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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Timothy 5

 

 

Verse 3-4

Chapter 14

THE PASTOR’S BEHAVIOR TOWARDS WOMEN-THE CHURCH WIDOW. - 1 Timothy 5:3-4; 1 Timothy 5:9

THE subject of this fifth chapter is "The Behavior of the Pastor towards the older and younger men and women in the congregation." Some have thought that it forms the main portion of the letter to which all the rest is more or less introductory or supplementary. But the structure of the letter cannot easily be brought into harmony with this view. It seems to be much nearer the truth to say that the unpremeditated way in which this subject is introduced cannot well be explained unless we assume that we are reading a genuine letter, and not a forged treatise. The connection of the different subjects touched upon is loose and not always very obvious. Points are mentioned in the order in which they occur to the writer’s mind without careful arrangement. After the personal exhortations given at the close of chapter 4, which have a solemnity that might lead one to suppose that the Apostle was about to bring his words to a close, he makes a fresh start and treats of an entirely new subject which has occurred to him.

It is not difficult to guess what has suggested the new subject. The personal exhortations with which the previous section ends contain these words, "Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an ensample to them that believe, in word, in manner of life, in love, in faith, in purity." Timothy is not to allow the fact that he is younger than many of those over whom he is set to interfere with the proper discharge of his duties. He is to give no one a handle for charging him with want of gravity or propriety. Sobriety of conduct is to counterbalance any apparent lack of experience. But St. Paul remembers that there is another side to that. Although Timothy is to behave in such a way as never to remind his flock of his comparative youthfulness, yet he himself is always to bear in mind that he is still a young man. This is specially to be remembered in dealing with persons of either sex who are older than himself, and in his bearing towards young women. St. Paul begins with the treatment of older men and returns to this point again later on. Between these two passages about men he gives directions for Timothy’s guidance respecting the women in his flock, and specially respecting widows. The subject occupies more than half the chapter and is of very great interest, as being our chief source of information respecting the treatment of widows in the early Church.

Commentators are by no means unanimous in their interpretation of the details of the passage, but it is believed that the explanation which is now offered is in harmony with the original Greek, consistent with itself, and not contradicted by anything which is known from other sources.

It is quite evident that more than one kind of widow is spoken of: and one of the questions which the passage raises is-How many classes of widows are indicated? We can distinguish four kinds; and it seems probable that the Apostle means to give us four kinds;

1. There is "the widow indeed ( η οντως χηρα)." Her characteristic is that she is "desolate," i.e., quite alone in the world. She has not only lost her husband, but she has neither children nor any other near relation to minister to her necessities. Her hope is set on God, to Whom her prayers ascend night and day. She is contrasted with two other classes of widow, both of whom are in worldly position better off than she is, for they are not desolate or destitute; yet one of these is far more miserable than the widow indeed, because the manner of life which she adopts is so unworthy of her.

2. There is the widow who "hath children or grandchildren." Natural affection will cause these to take care that their widowed parent does not come to want. If it does not, then they must learn that "to show piety towards their own family and to requite their parents" is a paramount duty, and that the congregation must not be burdened with the maintenance of their mother until they have first done all they can for her. To ignore this plain duty is to deny the first principles of Christianity, which is the gospel of love and duty, and to fall below the level of the unbelievers, most of whom recognized the duty of providing for helpless parents. Nothing is said of the character of the widow who has children or grandchildren to support her; but, like the widow indeed, she is contrasted with the third class of widow, and, therefore, we infer that her character is free from reproach.

3. There is the widow who "giveth herself to pleasure." Instead of continuing in prayers and supplications night and day, she continues in frivolity and luxury, or worse. Of her, as of the Church of Sardis, it may be said, "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead." [Revelation 3:1]

4. There is the "enrolled" widow; i.e., one whose name has been entered on the Church rolls as such. She is a "widow indeed" and something more. She is not only a person who needs and deserves the support of the congregation, but has special rights and duties. She holds an office, and has a function to discharge. She is a widow, not merely as having lost her husband, but as having been admitted to the company of those bereaved women whom the Church has entrusted with a definite portion of Church work. This being so, something more must be looked to than the mere fact of her being alone in. the world. She must be sixty years of age, must have had only one husband, have had experience in the bringing up of children, and be well known as devoted to good works. If she has these qualifications, she may be enrolled as a Church widow; but it does not follow that because she has them she will be appointed.

The work to which these elderly women had to devote themselves was twofold:

(1) Prayer, especially intercession for those in trouble;

(2) Works of mercy, especially ministering to the sick, guiding younger Christian women in lives of holiness, and winning over heathen women to the faith.

These facts we learn from the frequent regulations respecting widows during the second, third, and fourth centuries. It was apparently during the second century that the order of widows flourished most.

This primitive order of Church widows must be distinguished from the equally primitive order of deaconesses, and from a later order of widows, which grew up side by side with the earlier order, and continued long after the earlier order had ceased to exist. But it would be contrary to all probability, and to all that we know about Church offices in the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic age, to suppose that the distinctions between different orders of women were as marked in the earliest periods as they afterwards became, or that they were precisely the same in all branches of the Church.

It has been sometimes maintained that the Church widow treated of in the passage before us is identical with the deaconess. The evidence that the two orders were distinct is so strong as almost to amount to demonstration.

