Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 Timothy 5
by Bill Sytsma
Children have an uncanny ability to notice differences and point out perceived unfairness.
Imagine a father who desires to support each of his three children as they graduate. When his oldest son graduates, he co-signs a loan to help him pay for his education. Two years later, when his daughter graduates, he buys her a new car and gives her money for a down payment on a home. Three years later, when his youngest son graduates, he hires a contractor to build him a new home, and gives his son a job.
At first glimpse, this looks unfair. The oldest son could complain that his dad merely cosigned a loan for him, while he gave his younger siblings vehicles and homes.
We carry the basic assumption that treating children fairly means that parents must treat each child equally, offering them the same gifts, benefits, and opportunities. To give one child a vehicle while making another child repay a loan seems to violate the basic assumption that fair treatment requires uniformity.
The problem with applying the principle of “fairness” is that the standard of treating everyone uniformly does not allow consideration for unique circumstances. We might believe the actions of the father mentioned above seem unfair, but would our opinions change if we discovered that his youngest son was afflicted with a severe disability? Would we believe the decisions were “fair” if we learned that the oldest son had received a fellowship that paid him a stipend while attending graduate school that would prepare him for a lucrative career, and that his daughter was preparing for service with a non-profit agency that was providing water filtration systems to third-world nations?
When we are trying to apply our standards for fairness, it is important to know the specific circumstances.
In the early New Testament church, there were tensions that revolved around the welfare of widows. To their credit, the early church took a stand to make sure that the widows in their midst had the provisions they needed. The early Christians were unique because they cared for people who had no legal status. However, their efforts to show grace to people who had no legal status proved to be difficult, because the amorphous standard of “fairness” is so difficult to apply.
In Acts 6, the complaints about unfairness rose to a level that caused the apostles to appoint new leaders to oversee the care of the widows, as they wisely appointed deacons (who seemed to have Greek names) to make sure that neither Greek nor Jewish widows were neglected.
In 1 Timothy 5, Paul is helping Timothy consider how members of a church family should demonstrate love for one another. Everyone in Timothy’s church would have agreed that they should love one another. We can assume that they would want to treat the widows in the church fairly, but Paul understood that this issue could become contentious.
The end result of Paul’s instructions will end up with a variety of considerations for widows, as well as other members of the church family. Some widows will be enrolled and supported by the church family, while others will be expected to find help from their family members. The results may appear “unfair,” because there will not be a simple uniform standard.
Earlier in Paul’s letter to Timothy, Paul noted that Timothy should not be discouraged by some who might question or doubt him because of his youth (1 Timothy 4:12). In this text, Paul continues to instruct Timothy to understand the realities of his pastoral situation, and offers practical guidance for how he should approach older men, younger men, older women, and younger women.
Some of the trends worth noting in Paul’s instructions:
Differentiating Groups: Although the largest portion of our text deals with the care of widows, Paul gives instructions for Timothy’s role with a variety of people groups. Chapter 5 (vss. 1-2) begins with distinctions between older men and younger men, older women and younger women.
Even though Timothy was in a position of leadership within this church community, Paul’s letter instructs him to use a measure of common sense in his interactions with the members of the church family. As a younger man, Timothy was told to treat older men with respect, even if Timothy was in a situation that called for rebuke. Timothy was challenged to recognize how he would be received by various groups. He could treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters. This kind of differentiation would help Timothy avoid the pitfalls of overstepping his credibility and putting himself in compromising situations.
Purity: When Paul instructs Timothy to treat younger women as sisters, he adds the line, “in all purity.” As these various groups are mentioned, Paul recognizes that as a young man, Timothy’s interactions with young women could become especially problematic. The warning about purity probably has a double purpose. First, it serves as a warning to Timothy that he should be careful to check his own intentions and make sure he was acting honorably towards the young women within his congregation. This is not an empty warning. Far too many Christian leaders have started ministry with the best of intentions, but have succumbed to sexual temptation. The role of pastor and parishioner should be guarded carefully, and Paul gives Timothy a clear warning to be careful. It also serves as a warning to be above reproach. Timothy would need to not only situations where his purity would be compromised, but he would also need to be above any suspicion of impurity. It would not take a scandalous act to ruin Timothy’s credibility as a young pastor in Ephesus, the appearance and rumor (even a false rumor) could hinder his effectiveness.
Expectations: The church is a community that characterizes grace, but Paul also set expectations for the members of the church family. Widows who were enrolled to receive assistance from the church should demonstrate true need, trust in God (vs. 5-6), and be known for their character (vs. 10).
Young widows were encouraged to marry, rather than enroll for assistance and run the risk of becoming idle at a young age (vs. 11-14).
Paul also had expectations for families. If a widow had extended family members, the family should be expected to care for her.
What we see happening in this text is that the church is not going to morph into a social agency that merely provides assistance, but has no expectations of those who are in need. The expectations show that this is a community that mimics a family, rather than a social agency. The members are expected to be accountable to each other, serve each other, care for each other, and use common sense in providing for each other. There is neither a standardized set of rules nor a formal policy for care, but rather a call to love one another as Christ has loved us.
The expectations do not end with the widows. As Paul continues to advise Timothy, he addresses how the elders who lead the church should be treated. The elders who teach and preach are expected to live in a way that sets an example for others. If they sinned, they were to be rebuked, as a warning to others.
Whether male or female, old or young, the family of believers had expectations of their members as they sought to live within their communities in a way that honored Christ.
Obligations: Paul also recognized that the church community should be willing to assume responsibilities towards its members. Throughout the early part of chapter 5, there is an understanding that the church community will provide resources for widows who have a sincere need. Paul also indicates that the elders who lead the church should be entitled to support (vs. 17). Furthermore, the elders were to be treated with high respect. If someone made an accusation against a leader in the church, it was to be dismissed if it was not supported by witnesses. Paul did not want false gossip to ruin the ability of the church’s leaders to carry out their calling.
Below are two thoughts to consider when preaching on 1 Timothy 5:
- The Reality of Community.
Whenever we attempt to cooperate with other people, we will run into circumstances that can cause difficulties. Almost any endeavor that calls for numerous people to work together will run into difficulties where there can be the appearance of unfairness, accusations, rumors, and hard feelings.
God’s people are not given the false idea that the Church will be free from these effects of sin. However, we are given instruction in scripture that shows us that we are not to abandon community because of these struggles.
This text can be an encouragement to us, if we are prone to believe that divisions and tensions within the contemporary church are a sign that the church will soon be rendered ineffective. This text shows us that the church has always dealt with the difficulties of treating people fairly and responding to accusations. Even though these tensions can try our patience and limit the effectiveness of our churches, we can be encouraged to see that these tensions have not stopped the gospels advancement over the past 2,000 years.
- Sex, Power, and Money.
Although not named specifically in this text, it is worth noting that many of the tensions that exist within communities are timeless. In many ways, Paul’s advice to Timothy guides him in matters relating to sex, power, and money.
Sex: Paul’s instruction that Timothy remain pure as he treats young women as sisters; as well as his observation that young widows may be overcome by sensual desires will help the community avoid the pitfalls that can arise from sexual temptations.
Power: The way that Timothy is to approach the older men (v. 1) and the instruction to honor the elders (v. 17) relate to how power and influence is exercised within a community.
Money: The tensions that exist over caring for widows are deeply influenced by the use of financial resources within the church community.