Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 2/11/2001
We come today to one of those passages which has occasioned reams of discussion about peripheral issues (was there an order of widows in the NT church?) but is actually very practical, dealing with the issue of stewardship.
I hesitate to use this venerable and biblical word, so skewed has become our understanding of it. In popular parlance it has become almost synonymous with tithing. But that is only a small part of the biblical concept. 1 Cor. 4:1-2 and Eph. 3:1-2 show that stewardship applies to much larger things--to truth, grace, the gospel. Most basically, a steward is a servant who manages someone else's resources for the benefit of the owner. In the New Testament, this concept is applied not just to money but to time, talents, life itself. It is not so much our Duty as our Identity, cutting to the core of who we are as human beings made in the image of God. Adam was put in the Garden to tend and keep it. We still have that responsibility for the planet. Even when we corrupt this identity and become exploiters rather than caregivers of Creation, we show that this is who we are: people made to find our fulfillment in managing for God that part of His creation that He has intrusted to us. I do not own my house (yeah, I know, the bank does). But even if I pay it off it will be mine only in the sense that it is the one God has made me responsible for, to use for His glory, the advancement of His kingdom, and the care of His people--my family primarily, but not limited to them. So we can do it in rebellion or in obediance, we can do it poorly or well, but Stewards we must be or cease to be human. So then, in that light, this passage is about the responsible and intelligent use of God's resources to care for God's people in terms of the specific situation of the 1st century Church.
Timothy's church at Ephesus apparently had a large number of widows to care for. In the 1st century, few women were capable of supporting themselves outside the context of the family. Lydia, with her prosperous cloth-making business, was an exception. So the burden would naturally fall upon the family or the church. It appears that Ephesus had come up with an arrangement whereby widows would go on permanent support in exchange for various services rendered to the congregation. But it would also seem that this system was being abused, with too many widows who were "serving" only as busybodies. So Paul instructs that younger widows should remarry, that the widow's children rather than the church should be the first line of defense against poverty, and that widows should be put on the "list" (i.e., become what today we would call "church staff") only if they were older and had shown themselves to have a servant spirit before their widowhood.
What this means for the indvidual is that she should not think in terms of a Right to Support but rather a Responsibility to Serve. She should be a good steward of her own time and talents by serving in ways appropriate to her station in life: whether in marriage, on the list, or running her own business and caring for others that way like Lydia (v. 16). In other words, the responsibility to use God's resources to care for God's people applies to all--to the recipient of support equally with the giver, and to time and talent as much as to money.
The family has a responsibility to care for its own members and not to burden the church. There is a general command to honor elders in 5:1, a general command to honor parents in the Decalogue. And there is the turn-about-is-fair-play principle: Your parents took care of you when you were helpless. Now it may be your turn. Therefore to care for them when they need us is to "practice piety" (i.e., godliness, v. 4); to refuse this responsibility is tantamount to apostacy (v. 8). I will not presume to make for you the excruciating decisions such as home care versus nursing homes, etc. Each situation is different. But I must point out that according to Scripture this is our responsibility, not the church's or the government's.
The Church is not to waste its limited resources by putting on permanent support those who can be cared for otherwise or who should be caring for themselves. This is good stewardship not just of its money but of its people, the most precious resource God has intrusted to it. Unless it encourages and teaches its members to live lives of service (as in v. 10), it is being a bad steward of its most important trust. Therefore, when I preach about stewardship, I am not asking for your tithes; I am asking for YOU.
Widows are not generally as helpless today as they were in the 1st century, so our application of these principles may look much different. But first we must realize what the principles of stewardship are. There are at least four being taught here:
May our Lord help us to be found faithful. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams