The Lord's Day Morning
September 29, 2004
I Timothy 5:1-16
“Caring for the Church”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to First Timothy, chapter five. We've been working through this book of First Timothy as part of a larger study of three letters often called “the Pastoral Epistles”: I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus. We've noted how throughout this letter the Apostle Paul not only gives wise advice and counsel from an old, experienced minister of the gospel–an elder, an apostle, a church planter, an evangelist, a missionary–to a young man who has been one of his church planting assistants and is now pastoring a local congregation in Ephesus. Paul doesn't merely give advice and counsel, however; he sets forth what are God's priorities for a healthy local church. And in this passage today I'd like you to see three things in particular as we study God's word to us.
First of all, in verses one and two, you’ll note how Paul concentrates on the issue of the way that Timothy is to relate to different kinds of people in his congregation. Timothy is not to treat everybody the same way. Now that perhaps goes against the grain of some of our most cherished cultural assumptions in the twenty-first century, modern, Western, progressive, advanced world. But Paul says Timothy is not to relate to everybody in the congregation the same way.
Then if you look at verses three through eight, you’ll see Paul go on to say to Timothy that the church is to have a standing concern to care for those in the local congregation who are in need. And he discusses with Timothy how the church is to go about discerning those who are truly in need.
And then finally, if you look at verses nine to sixteen, Paul goes on to speak with Timothy about the qualifications of those who serve in the church: not as officers, but those who serve in assisting the officers of the church in the ministry of the church. And you’ll notice the high standards that Paul applies even for those who carry no official title in the church. They’re serving alongside of the deacons and elders in the local church, but they are to meet certain standards of Christian living before they do so.
Now this gives us the three-part outline of this passage. Before we hear it read, let's look to the Lord in prayer and ask for His blessing on our study of it.
Father, this is Your word. You mean it for the edification of Your people and of Your church. We pray, O Lord, that we would, as we read Your word, bring to mind misconceptions that we have had about how the church should live and work. We pray at the same time that You would confirm in us correct views of how the church should live and minister together, and that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in Your word in areas that we have never considered. In all these things we ask that You would get glory; that Christ would be glorified in His church; that Your church would become more like You intend it to be; and that we ourselves would become more like Jesus Christ. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word. Hear it.
“Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father; the; younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity. Honor widows who are widows indeed; but if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family, and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God. Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone has fixed her hope on God, and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day. But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives. Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach. But if any one does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever. Let a widow be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, have a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work. But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge. And at the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; for some have already turned aside to follow Satan. If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, let her assist them, and let not the church be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its truth upon our hearts.
Now this is a strange passage, isn't it? It doesn't have the feel of I Timothy 1,2,3, and 4. The personal nature of Paul's interaction with Timothy is for the moment set aside, and now some specific practical directions for ministry in the life of the congregation is set forth. And perhaps it seems just a little bit distant for us. After all, we live in an affluent culture, and we have things like disability insurance, and we have term life insurance, and whole life insurance, and investments and 401(k)'s, and nursing homes, and all sorts of other things. And this is a different world. These people are, by comparison to us, much less well off. They don't have the cultural safety nets that we have, and yet Paul is giving instructions for the church caring for the church in this passage, the principles of which still apply to us today. However different our cultural situation, there are some grand principles for us to apply. We don't really have time to even begin to do justice to this passage, but let me sketch at least for a few moments some of these great principles.
I. The Church is to be a place of mutual accountability, but care is to be taken in the way we relate to different kinds of members.
Let's start in the very first of the three sections. Look at verses one and two, because here Timothy is being instructed in how to relate to different people in the congregation. And here's Paul's principle: Everyone is not the same in the Christian Church, and therefore, that reality should be reflected in ministry. Now as I said before, that cuts against our own most cherished cultural presuppositions. After all, our Declaration of Independence tells us that all men are created equal, and in our day and time that has been taken to mean that because all human beings are equal, all of them have to be treated in the same way.
