There’s no such thing as lower class, middle class or upper class in the church family. There’s only the class of sinner turned saint. There’s only the class who’ve been redeemed from the pit. There’s only the class that once was lost but now is found. There’s only the class who were orphaned by sin but adopted by the Savior. There are no second rate citizens in the church family and there certainly are no citizens with special privileges.
The world we live in constructs classes of society. The world we live in marginalizes the less fortunate while giving special privileges to the more important. This recognition is important for us as members of the church family because it helps us to see the importance of being the church family in the midst of a broken society.
It’s no big revelation to acknowledge that the family unit is broken because of sin. Divorce rates are at an all time high. Teen pregnancy and single parent homes are on the rise. Our prison systems are flawed and overflowing. Our healthcare and our social systems are like band aids on a disease that is much deeper than they are equipped to handle. And I’m not even going to comment on our political system, our educational system, homelessness or poverty rates.
My only point here is that I believe the family system is broken at its core because of sin and rebellion and therefore every other system in our society is broken as well. Again, this realization is an invitation to the church to be the family that God intended us to be. He intended us to be like family members so that he would get the attention for being the Good Father he really is.
If you think about the church family in Ephesus you’ll come to realize that they were trying to live out this vision of what it means to be a healthy godly family. But, they had some issues to work out. They weren’t a perfect family. The threat of becoming more like the culture they lived in was very real.
Some of their leaders had gone off the rails. (1:1-20) Their worship gatherings needed to refocus on the gospel. (2:1-8) Their men needed to act like men and their women needed to act like women. (2:9-15) Their leaders needed to be qualified. (3:1-13) They needed to return to their first love of the gospel. (4:1-5) They needed to return to a regimen of a healthy spiritual diet and exercise. (4:6-10) And they needed to keep a close watch over their hearts, souls and minds, so that they didn’t waver off the pathway of gospel growth onto the highway of cultural destruction. (4:11-16)
And the central instruction of the apostle Paul to his young protégé in the faith in this letter was that he needed to instruct the Ephesian church family on how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (3:15-16) In other words, Paul is charging Timothy with instructing the church family to live and to behave like the family of the living God.
And the question for us is: what does it mean to live and behave like family members? If you are like me then you likely came from a family that didn’t do this very well. There may have been some good and healthy things you learned from your family of origin but there are likely some really bad things you brought along with you in your suitcases. So how does our text help us to live like family members of the church of the living God?
Now before I begin to answer that question from the text its important to note that our passage focuses heavily (almost exclusively) on how to relate to widows in the church family. And at first glance it might be easy for you to start thinking once again of people according to a certain age class or social economic class. And while there are some hints of that in our text, those hints aren’t the main point. So don’t go there!
The main point I think is that the church is called to act like a family that encourages, honors, helps and cares for one another like the blood bought family members we really are. And one of the main indicators of how well we are doing at encouraging, honoring, helping and caring for one another is the way we do this for our widows. So what does God’s Word say here about living together like the blood bought family members we really are?
#1: We Are Called To Encourage One Another Like Family Members (1 – 2)
Timothy definitely had his hands full with the Ephesian church. He was a timid young man who didn’t like confrontation and he needed to confront false teachers, disqualified leaders, men and women who were enamored with secondary and even heretical teachings, people who were losing their love for the gospel and people who were pigging out on spiritual junk food. And let’s not forget that there were most likely some folks who looked down on him for his young age. It always seems like you’re either too young or too old or too single or too inexperienced to relate to others in their times of need.
How would Timothy approach all of these different people without treating them like enemies or without running from the responsibility? How would he approach them in a way that showed he cared for them? Paul answer is: 1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters in all purity. In other words, Timothy needed to encourage people like family members.
If you needed to correct your father, the man who changed your diapers, spoon fed you as a baby, lost hour after hour of sleep over you when you would lie awake screaming at night, attended your school events and spent tons of money on you, I would suspect you would want to approach him with correction in a humble and encouraging and polite sort of a way. And I would suspect you would do the same with an older woman who was like your mother since your mother went through labor to bring you into this world.
Younger men and women on the other hand are like brothers and sisters. Proverbs 17:17 says that, “a friend loves at all times and a brother (or sister) is born for adversity.” One author said that we were not created to be alone, we need blood bought brothers and sisters who will get in our faces and lovingly encourage us and challenge us in the gospel.
This must be done with all purity. There can be no hint of personal selfishness in our hearts when we encourage and correct our brothers and sisters. This is especially true when encouraging someone of the opposite sex. We should relate to them not as potential lovers but as blood bought brothers and sisters in Christ. So encourage one another like family members.
#2: We Are Called To Honor Widows Like Family Members (3 – 8)
The remaining portion of our text today focuses exclusively on relating to widows. Psalm 68:5 says that, “God is the father of the fatherless and the protector of widows.” Our Father is a good Father. He did not abandon us when we were orphaned by our sin. And he protected us in the cross of Christ when we were widowed by our old husband the devil. James 1:27 says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” If we are truly Christians, we will care for orphans and widows like they are our family members. But what does that look like?
In verses 3 – 8 Paul says: 3 Honor widows who are truly widows. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. 5 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6 but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7 Command these things as well so that they may be without reproach. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
The church should be in the business of honoring widows who are real widows. Paul uses that phrase “truly widows” twice in verses 3 and 5 and then a third time in verse 16. The bottom line here is that, if a widow is truly a widow then the church should honor her like a family member. How do we know if a woman is a widow in the biblical sense?
