To the modern ear, Paul comes off sounding very unfair here. Certainly it is not true that "as a rule" young widows would succumb to sensual desires. Paul generalizes. But he does so because he is aware of the stereotypes that existed in his society, because a very serious pattern of behavior had developed among some young widows, and because he wants to avoid the damage to the church's reputation that would surely result from its young widows' being so "typed." Consequently, the general rule is that young widows were not to be considered for enrollment in the team of widows alluded to here that was supported by the church (v. 11). But what is meant by the difficult rationale that follows?
First comes the causal sequence of sensual desires that overcome their dedication to Christ, which results in a desire to marry. Younger widows would be more subject to physical desires. Similar advice, directed to men and women, appears in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9. The fact of the matter is that physical desires are a current factor for younger people, and the strength of these desires often makes (re)marriage a wise course.
But verse 11 as rendered in the NIV is not graphic enough: it is more literally "sensual impulses that alienate them from Christ." It is not clear whether these widows engaged in immoral behavior (though it is possible that they did). In any case, the desire to remarry is connected with alienation from Christ--not because remarriage is prohibited (compare 1 Cor 7:8-9), but probably either because it was considered a hasty alternative to genuine repentance for immoral behavior or because they were seeking to marry unbelievers (compare 1 Cor 7:39).
The fact that Paul goes on in verse 12 to say that in this case remarriage leads to judgment, because they have rejected the first (that is, "foremost") faith (NIV they have broken their first pledge) does seem to indicate remarriage outside of the guidelines of God's will. Some have taken this as a reference to a vow of chastity, which would imply that an office of widows existed in the church at this time. But the more likely meaning of the actual term is "the faith" (the same term occurs in v. 8), which in these letters refers technically to Christianity and implies the need to believe. Given the Pauline background on teaching regarding remarriage and the positive teaching about it in verse 14, it is more likely that unsanctioned remarriage to unbelievers or precipitate remarriage in general is in mind.
A second reason not to include young widows on the list may seem like another unfair generalization: the tendency to become idle, to flit from house to house and, worse yet, to become gossips and busybodies, saying things that are inappropriate (v. 13). It may mean that young widows, their financial burden lifted, lacking the spiritual maturity to apply themselves to prayer and other tasks of ministry associated with the list, became lazy and even counterproductive. But a glance down to verse 15 (some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan) suggests that Paul already has those young widows who had fallen prey to the false teachers in view. If so, then the gossip and other foolishness belong to the category of meaningless, paradoxical chatter (1:6; 4:7; 6:20) spread by the heretics, which Paul calls "false." It is also well to keep in mind that the false teachers were particularly effective in the homes of believers (2 Tim 3:6; Tit 1:11).
What Paul has just laid down as reasons for excluding young widows from church support now leads to the logical conclusion: So they should marry. A comparison with the approved credentials of the older widow (vv. 9-10) shows that he calls young widows to pursue that same domestic lifestyle. The three phrases to marry, to have children, to manage their homes describe the responsible and socially normative role of the homemaker, which the apostle elsewhere endorses (2:11-15; Eph 5:22-23; Col 3:18; Tit 2:5; compare also 1 Pet 3:1-7).
That the critic outside is again in mind emerges in the fourth phrase, to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. The enemy is probably the non-Christian and not Satan in this instance (3:7). It is because the wanton behavior of verse 11 and the foolish talk of verse 13 occur where the church meets with the world that the outside critic is a concern. It is doubly of concern if this disrespectful behavior be seen as financially subsidized by the church.
In the conclusion to this section the apostle repeats the instruction to care for widows with some refinement. The reference to the woman of the family is not necessarily surprising, since within the household it would have fallen to a wife to perform this task anyway. Narrowing the focus to the woman also reinforces the teaching to the young widows, for care of older widowed relatives (vv. 4, 8) falls within the scope of the appropriate activities described in verse 10. In any case, the purpose of this last instruction, as also of the whole passage, is to allow the church to concentrate its limited resources on helping those widows who, alone, trusting only in God and committed to service, are really in need (v. 3).
Yet this passage, which addresses a very specific situation, springs from a truth about God that compels us to ask some very penetrating questions regarding the focus of our compassion today: God is committed to helping those who cannot help themselves. As already pointed out, the Old Testament announces clearly God's special concern for widows, alongside of whom are often named the fatherless. The directions of Jesus' ministry developed the theme of God's compassion with even greater clarity to encompass the poor, the sick, the outcasts of society, the disfranchised, the marginalized. It was to these that Jesus reached out. The need for the church to minister to widows and the accompanying concern for the church's testimony in the world evident in 5:1-16 are an application of God's care for those unable to care for themselves.
Widows presented that church at that time with a specific need, and in our churches this same basic need is common. But our technological age is creating some problems (or at least raising them to proportions never before known) that belong to this category. What about our poor--the homeless, the jobless? What about our disfranchised--the single mothers, the elderly, the convicts and ex-convicts, the divorced? While the questions come easier than the answers, I think we will all agree that the church is to be God's channel of compassion as he seeks to include the excluded. Paul's treatment suggests that there is far more involved than simply handing out money. The pattern presented here is a carefully structured ministry to the whole person which encourages and facilitates godliness and a productive life while it also guards against misuse and abuse that might endanger the church's witness. It remains for us to implement this teaching creatively in our particular situations.