And here's Paul saying, “Timothy, don't treat everyone the same way in the congregation.” Isn't that interesting? It is. And it's so wise and common-sensical, and it's so biblical. You see, the church is to be a place of mutual accountability. We’re to be holding one another accountable in Christ. We’re to be helping one another in the living of the Christian life. But care is to be taken in the way that we relate to one another as we hole one another accountable. And Timothy is told, “You are not to speak to older men as if they are upstarts. You’re to appeal to them as fathers. And you’re not to speak to younger men in untactful ways. You’re not to speak to them imperiously. You’re to speak to them like brothers.”
You see, already Paul is telling Timothy, we're a family in the local church, and we're to relate to one another as a family. And you, Timothy, as a young man, even when you see an older man straying, you are not to speak to him in a harsh and strident and demeaning way. You’re to speak to him as if he were your own father, because God has brought you into His family, and because that family is expressed in the life of the local church, Timothy, you are to express in your dealings with the different members of the congregation your respect for their different stations in the family of God. Those older men are to be treated as fathers in the Lord. Those younger men are to be treated as brothers in the Lord.
And notice he doesn't just stop there. It's not just that Timothy is to treat the old in a specific manner and the young in another manner. He's to deal with men and women differently. He goes on to say, “You appeal to older women as mothers.” These women are not to be neglected in pastoral care. They’re also to be admonished. They’re also to be challenged to live the Christian life, but when those older women sin, they are to be approached despite their standing, and because of their standing they are to be approached with the same consideration as one would approach an erring mother. A loving son is to correct his own mother with humility, a searching of heart, a wrestling at the throne of grace, and spiritual wisdom. And Timothy is to approach the older women of the congregation in this way.
And also notice, he says in verse two, he's to approach younger women as sisters. They too are to be admonished. Their spiritual best interests are to be looked out for, but they’re to be treated as sisters. They’re to be dealt with in purity. Timothy is to be careful in his relationships with females, especially younger females, that everything would be above reproach; that he would deal with them in the utmost integrity and sexual purity.
And so Paul is telling Timothy, “Don't treat everyone the same in the church. Recognize their stations.” That cuts against so much that we assume in our culture today. We think that everybody is the same, but Paul knows that everybody is not the same. And therefore, we are to recognize that. God didn't make some sort of an aggregate, collective, cut-out-of-the-cookie-cutter person. He made individuals. And those individuals constitute the church, and the different stations that they hold in life, these are to be respected as we minister in the church. The church is to be a place of mutual accountability. There may be a time when a younger man in this church sees an older man straying from the faith. That older man is not simply to be allowed to go his own way into sin, but as that younger man calls him back to the Lord he's to respect his station in life. It's common sense, but it's so wise, and it's so biblical.
That's the first thing we see in this passage: the Christian church is to be a place of accountability, but we don't treat everyone the same way.
II. The Church is to show Christ's love tangibly to those I need, but not preempt the family.
The second thing is this. Look at verses three through eight. Here Paul speaks to Timothy about the role of family and church in the care of needy Christians in the congregation. He explicitly speaks about widows in this passage, but what he says could be applied to those who are in need who are not widows. Paul's point to Timothy is that the church is to show Christ's love tangibly to those in need, but not to pre-empt the families of these members in helping them in times of need.
You’ll remember that Jesus told His disciples in John 13 that “they [the world] will know that you are My disciples by the way that you love one another.” He had given them the example in John 13 of washing the disciple's feet. In other words, their love was not simply to be in word, it was to be in deed in the way that they tangibly expressed their love. In care for one another, the world was to see that they were indeed His disciples. And in Acts 2 and Acts 6 we find out that that was exactly what was going on in the Christian Church in Jerusalem. As the Christian Church cared for those who were in need, the world around them took notice and said ‘Something's going on there. Those people are caring for one another.’ And here is Paul exhorting Timothy in Ephesus, in another part of the world, all the way across the Mediterranean Sea. He's saying, “This congregation is to live just like that. Just as the saints in Jerusalem are looking out for one another, caring for those in need…Timothy, in your congregation you are to be showing Christ's love tangibly as well, because it's a witness to the world that we belong to Jesus Christ.”