Verse 5 says that a true widow a woman who is all-alone, she’s set her hope on God alone and she is known to be a woman of prayer. If she has children or grand children, according to verse 4, she relates to them in ways that are godly, she has worked hard to care for her own parents and her heart is set on pleasing God. She’s not self-indulgent, according to verse 6, she hasn’t denied the faith, she lives above reproach and she hasn’t become worse than an unbeliever by neglecting the members of her own household. This is the portrait of a real widow who is worthy of honor in the church family.
Now when I think of widows in the church family who meet these qualifications of the “real widow who is worthy of honor” I think of two categories of women. There are women whose husbands have passed away and they meet the godly characteristics that Paul has just laid out. Then there are single women coming out of broken marriages who also meet these characteristics. And it’s my position (and I believe it’s the biblical position to say) that we are called to emulate our Father in heaven as we honor both of these kinds of widows by seeking to protect them like family members.
#3: We Are Called To Help Widows Serve Like Family Members (9 – 15)
In verse 9 Paul says “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age” and then in verse 11 he says “refuse to enroll younger widows”. What does Paul mean when he uses the word “enroll”? It doesn’t make sense to interpret this word under the category of membership enrollment because physical membership is just an outward practice of an inward experience that has no age limitation. You don’t age out of membership any more than you age out of the benefits of baptism. So this word “enroll” cannot mean membership.
What does the word “enroll” mean in this historical context? This word seems to mean enrollment in vocational ministry service. We know that every Christian is called to be a minister of the gospel who serves Jesus by serving the church family. But according to the history records it appears that there were a number of widows who were relying on the church to support them financially as they served the practical needs of the church family.
So it’s possible that there were some widows in Ephesus who shouldn’t have been enrolled on the list. And there were also likely some widows who hadn’t been enrolled that should have been enrolled. So Paul lays out a process for helping widows in Ephesus to either join the serving team or be removed or restricted from joining the serving team so that they could serve their households.
Notice what he says in verses 9 – 15. He says: 9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted and has devoted herself to every good work. 11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry, 12 and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. 13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. 15 For some have already strayed after Satan.
I think the overall picture here is that we are called to help widows serve like family members. There are some widows (just like there are some people, widows or not) who are qualified or unqualified for varying degrees of ministry service. Every degree of ministry service is valuable and there is not one kind of ministry service that is more valuable than the next. But there are areas that some people should not serve in because they are not wired in their gifting or their character to do so.
Paul deals first with widows who are qualified to be on the serving team in verses 9-10. First of all they must be 60 years of age or older and they must have been faithful to their husbands. The literal translation would have said that these women needed to be a one-man woman. Their reputation must be that of a woman who was devoted to good works especially in caring for her own children well and practicing hospitality in her home. On top of that she must be the kind of woman who cares for God’s people (washing the feet of saints) and she must also be a woman who is devoted to caring for those who are suffering. This is the description of a widow who should be enrolled on a serving team in the church family.
Paul then moves on to the widows who should not be enrolled on a vocational serving team in verses 11-15. If they under 60 years of age, Paul’s concerns are that they could stray away from the faith because of their loneliness and their desires to be remarried. He is also concerned that the younger widows without the responsibility of a husband or children could become lazy, busybodies who run from home to home or phone call to phone call gossiping about things that should not be talked about and therefore bring condemnation on themselves.
For these widows, Paul’s instruction is to encourage them to find a suitable husband, get remarried, get busy serving their children and managing their homes rather than letting their homes and their families get neglected as they lazily run from home to home stirring up slander and division among the people of God. Some of the women had already strayed after Satan in this way according to verse 15 so it seems like Paul is writing these instructions as a correction and a preventative for future issues. But the bottom line here is that we are to help widows serve like family members in the church and in the home.
#4: We Are Called To Care For Widows Like Family Members (16)
Paul says: 16 If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. In other words, the women of the church family should be committed to caring for any widows in their immediate family so that the church can care for any widows who have no relatives.
Families who do not care for widows who are their relatives inadvertently place an extra burden on the church family and thereby steal resources from widows who have no relatives in the church. So the simple instruction here is that we should do our part in taking care of widows like the blood bought family members they really are.
I believe God is calling us to encourage one another like family members (like brothers and sisters and moms and dads). And I also believe God is also calling us to honor, help and care for widows like the family members they really are.
If you are a widow, you’ve lost your husband either through death or divorce we want you to know that you are not alone. You have a family here at The Well. We want to do our best to honor you, help you and care for you in our protection of you. We also want to see you serving in ministry capacities that are appropriate for you. And we want to see you honoring the Lord and leading a life that is pleasing to him.
If you are a church member here at The Well and you have a relative who is a widow and who is part of our church family then we want to encourage you to come alongside your relative and help her with her needs. Help her to know that she isn’t alone, encourage her with your presence and practical service and honor her by protecting her.
Lastly, for all of us, don’t forget that God is the Father of the fatherless and the protector of widows. Your religion will be pure and undefiled and authentic to the extent that you care for and protect the orphans and widows among us. We do this because God our Father did not leave us orphaned by our sin or widowed by our old husband the devil. He came and he set us free to be the family of the living God through the shed blood and the broken body and the victorious resurrection of Jesus. We are sons and daughters of the living God and we have the express privilege of living out that reality in the most tangible of ways, as we love each other like family members in the midst of a broken and perverse world.