Widows in the Bible
The woman whose mate had died was encouraged to remarry, in some cases she might return to her father’s protection or come under the care of a son. Women whose mate died having no father or children were in a more precarious situation. Repeatedly in the Old Testament prophecies among the charges of sinful conduct always included the mistreatment of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow (see as one example Zech 7:10). Other passages accuse sinful nations of robbing the widow of her ox (an apparent reference to her means of income). Ancient Middle East laws (Assyrian Laws especially, ‘Almattu) included a certificate of independence (the Hebrew term was almanah) given to women without husbands, fathers, or children. This allowed them to act on their own behalf and involve themselves in legal or business dealings on an equal stance with her male counterparts.
Old Testament texts (Gen.38:15, 19) indicate there might have been specific clothing associated with widows but what they might have been is not outlined. There is indication from this text that a widow did not wear a veil. In this Genesis passage, it is interesting to note that a woman was assumed to be a prostitute (perhaps a cult prostitute) because her face was covered. Contrast this with the discussion of veils and head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. Many affirm such a cultural practice is still demanded today for a Christian woman.
Contrasting the two texts reveals that many cultural practices did evolve (and often radically shift!) over time. These (among others) were clearly the product of culture and not religious commands.
In the New Testament, Jesus raised the widow’s son from death early in his ministry. Her son was her guarantee of protection and support in old age. In one way, his funeral was symbolically the death of himself and his mother. In another text, Jesus uses the faithful, sacrificial giving of a widow to contrast the actions of the religious legalists. Peter raised Dorcas from death in Acts and addressed the “saints and widows” later who had gathered to mourn the passing of the generous and caring woman who did many good works. Paul stated he wished all unmarried and widows to be like him, single and committed to the work of the Gospel, but never made it a command or said it was anything but his own opinion (1 Cor.7:8).
Assumptions About Women From 2 Timothy 5:3-16
This portion of Timothy talking about elders, assumedly addresses older women who are widowed in the early churches of Paul’s day. The selection lists many interesting and troubling assumptions about women that bring its true audience and intention into question. There is very strong and convincing internal evidence that this book was not written by Paul and this section is one of those arguments. The tone of the writing, the attitudes expressed, and the terminology all lend to a later date for the writing.
1. It is an assumption that only a woman alone is capable of trusting God and leading a committed and strong prayer life (v.5).
2. A woman will lead a life of indulgence (v.6).
3. A woman has value only as a reputable widow, a widow of one husband, someone who has raised a child, and has a reputation for good deeds (v.9,10).
4. Only a woman of 60 or more years may be entitled to support from the local church (v ).
5. A younger widow will be incapable of living a Christian life but will ‘grow wanton’ and must be condemned for breaking some undefined ‘pledge’ or ‘faith’ to remain single (v.12).
6. Young widows will, in ‘going from house to house,’ grow idle, become a busybody, and say things she should not. She needs a husband, children and a home to manage (v.14).
Questions And Answers to the Assumptions
1. It is an assumption that only a woman alone is capable of trusting God and leading a committed and strong prayer life (v.5). The expressed bias against women is clear in this statement and does not reflect the Paul known from other letters where he expressed deep appreciation for the service of women in the local congregations. It also does not express the attitude of Jesus about women in general demonstrated by his actions in the Gospels.
2. A woman will lead a life of indulgence (v.6). Here again is a highly pointed and biased view of the younger widows. They “will” lead lives of self-concern, indulgence and wantonness the writer informs with strong certainty. The low opinion this expresses of all women, but especially young widows, seems out of character again with other Pauline literature and the example of both the Old Testament and of Jesus.
3. A woman’s value is expressed in the requirements shown here. A reputable widow (a true widow), a widow of one husband, someone who has raised a child (perhaps in the sense of caring for orphans), and has a reputation for good deeds (v.9, 10). It is unclear if this is the prescriptive list (elements which must be part of the woman’s profile) or suggestive.
4. Only a woman of 60 or more years, who also met the other qualifications, may be entitled to support from the local church (v ). It must be assumed that a woman in such a situation was expected to fend for herself until reaching what was thought to be the mark of true old age in the ancient world. This may be what is seen in the Acts account of the woman Dorcas who sewed and whose death left many grieving widows. The text is unclear as to her status but it might be inferred she was a widow as well and these others a band of her fellow widows and businesswomen. It may also be that there was something else at play in this text
5. A younger widow will be incapable of living a Christian life but will ‘grow wanton’ and must be condemned for breaking some undefined ‘pledge’ or ‘faith’ to remain single (v.12). This by far the most perplexing of the texts related to widows in Timothy. The surety of the wantonness of such women is again insulting and reflects a troubling attitude about not merely the role of women in the church but the very nature of woman herself. In truth, these concepts seem more reflective of the later dating for the text. A more formal and organized church that was now influenced by Aristotelian trained leaders who reflected that philosopher’s dismal view of the female sex.
6. Young widows will, in ‘going from house to house,’ grow idle, become a busybody, and say things she should not. She needs a husband, children and a home to manage to keep her from frivolous behavior (v.14). The history of the Orthodox Church includes awareness of an early order of widows, about late 100’s, who served the church before the more formal deaconess orders evolved . In that tradition, forbidden to these women was the addressing of matters of theology. Instead, they were to refer those to the pastor. It is interesting how this might fit into that concept of ‘going from house to house’ in the course of their ministry as widows and participating in the informal women’s communication network. Women who might not have felt free to ask a man a question might have asked these women who ministered in the community. Men often dismiss this common interaction, even today in some cultures, as mere idle gossip, time wasting, or noisiness.
The discussion in Timothy comes fast on the heels of how the elders of the church are to be treated. This discussion does not include how men left alone and aged were to be cared for by the church and this may be a strong indication of how situational the discussion was in the text.
It appears clear that what is not being discussed in this text is the general care of widows in the congregation. These women were used within the congregation to minister in specific and unique ways. They were following in the footsteps of the women who followed Jesus, who were called disciples in the first travels of the book of Acts, and who appear in nearly every one of the main letters of Paul (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, etc.).
Their role models of Phoebe, Mary, Martha, Joanna, Junia, Lois, Dorcas, and many others present a strong argument for the active role of women in the early church. The many inferences found in the texts revealing that women were teaching, preaching, and prophesying further support the legacy of women and their place in the early church.
What changed? As the church evolved, it became more finely structured with layers of leadership or administration. The early books of Paul (Ephesians 4:11) reveal God gave to the church certain gifting to build the community of faith. These gifts were pastor, teacher, evangelist, prophets and apostles. Then were added ‘overseers’ (or bishops) in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and a formal order of ‘deacons’ in 1 Timothy 3:8-12.
Despite the frequent translations that use male pronouns in defining bishop and deacon, the actual text uses few of them and to use them is an interpretative decision. Such decisions often reflect the biases of the person doing the interpretation. So it can be inferred the text might refer to ‘anyone’ who aspires to the office of bishop. If this is so, it removes bias in interpretation and it adds greater weight to the idea of an order of widows. This later first century text, rife with so many odd attitudes and expectations, springs into greater clarity.