Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband…But refuse to enroll younger widows. (1 Timothy 5:9, 11a ESV)
One sight I remember vividly from my trip to St. Petersburg, Russia is that of the street widows. These tiny old ladies, hunched over, dressed all in black were begging on the side of the street just to get by. I remember thinking how much I would hate my Nan to have be in that position.
I can imagine that widows in the first century were in a similar, if not worse position. A common call to the New Testament church is to look after widows (James describes this as true religion – James 1:26-27) which suggests that there were widows who were really in need.
But in modern, western culture, the need doesn’t seem the same. Many widows can live quite comfortably on their late husbands retirement income and family savings. I know of widows who have family trusts set up through which they are supported. And so how is the modern church to live out this call to care for the widows?
Well firstly, there are some widows who still need care. There are widows who don’t have the comfort of retirement income or family support. They live entirely on their Social Security check or state pension – which is barely enough to cover housing and food. So one way the church could support such widows is providing free services so that the widow doesn’t have to pay for them. Someone could volunteer to take care of the yard work. If there was ever a maintenance need like a leak, then some handy people in the church could be on a call list. Such maintenance shouldn’t be abused like asking for a full house remodel, but there are plenty of things that could be taken care of by the church.
If the widow doesn’t drive, then people in the church could volunteer to take her grocery shopping, or to take her to doctor appointments or whatever.
Our church has begun to use an online service called Meal Train which allows you to schedule meals for people who have just had babies, or for people who have just had surgery etc. the website also allows you to schedule other things like rides, or grocery shops. This could easily be utilized for caring for widows.
Paul clearly had in mind some qualifications that these widows needed to pass before they could be added to the widows list. They had to be over sixty, the wife of one husband, known for good works, hospitable, washed the feet of the saints etc. Younger widows were not allowed to be added to the list.
Another huge need that the church can meet is that of single moms. There are many single moms in the church who are much in the same situation as widows, especially if the husband has nothing to do with the kids. She might have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. She might need help looking after younger children. She might just need some personal time every now and then. She may have home maintenance needs, she may be in need of a car, or car maintenance.
Again, there some be some qualifications for the single mom to meet so that the help goes to those who are really in need. Interestingly, the qualifications that Paul has for the widows require them to be believers. Often in our modern churches, we would say we want to help non-believing widows first, to show them the love of Christ. But it appears that Paul is speaking strictly here of church family care.
The place where this sort of care should begin is in the context of church small groups. These should be places where lives are shared openly so that needs are known and can be helped with. Groups have the ability to pull on the resources of the wider church body, but care should be primarily administered through these small gospel communities.
So what other types of needs should the church be responsible for meeting?