1 Timothy 5:3-16 — The Politics of Too Many Widows!

Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 12 (1 Timothy 5:3-16)

by Reta Halteman Finger 

Reta Finger with a statue of Sophia (Lady Wisdom) in a niche in the facade of the ancient library of Ephesus.
Reta Finger with a statue of Sophia (Lady Wisdom) in a niche in the facade of the ancient library of Ephesus.

Imagine that! The author of 1 Timothy 5:3-16 devotes fourteen verses to women’s roles in the church! Should we be gratified to find qualifications for a category of widows just as there are requirements for the the offices of bishop or deacon in chapter 3? Or are we annoyed that a male author is making decisions for women and raising the bar so high for “registered” widows that only a few can reach it? Where did all these widows come from? Are they poor and helpless—or independent and autonomous?

A little background helps. The Greek word for widow, chēra, included any unattached woman—not only widowed by a husband’s death but also divorced or unmarriageable because of disability or sexual abuse. In such a culture structured by gender and class hierarchy, men assumed that widowhood was a condition no woman would desire. Unlike today, where girls are educated and single women support themselves, fewer options existed in the ancient Roman Empire (but for an exception, read about Lydia in Acts 16:14). Patriarchal marriage was the norm, and girls were usually married around puberty to men six to ten years older than they. Thus, many women could be widowed while still young (Winter, p. 131.)

In order to increase the Roman empire’s population, the emperor Augustus had developed laws that required widows and divorced women aged 50 and under to remarry within two years of losing a husband, and the laws rewarded them for bearing children (Portefaix, p. 154).

The problem of too many widows

Following Jewish ethical law and practice to care for widows and orphans, the Ephesian churches probably struggled to support poor widows whose husbands had died, as well as women whose pagan husbands divorced them when they embraced Christ. It is clear from our text that the author wants to limit the number of widows receiving church support to those he calls “real” widows (5:3, 5). Annette Huizenga lists the other subsets of widows (p. 51):

  • those who have children or grandchildren (5:4);
  • a (hypothetical?) widow who lives for pleasure (5:6);
  • those 60 years and older (5:9);
  • younger widows (5:11-15); and
  • widows provided for by a female believer (5:16).

Solutions for so many widows

Although this list seems somewhat unorganized, we can draw a few conclusions from it. First, few women will qualify to be called “real” widows and to receive church support—only those who are “left alone,” are 60 years or older, have been married only once, are devoted to constant prayer, and have faithfully fulfilled “women’s work” all their lives (5:3, 5, 9-10). Second, if an older widow has children or grandchildren, they should support her (5:4). Third, younger widows should remarry, bear children, and perform traditional women’s work of household management (5:14). (But second marriages will forever disqualify them from becoming “real” widows.)

The fourth category of female believers caring for widows (chēras) in 5:16 sounds unusual, but the book of Acts offers precedents for this, which I will discuss in the next lesson. (The NRSV translates chēras as “relatives,” which in my opinion is inaccurate.)

The fifth example is the “widow who lives for pleasure” and who “is dead even while she lives” (5:6). The Greek term translated as “pleasure” more accurately means “luxuriously” or “voluptuously.” This could imply an independently wealthy widow whose power may threaten church leaders like the author or who may challenge the patriarchal structure of the “household of God” itself. This may also explain why gold, pearls, and expensive clothes are banned in 2:9.

Political problems from too many widows

In past lessons, we learned that our author is dealing with two sociopolitical issues concerning the churches of Asia Minor. First, these Christ-worshiping communities risk arousing the suspicions of Roman authorities and being labeled “revolutionaries” if they don’t conform to Roman cultural practices. Thus, the church as the “household of God” should conform to the hierarchical, patriarchal structure of the Roman household, enabling believers to stay “under the radar,” living a “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (2:2).

A second and opposite problem is internal conflict with false teachers. With a “different doctrine” of “endless myths and genealogies” (1:3-4), these teachers also “forbid marriage” and demand abstinence from certain foods (4:3). The author of 1 Timothy assumes that independent women with some social standing and wealth not only pose a threat to the patriarchal structure of the “household of God” but also are attracted to the heretics, who, by forbidding marriage, encourage female independence.

Younger widows also may be reinterpreting Christian freedom in terms of more autonomy. The author uses stereotypical sexist put-downs of these women. They cannot be “real” widows, for they will soon want to remarry. In the meantime, without a household to manage and children to raise, they will be idle “gossips and busybodies, gadding about from house to house” (5:13).

Such is the evaluation of this author who wants women to stay in their place at home and out of sight. But is it plausible to think that a “widows’ circle” was becoming an attractive option for unattached women? Jouette Bassler thinks so. She describes such women as “freed from hierarchical dominance of either husband or father, freed from the dangers of childbearing and the demands of child rearing, freed even from pressing economic concerns.” Their celibacy-in-community could “ground an empowering spirituality and autonomy” (Bassler, p. 139). Rather than “gadding about from house to house” as “gossips and busybodies” (5:13), were these widows instead offering material and spiritual support to various households, involved thus in both diaconal and teaching ministries? But from the author’s perspective, such women were dangerous because of the political threat from outside the church that they were potentially creating, as well as by exacerbating the conflict within it.

The next lesson will temporarily depart from 1 Timothy to consider the fourth option—a believing woman supporting widows—from several texts in the book of Acts.

 

Questions for discussion or reflection

  1. Identify ways in which the status of single or widowed women in your culture differs from that described or implied in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. How might that affect your interpretation of this passage?
  2. Is it appropriate to evaluate the author of 1 Timothy as sexist? Why or why not? How might he have handled the “widow problem” differently than 5:3-16 suggests?

Sources used

Bassler, Jouette. “Limits and Differentiation: The Calculus of Widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16” in A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, edited by Amy-Jill Levine. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2003, pp. 122-146.

Huizenga, Annette Bourland. 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2016.

Portefaix, Lilian. “’Good Citizenship’ in the Household of God: Women’s Position in the Pastorals Reconsidered in the Light of Roman Rule” in A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, pp. 147-158.

Thurston, Bonnie. “1 Timothy 5:3-16 and Leadership of Women in the Early Church” in A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, pp. 159-174.

Winter, Bruce W. Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities. Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.

 

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

1 COMMENT

  1. My understanding of the phrase usually translated as “wife of one husband” is an idiom that means “faithful spouse”. Using this idea means there is no conflict between Paul saying a widow should remarry and being a faithful spouse.

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