1. It is quite possible that this very Epistle supplies enough evidence to make the identification very improbable. If the "women" mentioned in the section about deacons [1 Timothy 3:11] are deaconesses, then the qualifications for this office are quite different from the qualifications for that of a widow, and are treated of in quite different sections of the letter.

2. But even if deaconesses are not treated of at all in that passage, the limit of age seems quite out of place, if they are identical with the widows. In the case of the widows it was important to enroll for this special Church work none who were likely to wish to marry again. And as their duties consisted in a large measure in prayer, advanced age was no impediment, but rather the contrary. But the work of the deaconess was for the most part active work, and it would be unreasonable to admit no one to the office until the best part of her working life was quite over.

The difference in the work assigned to them points in the same direction. As already stated, the special work of the widow was intercessory prayer and ministering to the sick. The special work of the deaconess was guarding the women’s door in the churches, seating the women in the congregation, and attending women at baptisms. Baptism being usually administered by immersion, and adult baptism being very frequent, there was much need of female attendants.

1. At her appointment the deaconess received the imposition of hands, the widow did not. The form of prayer for the ordination of a deaconess is given in the Apostolical Constitutions (8:19, 20), and is worthy of quotation. "Concerning a deaconess, I Bartholomew make this constitution: O Bishop, thou shalt lay thy hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery and of the deacons and deaconesses, and shalt say; O eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman; Who didst replenish with the Spirit Miriam, Deborah, Anna, and Huldah; Who didst not disdain that Thy Only begotten Son should be born of a woman; Who also in the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple didst ordain women to be keepers of Thy holy gates; -look down now also upon this Thy servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess. Grant her Thy Holy Spirit and cleanse her from all defilement of flesh and spirit, that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her, to Thy glory and the praise of Thy Christ; with Whom be glory and adoration to Thee and to the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen." Nothing of the kind is found for the appointment of a Church widow.

2. It is quite in harmony with the fact that the deaconesses were ordained, while the widows were not, that the widows are placed under the deaconesses. "The widows ought to be grave, obedient to their bishops, their presbyters, and their deacons; and besides these to the deaconesses, with piety, reverence, and fear."

3. The deaconess might be either an unmarried woman or a widow, and apparently the former was preferred. "Let the deaconess be a pure virgin; or at least a widow who has been but once married." But, although such things did occur, Tertullian protests that it is a monstrous irregularity to admit an unmarried woman to the order of widows. Now, if widows and deaconesses were identical, unmarried "widows" would have been quite common, for unmarried deaconesses were quite common. Yet he speaks of the one case of a "virgin widow" which had come under his notice as a marvel, and a monstrosity, and a contradiction in terms. It is true that Ignatius in his letter to the Church of Smyrna uses language which has been thought to support the identification: "I salute the households of my brethren with their wives and children, and the virgins who are called widows." But it is incredible that at Smyrna all the Church widows were unmarried; and it is equally improbable that Ignatius should send a salutation to the unmarried "widows" (if such there were), and ignore the rest. His language, however, may be quite easily explained without any such strange hypothesis. He may mean "I salute those who are called widows, but whom one might really regard as virgins." And in support of this interpretation Bishop Lightfoot quotes Clement of Alexandria, who says that the continent man, like the continent widow, becomes again a virgin; and Tertullian, who speaks of continent widows as being in God’s sight maidens (Deo) as for a second time virgins. But, whatever Ignatius may have meant by "the virgins who are called widows," we may safely conclude that neither in his time, any more than that of St, Paul, were the widows identical with the deaconesses.

The later order of widows which grew up side by side with the Apostolic order, and in the end supplanted., or at any rate survived, the older order, came into existence about the third century. It consisted of persons who had lost their husbands and made a vow never to marry again. From the middle of the second century or a little later we find a strong feeling against second marriages springing up, and this feeling was very possibly intensified when the Gospel came in contact with the German tribes, among whom the feeling already existed independently of Christianity. In this new order of widows who had taken the vow of continence there was no restriction of age, nor was it necessary that they should be persons in need of the alms of the congregation. In the Apostolic order the fundamental idea seems to have been that destitute: widows ought to be supported by the Church, and that in return for this, those of them who were qualified should do some special Church work. In the later order the fundamental idea was that it was a good thing for a widow to remain unmarried, and that a vow to do so would help her to persevere.

In commanding Timothy to "honor widows that are widows indeed" the Apostle states a principle which has had a wide and permanent influence, not only on ecclesiastical discipline but upon European legislation. Speaking of the growth of the modern idea of a will, by which a man can regulate the descent of his property inside and outside his family, Sir Henry Maine remarks, that "the exercise of the Testamentary power was seldom allowed to interfere with the right of the widow to a definite share, and of the children to certain fixed proportions of the devolving inheritance. The shares of the children, as their amount shows, were determined by the authority of Roman law. The provision for the widow was attributable to the exertions of the Church, which never relaxed its solicitude for the interest of wives surviving their husbands-winning, perhaps, one of the most arduous of its triumphs when, after exacting for two or three centuries an express promise from the husband at marriage to endow his wife, it at length succeeded in engrafting the principle of Dower on the Customary Law of all Western Europe." This is one of the numerous instances in which the Gospel, by insisting upon the importance of some humane principle, has contributed to the progress and security of the best elements in civilization.

