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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.