A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and the Pastorals (part VIII: 1 Tim. 5:9-16)

When I went to copy and paste this section (below) from my paper in to this post, I took a step back and noticed how lame this portion of my paper was. Not lame as in: not cool; but lame, as in: shoddy academic work. Yikes. This portion of scripture, after having studied it in greater depth a couple of years back, is powerful; the work I did on it in seminary doesn’t reflect that in the least. So, what was supposed to be a quick: copy, paste, edit, and release has turned in to a brand new portion of the paper. I will be relying heavily on Philip H. Towner’s TNICotNT commentary: The Letters to Timothy and Titus. It’s a work I highly recommend to anyone wanting to understand more about these short pastoral letters.


An interesting note, and not one that I think I’ve covered before, is that these letters (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) are personal letters. When we read them, we need to look at them throw this lens, they weren’t written with the intent to be read to the congregation at large, like some of our other letters (Ephesians, Colossians, Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians). These are letters to two people: Timothy and Titus. Reading these letters without taking into account that the author of the letter was writing as a father to his sons will deliver to the reader coal rather than the diamonds that they are.  So, these letters while powerful and deep in theology are also chock full of fatherly advice, loving given to ears that were tuned in to listen and receive.  You and I have those people in our lives that we consider to be as fathers and mothers, and they have the unique position to guide and direct us without causing offence because our hearts are oriented toward them and we know, maybe even first and foremost, that their’s are directed toward us. When we remove this facet of these letters and uniformly and coldly apply certain aspects and concepts broadly and beat our parishioners over the head with them, we will not only send the sheep scattering (a grave problem in and of itself), but we will also miss out on the depth and richness of the spiritual father and son relationship embedded in the letters and, thus, we will lose out personally and dare I say spiritually.

So, I cease my prattling; and continue to the previously scheduled post.


1 Tim. 5:9-16

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.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. 13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busy bodies, 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. 16 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.

(To note, Timothy is serving in Ephesus. For a brief history of the cultural situation of Ephesus, click here.)

The process of taking care of widows is not a new development in Paul’s letters, specifically here.  The tradition of the Israelites made provisions for widows in their community; also, the ancient Greco-Roman legal system.  Winter writes,

The Graeco-Roman world sought to make sure that a widow had security by giving her shelter with her dowry in the household (oikos) of her elder son, her other sons of her father.  Someone in that social unity became ‘the lord of the dowry’ (kurios or tutor mulierum) and accepted responsibility for her financial support….In Athens there was not only a moral but also a legal obligation placed upon children to care for both parents, and failure to do rendered them liable to prosecution in which ‘the prosecutor ran no risk of punishment’.  The Roman woman had similar security (Winter 126).

vv.9-10.  Towner makes mention that the “enrollment” referred to in v.9 is enrollment on to a list, but, as he points out, “nothing in the term itself reveals how formal the procedure was or in what sort of group the process determined membership” (345).  Paul, specifically in v. 9 (and also in v.10), lays out the terms for being a “real” widow, the women who needed the church to step in and care for them; this is less about, according to Towner, what type of ministry the widows should take up within the church. He writes, “But references to activities in v.10 are backward reflections on activities that determine character, not references to ongoing service. Furthermore, given the typical life span of that culture and day, the age stipulation would mean that these real widows were int he closing years of their lives, not at a point in which to take up new ministries” (346).

Behind the mention of age, comes the widow’s life itself. Like all the other times Paul speaks about what qualifies someone for something, marital fidelity is high on the list. The widow was to be, to quote Towner, “‘a one-man woman'” (346). Why is this important? Winter describes that the secular literature and some ancient legal sources discuss the lifestyles lead by widows of the ancient society, “It descried their lifestyle as ‘behaving promiscuously’ (katastrayniasosin) (5:11), i.e., they were guilty of stuprum.*  Roman law used this term to describe the sexual indiscretions of single women, widows, and divorcees, rather than adulterium, which was the term reserved for the indiscretions of married women” (124).

Oh, Grandma!

In the list of what qualifies as “good works” (done in faith), rearing children falls first, “…since typically the widow’s sphere of activity would have been the home, Paul inquires about her skills as a parent (this begins the enumeration of the good deeds).  Raising children successfully was one of the marks of the ideal woman in the Greco-Roman and Jewish world…” (Towner 118). In other words, she did her duties as wife and mother, well. The mention of hospitality is as it sounds and not as some would want you to hear it (did that make sense?). This is not about the cleanliness or beauty of her home, but the openwardness of her heart toward traveling believers, that she conducted her self well as the matron of the house, that–in this act–furthered the church’s mission (Towner 347).