Not only the humanity, but the tact and common sense of the Apostle are conspicuous throughout the whole passage, whether we regard the general directions respecting the bearing of the young pastor towards the different sections of his flock, old and young, male and female, or the special rules respecting widows. The sum and substance of it appears to be that the pastor is to have abundance of zeal and to encourage it in others, but he is to take great care that, neither in himself nor in those whom he has to guide, zeal outruns discretion. Well-deserved rebukes may do far more harm than good, if they are administered without respect to the position of those who need them. And in all his ministrations the spiritual overseer must beware of giving a handle to damaging criticism. He must not let his good be evil spoken of. So also with regard to the widows. No hard-and-fast rule can be safely laid down. Almost everything depends upon circumstances. On the whole, the case of widows is analogous to that of unmarried women. For those who have strength to forego the married state, in order to devote more time and energy to the direct service of God, it is better to remain unmarried, if single, and if widows, not to marry again. But there is no peculiar blessedness in the unmarried state, if the motive for avoiding matrimony is a selfish one, e.g., to avoid domestic cares and duties and have leisure for personal enjoyment. Among younger women the higher motive is less likely to be present, or at any rate to be permanent. They are so likely sooner or later to desire to marry, that it will be wisest not to discourage them to do so. On the contrary, let it be regarded as the normal thing that a young woman should marry, and that a young widow should marry again. It is not the best thing for them, but it is the safest. Although the highest work for Christ can best be done by those who by remaining single have kept their domestic ties at a minimum, yet young women are more likely to do useful work in society, and are less likely to come to harm, if they marry and have children. Of older women this is not true. Age itself is a considerable guarantee: and a woman of sixty, who is willing to give such a pledge, may be encouraged to enter upon a life of perpetual widowhood. But there must be other qualifications as well, if she wishes to be enrolled among those who not only are entitled by their destitute condition to receive maintenance from the Church, but by reason of their fitness are commissioned to undertake Church work. And these qualifications must be carefully investigated. It would be far better to reject some, who might after all have been useful, than to run the risk of admitting any who would exhibit the scandal of having been supported by the Church and specially devoted to Christian works of mercy, and of having after all returned to society as married women with ordinary pleasures and cares.

One object throughout these directions is the economy of Christian resources. The Church accepts the duty which it inculcates of "providing for its own." But it ought not to be burdened with the support of any but those who are really destitute. The near relations of necessitous persons must be taught to leave the Church free to relieve those who have no near relations to support them. Secondly, so far as is possible, those who are relieved by the alms of the congregation must be encouraged to make some return in undertaking Church work that is suitable to them. St. Paul has no idea of pauperizing people. So long as they can, they must maintain themselves. When they have ceased to be able to do this, they must be supported by their children or grandchildren. If they have no one to help them, the Church must undertake their support; but both for their sake as well as for the interests of the community, it must, if possible, make the support granted to be a return for work done rather than mere alms. Widowhood must not be made a plea for being maintained in harmful idleness. But the point which the Apostle insists on most emphatically, stating it in different ways no less than three times in this short section (1 Timothy 5:4; 1 Timothy 5:8; 1 Timothy 5:16) is this, - that widows as a rule ought to be supported by their own relations; only in exceptional cases, where there are no relations who can help, ought the Church to have to undertake this duty. We have here a warning against the-mistake so often made at the present day of freeing people from their responsibilities by undertaking for them in mistaken charity the duties which they ought to discharge, and are capable of discharging, themselves.

We may, therefore, sum up the principles laid down thus:-

Discretion and tact are needed in dealing with the different sections of the congregation, and especially in relieving the widows. Care must be taken not to encourage either a rigor not likely to be maintained, or opportunities of idleness certain to lead to mischief. Help is to be generously afforded to the destitute; but the resources of the Church must be jealously guarded. They must not be wasted on the unworthy, or on those who have other means of help. And, so far as possible, the independence of those who are relieved must be protected by employing them in the service of the Church.

In conclusion it may be worth while to point out that this mention of an order of widows is no argument against the Pauline authorship of these Epistles, as if no such thing existed in his time. In Acts 6:1 the widows appear as a distinct body in the Church at Jerusalem. In Acts 9:39; Acts 9:41, they appear almost as an order in the Church at Joppa. They "show the coats and garments which Dorcas made" in a way which seems to imply that it was their business to distribute such things among the needy. Even if it means no more than that Dorcas made them for the relief of the widows themselves, still the step from a body of widows set apart for the reception of alms to an order of widows set apart for the duty of intercessory prayer and ministering to the sick is not a long one, and may easily have been made in St. Paul’s lifetime.


Verse 9

-4

Chapter 14

THE PASTOR’S BEHAVIOR TOWARDS WOMEN-THE CHURCH WIDOW. - 1 Timothy 5:3-4; 1 Timothy 5:9

THE subject of this fifth chapter is "The Behavior of the Pastor towards the older and younger men and women in the congregation." Some have thought that it forms the main portion of the letter to which all the rest is more or less introductory or supplementary. But the structure of the letter cannot easily be brought into harmony with this view. It seems to be much nearer the truth to say that the unpremeditated way in which this subject is introduced cannot well be explained unless we assume that we are reading a genuine letter, and not a forged treatise. The connection of the different subjects touched upon is loose and not always very obvious. Points are mentioned in the order in which they occur to the writer’s mind without careful arrangement. After the personal exhortations given at the close of chapter 4, which have a solemnity that might lead one to suppose that the Apostle was about to bring his words to a close, he makes a fresh start and treats of an entirely new subject which has occurred to him.

