One of those rhymes that long ago lost the original author is one I’ve heard occasionally over the entirety of my six decades of church life on this planet:
To live above with saints we love; oh that will be glory. But to live below with saints we know; well that’s a different story.
Our text today talks about the “nuts and bolts” of church family life. And I will say that I love the analogy of the church as a family and speak of it in those terms regularly. It is an excellent illustration and picture of both the bad and the good.
When I think of my own family, it is a mixed bag of stuff. Being adopted within the family system was at once both a merciful act of grace and benevolence, while also creating a lifelong set of strange and awkward relationships.
The passage today may seem strange to modern ears. But remember that this is in the context of a world and culture that did not have life insurance programs and social security systems, etc. An older woman who became a widow, particularly without family who would care for her, was in a very vulnerable life position. How should a church handle this sort of situation?
Paul writes to address some of these matters and to establish some policy for the function of this new institution called the church of Jesus Christ. It would involve grace, love and benevolence beyond anything that was to be found in the regular world of people. Yet at the same time, the church was not to be responsible for taking upon itself the expense and energy of caring for someone who should rightly have their organic family be responsible by priority to support their own.
Even the opening two verses of this section—directed to Timothy about his manner of interacting with categories of folks within the church—speaks of doing so in the form of a healthy family. This would involve respectful love and gentleness.
Yes, the church is a family. So it always confuses me and pains me when people do not lovingly care for and respect one another deeply in the family of faith. Under your own roof you would not ignore a person with a serious need, even if they did something to assist in bringing it upon themselves. So why would you walk a circle around a needy person in the church?
And I’ve always found it strange that people can so easily change church families without it creating relational havoc and deficits. A time may come when a new housing and living arrangement is simply necessary in the organic family, but you wouldn’t just up and leave the relatives behind without it being a big deal for everyone involved. So why would hopping from church family to church family be easy or healthy to do?
As well, in the organic family you would not just disappear unannounced for weeks at a time and only show up for holidays or when you had nothing better to do some other place. So why should anything less than regular church family interaction be seen as anything other than relationally unhealthy?
All the people sitting around you on a Sunday morning that are a regular part of the local church community are your spiritual relatives. There should be a deep level of affection and mutual care that seeks to meet genuine needs. It may not always be easy, but families are messy … yet necessary for success.
5:1 – Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
3 Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. 5 The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. 6 But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. 7 Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. 8 Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
9 No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, 10 and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
11 As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry.12 Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. 13 Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. 14 So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. 15 Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.
16 If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.