Comment from across the partnerships

A window on widows

24 October, 2013 Elspeth Pitt


When you think about it, the Bible has a surprising amount to say about widows. Surprising for us in the twenty-first century, where widows are often sidelined in society. And surprising too in Bible times, where widows were often poor and vulnerable, with little power. Yet the Bible sees things differently from the way that we do. God is the Father of the fatherless and protector of widows (Psalm 68:5). Those who are weak can find protection with Him. And that must be why widows often become pictures of what it means to be a believer. Just think of the persistent widow in Luke 18, or the widow in Mark 12 who, in putting two small coins into the offering, gave God her all and depended on Him.

So it’s not surprising that God calls His people to be like Him, both in caring for and valuing those who are valueless in the eyes of the world. Take, for example, 1 Timothy 5:3-16.
The first paragraph (v3-8) focuses on caring for those who are really in need – see v3 and v5 where the phrase is repeated. There seem to be both physical and spiritual considerations to be taken into account. The church should not encroach on the family’s responsibility to care for its relative if the family is able to do it, because this is good and right; the church should only provide financial and physical support if the family is unable (or unwilling in the case of unbelievers) to do so. Secondly, the woman must be spiritually qualified. She must be godly – the opposite of the type of widow who lives for pleasure (v6), which some commentators think is a euphemism for prostitution, one of the few options open to destitute women. Provided they meet these criteria, the church is to ‘provide proper recognition’ (v3) to them. As they depend on the Lord, praying night and day and asking God for help (v5) – having spurned ungodly means of support – they will find their prayers answered through the family of the church.

It’s clear from Acts 6 that the early church took this responsibility seriously with their daily provision of food. For us in the twenty-first century, the application of these principles might be slightly different. With a mobile society and longer living, not every family will be in a position to care for elderly relatives. And company might well be more of a need than food. The care we can offer may include taking those who are housebound out; picking them up for church on a Sunday; or being willing to shop or run errands. We can enable those who are shut in to feel part of the church family, perhaps by bringing sermon recordings or regular news. Then, too, part of honouring them will be valuing them as believers – listening to their wisdom, and seeking to learn from how the Lord has taught them. As the Lord cares for widows, so are we to care for them.

Whereas the focus in the previous paragraph was on financial provision for widows, the next paragraph (v9-16) looks different. There widows described here have qualifications beyond those required for the first group. To be on such a list there is an age requirement – she must be over sixty – and have a proven record of faithful service in her married life as well as in the church and beyond. From this it seems that this list wasn’t so much a list of those needing support, as of those who could serve within the church. Paul is realistic about it – those who are younger may well not be able to be committed long-term to this kind of service and could easily become distracted by their desires for other things. Luke refers to the active widows in Joppa (Acts 9:39), among whom appeared to be Dorcas – who was known for her good deeds and helping the poor, as well as for her needlework! By the end of the second century Tertullian could talk of an order of widows that gave themselves to prayer, nursed the sick, cared for the orphans, visited Christians in prison, evangelised pagan women, and taught female converts in preparation for their baptism. Some of them presumably were freed by their families to allow them to do this, and others were supported by the church so that they could serve in this way.

This concept is fascinating from a twenty-first century viewpoint. For we tend to associate women’s ministry with the young and often disregard those who are older. The example of the second-century widows, however, provide something of a challenge to our ideas. After all, although many widows are frail and in need of care, there are also plenty of women in our churches who combine experience, godliness and a zeal for the Lord with flexibility of time and financial independence. How quick are we to identify people like this? Of course they need not just be widows. Perhaps, for example, a modern equivalent could be those women whose children have grown up and left home. And, having identified them, how good are we at training and then using them – not just for the practical tasks that make the church run, but for the range of ministries that the order of widows in the second century was involved with? If the Lord values and cares for widows, so too must we.

Adapted from material originally written for the Women’s Ministry course published by The Good Book College

Elspeth Pitt Elspeth is one of the womens workers at St Helen’s Bishopsgate.

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