It is not difficult to guess what has suggested the new subject. The personal exhortations with which the previous section ends contain these words, "Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an ensample to them that believe, in word, in manner of life, in love, in faith, in purity." Timothy is not to allow the fact that he is younger than many of those over whom he is set to interfere with the proper discharge of his duties. He is to give no one a handle for charging him with want of gravity or propriety. Sobriety of conduct is to counterbalance any apparent lack of experience. But St. Paul remembers that there is another side to that. Although Timothy is to behave in such a way as never to remind his flock of his comparative youthfulness, yet he himself is always to bear in mind that he is still a young man. This is specially to be remembered in dealing with persons of either sex who are older than himself, and in his bearing towards young women. St. Paul begins with the treatment of older men and returns to this point again later on. Between these two passages about men he gives directions for Timothy’s guidance respecting the women in his flock, and specially respecting widows. The subject occupies more than half the chapter and is of very great interest, as being our chief source of information respecting the treatment of widows in the early Church.

Commentators are by no means unanimous in their interpretation of the details of the passage, but it is believed that the explanation which is now offered is in harmony with the original Greek, consistent with itself, and not contradicted by anything which is known from other sources.

It is quite evident that more than one kind of widow is spoken of: and one of the questions which the passage raises is-How many classes of widows are indicated? We can distinguish four kinds; and it seems probable that the Apostle means to give us four kinds;

1. There is "the widow indeed ( η οντως χηρα)." Her characteristic is that she is "desolate," i.e., quite alone in the world. She has not only lost her husband, but she has neither children nor any other near relation to minister to her necessities. Her hope is set on God, to Whom her prayers ascend night and day. She is contrasted with two other classes of widow, both of whom are in worldly position better off than she is, for they are not desolate or destitute; yet one of these is far more miserable than the widow indeed, because the manner of life which she adopts is so unworthy of her.

2. There is the widow who "hath children or grandchildren." Natural affection will cause these to take care that their widowed parent does not come to want. If it does not, then they must learn that "to show piety towards their own family and to requite their parents" is a paramount duty, and that the congregation must not be burdened with the maintenance of their mother until they have first done all they can for her. To ignore this plain duty is to deny the first principles of Christianity, which is the gospel of love and duty, and to fall below the level of the unbelievers, most of whom recognized the duty of providing for helpless parents. Nothing is said of the character of the widow who has children or grandchildren to support her; but, like the widow indeed, she is contrasted with the third class of widow, and, therefore, we infer that her character is free from reproach.

3. There is the widow who "giveth herself to pleasure." Instead of continuing in prayers and supplications night and day, she continues in frivolity and luxury, or worse. Of her, as of the Church of Sardis, it may be said, "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead." [Revelation 3:1]

4. There is the "enrolled" widow; i.e., one whose name has been entered on the Church rolls as such. She is a "widow indeed" and something more. She is not only a person who needs and deserves the support of the congregation, but has special rights and duties. She holds an office, and has a function to discharge. She is a widow, not merely as having lost her husband, but as having been admitted to the company of those bereaved women whom the Church has entrusted with a definite portion of Church work. This being so, something more must be looked to than the mere fact of her being alone in. the world. She must be sixty years of age, must have had only one husband, have had experience in the bringing up of children, and be well known as devoted to good works. If she has these qualifications, she may be enrolled as a Church widow; but it does not follow that because she has them she will be appointed.

The work to which these elderly women had to devote themselves was twofold:

(1) Prayer, especially intercession for those in trouble;

(2) Works of mercy, especially ministering to the sick, guiding younger Christian women in lives of holiness, and winning over heathen women to the faith.

These facts we learn from the frequent regulations respecting widows during the second, third, and fourth centuries. It was apparently during the second century that the order of widows flourished most.

This primitive order of Church widows must be distinguished from the equally primitive order of deaconesses, and from a later order of widows, which grew up side by side with the earlier order, and continued long after the earlier order had ceased to exist. But it would be contrary to all probability, and to all that we know about Church offices in the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic age, to suppose that the distinctions between different orders of women were as marked in the earliest periods as they afterwards became, or that they were precisely the same in all branches of the Church.

It has been sometimes maintained that the Church widow treated of in the passage before us is identical with the deaconess. The evidence that the two orders were distinct is so strong as almost to amount to demonstration.

1. It is quite possible that this very Epistle supplies enough evidence to make the identification very improbable. If the "women" mentioned in the section about deacons [1 Timothy 3:11] are deaconesses, then the qualifications for this office are quite different from the qualifications for that of a widow, and are treated of in quite different sections of the letter.

2. But even if deaconesses are not treated of at all in that passage, the limit of age seems quite out of place, if they are identical with the widows. In the case of the widows it was important to enroll for this special Church work none who were likely to wish to marry again. And as their duties consisted in a large measure in prayer, advanced age was no impediment, but rather the contrary. But the work of the deaconess was for the most part active work, and it would be unreasonable to admit no one to the office until the best part of her working life was quite over.

The difference in the work assigned to them points in the same direction. As already stated, the special work of the widow was intercessory prayer and ministering to the sick. The special work of the deaconess was guarding the women’s door in the churches, seating the women in the congregation, and attending women at baptisms. Baptism being usually administered by immersion, and adult baptism being very frequent, there was much need of female attendants.

