Giving Proper Respect To Women and the Elderly
[1st Timothy chapter 5, verses 1-15]
Last week when we finished chapter 4, we read the apostle Paul’s warning to Timothy about false prophets, phony healers and deceitful teachers. Do not hesitate, Paul wrote, to put these individuals out of the church, and to warn everyone he knew about them as well. Having instructed Timothy about how to treat those who preach a gospel other than that of Christ, as we begin chapter 5 we find him shifting his emphasis to internal matters within the church. This, Paul wrote, is how we should treat each other.
“Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions too, so that no one may be open to blame. If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than the unbeliever.” (1st Timothy chapter 5, verses 1-8, NIV)
Here is practical, everyday advice from the apostle Paul on how to treat others. Remember what Jesus taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. These are very good examples of how to do so. There is also considerable advice and admonition about widows. Remember that this was written at a time when the average life expectancy was about 40-50 years of age, and sometimes much younger. So, there were more than enough widows to go around as it was. Paul is very clear about the dignity and respect that should be given liberally to widows, especially those with children. But Paul is equally adamant that any widow’s children who are old enough to work should support their mothers in their time of need. He finishes the thought by stating unequivocally that any professing Christian who does not care for his widowed mother or sister is a phony and self-deceived Christian. How can we profess our love for God and our faith in the salvation of Christ while simultaneously turning away immediate family members who need help most urgently? To say the least, I would call that a glaring contradiction, and it’s just as applicable today as it was 2,000 years ago. Now let’s hold that thought as we continue at verse 9.
“No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over 60, and has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds. As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity to slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.” (1st Timothy 5, verses 9-15, NIV)
This was written during a time period when women going off to work each morning was nearly unheard of. Those who are widowed – and there were a lot of those by today’s standards just because life back then was really, brutally difficult – lost their sole source of financial support. The best way to get that source of income reestablished was to go out and find someone else to marry. Apparently people married for practical as well as emotional reasons, a practice that continues to this day in many countries around the world, including the US. We already know from our previous studies on Paul’s letters that he thought women should be subservient to men, and he once even wrote that women were to be “silent” in the church. Times sure have changed since then, and for the better, I think. Equality, as I posted on this website awhile back, is Scriptural (2 Cor. Chapter 8, verses 13-15; Acts chapter 4, verses 32-36). Although the apostle Paul was certainly entitled to his opinion, I have always treated men and women as equals and I always will.
Paul also wrote about “helping those in trouble and devoting (ourselves) to all kinds of good deeds.” Let’s ask ourselves this very question – when was the last time I helped someone in trouble? Did you ever pull over to the side of the road to help a stranded motorist? When have any of us stopped to help a handicapped or disabled person cross the street at a busy intersection? Just think of the most dangerous intersection you know of in your hometown, and then imagine your elderly mother or grandmother trying to cross that street at rush hour. Here in Atlanta where I live, I would either drive her to wherever she needed to go myself, or I would hire a cab for her. I’m sure you would do the same, even if you’re not on the best of terms with them. I think elderly people have earned that privilege out of respect for their advancing years. “As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves…”. To a skeptic, this could very well read as if Paul were saying, ‘If you’re a widow and under sixty, go and get another husband because you will get only limited assistance from us’. By today’s standards that would seem very chauvinistic to many, or even sexist. But please remember that there was no such thing as political correctness in Paul’s day. Also, let’s give the apostle Paul a little slack when it came to his attitude toward women, because he was a product of his own environment. I do not believe as Paul did about women, and I stand up and applaud those ladies who find themselves widowed or divorced and who decide to shake off their misfortune and go it alone in spite of the setback they have endured.
“So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity to slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.” I think it’s sad that these were the only options available to “younger widows”, and that Paul made the age limit sixty at a time when the average life expectancy including men was two thirds that much. Had I lived back then, I think I would have taken a more liberal or progressive approach to addressing this issue within the early Church. Apparently women going to work or starting businesses was offensive to the apostle Paul. In that respect, I continue to hope that we live in a kinder and far more tolerant society today than was the case during Paul’s lifetime, and I am doing everything I can to bring it to fruition. And next week we will finish up 1st Timothy chapter five. Shalom!