Our Two Families
(1 Timothy 5.1-16)
Today’s text is a long and complicated one, and it’s going to be hard for us to see the big idea, the reason why Paul is talking about this, because the ideas he’s putting forward are going to seem a bit culturally dated. But there are two good reasons why he’s saying what he is to Timothy. The first is of a simple, practical concern—there is a situation with the widows in Ephesus which Timothy has to address, and Paul is telling him how he should do it. But underlying these practical concerns is a greater reality, a reality which the whole Bible points to and which we need to be aware of if we’re to make sense of why this text is important for us. And this greater reality is the umbrella which is standing over everything Paul says in chapter 5, all the way through v. 2 of chapter 6. So we’re going to start right at v. 1, because the first two verses establish this greater reality fairly well: there’s a reason he opens these subjects with these two verses.
1) The Church As Family (v. 1-2)
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. This is so far from the way most of us imagine church, the way we interact with people at church. What is church for most Christians? It’s the place you go on Sunday morning, to sing some songs and hear some nice teaching. It’s your moment to show everyone how happy and fulfilled you are, like a real-life Instagram feed—you put on decent clothes and put on a big smile and when someone asks you how you are, you say (in your best Desperate Housewives voice), “I’m great, how are you?” And then what happens? You go home. You take off those nice clothes, put on your sweatpants, and live your “normal” life.
But this is not how Paul sees it. He says that the way which we are to relate to each other in the church should mirror the way we are meant to relate to the members of our own families. He says to consider the other people in your church not as acquaintances, or even friends, but as family. He says to Timothy, young man that he is, Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father. He should treat (v. 2) older women as mothers. That’s not to say that Timothy will never have to call an older man on his sin (Timothy is the pastor of his church after all), but he won’t go about it in the same way; there will be a certain tone of voice, a certain manner which is in keeping with that relationship of son to father. And his relationships with older women in the church will be similar to the relationship he should have with his mother.
I say should because our relationships with our parents are often somewhat slanted these days. For many people, their parents are those people with whom they are the most likely to be short-tempered, the most likely to argue, the most likely to be condescending. Like I said last week, there is a certain arrogance that comes with youth, and nowhere is this more evident than in the way young people talk to their parents. Youth talk down to their parents, as if they are the ones who know everything (although they’re twenty or thirty years their junior). I’m 36 years old now, and I disagree with my father on a lot of issues. But I never talk down to my dad. I was raised to have a healthy respect for him (and this is not “an American thing,” it is a biblical thing); so while I do express disagreements with him, I never “get on to” my dad; I never talk down to my mother.
I completely understand that some of you have very tense relationships with your parents; it’s even possible many of you have pretty rotten parents. So you may not have learned this from them. But for the Christian, having bad parents does not exclude our treating them as if they were good (after all, Christ did not treat us according to what we deserved, but gave us instead what he deserved); so this is how we should react to our own parents, as unfit as they may be.
And the same goes with older men and women in the church. Generational gaps are a challenge; older generations are almost always frustrating for younger generations, and vice versa. And yet, Paul tells Timothy explicitly that when an older man is conducting himself in a way that is more harmful than helpful, more of a hindrance than an aid, to not rebuke this older man as he may deserve, but rather to encourage him as he would a good, loving father. He tells him not to treat an older woman as he would a peer, but to give her the care and respect God would expect her to give his own mother.
Now, that’s how we are to deal with those older than us; what about those who are young? Paul says to treat younger men as brothers. (I’m going to be speaking mostly to guys here, because Paul is addressing Timothy; but ladies, just take everything I’m saying and reverse it, and the same goes for you.) We are to treat young men as brothers. Again, don’t think of your shaky, contentious relationship with your actual brother; think of the ideal here. Think of what a brother should be. He is not a competitor, but a companion, who encourages you to pursue what you should pursue, who lovingly says the hard truths you need to hear, but who does so not in order to break you, but to build you up.
V. 2: We are to treat younger women as sisters—and watch, he doesn’t end his sentence there—IN ALL PURITY. So he’s addressing relationships between the sexes. We won’t go into great detail about this, because it’s not the main point of the text, but given the average age range of our church it would be a shame to overlook it. Young Christians often want to know what romantic relationships should look like between Christians, what kind of relationships the Bible would consider appropriate. And most young Christians see what the Bible says, then shiver and go, “Ugh! I can’t do that!” and entirely ignore it, because it is so profoundly countercultural. In the Bible, there is one framework for romantic relationships with members of the opposite sex, and that framework is marriage. Engagement, in the Bible, is not a separate thing, but the first step in that process; this is why when Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, before they were married, he made plans to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1.19); engagement was not a separate thing, it was part of the marriage. This is the only framework the Bible gives us.
The whole idea of “dating,” of “being together” before we’re married, is a modern, cultural construct that is entirely absent from the Bible, and not necessarily helpful. And it is, I think, unhelpful, because it makes Paul’s command to Timothy here extremely difficult to follow. Simply put, there are things you will do with your girlfriend that you would never do with your sister. You will speak to her in a certain way; you will touch her in a certain way. The same goes for exchanges that happen between Christian men and women who are simply flirting with one another—can we all agree that it’s gross for a brother and sister to flirt with one another? I don’t think I’m reading too much between the lines here; Paul takes care to say, “Treat younger women as sisters, IN ALL PURITY.” He’s watching out for Timothy’s holiness here; he’s trying to protect him from lust and childish games that could end up hurting him or the young woman in front of him. Until you are married, she is your sister. Period. So do with her as you would a sister.