1. At her appointment the deaconess received the imposition of hands, the widow did not. The form of prayer for the ordination of a deaconess is given in the Apostolical Constitutions (8:19, 20), and is worthy of quotation. "Concerning a deaconess, I Bartholomew make this constitution: O Bishop, thou shalt lay thy hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery and of the deacons and deaconesses, and shalt say; O eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman; Who didst replenish with the Spirit Miriam, Deborah, Anna, and Huldah; Who didst not disdain that Thy Only begotten Son should be born of a woman; Who also in the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple didst ordain women to be keepers of Thy holy gates; -look down now also upon this Thy servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess. Grant her Thy Holy Spirit and cleanse her from all defilement of flesh and spirit, that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her, to Thy glory and the praise of Thy Christ; with Whom be glory and adoration to Thee and to the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen." Nothing of the kind is found for the appointment of a Church widow.

2. It is quite in harmony with the fact that the deaconesses were ordained, while the widows were not, that the widows are placed under the deaconesses. "The widows ought to be grave, obedient to their bishops, their presbyters, and their deacons; and besides these to the deaconesses, with piety, reverence, and fear."

3. The deaconess might be either an unmarried woman or a widow, and apparently the former was preferred. "Let the deaconess be a pure virgin; or at least a widow who has been but once married." But, although such things did occur, Tertullian protests that it is a monstrous irregularity to admit an unmarried woman to the order of widows. Now, if widows and deaconesses were identical, unmarried "widows" would have been quite common, for unmarried deaconesses were quite common. Yet he speaks of the one case of a "virgin widow" which had come under his notice as a marvel, and a monstrosity, and a contradiction in terms. It is true that Ignatius in his letter to the Church of Smyrna uses language which has been thought to support the identification: "I salute the households of my brethren with their wives and children, and the virgins who are called widows." But it is incredible that at Smyrna all the Church widows were unmarried; and it is equally improbable that Ignatius should send a salutation to the unmarried "widows" (if such there were), and ignore the rest. His language, however, may be quite easily explained without any such strange hypothesis. He may mean "I salute those who are called widows, but whom one might really regard as virgins." And in support of this interpretation Bishop Lightfoot quotes Clement of Alexandria, who says that the continent man, like the continent widow, becomes again a virgin; and Tertullian, who speaks of continent widows as being in God’s sight maidens (Deo) as for a second time virgins. But, whatever Ignatius may have meant by "the virgins who are called widows," we may safely conclude that neither in his time, any more than that of St, Paul, were the widows identical with the deaconesses.

The later order of widows which grew up side by side with the Apostolic order, and in the end supplanted., or at any rate survived, the older order, came into existence about the third century. It consisted of persons who had lost their husbands and made a vow never to marry again. From the middle of the second century or a little later we find a strong feeling against second marriages springing up, and this feeling was very possibly intensified when the Gospel came in contact with the German tribes, among whom the feeling already existed independently of Christianity. In this new order of widows who had taken the vow of continence there was no restriction of age, nor was it necessary that they should be persons in need of the alms of the congregation. In the Apostolic order the fundamental idea seems to have been that destitute: widows ought to be supported by the Church, and that in return for this, those of them who were qualified should do some special Church work. In the later order the fundamental idea was that it was a good thing for a widow to remain unmarried, and that a vow to do so would help her to persevere.

In commanding Timothy to "honor widows that are widows indeed" the Apostle states a principle which has had a wide and permanent influence, not only on ecclesiastical discipline but upon European legislation. Speaking of the growth of the modern idea of a will, by which a man can regulate the descent of his property inside and outside his family, Sir Henry Maine remarks, that "the exercise of the Testamentary power was seldom allowed to interfere with the right of the widow to a definite share, and of the children to certain fixed proportions of the devolving inheritance. The shares of the children, as their amount shows, were determined by the authority of Roman law. The provision for the widow was attributable to the exertions of the Church, which never relaxed its solicitude for the interest of wives surviving their husbands-winning, perhaps, one of the most arduous of its triumphs when, after exacting for two or three centuries an express promise from the husband at marriage to endow his wife, it at length succeeded in engrafting the principle of Dower on the Customary Law of all Western Europe." This is one of the numerous instances in which the Gospel, by insisting upon the importance of some humane principle, has contributed to the progress and security of the best elements in civilization.

Not only the humanity, but the tact and common sense of the Apostle are conspicuous throughout the whole passage, whether we regard the general directions respecting the bearing of the young pastor towards the different sections of his flock, old and young, male and female, or the special rules respecting widows. The sum and substance of it appears to be that the pastor is to have abundance of zeal and to encourage it in others, but he is to take great care that, neither in himself nor in those whom he has to guide, zeal outruns discretion. Well-deserved rebukes may do far more harm than good, if they are administered without respect to the position of those who need them. And in all his ministrations the spiritual overseer must beware of giving a handle to damaging criticism. He must not let his good be evil spoken of. So also with regard to the widows. No hard-and-fast rule can be safely laid down. Almost everything depends upon circumstances. On the whole, the case of widows is analogous to that of unmarried women. For those who have strength to forego the married state, in order to devote more time and energy to the direct service of God, it is better to remain unmarried, if single, and if widows, not to marry again. But there is no peculiar blessedness in the unmarried state, if the motive for avoiding matrimony is a selfish one, e.g., to avoid domestic cares and duties and have leisure for personal enjoyment. Among younger women the higher motive is less likely to be present, or at any rate to be permanent. They are so likely sooner or later to desire to marry, that it will be wisest not to discourage them to do so. On the contrary, let it be regarded as the normal thing that a young woman should marry, and that a young widow should marry again. It is not the best thing for them, but it is the safest. Although the highest work for Christ can best be done by those who by remaining single have kept their domestic ties at a minimum, yet young women are more likely to do useful work in society, and are less likely to come to harm, if they marry and have children. Of older women this is not true. Age itself is a considerable guarantee: and a woman of sixty, who is willing to give such a pledge, may be encouraged to enter upon a life of perpetual widowhood. But there must be other qualifications as well, if she wishes to be enrolled among those who not only are entitled by their destitute condition to receive maintenance from the Church, but by reason of their fitness are commissioned to undertake Church work. And these qualifications must be carefully investigated. It would be far better to reject some, who might after all have been useful, than to run the risk of admitting any who would exhibit the scandal of having been supported by the Church and specially devoted to Christian works of mercy, and of having after all returned to society as married women with ordinary pleasures and cares.

