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Summary: Balancing the responsibility of the family and the church for vulnerable family members is discussed.

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“If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.” [1]

The Apostle admonished Timothy to instruct the congregation that they must assume responsibility for their own families. When the families of members of the assembly have been cared for, the congregation must then take care to ensure that any members who may have fallen through the cracks are provided for. This was a major advance in the social ministry of the apostolic churches. It freed up the resources of the congregation to serve even more people and encouraged family responsibility to act christianly before the watching world.

As we have seen, the early congregations did not attempt to choose between evangelism and social ministries. For them, it was a case of “both/and”; these first saints understood that they were responsible to care for the vulnerable within the assembly and they were responsible to evangelise the lost. Churches today that list to one extreme or the other are distorting the teaching of the Word. We are to warn the lost of God’s coming judgement, pointing them to the safety of the Cross of Christ. At the same time, we are responsible to serve the needs of those whom God brings to us. This is clearly taught in these Pastoral Letters. The message today concludes our studies of Paul’s instructions concerning care of the vulnerable in the assembly.

OBSERVATIONS — In a previous message, I observed that the instructions Paul provides are notable for what is said about women. [2] Speaking of younger widows, Paul said, “I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” [1 TIMOTHY 5:14]. Speaking of a woman managing her household, the Apostle makes a remarkable statement for that ancient day, and perhaps even for this day. In that culture, women were to be quiet and to have no role other than bearing children. However, the Apostle used a powerful term that literally means that a woman is to rule over her house.

The word that the Apostle used (oikodespoteîn) is a hapax legomenon—a word found only here and in no other place in the New Testament. This is a compound word comprised of the words “house” (oîkos) and “rule” (despotéō). Paul had earlier used the word “house” to describe an elder who manages his own household well [1 TIMOTHY 3:4] as an indication that he is fit to lead the congregation. The same concept is used to speak of a deacon [1 TIMOTHY 3:12] who is to manage his or her own household well. The same word also refers to “the household of God” [1 TIMOTHY 3:15]. The word “rule” is the word from which our English terms “despot” and “despotism” are derived. The nominal form of the word is used to refer to the master of a slave [1 TIMOTHY 6:1, 2; TITUS 2:9] and of God as “Master” over His servants [2 TIMOTHY 2:21]. After being threatened by the Jewish Council, Peter and John returned to their fellow believers, which became the occasion for a prayer meeting. As they began to pray, they addressed God as “Sovereign Lord.” The word was this same cognate form of the word “despotéō” (despótēs).

In the Gospels, the ruler of the household is always a male. Consider a few examples that are witnessed in the parables Jesus told. “The servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds’” [MATTHEW 13:27]?

Again, Jesus told another parable centred on an individual who was master of a house. “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country” [MATTHEW 21:33].

Permit me to cite one final example in evidence of the contention that one who was “masters of the house” was presented as a male. When Jesus provided instructions to the disciples who were dispatched to secure a place to observe the final Passover Meal, He stated, “Wherever [the man carrying a water pot] enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples’” [MARK 14:14]? Throughout the ancient world, men functioned in this role. I must wonder whether Paul’s statement was seen as controversial; I can only assume that such was the case.

As Canon Liddon has observed, “The application of such a word to a Christian wife implies the new and improved position which was secured to women by the Gospel.” [3] Paul’s word choice was either a faux pas, meant to be deliberately provocative or it was indicative that a new freedom, a new reality held sway among the saints. The very fact that this must be discussed in this day reveals how dysfunctional the churches have become. Women were discriminated against; but today they are combative in asserting their right to assume positions of what they construe as power among the faithful. Too often, the churches have become reactionary rather than responsible in the sexual arena.

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