About “washed the feet of the saints”, Towner writes, “Probably, however, the references is to an act that became a symbol for humble service, its metaphorical extension being suggested by the general application here to ‘the saints'” (348). And “helping those in trouble” is a reference to her station (widowed) and her ability to now help those in need, she is “strategically placed to actively bring relief to the afflicted of the community” (348), and she is quite free to do so. And the final “devoted to all good works,” “…provides a last open-ended condition that describes the acts of service by which the ‘real widow’ will be known” (Towner 348). Far from being a list of ministerial duties for an “order” of widows, this list highlights that the only things that separates these women from the other godly women in the church are: age, death of her husband, and her destitution. For all intents and purposes, Paul is advising Timothy: her faith and the work of the Spirit in her life qualify her for enrollment.

vv.11-12 Who does not qualify? The younger widows. Who are they? The terminology should be understood as: any woman who is a widow yet still of re-marriageable age (Towner 349). Why? Libido. Towner writes, “The language implies that the young widows had adopted a lifestyle characterized by sexual misbehavior and that this negated their dedication to Christ (cf. 1 Cor 7:34)–that is, their lifestyle contradicted their profession of faith. This pursuit of promiscuous behavior is clearly thematic and strongly suggests involvement in the lifestyle of the ‘new woman'” (350). So, if you are a young widow and still in burning-age, then you are not only encouraged not to seek enrollment but the elders of the church are encouraged not to let you on the list… at all.

So, the young widow should remarry. But, the language Paul uses for the desire to remarry while “on the list” is rather negative; her desire to remarry will bring condemnation. Why is this? For having abandoned their former faith. What does this mean? There’s a lot written about why and how the why is formed, but for your sake (and because this is a blog post) I’ll skip to Towner’s conclusion, which I think suffices:

It is possible to construe the distinction as turning on the alleged ‘vow’ not to remarry: vv. 11-12 depict remarriage as vow breaking’; v. 14 depicts the remarriage of those who have not taken the vow. In such cases those encouraged to remarry in v.14 are only those young widows who have not taken the ‘vow.’ But it seems far less complicated to reconcile the two views of remarriage around the issue of marriage to unbelievers, in keeping with earlier Pauline instructions (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39). Apparently, Paul envisions young widows led by their enjoyment of promiscuous behavior to marry unbelievers. Since typically the wife would adopt the religion of the husband, remarriage to unbelievers would involve actual rejection of the widow’s ‘first/prior faith in (commitment to) Christ.’ Indeed, Winter suggest that abandoning their Christian faith may have been a precondition of marriage to unbelievers. When Paul turns to encourage young widows to remarry in v. 14, he assumes marriage to believers (352).


It’s a rather merciful move on Paul’s part here in his advice to Timothy. By not accepting young widows on to the widows list and avoiding a vow to celibacy (as the requirement for her to be on the list is: no husband)–a vow which may be broken because of her marriageable age and her desire to marry–Paul seems to be protecting the young widows from falling from the faith.  If we look at it like this, I might be able to shed more light on the subject: if there is an existent atmosphere of promiscuousness within the culture at large, then those who have taken a vow of not engaging sexually and who are now feeling the overwhelming desire to engage sexually would be more likely to stray outside the church to fulfill their desires, thus denounce their faith and marry an unbeliever. The condemnation brought by the law in facing our temptations forces us into the dark and not into the light. So, by way of eliminating the presence of that law–a law that very well would be difficult for a young widow to fulfill  and, thus, bring death (because of her natural desires)–Paul offers her freedom and life. Freedom because she is free to burn and to remarry all within the church community (without shame) and wind up marrying a believer; life because now she won’t stray to marry an unbeliever (because of her shame).

v. 13  Young widows are excluded from the list not only because of the high chance they’ll burn and want to remarry and thus abandon their faith, but also because of their tendency to be idle, to gossip, and to be busybodies.

Ouch, Paul. Just…ouch.

At first glance, my feminist leanings get quite agitated. But, looking a bit more astutely, the reasons behind why Paul is saying what he’s saying are sound and probably are more based on his understanding human depravity rather than, strictly, womanhood.

Let’s look at this. What happens to you when you have no responsibilities and are bored? It’s a fair question. What happens to me is this: candy crush….oh! And, candy crush soda saga…yeah…annnnd…anything else that will alleviate my boredom but is not “work.” Without the internal nagging or the external need of something that has to be done (and even sometimes when there is that internal nag and external need), I will fill my time with fluff, or worse…your fluff. For all intents and purposes, an idle lauren is a dangerous lauren.