One object throughout these directions is the economy of Christian resources. The Church accepts the duty which it inculcates of "providing for its own." But it ought not to be burdened with the support of any but those who are really destitute. The near relations of necessitous persons must be taught to leave the Church free to relieve those who have no near relations to support them. Secondly, so far as is possible, those who are relieved by the alms of the congregation must be encouraged to make some return in undertaking Church work that is suitable to them. St. Paul has no idea of pauperizing people. So long as they can, they must maintain themselves. When they have ceased to be able to do this, they must be supported by their children or grandchildren. If they have no one to help them, the Church must undertake their support; but both for their sake as well as for the interests of the community, it must, if possible, make the support granted to be a return for work done rather than mere alms. Widowhood must not be made a plea for being maintained in harmful idleness. But the point which the Apostle insists on most emphatically, stating it in different ways no less than three times in this short section (1 Timothy 5:4; 1 Timothy 5:8; 1 Timothy 5:16) is this, - that widows as a rule ought to be supported by their own relations; only in exceptional cases, where there are no relations who can help, ought the Church to have to undertake this duty. We have here a warning against the-mistake so often made at the present day of freeing people from their responsibilities by undertaking for them in mistaken charity the duties which they ought to discharge, and are capable of discharging, themselves.

We may, therefore, sum up the principles laid down thus:-

Discretion and tact are needed in dealing with the different sections of the congregation, and especially in relieving the widows. Care must be taken not to encourage either a rigor not likely to be maintained, or opportunities of idleness certain to lead to mischief. Help is to be generously afforded to the destitute; but the resources of the Church must be jealously guarded. They must not be wasted on the unworthy, or on those who have other means of help. And, so far as possible, the independence of those who are relieved must be protected by employing them in the service of the Church.

In conclusion it may be worth while to point out that this mention of an order of widows is no argument against the Pauline authorship of these Epistles, as if no such thing existed in his time. In Acts 6:1 the widows appear as a distinct body in the Church at Jerusalem. In Acts 9:39; Acts 9:41, they appear almost as an order in the Church at Joppa. They "show the coats and garments which Dorcas made" in a way which seems to imply that it was their business to distribute such things among the needy. Even if it means no more than that Dorcas made them for the relief of the widows themselves, still the step from a body of widows set apart for the reception of alms to an order of widows set apart for the duty of intercessory prayer and ministering to the sick is not a long one, and may easily have been made in St. Paul’s lifetime.


Verses 22-25

Chapter 15

THE PASTOR’S RESPONSIBILITIES IN ORDAINING AND JUDGING PRESBYTERS-THE WORKS THAT GO BEFORE AND THAT FOLLOW US. - 1 Timothy 5:22-25

THE section of which these verses form the conclusion, like the preceding section about behavior towards the different classes of persons in the congregation, supplies us with evidence that we are dealing with a real letter, written to give necessary advice to a real person, and not a theological or controversial treatise, dressed up in the form of a letter in order to obtain the authority of St. Paul’s name for its contents. Here, as before, the thoughts follow one another in an order which is quite natural, but which has little plan or arrangement. An earnest and affectionate friend, with certain points in his mind on which he was anxious to say something, might easily treat of them in this informal way just as they occurred to him, one thing suggesting another. But a forger, bent on getting his own views represented in the document, would not string them together in this loosely connected way: he would disclose more arrangement than we can find here. What forger, again, would think of inserting that advice about ceasing to be a water-drinker into a most solemn charge respecting the election and ordination of presbyters? And yet how thoroughly natural it is found to be in this very context when considered as coming from St. Paul to Timothy.

We shall go seriously astray if we start with the conviction that the word "elder" has the same meaning throughout this chapter. When in the first part of it St. Paul says "Rebuke not an elder, but exhort him as a father," it is quite clear that he is speaking simply of elderly men, and not of persons holding the office of an elder: for he goes on at once to speak of the treatment of younger men, and also of older and younger women. But when in the second half of the chapter he says "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor," and "Against an elder receive not an accusation, except at the mouth of two or three witnesses," it is equally clear that he is speaking of official persons, and not merely of persons who are advanced in years. The way in which the thoughts suggested one another throughout this portion of the letter is not difficult to trace. "Let no man despise thy youth" suggested advice as to how the young overseer was to behave towards young and old of both sexes. This led to the treatment of widows, and this again to the manner of appointing official widows. Women holding an official position suggests the subject of men holding an official position in the Church. If the treatment of the one class needs wisdom and circumspection, not less does the treatment of the other. And, therefore, with even more solemnity than in the previous section about the widows, the Apostle gives his directions on this important subject also. "I charge thee in the sight of God, and Christ Jesus, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing by partiality." And then he passes on to the words which form our text.

