During Christianity’s early years, church structure and organization took a back seat to evangelism and the resulting explosive growth of the church. The early Christians not only believed that the return of Jesus was imminent but also were under constant threat of persecution from Jewish and Roman authorities. In the beginning, the church was under the direct supervision of the apostles, men who had been personally chosen by Jesus to lead His church. Given that most churches were relatively small, there was little need for them to have formal authority structures and governance policies.
However, things began to change over the decades. Thanks to dedicated missionary work, churches grew in size, and Christianity quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire. But the apostles who were still alive were growing old, and many others had been martyred. It also became increasingly obvious that Jesus might not return for some time. Christian leaders needed to plan long-term, and this meant implementing policies and procedures that would enable churches to survive.
Guidelines from Paul
This situation is why the last three letters—1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus—that the apostle Paul wrote focus on church governance. In these letters, Paul lays out the qualifications for elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9), emphasizes the importance of regular preaching (2 Tim. 4:1–5), and encourages churches to remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:14–17).
Paul knew that his time was nearly up and that the churches would need a formal structure, along with procedures and regulations, to continue after he died. Today, nearly 2,000 years later, churches still rely on the qualifications outlined by Paul when assessing church leaders as they remain as relevant today as in the first century.
However, the longest and most detailed set of guidelines for churches gets little attention now. In 1 Timothy 5:3–16, Paul encourages churches to honor widows and provides detailed criteria to distinguish between those who should be and who should not be financially supported by the church. In order to qualify for financial support, widows had to have no immediate family members capable of supporting them, be at least 60 years old, and have a record of faithfulness to their husbands.
Paul is clear that young widows should not be enrolled in the church’s support program because they are able to work and support themselves. They also could remarry and have children who would support them in old age. Paul does not want churches to be burdened with supporting people who do not need support. Given the large number of needy people within the church, it was important to provide churches with guidelines that made it clear where financial aid should first be directed.
These guidelines, of course, made sense in the first century. Women had extremely limited rights in the first-century Roman Empire, and they were dependent on their husbands for financial support. At that time, there were no government social programs, and no one had life insurance. When a husband died, the wife lost her protector and provider. Unless she remarried or her children looked after her, the widow was likely to become destitute and dependent on church charity.
Paul instructed churches to . . . do good to everyone but especially those in the household of faith (Gal. 6:10) . . . If your church has not had a serious conversation about how it supports the poor and needy, now would probably be a good time to have one.
Challenges in creating a widows list
As sensible as these guidelines were then, they seem outdated now. In fact, does anyone know of a church that uses Paul’s criteria in deciding who deserves support? This section of Paul’s letter to Timothy tends to get little, if any, attention. Plenty of sermons address the biblical qualifications for church leadership, but precious few talk about the biblical qualifications for deciding who is truly a widow or in need of help.
But let us not be too quick to relegate Paul’s instructions to the dustbin of history. Obviously, our cultural context greatly differs from what the first-century church faced. Today, churches still support the poor, but more governmental support programs and nonprofit charities provide support now than 2,000 years ago.
Of course, it is good that becoming a widow today does not necessarily mean financial destitution. This is one area where we have definitely made progress. Certainly, in North America, it makes little sense for churches to try to literally follow Paul’s instructions to create an official list of widows to be financially supported by the church. This would not only be nearly impossible to administer but also undoubtedly lead to a lot of hurt feelings.
The principle behind the instructions
The Bible includes many commands that cannot be implemented literally today but still contain important lessons. For example, Paul commanded that the recipients of his letters must read them aloud in the churches (Col. 4:16). This command was important because few people could read, and books were not widely available. Hearing Paul’s letters read aloud was the only way most Christians could learn what Paul had said. But now that most people are literate and Bibles are widely available, we obey this command today by encouraging people to read their Bibles.
Paul also urged the Corinthian church, specifically, to collect money for the church in Jerusalem because Christians in Jerusalem were in financial need (2 Cor. 9:1–5). Obviously, we do not take weekly offerings for the Jerusalem church today. Rather, we apply this principle by using offerings to help churches that need support—particularly those in poorer communities and in less developed nations.
Similarly, we should also look at the principle behind Paul’s instructions regarding the widows list. The key thing that Paul wanted was for the church to direct its financial support to people who are most in need while encouraging people who can support themselves to do so. In addition, Paul instructed churches to prioritize their own members when providing financial support, to do good to everyone but especially those in the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). Paul’s command was that church leaders must be responsible stewards of the money that they receive, and they should address local concerns before turning their focus elsewhere. There is nothing noble about sending money to overseas missions while ignoring needs at home.
Applying this principle
My home church in Steinbach has sought to carefully steward its offerings. This means showing discernment about which people and causes to support. For example, every year, my church conducts an annual Thanksgiving offering. Half of the funds raised go to the local church budget; the other half is split between two organizations—one from within the community and another that does relief work in other countries.
This decision is not made lightly. The church governing council not only meets to carefully review potential recipients but also presents the options at a congregational meeting so that members can make an informed decision about which organizations to support. Obviously, this means that church leaders spend significant time doing background research before the congregational meeting. This type of accountability is a great way of ensuring that all options are reviewed carefully.
Of course, this requires church members to participate as well—by both attending the congregational meeting and asking intelligent questions about the options presented. All members of a church should take an interest in the financial decisions being made by their leaders. While budget meetings might seem dry and tedious at times, ensuring that money is spent wisely is important.
First Timothy 5:3–16 includes another principle, which is to ensure that churches are properly organized. Some Christians have the idea that it is not “spiritual” to worry about things like money, membership lists, building projects, and church meeting protocols. They suggest that we should trust the Holy Spirit to take care of organizational details. However, that is not how Paul says that God leads His churches. Yes, we need the Holy Spirit, but that does not mean we do not need to do the hard work of ensuring that churches are properly managed.
God is not pleased with disorderly meetings or financial irresponsibility, no matter how spiritual it sounds. Nor does it please God when churches hastily decide to send a donation to an organization that church leaders have not properly vetted. If first-century churches had to keep an official widows list, churches today need to be well organized and take care of the needy within their midst. Just as not all widows were worthy of support in the first-century church (vv. 11–14), not all charitable causes today are equally deserving of support.
Supporting the needy
How well is your church being managed? As Christians, we have a duty to ensure our churches are responsible stewards of the resources they are given. This means that we must select responsible people as elders, deacons, and deaconesses to make sure these important functions are carried out. To be clear, this does not mean that ordinary church members are off the hook. We are all accountable before God for our decisions and the way in which we use our resources. Let us remember to take this responsibility seriously.
We are not going to rush out and create a widows list in all our churches today. However, we must not lose sight of the principle behind Paul’s detailed instructions. If your church has not had a serious conversation about how it supports the poor and needy, now would probably be a good time to have one.