And so it goes for Paul and the young widows.  Towner writes,

…’idleness’ is described as something that has been learned, the die being that their enjoyment of church support with little to do has left them with time on their hands.

Their idleness or lack of direction is described as ‘going about from house to house.’…without household responsibility to occupy their time, these young widows were moving through the household terrain where they felt comfortable and had easy access. Probably one of Paul’s concerns was for the power they could exert among the women of the household with whom they would have chatted and gossiped. As C. Osiek suggests, this segment of the social structure (women in the household) operated according to its own rules of honor and shame, were adept at keeping confidences, and represented an influential power bloc that could determine or, equally, threaten the community’s stability (353).

An idle widow, is a dangerous widow.

And, to complete the picture, their idleness and flitting leads to gossiping, busybodiness, and saying things that should not be said. Gossiping we understand. Busybodiness is akin to being nebby (if you’re from Pittsburgh) or, for everyone else: meddling. The last phrase is a bit more opaque in meaning. There is the hint of teaching in the Greek, but that shouldn’t be over-stressed; if it’s anything, it’s casual conversation that might, in the slightest, be a means for learning something. But one of the best ways to understand what those things are that should not be said is: “spreading (perhaps inadvertently) elements of the false teaching as they went from house to house” (Towner 355).

v.14 So, the young widows are encouraged to marry, have kids, and manage their household (the greek verb implying “ruler of the house” and carries with it a great deal of authority (Towner 356)). And in so doing, give the adversary no room for slander.  What does this mean? Towner explains,

But the final prepositional phrase is causal and is better taken as explaining the potential cause/source of the opportunity Paul seeks to prevent; thus ‘give no opportunity to the enemy on account of reviling.’ In this case, an additional agent is implied, that is, some unnamed agent responsible for the act of reviling. This will be a person or people since the term used to describe the verbal attacks envisioned here is used o fpeople. Presumably, Paul means those outside the community, and he therefore has the church’s public reputation in mind (356-7).

The singular (“the adversary” or “the enemy”) is best understood as Satan, “…who operates against the community in concert with the criticism of those outside (as in 1 Tim 3:7; cf. Rev 12:10)” (357). And, as in most other places where Paul speaks about “roles” or “house-codes,” his biggest concern is the promulgation of the gospel and protecting the church, “…protection of the church’s reputation in the world has the promotion of the gospel as a significant goal” (357).  In all things, this should always be our goal as faithful believers–men and women. It’s a sober reminder: the proclamation of the gospel should always be my first and main priority, above and beyond any of my other personal interests and leanings.

v.15 The strong exhortative language from v.14 culminates (in my opinion) in v.15: because we’ve already lost some who have strayed after Satan. Turning away from Christ is turning toward Satan, “Paul’s employment of the polemical vocabulary reserved for the false teachers places their fall into the category of a ‘turning away’ from the apostolic faith (see 1:6), that is, apostasy…by pursuing a lifestyle marked by sexual promiscuity and rejection of traditional values (vv.11-13) they have endangered themselves and potentially the church’s reputation” (Towner 358).

v.16 Here Paul returns to the primary concern of the pericope: caring for widows (358).  Those women who had the means (financially and situationally) to care for the widows should do so. “If women take on the responsibility of helping widows, then the church (1) will be freed of the responsibility (‘burden’) to do so, and (2) thus enabled to care for the community’s ‘real widows'” (Towner 359).

In conclusion, I’ll quote Towner:

Paul walks the fine line between dealing with what might be regarded as a church-specific problem and the wider society’s evaluation of the church. The bottom line is that in this case, too, behavior adopted in the church or sanction by the church ultimately affects how those on the outside reared the church. In the case of the Ephesian widows–both from the perspective of the obligation of families to meet their needs and the perspective of how young widows live their lives–Imperial culture stood ready to evaluate the respectability of what would be perceived as Christian behavior (359-60).

It is always my opinion that in these portions of scripture, Paul’s first and primary concern is the proclamation of the gospel. When we begin to look at these passages of scripture through this lens, then what is exhorted takes on a life in it’s proper historic time period and also provides for us good markers to live by. None of this is about what a good woman who is widowed should do to be righteous or to be deemed a good woman, but about how she should act to protect the Gospel.


*”STUPRUM, civ. law. The criminal sexual intercourse which took place between a man and a single woman, maid or widow,who before lived honestly. Inst. 4, 18, 4; Dig. 48, 5, 6; Id. 50, 16, 101; 1 Bouv. Inst. Theolo. ps. 3, quaest. 2, art. 2, p. 252.” Taken from: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Stuprum