And notice the specific instruction that he gives. Look at verse three The church, he says, must honor needy widows. “Honor those who are widows indeed.” Paul is emphasizing to Timothy that the church has a definite responsibility to care for these truly needy widows, and by extension to all those who are truly needy in its midst. “Honor” here, of course, means simply more than to treat with high regard, it means to give great consideration, and when necessary even material support to those who are widows.
But notice that Paul himself makes the indication that those who are being supported by the church must be….what? Widows indeed. Now, he’ll define for us what he means by “widows indeed” in just a few moments, but let me just highlight two aspects of it.
First of all, a “widow indeed” for Paul is a woman who truly, having been widowed, has no one else to help her in life. She has no children who are there, part of that congregation who will care for her in her time of need. She has no brothers or sisters in that congregation who will care for her. She has predeceased her parents. Her parents are not there in that congregation to help her. That is, she has no family relations to come and be her safety net in a time of particular vulnerability, and so she is a person who is truly alone. She's not a person who has several children who are there and are perfectly capable of caring for her. She is a person who is truly alone.
And notice also, she is a person who has truly manifested her commitment to Jesus Christ in the life of this congregation. This is not someone who is living a profligate life; this is not someone who professes to be a believer, but who in their deeds reveals that she is not a believer: this is someone who has lived the Christian life. You see his description of her in verses five and six.
Now this is important, because Paul is perfectly aware of the phenomenon of children who refuse to take responsibility for caring for their parents. You remember the old Dutch proverb: “It seems easier for one poor father to rear ten children than for ten rich children to care for one poor father.” Paul knew this reality even two thousand years ago, before the days of Medicare and Medicaid and modern healthcare and nursing homes, and all the problems that have come with extended life expectancy. Paul knew that problem of families refusing to take responsibility for the care of their own family members, and Paul has some very strong words for those who refuse to do so.
Notice verse eight: “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” Worse than an unbeliever, worse than one who is not a disciple of Jesus Christ. Paul takes very seriously the family responsibility in the care of elderly parents and of those who are in the situation of being widowed.
It's very interesting. You may have noticed in today's newspaper an article about homelessness, on the very first page. When Glen Knecht arrived in Columbia, South Carolina, as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, the church was involved in a downtown soup kitchen that ministered to homeless people. Glen had a heart for ministering to the needy, but he was also a person who wanted to be very practical and wise about the ministry to the needy, and so in the first few weeks that he was at the church he made it his business to go down to the soup kitchen and to interview all the homeless people who were making regular use of the soup kitchen. He asked them questions about their lives, and about their families, and about what they did, and about what they thought. And one of the things that he found out in the case of almost every person who was taking part in the soup kitchen's ministry to the homeless was this: the reason that they were on the street stretched back to a break that they had had with family members. Almost all of them had family members who could have taken them in, but because of either their sin against the family or the family's sin against them, there had been a break in family relations, and therefore they had fallen through the safety net.
Glen then went to those who were managing the soup kitchen, and he said, “Do you realize by continuing to provide uniformly this ministry to these people, you are in fact in many cases keeping them from doing the very thing they need to do in order to get back on their feet?”
Now it's interesting to me that Paul is saying here, don't pre-empt the family responsibility in ministering to those in need in the church. How wise is that! That's not unloving. It's the most loving thing that you can do, because ultimately the family first bears the responsibility for those in need. As we enlarge our hearts–and we should enlarge our hearts in our congregation–to care for those in need, we must take care that our heart is enlarged wisely, and that we show care to those who need it most without pre-empting the mechanisms that God has implanted in the very fabric of society to provide for those who are in need. Paul is calling the church to love tangibly those who are in need, but not pre-empt family responsibilities.