It has been seriously doubted whether the words "Lay hands hastily on no man" do refer to the ordination of the official elders or presbyters. It is urged that the preceding warning about the treatment of charges made against presbyters, and of persons who are guilty of habitual sin, point to disciplinary functions of some kind rather than to ordination. Accordingly some few commentators in modern times have treated the passage as referring to the laying on of hands at the readmission of penitents to communion. But of any such custom in the Apostolic age there is no trace. There is nothing improbable in the hypothesis, imposition of hands being a common symbolical act. But it is a mere hypothesis unsupported by evidence. Eusebius, in speaking of the controversy between Stephen of Rome and Cyprian of Carthage about the re-baptizing of heretics, tells us that the admission of heretics to the Church by imposition of hands with prayer, but without second baptism, was the "old custom." But the admission of heretics is not quite the same as the readmission of penitents: and a custom might be "old" ( παλαιον ηθος) in the time of Eusebius, or even of Cyprian, without being Apostolic or coeval with the Apostles. Therefore this statement of Eusebius gives little support to the proposed interpretation of the passage; and we may confidently prefer the explanation of it which has prevailed at any rate since Chrysostom’s time, that it refers to ordination. Of the laying on of hands at the appointment of ministers we have sufficient evidence in the New Testament, not only in these Epistles, [1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6] but in the Acts. [Acts 13:3] Moreover this explanation fits the context at least as well as the supposed improvement.

1. The Apostle is speaking of the treatment of presbyters, not of the whole congregation. Imposition of hands at the admission of a heretic or readmission of a penitent would apply to any person, and not to presbyters

2. in particular. Therefore it is more reasonable to assume that the laying on of hands which accompanied ordination is meant.

3. He has just been warning Timothy against prejudice or partiality in dealing with the elders. While prejudice might lead him to be hasty in condemning an accused presbyter, before he had satisfied himself that the evidence was adequate, partiality might lead him to be hasty in acquitting him. But there is a more serious partiality than this, and it is one of the main causes of such scandals as unworthy presbyters. There is the partiality which leads to a hasty ordination, before sufficient care has been taken to ensure that the qualifications so carefully laid down in chapter 3. are present in the person selected. Prevention is better than cure. Proper precautions taken beforehand will reduce the risk of true charges against an elder to a minimum. Here again the traditional explanation fits the context admirably.

"Neither be partaker of other men’s sins." It is usual to understand this warning as referring to the responsibility of those who ordain. If, through haste or carelessness you ordain an unfit person, you must share the guilt of the sins which he afterwards commits as an elder. The principle is a just one, but it may be doubted whether this is St. Paul’s meaning. The particular form of negative used seems to be against it. He says "Nor yet ( μηδε) be partaker of other men’s sins," implying that this is something different from hastiness in ordination. He seems to be returning to the warnings about partiality to elders who are living in sin. The meaning, therefore, is-"Beware of a haste in ordaining which may lead to the admission of unworthy men to the ministry. And if, in spite of all your care, unworthy ministers come under your notice, beware of an indifference or partiality towards them which will make you a partaker in their sins." This interpretation fits on well to what follows. "Keep thyself pure"-with a strong emphasis on the pronoun. "Strictness in enquiring into the antecedents of candidates for ordination and in dealing with ministerial depravity will have a very poor effect, unless your own life is free from reproach." And, if we omit the parenthetical advice about taking wine, the thought is continued thus: "As a rule it is not difficult to arrive at a wise decision respecting the fitness of candidates, or the guilt of accused presbyters. Men’s characters both for evil and good are commonly notorious. The vices of the wicked and the virtues of the good outrun any formal judgment about them, and are quite manifest before an enquiry is held. No doubt there are exceptions, and then the consequences of men’s lives must be looked to before a just opinion can be formed. But, sooner or later (and generally sooner rather than later) men, and especially ministers, will be known for what they are."

It remains to ascertain the meaning of the curious parenthesis "Be no longer a drinker of water," and its connection with the rest of the passage.

It was probably suggested to St. Paul by the preceding words, "Beware of making yourself responsible for the sins of others. Keep your own life above suspicion." This charge reminds the Apostle that his beloved disciple has been using ill-advised means to do this very thing. Either in order to mark his abhorrence of the drunkenness which was one of the most conspicuous vices of the age, or in order to bring his own body more easily into subjection, Timothy had abandoned the use of wine altogether, in spite of his weak health. St. Paul, therefore, with characteristic affection, takes care that his charge is not misunderstood. In urging his representative to be strictly careful of his own conduct, he does not wish to be understood as encouraging him to give up whatever might be abused or made the basis of a slander, nor yet as approving his rigor in giving up the use of wine. On the contrary, he thinks it a mistake; and he takes this opportunity of telling him so, while it is in his mind. Christ’s ministers have important duties to perform, and have no right to play tricks with their health. We may here repeat, with renewed confidence, that a touch of this kind would never have occurred to a forger. Hence, in order to account for such natural touches as these, those who maintain that these Epistles are a fabrication now resort to the hypothesis that the forger had some genuine letters of St. Paul and worked parts of them into his own productions. It seems to be far more reasonable to believe that St. Paul wrote the whole of them.