Now, what’s the point of all of this? Why does Paul say this to Timothy? Because he’s trying to get it into Timothy’s head that the church is a family; it is the household of God. Older men and women are like parents to younger men and women; and many of them need the mother- and father-figures they are lacking in their real families. Young men and women are brothers and sisters to one another; and many of them need brothers and sisters. The relationships within a church are well-defined here, and they are all defined in terms of family. Our relationships in the church reflect those familial relationships we have outside the church. As R.K. Hughes wrote, “How beautiful are church members who know who they are, and then treat one another properly as fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters.”
But at the same time—and here’s where Paul’s going next—the familial relationships of the church must be undergirded by actual family relationships: real husbands, real wives, real parents, real children. Sometimes the church tries to blur these lines, and make it as if, for example, my son isn’t really my son, but if we’re adults, we are all “parents” to him. And while that is kind of true in one sense—I hope you all would protect Jack and love him as if he were your own, should it come to that—in another way it’s not true at all: he’s my son. He’s my responsibility, and Loanne’s. The church is not meant to replace family. This is important to make sense of what’s coming next, because Paul is going to turn to the subject of how the church deals with widows; and what he’s going to say will not just show us the care the church is meant to give this particular group of women, but also as an example of how not to take v. 1-2 to unhealthy extremes.
2) Widows (v. 3-16)
The Bible has a lot to say about widows. For most previous generations, being a widow was harder than being a widower. For a woman whose husband died, everything changed. As John Stott wrote, “Too often a married woman is defined only in relation to her husband. Then, if he dies, she loses not only her spouse but her social significance as well.” So the church was expected to help fill the hole left by a woman’s husband, first by providing for widows.
The question is, practically, how does the church do this? How should widows be provided for, and more specifically, which widows should fall under the church’s responsibility to help? V. 3: 3 Honor widows who are truly widows. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to 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.
So the church should help those widows who are truly in need. Now we know from the context that he’s not merely talking about what we think of as “honor” (i.e. recognizing someone’s value or worth), but that this honor should work itself out in financial provision—v. 8, 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. So if she a widow has kids or grandkids, then those kids or grandkids must learn to take care ofand provide for their mother! V. 4: 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.
You may have never heard this, but we often say in Christian circles that “Your first church is your family.” I used to find that expression a bit extreme. But it’s not—if you can’t serve your own family, if you refuse to support and care for your own mother, you are betraying a fundamental lack of understanding of the gospel. The gospel should reorient our thinking to such an extent that we treat everyone with the same kindness and generosity and thoughtfulness with which God has treated us in Christ. We often take this to mean that we should show generosity to all people, and that’s true; but somehow we forget to put our own family into that category of “all people”.
Which makes absolutely zero sense. Look at v. 4 again: if a widow has children or grandchildren, LET THEM FIRST LEARN TO SHOW GODLINESS to their own household. So listen to his logic: if you are unable to show kindness and generosity to members of your own family, then whatever kindness and generosity you show to others is probably not motivated by the gospel; it may be kindness, but it is not godliness. If I cannot show generosity to members of my own family, my generosity is more likely motivated by pride or self-interest than a true understanding of the gospel, because my family “has to love me,” so I care less what they think of me. If these women’s children are still around, they are called to learn to show godliness to their mothers, and free the church up to care for those truly in need (v. 16): Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. Paul is saying, essentially, “These women may not have families. If they have children, if they have relatives, then those relatives should provide for them. But what about those women don’t have families? If they are born again children of God, then guess what? They are our mothers; they are our sisters. So it falls on us to care for them.”
Now after this, something interesting comes up that we need to make sense of. Paul says in v. 9, Let a widow be enrolled if… So he’s talking about a kind of list, or a register, of widows, and the qualifications he gives for enrollment in v. 9-15 are different from the ones he gave in v. 3-8. So most commentators agree (and we’ll see why) that this enrollment is speaking of those widows who wish to devote themselves to service after their husbands have died. So he gives some qualifications for these women: 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.
This woman has proven herself to be holy, to be pursuing Christ with her life: if she has had children, she has cared for them well (physically and spiritually); she has shown hospitality to others (Christian or not); she has cared for her Christian brothers and sisters; she has cared for the suffering; and she has generally shown that she lives for God and not for herself. Widows who filled these criteria would be “registered…to undertake similar ministries as an accredited church worker…[which] would also necessitate a decision to remain unmarried, indeed to take a ‘pledge’ to this effect, so as to be fully available for service.”
That’s why Paul says to not put younger women on this list. V. 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. [That is, going back on their pledge to devote themselves to the church.] 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.
