Today’s Chocolate: Green & Black’s 60% Cacao Mint Dark Chocolate
Today’s Passage: 1 Timothy 5
Due to unforeseen circumstances, my Triad wasn’t able to meet this weekend to discuss the past week’s studies. Rather than moving on to the next week in the Triad study, I’ll be temporarily returning to All the Paul. This will happen sometimes. So, Paulaholics rejoice: today we’re back to 1 Timothy.
Where we last left our heroes, Paul was giving Timothy directions concerning leadership and good practices within the church body, and today he continues in that vein. Chapter five concludes with various instructions on respecting elders (vv.17-19), dealing with sin (vv.20, 24-25), laying on hands (v.22), and how to deal with gastrointestinal health problems (v.23). Most of it’s fairly uncontroversial, though when Paul prescribes a little wine for Timothy’s stomach ailments, there’s been some debate on just how diluted the “wine” of the Greco-Roman world was, and some might think that public rebuke for an elder’s persistent sinning seems a little harsh. But let’s set aside the trivial controversies of the ending verses and rewind to that thorniest of topics: widow issues.
Paul, it would seem, paints widows with a broad brush. He tells Timothy, “Honor widows who are widows indeed” (3), then launches into a litany of requirements for a widow to be considered for “the list” (9) of widows eligible for specific church aid. In Paul’s book, the criteria for legitimate widowhood are more than just having a dead husband, and I can’t help thinking the notion of “those who are widows indeed” (16) smells faintly of “no true Scotsman.” Moreover, he dictates, “But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married” (11), expressing concern that young widows learn to be “not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies” (13). We’ve known Paul to get harsh before, and it seems he’s getting harsh on younger widows now. Is the harshness justified? Should a widow really have to jump through so many hoops to receive material support from the church?
In cases like this, I think it’s important to remember genre and context. Paul is writing a specific letter to Timothy at a specific church to address a specific situation. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know the details of that situation. Back in my sophomore year of high school, I read through Leviticus in my quiet times, with the intent to sort out the various laws. Which ones were universal moral principles to be followed at all times? Which served as identifiers for the Jewish people as God’s chosen nation? Which were particular, cultural, not especially relevant to those who (for example) don’t own any oxen? The exercise was useful, and even though a book of religious laws and a letter are two very different pieces of writing, I can’t help thinking there’s some similarity here. There’s history interwoven into the Torah’s commandments, and there are imperatives in Paul’s epistolary reports.
I don’t think Paul necessarily meant his instructions for widows to be applied universally. He certainly meant them to address a situation at Ephesus with Timothy. And he means for widows specifically not to be left out in the cold; he states, “If any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents” (4), adding, “if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (8). Between her children, grandchildren, and the church, the majority of widows have many possible means of support.
But at the end of the day, I’m not as knowledgeable about the Ephesian church’s first-century widow situation as I could be. There’s a lot I don’t know, and an hour or two of analyzing the chapter and googling a commentary or two isn’t going to fill me in adequately. If you really want to understand the Bible, or even a tiny slice of the Bible, sometimes there aren’t quick and easy answers. If you want to get a handle on what Paul’s written and where it fits in the world today, you’re going to have to put in the time.