Let us return to the statement with which the Apostle closes this section of his letter. "Some men’s sins are evident, going before unto judgment; and some men also they follow after. In, like manner also there are good works that are evident; and such as are otherwise cannot be hid."

We have seen already what relation these words have to the context. They refer to the discernment between good and bad candidates-for the ministry, and between good and bad ministers, pointing out that in most cases such discernment is not difficult, because men’s own conduct acts as a herald to their character, proclaiming it to all the world. The statement, though made with special reference to Timothy’s responsibilities towards elders and those who wish to become such, is a general one, and is equally true of all mankind. Conduct in most cases is quite a clear index of character, and there is no need to have a formal investigation in order to ascertain whether a man is leading a wicked life or not. But the words have a still deeper significance-one which is quite foreign to the context, and therefore can hardly have been in St. Paul’s mind when he wrote them, but which as being true and of importance, ought not to be passed over.

For a formal investigation into men’s conduct. before an ecclesiastical or other official, let us substitute the judgment-seat of Christ. Let the question be, not the worthiness of certain persons to be admitted to some office, but their worthiness to be admitted to eternal life. The general statement made by the Apostle remains as true as ever. There are some men who stand, as before God, so also before the world, as open, self-proclaimed sinners. Wherever they go, their sins go before them, flagrant, crying, notorious. And when they are summoned hence, their sins again precede them, waiting for them as accusers and witnesses before the Judge. The whole career of an open and deliberate sinner is the procession of a criminal to his doom. His sins go before, and their consequences follow after, and he moves on in the midst, careless of the one and ignorant of the other. He has laughed at his sins and chased remorse for them away. He has, by turns cherished and driven out the remembrance of them; dwelt on them, when to think of them was a pleasant repetition of them; stifled the thought of them, when to think of them might have brought thoughts of penitence; and has behaved towards them as if he could not only bring them into being without guilt, but control them or annihilate them without difficulty. He has not controlled, he has not destroyed, he has not even evaded, one of them. Each of them, when brought into existence, became his master, going on before him to herald his guiltiness, and saddling him with consequences from which he could not escape. And when he went to his own place, it was his sins that had gone before him and prepared the place for him.

"And some men also they follow after." There are cases in which men’s sins, though of course not less manifest to the Almighty, are much less manifest to the world, and even to themselves, than in the case of flagrant, open sinners. The consequences of their sins are less conspicuous, less easily disentangled from the mass of unexplained misery of which the world is so full. Cause and effect cannot be put together with any precision; for sometimes the one, sometimes the other, sometimes even both, are out of sight. There is no anticipation of the final award to be given at the judgment-seat of Christ. Not until the guilty one is placed before the throne for trial, is it at all known whether the sentence will be unfavorable or not.

Even the man himself has lived and died without being at all fully aware what the state of the case is. He has not habitually examined himself, to see whether he has been living in sin or not. He has taken no pains to remember, and repent of, and conquer, those sins of which he has been conscious. The consequences of his sins have seldom come so swiftly as to startle him and convince him of their enormity. When they have at last overtaken him, it has been possible to doubt or to forget that it was his sins which caused them. And consequently he has doubted, and he has forgotten. But for all that, "they follow after." They are never eluded, never shaken off. A cause must have its effect; and a sin must have its punishment, if not in this world, then certainly in the next. "Be sure your sin will find you out"-probably in this life, but at any rate at the day of judgment. As surely as death follows on a pierced heart or on a severed neck, so surely does punishment follow upon sin.

How is it that in the material world we never dream that cause and effect can be separated, and yet easily believe that in the moral world sin may remain forever unpunished? Our relation to the material universe has been compared to a game of chess. "The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know-that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with a sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated-without haste, but without remorse." We believe this implicitly of the material laws of the universe; that they cannot be evaded, cannot be transgressed with impunity, cannot be obeyed without profit. Moral laws are not one whit less sure. Whether we believe it or not (and it will but be the worse for us if we refuse to believe it), sin, both repented and unrepented, must have its penalty. We might as well fling a stone, or shoot a cannon-ball, or send a balloon into the air, and say, "You shall not come down again," as sin, and say "I shall never suffer for it." Repentance does not deprive sin of its natural effect. We greatly err in supposing that, if we repent in time, we escape the penalty. To refuse to repent is a second and a worse sin, which, added to the first sin, increases the penalty incalculably. To repent is to escape this terrible augmentation of the original punishment; but it is no escape from the punishment itself.

But there is a bright side to this inexorable law. If sin must have its own punishment, virtue must have its own reward. The one is as sure as the other; and in the long run the fact of virtue and the reward of virtue will be made clear to all the world, and especially to the virtuous man himself. "The works that are good are evident; and such as are not evident cannot be hid." No saint knows his own holiness; and many a humble seeker after holiness does good deeds without knowing how good they are. Still less are all saints known as such to the world, or all good deeds recognized as good by those who witness them. But, nevertheless, good works as a rule are evident, and if they are not so, they will become so hereafter. If not in this world, at any rate before Christ’s judgment-seat, they will be appraised at their true value. It is as true of the righteous as of the wicked, that "their works do follow them." And, if there is no more terrible fate than to be confronted at the last day by a multitude of unknown and forgotten sins, so there can hardly be any lot more blessed than to be welcomed then by a multitude of unknown and forgotten deeds of love and piety. "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these My brethren, even these least, ye did it unto Me." "Come, ye: blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Timothy 5:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-timothy-5.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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