I believe that one of the key struggles in the American/Westernized version of Christianity is that while we believe the Bible is true, we often do not act as though it is sufficient. One of the markers of the early church was the way that they cared for others, especially other believers in time of need. Specifically, how the church dealt with widows. There are 2 key texts, Acts 6, and 1 Timothy 5:1-16. Let’s discuss these texts:
“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men form among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
We can learn several things from this text:
- People were being reached for Christ
- There was racial discrimination in the early church that led to needs not being met
- The early church met the needs of people, specifically widows
- The role of Elders (whom the Twelve essentially were) was to proclaim and teach the scriptures
- They called a meeting of ALL of the disciples and discussed the issue
- They named seven men who had BOTH the Holy Spirit and the gift of wisdom to manage this process
- After this was handled, verse 7 tells us, “So the word of God spread.”
In Ephesus, years later, this again became an issue. Paul wrote the following in what we call 1 Timothy 5:1-16:
“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, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, 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 Lord’s people, 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 busybodies who talk nonsense, 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 for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.”
Like the text in Acts, we can learn much here about the way the early church functioned:
- Discipleship to the different generations looks different practically
- There were widows in the church
- Some widows were more “in need” than others
- “The Need” was measured by one thing: whether or not the widow had children and/or grandchildren
- The children/grandchildren of widows had primary authority in the care of those widows, not the church
- There was an official list
- The older ones, over 60, could be on the list but only if they met certain qualifications
- Some widows, the younger ones specifically, were not allowed on the list
- What’s more, if a woman had widows in her family, she was tasked with helping them, so the church would be freed up to help people really in need
What all of this means:
The church (assembled people, not building) exists, in part, to meet the needs of the community of believers and others.
- Elders and Pastors have specified roles in the church. In the Acts text, the primary issue was that the eldership and pastors, whose primary function was the proclamation and teaching of scripture, were not able to serve in this role. They were unable to live in their primary function because people a) were not equipped to serve and/or b) did not take responsibility for others. In the 1 Timothy text, the issue was that the “right people” were not taking responsibility caring for the widows. Who were the “right people?” Their children and grandchildren
- Elders and Pastors must equip people to serve according to their giftedness and skillset. Upon recognizing the issue, they gathered the entire body, and sought out people “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Elsewhere, Paul writes that God’s assembled the entire body in a way that the church functions properly. The people with this giftedness were already present in the body, they just had neither been identified nor equipped.
- The Body of Christ must take responsibility for acts of service to the Body. Once seven men were chosen, those seven were given the responsibility of caring for the widows. The entire church, not just elders and pastors must minister to one another on their times of need. We need to carefully manage our expectations of those in leadership. People from small groups, those serving on a care team or other believers can be just as effective in meeting needs.In fact, there have been times when I’ve appreciated it MORE when someone unexpected visited me. To put it simply, and more important, biblically…it’s not “just” the pastors/elders job to visit people in the hospital or in the home, but all of ours.
- The most effective discipleship and ministry model is intergenerational. In both instances, the younger people were tasked with caring for the older. Notice, that in 1 Timothy 5:10, care for the older widows is contingent on…how she brought up her own children.
- The number of disciples increases, “rapidly,” when equipped people serve in their giftedness and role. Note, the apostles were not “too good” to serve. It simply hindered the effectiveness and spread of the gospel. Bold statement? Nope. Read Acts 6:7.
- The family of believers has the primary responsibility for the care of their parents (and their families, for that matter). The church is unduly burdened when families do not care for one another. The first line of defense in the care of widows in the 1 Timothy text was on the children and grandchildren, not the church. My friend Rob Rienow calls this concept “the doctrine of jurisdiction.” For more info, go here or here.
I want to thank my good friends David C, Nissa T, Jason F, Joyce B, Amy T, Shannon B, Janet J, JaniceV, Chris J and Cindy S for pushing me to think deeper about not only this post, but my own heart and spirit towards this topic.