Questions: How should we treat other members of the church? Whom should we help? What should we expect in return? What can our leaders expect of us? What do we owe them? What do they owe us? How can we know?

Lord, make me a Fountain of your Love.
Draw me into your Presence
And fill me with your Holy Spirit
That I would know you as my Father
And manifest the image of Christ
In this world, and the world to come. Amen.

1 Timothy 5:1-25

Rebuke not an elder, but intreat [him] as a father;

I find it fascinating that Paul is asking Timothy to find the “middle path” between lording it over older men (because of his office) or passively submitting to them (because of cultural norms). Plus, he extends the familial metaphor to the rest of the church:

[and] the younger men as brethren; The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.

I don’t know whether Timothy was married, but it is sobering that even then they had to worry about pastoral affairs.

Honour widows that are widows indeed.

From the context, it seems that caring for widows was a major ministry of Timothy’s church; certainly, caring for the widow and the orphan is a repeated theme throughout scripture. What’s significant, though, is that this care appears have become institutionalized, and thus there is a need for some sort of policy to distinguish between “true widows”, and those who still have some family:

But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.

In other words, Paul well understood the concept of moral hazard: that having the church care for widows might make others shirk their duty.

More than that, though, Paul seems to be emphasizing a theological aspect to the situation:

Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.

The devout, desperate widow is contrasted with:

But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.

That seems a harsh dichotomy: are those the only two choices? Well, maybe. When you’re living on the edge of survival, perhaps it tends to push you to extremes: either you totally give yourself over to trusting in God, or you seek to “eat drink and be merry” before you die.

And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless.

In other words, it really is important that Timothy understand and enforce these rules, lest he end up creating a scandal.

But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

Ouch. Okay, rule 1: widows are first the responsibility of the family, not the church.

Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.

Huh. Paul seems to be implying that the church’s “widow roster” isn’t merely a charity to help the poor, but almost a reward for good work. No, more than that: it is almost like an “office”, where the church supports woman who have devoted themselves to good works.

So, Rule 2: only support widows who manifest godly character.

But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. And withal they learn [to be] idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.

Ouch again. Paul seems pretty cynical about the character of younger (less than 60!) widows, perhaps due to bitter experience. Still, on the flip side, its nice to seem him at least speak positively about marriage. :-)

I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside after Satan.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of all these references to Satan and damnation. Really, it sounds as if the widows are actually enrolling in some sort of religious order, not merely receiving some free handouts.

Which might be Rule 3: only enroll widows are willing to devote the rest of their lives to ministry, instead of seeking a family.

And lest this seem too severe, Paul makes it clear that his concern is to make the best use of the church’s limited resources:

If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.

Given that the church itself probably consisted of many poor people, it seems only good stewardship to only help out those who:

had no other source of help (family)
reflected well on the church
weren’t going to remarry
Not that Paul is endorsing being cheap:

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.

In fact, this is more-or-less consistent with his statements about widows, that we should invest our resources in those who reflect godly character, and not ignore their earthly needs just because they are doing heaven’s work:

For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer [is] worthy of his reward.

Not only should we pay our leaders well, but we should protect them from frivolous complaints:

Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.

Though, the price for that partial immunity is public accountability:

Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.

These are painful words — and there’s many unhealthy ways to implement them! But church discipline is essential for a healthy church, particularly when it comes to leaders who serve as role models. Hence the stern warning from Paul:

I charge [thee] before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.

Especially when it comes to choosing leaders:

Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.

Again, sober words: to delegate authority to someone is to accept responsibility for their actions.

Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.

Huh? Where did that come from? This seems like a non sequitur; a light-hearted personal note in the midst of stern doctrinal warnings.

If nothing else, perhaps this reminds us that First Timothy is a real letter to a real human being, not some abstract doctrinal treatise. Though obviously it also contains many important truths, which we ignore to our own peril:

Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some [men] they follow after.

Likewise also the good works [of some] are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid.

I read this as “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Some people flaunt their sin, but others conceal it — for a time. Similarly, some people’s virtue requires time and patience to discover.

Something for anyone choosing leaders to keep in mind.

Prayer

God, I pray that you would help me — and our church and our government — to better understand our obligation to the poor. Teach us also how to properly honor our leaders — while still holding them accountable. May we never hesitate to confess our sins, but may our good deeds follow us to heaven. I ask this in Jesus name, Amen.

Dr. Ernie Prabhakar