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The opening instruction (v. 3) controls the thought of the whole passage. The church must properly recognize its needy widows (literally, "real widows"). Proper recognition ("honor") was to be expressed in practical support. But good stewardship of the church's limited resources and protection of its reputation required the leadership to decide who the "real" widows in the church were, and whether other means of support were available.
If a widow was to qualify for care from the church, her practical circumstances and Christian witness were to be examined. On practical grounds she must be all alone (v. 5), having no family and consequently no one to take up the support formerly provided by a husband. Furthermore, she must be at least sixty years of age (v. 9). This age was the culturally recognized age of retirement, as well as, practically, an age at which remarriage was unlikely. Presumably, at this age the temptations that faced the younger widow (vv. 11-15) would have ceased to be a serious concern.
But practical need alone was insufficient grounds for receiving financial help from the church. In order to guard its testimony in society (vv. 7, 14), the church could, as a church, subsidize only the activities of widows with exemplary lives of faith. Therefore, to qualify for support the widow had to lead a life that testified to a genuine relationship with God.
Paul emphasizes first the personal dimension of this relationship. In verse 5 it is characterized by her posture of hope in God. While hope, that determined expectancy and trust in God's sufficiency, is to mark all believers, the believing widow with no one else to turn to learns to excel in this discipline. The discipline of hope finds expression in personal communication in prayer to God for help. Together hope and prayer characterize the godly widow's personal relationship with God, the vertical dimension of her true faith.
The mention of the widow who lives for pleasure in verse 6, an allusion to the younger widows of verses 11-15, provides a graphic contrast. This description calls to mind the fantasy of "living life to its fullest" that the media constantly parade before us. "Life" is defined as a wild (and always fashionable) ride from one new experience to the next. But Paul calls this "living death," for the ride takes one away from the true source of meaningful and eternal life; this "life" is only a crude imitation, a mask on the face of death. The one who pursues God in prayer and hope discovers life out of death.
But Paul also stresses that this relationship with God must have visible and practical results in the form of good deeds (v. 10). Many modern Christians tend to view this concept with skepticism, primarily because it brings to mind thoughts of earning merit with God or behaving in a way that brings attention to oneself. However, what Paul means is "doing" that proceeds from genuine faith, fruit produced by the Spirit. The "real" widow will have a reputation for good deeds. Yet she may not rest on a past record, but must be generally devoted to this kind of life. The guidelines given here (to determine qualification for inclusion on a list) are very similar in tone, content and purpose to those that appear in 3:2-7 in reference to the overseer; they begin within the home and move outward (vv. 9-10).
For the one who is or has been married, the results of faith must first be evident in the marriage relationship. The Greek phrase in verse 9, literally, "one-man woman," is the counterpart to the "one-woman man" which describes the overseer and deacon (3:2, 12; Tit 1:6). The NIV translates it accurately as referring to faithfulness in marriage. For it is this, and not a commitment to remain single after one's spouse has died, that is probably in view.
Next (v. 10), since typically the widow's sphere of activity would have been the home, Paul inquires about her skills as a parent (this begins the enumeration of the good deeds). Raising children successfully was one of the marks of the ideal woman in the Greco-Roman and Jewish world (compare 2:15; Tit 2:4). Yet in that day, as, sadly, in ours, child abandonment and abuse were common. The proof of the life-changing power of the gospel in the home was to be seen in exemplary marriages and responsible child care. Beyond meeting basic physical and emotional needs, Christian parenting means also training children in the faith (Deut 6:7; Eph 6:4).
A third item related to the home is the practice of hospitality, a highly regarded practice in the ancient world. Hospitality's warmth and sharing made it essential to the Christian mission and to church unity (Rom 12:13; 1 Pet 4:9). It also met urgent needs and required sacrificial sharing (see on Tit 1:8). Help of this sort among Christians is uppermost in Paul's mind, but given the notorious condition of inns in that day, it is easy to see how strategic an open home might have been for the spread of the gospel as well. Such sharing has proved effective over and over again in modern times.
The list mentions two final specific activities that the widow is to be known for. "Foot washing" among the saints and providing "help" to those in trouble were to be characteristic of believers in general (Jn 13:14; Rom 12:10-16; Gal 5:13; 6:2; Phil 2:1-4). Christian widows were to exemplify this kind of service. "Foot washing" on the literal level was a service to visitors, an act of kindness that was central to hospitality. But Paul's meaning goes beyond the literal level. Figuratively, the term includes the sense of performing all manner of humble tasks for the benefit of others. The language used here makes certain contact with the pattern of life that Jesus laid down for his disciples (Jn 13:14).
Helping fellow Christians under various sorts of stress is a responsibility that goes with the bond of fellowship in Christ (Mt 25:35-40; Gal 6:10; Jas 1:27). Paul asks that the "qualified" widow be especially known for this good deed.
Clearly, the widow eligible for financial support was the one who manifested the Spirit in every part of her life. Genuine Christianity can mean nothing less.
Among Paul's readers were those who were believing children or grandchildren of a widow. For them, making provision for the widow was an essential expression of genuine faith. In fact, that key word in the Pastorals, godliness (NIV put their religion into practice), occurs here in such a way that the home is envisioned as the initial "test tube" of faith.
What is actually at stake here is obedience to the fifth commandment: "Honor your father and your mother" (Ex 20:12; Eph 6:2). Not only is care for the widowed mother or grandmother a logical recompense for her faithful service to children and grandchildren, but in the obedience to God's will that it reflects, this care is pleasing to God. Disobedience amounts to rejection of the faith; the judgment that such a one is worse than an unbeliever (v. 8) is harsh, because that one has consciously broken God's law.
Paul's vivid language suggests that actual instances of neglect needed to be corrected. Furthermore, it is very possible that the heretical movement, which took a dim view of marriage (4:3), was also undermining traditional family values (compare 2 Tim 3:6; Tit 1:11); Paul's description in verse 8 matches his description of the false teachers (those who had denied the faith; 1:6; 4:1; 6:21; 2 Tim 2:18; 3:5; Tit 1:16).
But there was another danger. Just as surely as the loose-living widow of verse 6 (see vv. 11-15) would attract criticism, failure to provide for the financial support of the widow would leave the family and, by association, the church open to criticism (v. 7). The whole passage is under the category of conduct that affects witness. The reference to blame (literally, "blameless," as in 3:2 in the case of the overseer) is an allusion to the observant outsider. Additionally, the sentiment of verse 8 would have been shared by the respectable unbeliever, whose civil structure included laws providing for the protection of the widow.
For both the widow and the family of the widow, these instructions express the need to keep one's confession of the faith and one's conduct in harmony. In contrast to the false teaching that had been circulating, spirituality was to have practical, respectable and observable results.