Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, June 8

Is a Real Widow One whose Husband is Really Dead? (1 Tim 5:3)

One of the more peculiar phrases in the Pastorals is in 1 Tim 5:3. “Honor widows who are truly widows (τὰς ὄντως χήρας).” A word-for-word translation creates something meaningless, and yet most of the translations just translate the words and leave it at that (NASB, ESV, NRSV, NET). “Truly widows?” You mean their husbands truly must be dead? What else could that phrase mean? I guess no widow could be cared for by the church if her husband were just pretending to be dead.

The key is in the second occurrence of this phrase, in v 5. The “true widow” (ἡ ὄντως χήρα) is the woman “who has been left totally alone” (μεμονωμένη) and “has set her hope on God (ἤλπικεν ἐπὶ θεὸν) and continues (προσμένει) in entreaties and prayers night and day.” In other words, in order for a widow to be “enrolled” (v 9), in order for the church to officially and permanently commit to taking care of her, she had to pass two criteria.

  1. She has to be totally alone without any means of support, which means she has no family to care for her (vv. 4, 8, 16) and includes the idea of being elderly and not desiring remarriage.
  2. She must have shown exemplary Christian character throughout her life, unlike some of the younger Ephesian widows who were taking advantage of the church’s generosity.

Thankfully, the CSB was not content with a meaningless “truly” or “indeed,” and they say, “Support widows who are genuinely in need.” NIV: “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.” NET: “truly in need.” The NLT has, “Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her.” All four of these pick up just one of the requirements, but at least they make sense.

Robin (my wife) attended Simpson College when it was in San Francisco. When they decided to move their campus to Redding, a Chinese church purchased their property. I was surprised to see a church buy buildings with so many dorm rooms. Then I learned that they wanted to actually obey 1 Timothy 5 and care for their widows who were godly and truly alone.

With all our social programs in the US, there is governmental help for many of these widows. Nevertheless, God’s heart throughout the Old Testament especially was to protect the widows and orphans, those who were the most vulnerable in society. I wonder how our church budgets compare to that Chinese church?