RPM, Volume 18, Number 22, May 22 to May 28, 2016

A Protector of Widows

1 Timothy 5:1-8

By Philip Graham Ryken

Taken from the Reformed Expository Commentary: 1 Timothy (2007), by Philip Graham Ryken.

Philip Graham Ryken (D.Phil., Oxford University) is senior minister of historic Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia…" (This part of the bio is taken from the inside flap of this commentary) "His Oxford DPhil thesis, 'Thomas Boston (1676-1732): Preacher of the Fourfold states…'" (part of the bio is taken from Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment).


The surprising thing about the house rules Paul gives Timothy is that they say so little about most family relationships and so much about widows. There are only two short verses for fathers and brothers, sisters and mothers, but fourteen verses for widows. Why is this?

Undoubtedly, the special emphasis on widows says something about the church in Ephesus. For one reason or another, the Ephesians needed help knowing how to care for their widows. Timothy may even have written to ask for Paul's guidance in this area. But the attention to detail in these instructions also says something important about God. God has a special place in his heart for single women, especially for widows. Here it should be noted that the Greek work for "widow (chera) refers to any woman without a husband, and not simply to a woman whose husband had died. Kent Hughes wisely comments: "Today the application of this passage should be wider, because modern American culture has produced a category of women virtually unknown in the first century—Christian women and children who have been abandoned by their spouses and left without family support. Godly single mothers are a new class of 'widow.' And those without family and resources are the church's sacred responsibility."

In the Old Testament, God is styled the "protector of widows." His affection for needy women is written into the law: "For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God… He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow" (Deut. 10:17-18). God's concern for widows and orphans is also written into the biblical hymnal:

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts;
his name is the LORD;
exult before him!
Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
God settles the solitary in a home. (Ps. 68: 4-6)

Some of the most touching episodes in the Old Testament concern the care and feeding of widows. God fed Ruth during the barley harvest and places a child on Noami's lap (Ruth 1:22-2:23; 4:13-17). He spared the widow of Zarephath in the days of Elijah (1 Kings 17:7-24). He provided an abundance of oil for a widow through the ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 4:1-7). Almighty God has earned the right to be called the Protector of Widows. And not surprisingly, Jesus also took special care for widows. He brought an only son back to life for the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-15). He commended the persistence of the praying widow (Luke 18:1-8) and the generosity of the poor woman who gave all she had at the temple (Mark 12:41-44). He also rebuked Bible scholars who "devour widows' houses" (Mark 12:40). Even on the cross, he made provision for is own mother in her widowhood (John 19:25-27).

The reason for God's concern is that widows were vulnerable in the ancient world. The learned historian William M. Ramsay wrote that given "the narrow restrictions of ancient social life, it was not easy for them to maintain their children after the earning member of the family had died, and they stood in need of special consideration and help." Without the protection of a man, widows were sometimes exposed to physical danger. They lacked the economic power to provide for their needs, especially in old age. The same is often true today.

For all these reasons, God was concerned about the welfare of widows. The prophet Isaiah thus challenged God's people to "plead the widow's cause" (Isa. 1:17; cf. Ex. 22:22; Deut. 24:17; Job 29:13). God wants all his children to share their Father's heart for the fatherless and the husbandless. This means caring for widows first of all. This principle applies not only to widows, however, but to every family member who needs special care: the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and single mothers. God knows that as long as his weakest children are protected, his whole family will be safe.

Imagine a father who leaves two children with a babysitter: a nine-year-old boy can almost look after himself, but a little girl requires greater care. The father's primary concern is to make sure that the babysitter knows what she needs. Our Father in heaven has a similar heart concern for all his neediest children.


The early church shared God's heart for women who were alone in the world. In fact, the first ecclesiastical controversy concerned the care and feeding of widows: "Now in those days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution" (Acts 6:1). Under the direction of the apostles, the church in Jerusalem chose seven men to make sure all the widows got what they needed.

There are needy widows in nearly every church, of course, which is why Paul pleads their cause: "Honor widows who are truly widows" (1 Tim. 5:3). This raises the obvious question: What does it mean for a widow to be truly a widow? Paul's basic answer is that "a widow in need is a widow indeed," and thus he proceeds to offer several guidelines for assessing a widow's true needs.

The first qualification is that a true widow does not have independent means: "But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God" (1 Tim. 5:4). Widows who are all alone need special care from the church, whereas others can rely on family support.

In the ancient Greek world, support was related to a women's dowry. If her husband died, she entered the household of her son or grandson. Her dowry would then pass into his possession. Paul wanted to remind the Ephesians that this custom was good Christianity—one good way to be godly. Caring for aged parents (and grandparents) is the most practical theology of all. Piety always begins at home (cf. 1 Tim. 3:5).

To make sure that Christians do their duty, the Bible gives two motivations for caring for widows. First, support is something children owe to their parents. After everything parents have done over the years, it is only fair for their children to provide for them in old age. In the economy of God, this is the way children can repay their parents. This does not necessarily mean that children need to provide all the care themselves. It is important to plan for the future, which may include carrying the proper medical and life insurance. There is also a legitimate place for professional care-givers, as well as for nursing homes, in some cases. But it is the responsibility of children to make sure that their parents receive the best possible care. Whenever possible, they should do the caring themselves, in their own homes.

Not only is family loyalty something children owe to their parents, but it is also something they owe to God. This is second motive Paul offers: caring for family needs is "pleasing in the sight of God" (of course it is pleasing to God: he is the Protector of Widows, after all). By telling families to take care of their own needy, the apostle was not simply trying to reduce the church's budget. He wanted to make sure that Christians glorified God by loving their families.

To underscore the importance of family care, the Scripture also issues this strong warning: "But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8). Even pagans have a sense of duty to their relatives, especially ones living under their own roof. Therefore, a Christian who refuses to shoulder his family responsibilities is worse than a pagan (cf. Matt. 15:4-6). This is not to say that a man must earn all or most of his family's income himself (as the verse is often mistaken to teach), but that a husband and father must bear the ultimate responsibility for his family's welfare, seeing to it that they have whatever resources they need, by whatever appropriate means God may provide (including his wife's income, for example, if her employment is in keeping with her calling as a wife and mother, and with the family's total needs). Any dereliction of this fundamental family duty is tantamount to a denial of Christ. No matter how eloquent the man's testimony may be, his life denies his Christianity.

This warning needs to be heard in our day, because we do not live in the most compassionate of times. All too often, modern society shoves the elderly out of sight and puts them out of mind. But this gives the church a wonderful opportunity to shine with the compassion of Christ. The way Christians care for parents and grandparents ought to proclaim the love of God. So should the way we care for other people's parents when, for example, we share the good news about Jesus Christ in local nursing homes. We are the children of a Father who is the Protector of Widows, and therefore we are called to be agents of his protecting and providing grace (198-202).

Younger ministers, and all Christians, should relate to women as respectfully as they relate to men. Older women should be treated like mothers. They should be loved and listened to. They should be protected and cared for. There is a touch example of this from Paul's own life, when at the end of Romans he greets "Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well" (Rom. 16:13). To take a more contemporary example, consider the way in which the great C.S. Lewis cared for a mother of his friend Paddy Moore. The two men had served together in World War I. Lewis argued that if Moore died in combat, he would look after his mother. Moore was indeed killed during the war, and Lewis held up his end of the bargain. By all accounts, Mrs. Moore was a difficult woman to live with, but Lewis treated her like his own mother in his own home for some thirty years (197).

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