Summary: Should the congregation have an "Order of Widows" to serve within the assembly?

“Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 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. But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. 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. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan. 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]

Counted among the members of most of the churches of our Lord lies an untapped source of power. This power of which I speak is resident in each church, though it is ignored in most. This power is present in our own congregation; and if utilised at all, it is underutilised. Should that power be unleashed, it would have an impact far out of proportion to the source. The power of which I am speaking is the power of godly women—widowed and with a desire to focus on God’s glory.

The issue which Paul addresses is poorly understood, especially in the modern context. In part, this is the result of a transition over time from an order of widows to an order of virgins, especially among many liturgical churches. The order of widows that is presented in outline form in our text was at one time referred to as “the altar of God,” [2] a term that appears to have first been used by Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John. The term, when applied to the widows, was an indication of the high respect accorded these godly women. [3] The rationale behind this particular designation was that the widows received support from the churches, just as funds were brought to the altar, and because they blessed the people through prayer and fasting on behalf of the congregations. It is a statement of the high regard of the labour of prayer and fasting on behalf of the congregation, a regard that is muted among too many of our churches in this day.

The order of widows was responsible among the churches in which they ministered to pray and to minister to sick women. These were not deaconesses; they were assuredly widows. It was expected that these widows would conduct these ministries primarily from their homes, not wasting time running from house to house, spreading gossip or stirring up quarrels. They were to be models of godliness and decorum.

There appears to be a story to tell here—one that is almost forgotten in the mist of time. Give me your attention as I endeavour to unravel some of the historical context in order to open some exciting possibilities for our own congregation.

THE ORDER OF WIDOWS — “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age… Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.” The Apostle has been focused on moving to action any family with a connection to those in need. The general principle is that each family is responsible before God to care for its own members. Whether a family counts among its numbers a widow or a widower, an orphaned child, someone who is physically or mentally incapacitated or even an individual who is unable to work for a period, the family is responsible to ensure that family members are provided for.

It should be an axiom among the churches that families provide for their own members. It should not be assumed that those who did not have family were neglected; the account provided in ACTS 6:1-6 makes it clear that all widows represented in the assembly were cared for. Though the discussion concerns widows, it should be obvious from previous studies that the Apostle’s instruction enjoins involvement of the congregation for any who are vulnerable. My personal conviction is that no member of the assembly who is truly incapable of providing for himself or herself should ever be compelled to appeal to government for assistance. It is significant that one ancient account speaks of over fifteen hundred widows and persons in distress in one particular congregation. [4]

In effect, we witness two orders—one order, informal and supported by their own family; the other, formally established by the elders and supported by gifts from the church. It is apparent that Timothy was to supervise the ministry of widows including regular monitoring of the approved list, finances and responsibilities. It is this latter group of widows—widows monitored by the elders and supplied from the gifts of the congregation—that will occupy attention in the remainder of the message this day.

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