III. The Christian life is never a matter of merely taking, getting or receiving — it is a display of giving.
Finally, look at verses nine to sixteen. Here Paul makes it clear…it's fascinating…hat those who are supported by the church are to give back to the church's ministry. And at the same time he makes it clear that those who minister alongside the elders and the deacons of the church are to be held to the highest standards of Christian living. You see, the Christian life is never a matter of merely taking or giving, or receiving; it is always a display of giving, even if we have very little, materially speaking, to give.
He speaks in verse nine of a widow being put on “the list.” Now, what in the world does that mean? Well, it's clear from this passage that “the list” involves a widow who is in the situation of material need described in verses three through eight. She is a widow indeed. She has no one else to care for her. But this widow indeed is also one who performs spiritual and charitable functions for the church. In other words, she assists the deacons and the elders in the ministry of the church. She's over sixty years old. She pledges herself that she will serve the church for the rest of her life, and she will assist in the ways that the church deems best. She will be an intercessor for the church. She will pray. She will give counsel to younger women. She will visit the sick. She will prepare women for baptism and communion. She will give guidance and direction to other widows and orphans supported by the church. She will serve in all these ways.
Isn't it interesting…this woman, who has had no means for material support of herself, is supported by the church. And yet, she is viewed as a person who has something to give back to the church. She's not simply the recipient of welfare. She, in receiving the outpouring of the church's support for her in time of need, will turn around and do what? Give back to the church, of herself.
And so in this passage Paul establishes a principle that the Christian life is never merely a matter of receiving, of taking, of getting; but it always entails giving back that which we have received. Paul gives some strict warnings about putting younger widows on this list. You can see the obvious difficulties of a younger woman making a pledge to serve the church in exchange for the church's support of her in her time of need, and then deciding later on that she’d rather re-marry. And so Paul gives again the very practical, common-sensical advice: “Younger widows, don't make this pledge. Instead, re-marry. Have a family. Be involved in the normal trends and stations of life. Don't make this extraordinary commitment to the church.”
Again, do you see the wisdom of Paul here? Paul isn't just looking to fill a slot of ministry. He's always thinking about the well being of those who are ministering. And so he says to the younger widows, ‘Don't do this to yourself. If God be pleased, re-marry, and you go ahead and have a family and a life that would have been normal.’
And he says, of course, that those who are going to serve on the widows list must not simply be widows in need, but they must be those who have practiced hospitality, who reared children and rendered service to traveling ministers, and assisted the afflicted, and been devoted to every kind of good work. So those who are going to serve the church are going to meet qualifications.
How wise this is. In our day and time, we tend to think of volunteers in terms of what they have to offer to us, and apart from their character. And Paul says look at the character of all those who are volunteering in the church, and unless they meet these marks of character, don't allow them to minister.
And secondly, care about them. Don't just use them. Care about their station in life. If this is a younger widow, don't let her do this to herself. Let her have the opportunity to re-marry, and to serve in the normal courses of life. Paul's words of wisdom give us principles for how we ought to operate today. And as we operate in these ways, we manifest the tangible love of Christ for His people to a watching world.
Our heavenly Father, You have promised that You will provide for us in time of need. And in this passage You have shown how the church itself is to show Your provision. When we provide for one another in time of need, we show that You are indeed the Lord who provides. We pray, heavenly Father, that as a congregation we would become more tangibly loving in this way; that everyone in this community would say ‘Look how they care for one another. Look how they look out for one another in times of need, and even of destitution.’ We pray as well that we would show this same kind of love increasingly towards many other Christians in this community, and that the Christian churches of Jackson would become this kind of local church; that we would manifest the love of Christ actually and really, in ways that one can sense not only in the hearts of those who are around them, but can see in their deeds. We pray, O God, that You would change us to be like this through the workings of Your Holy Spirit. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.