Monday, October 24, 2011

Church Life as Family

I once heard a conference speaker tell me that I was God’s favorite. What was immediately confusing about that statement is that I wasn’t the only one in the audience. Others must have heard him say the same thing. Which means that a few hundred were told they were God’s favorite. Which seems to diminish the idea of what it means to be a favorite just a little bit.

The fact is the Bible says that God is no respecter of persons in the sense that He has no favorites of earthly influence. He doesn’t need to.

At the same time, God’s word is also clear that He is always looking out for widows and orphans in a significant way. Take one example (there are several):

God in His holy dwelling is
a father of the fatherless
and a champion of widows.
(6) God provides homes for those who are deserted.
He leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a scorched land.
(Psalm 68.5-6, HCSB)

As we have worked our way through the letter of 1 Timothy, we have previously noted a couple of places where Paul implies that the family unit is like a little church, and the church is like a big family. God cares how families treat each other, and particularly how families treat their orphans and widows. At this point in his letter, in 1 Timothy 5.1-16, Paul addresses the way we treat each other in the church, responding to each other and our needs. How can we regard our fellow church members as family?

We treat every member with gentle respect. (vv. 1-2)

Verses 1 and 2 of chapter 5 could perhaps align better with what came immediately before them, but it seems appropriate to understand them as part of a larger discussion on family-church life. Paul speaks of our interactions with fellow church members, that communication should happen with gentleness and respect, as if they were family members. He adds a special phrase as a reminder to treat young ladies with all purity. So first, we are to treat each member of the church (family) with gentle respect. But there is another important admonition.

We care for true widows with loving support. (vv. 3-16)

This is a large grouping of verses to put together under one point, but they begin and end with the exhortation to assist those who are genuinely widows, or truly widows. Paul describes widows who are left without any family to help take care of them.

God’s word is clear that the church has a responsibility to help take care of those church members who have no one else to assist them. He says that if anyone has family members, the family should provide assistance, monetary and otherwise. Those who could help but refuse to do so are, according to the Holy Spirit, “worse than” one who claims no Christian faith at all. The Scripture simply recognizes that even those not operating from a Christian ethic understand the basic desire to and necessity of support for family members. Christians who don’t are without excuse.

Here God sets up a process whereby genuine widows (and perhaps by extension, anyone who is without any real means of support) can and should receive assistance from the church when possible. Paul and the church there know that many people tend to abuse the assistance process, and so he sets in place a series of guidelines as to who should receive the available support. The list or enrollment mentioned in verse 9 implies those who qualify for support. Regarding widows, to receive church assistance, he said they must be:

  • Genuinely left without support (vv. 4-5, 16)
  • Genuinely trusting in God (vv. 5-7; contrast vv. 11-15)
  • Genuinely faithful in serving (vv. 9-10)
  • Genuinely senior in age (v. 9; contrast v. 14)

Paul doesn’t want the church or the process to be abused, so parameters are set in place. And there are pretty stern warnings for those who reject this plan. We’ve already noted the “worse than an infidel” section. But notice also in verses 14-15 that those who would abuse this process for support are risking the accusations and temptations of Satan himself. This is serious business for the church to get right.

Why? Because the church is the community of truth. And how we treat widows really matters.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]