Passing the Baton (15)

The church in the first century seems to have had a formalized system for caring for widows. This is clear from the instructions that Paul next gives Timothy:

Honor widows who are widows indeed; but if any widow has children or grandchildren, 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. 

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. But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives. Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach. 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. 

A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work. 

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. 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. 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. 

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. (1 Timothy 5:3-16)

Paul and Timothy lived in a society that had no government welfare. As Jews and Christians, they did, however, have the Old Testament's admonition to care for the widow and the orphan. Indeed, this care had become part of the Church from the beginning (Acts 6). Since the church has not carried the practices of Paul's day through the centuries, there is much about this passage that we must guess at. So here are my guesses:

  • Paul uses the phrase "widows indeed" three times. Coupled with the phrases "put on the list" and "set aside their previous pledge" I get the idea that "widows indeed" is both a descriptive term and technical term. As a description, it refers to a woman who has lost her husband and has no other family to care for her. As a technical term, she receives sustenance from the church in exchange for her prayers and service.
  • Note the conditions prescribed for being "put on the list." Age at least 60, married once, and one who has shown a consistent pattern of service to her family and the church. 
  • In contrast to widows indeed are "younger widows" with no track record of service. These according to Paul would ultimately become idle gossips and do damage to the church community.
  • Throughout the entire passage, you get the sense that the Church is the last resort for this situation and that it should not very quickly intervene into the situation. Rather it is the extended family of the widow as well as the widow herself that must do what they can to not burden church resources.
  • A "woman who ... has dependent widows" is perhaps an unmarried daughter of a widow. It is worth thinking back to the story of Ruth, who gleaned in the fields of Boaz in order to provide herself and Naomi food to live on.

Paul understands the issues of welfare abuse and communicates policies that puts responsibilities on individuals and families to work out most situations. Even in the case of "widows indeed," you get the sense that he expects them to serve the needs of the church as best they can in exchange for the church's assistance. 

To one with a heart that easily flows with mercy, the teachings of Paul can seem rough. The key is to see the bigger picture and anticipate the fruit of a more generous program. You can argue that the "War on Poverty" from Lyndon Johnson has aggravated the plight of the poor in this country. What borderline parent is going to get a low paying job and risk loosing Medicaid and other assistance from the state. Is it not interesting that the disasters predicted from Welfare Reform in the 1990's did not materialize and there is a good bipartisan consensus that it has been a success?

It would seem that welfare works best when it is means tested, character tested, limited, and requires some service in exchange. The seeming harshness of such a system must be viewed against the eroding effects of a more generous system.

In a perfect world, Paul's instructions would exist in a context of justice rather than oppression. That is not always the case. In such cases, the church--and I will also say government--better serves its constituency by laboring to increase justice. 

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

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