In other words, young people tend to be restless, and if they have too much free time they tend to get themselves into trouble. Remember, this was at a time when women could not work, could not provide for themselves, so the context was different. For that context, Paul is simply putting forth very common-sense reasons for the age limit: if these young widows remarry and have families, those families will help protect them from temptation; they will keep them centered as they grow into the older women they aspire to be.
4) Our Two Families
Now, I said at the beginning that there is a greater reality at work here, which Paul takes as a given so doesn’t take the time to explain, but that we need to understand if we want to see what Paul’s really getting at here. There’s a moment in the gospel of Matthew which is pretty shocking: remember, Jesus’s mother and brothers were looking for him, and someone told him, and he said (Matthew 12.48-49),“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” He’s not saying family is not important; one of Jesus’s last acts before dying was to make sure someone would look after his mother (Jn. 19.26-27). Rather, he is saying that as important as family is, there is another family which is even more important, which our immediate families reflect, and which our immediate family serves.
Paul said in Ephesians 1.4-5, In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ. The church is the community of all believers, united in Christ; and through faith in Christ, we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God—we are all members of this massive, global family. A local church is not merely a small piece of this family—as if it were only partially ‘the church.’ The local church is a living representation of the fuller picture of the universal church. We are no less united to one another now than we will be in heaven one day.
Our earthly, physical families are a representation of this greater reality—our marriages represent the covenant between Christ and his church; our parenting is meant to reflect the love and care and guidance of our heavenly Father to his children; our loyalty and love to our real brothers and sisters reflect the faithfulness and love we are meant to have for one another. In other words, my family is not an end in itself. It reflects the greater truth of the family of God, and it exists to serve the family of God.
So keeping that biblical reality in mind, look at this passage again. Paul is taking different situations—two involving widows and one involving general relationships between believers—and showing how families and individuals interact within the greater family. A person (in this case, a widow) may come to a point in her life when she wants to devote all her time, all her energy, to ministering to the family of God, and in which she is free to do so. This is a wonderful, beautiful thing. In fact, it is so wonderful, and so beautiful, that if there is the slightest chance she may be tempted to drift back into the life she once led, if there is the slightest chance she may desire to return to the immediate joy of having a family, she shouldn’t do it. Not because that joy isn’t legitimate—it absolutely is. What is illegitimate is committing to serve the family of God…and not being faithful to that commitment. And because Paul knows this will be a serious temptation to some, he wants to protect these women, so he gives Timothy guidelines to ensure that they are protected.
Another person (in this case, a widow) may come to a point in her life when she is unable to care for herself—her husband is dead; she has no children; she is too old to work; she is left without resources. So if this dear woman has no earthly family to provide for her, the church should fill that role, because the church is every bit as much her family as her earthly family was.
Until that point—while we still have families and are still able to provide for ourselves—we still have to deal with the reality that we are truly and eternally united to other Christians, for they are truly our brothers and sisters, adopted by God. And our bond to one another is even stronger than our bond to our earthly families, because we will be united to one another for all eternity. So we are called to 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.
So how should these massive truths change the way we live our lives as Christians today, in 21st-century Paris? There are many applications to this text, but let’s be content with three this morning. Firstly: our families are not merely a means for earthly happiness. They are that, but they are so much more. Our families among the most immediate tools God has given us to make us holy. The Bible tells us that we grow in holiness in community; God did not design the Christian life to be lived in isolation from other believers. And the community of which we are most immediately a part, with which we have the most interaction, is our family. So the way we love our family, the way we care for our family, the way we provide for our family, gives us a constant indicator of our growth in holiness. For if we cannot adequately love and care for our family, with whom we’re so close and whom we see so often, how will we ever hope to love and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Secondly, if you are without an earthly family, know that you are not lacking anything which will make you eternally happy. Ultimately, our families will last for a few decades, then will be gone. But if we are united to Christ, we are also united to our brothers and sisters in Christ, which means we truly are family, and we will be family for all eternity. We’ll be enjoying one another and loving one another and experiencing one another’s companionship for the next billion years, and more. So if today you are not married and you do not have children, and you’re terrified of the prospect of going through life without them, don’t be. You may be deprived of a temporary, fleeting pleasure on this earth (which is real); but you will be richly provided with eternal, full joy in your heavenly family for all eternity. In ten million years, looking back, you won’t be thinking about all that you’ve lost, but rather all that you’ve gained.
In the meantime, lastly, we cannot and must not reduce church to the place we go on Sunday to sing songs or listen to a sermon. Look around you—you will enjoy the people all around you, if they know Christ, for all of eternity. And you will enjoy them rightly, without the burden of sin and distorted relationships and ego marring what you have. So let us begin enjoying those relationships now. Let us love older men as fathers; older women as mothers; young men as brothers; young men as sisters, in all purity. Let us fight hard to cultivate to make sure our relationships with one another reflect what they actually are.
And if today you don’t know Christ, whether you have a family or not, this is God’s invitation to you this morning: join the family. Place your faith in Christ; know that you are forever adopted by God as his son, as his daughter; and love him for the God that he is—a Father to the fatherless, protector of widows, and lover of the foreigner. Christ died in order to give you access to this adoption, through the forgiveness of your sin. Love him, and live for him, with your brothers and sisters, forever.