Although the Old Testament has several admonitions to watch out for the widows, I know of only three passages in the New Testament that can guide the churches in dealing with widows. Two of these are in the context of the Jewish church, but that should not hinder us getting some guidance from them.
I will start with the last one. James 1:27 states, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." This teaches us to visit the widows in their affliction and does not address the issue of support. We will not dwell here.
The key reference for this subject is 1Timothy 5:3-16. Paul is clearly dealing with an issue Timothy has had to face. Personally, I can see the young preacher Timothy being taken in by needy widows who were not really needy. After one or two were taken in, others wanted the same benefit and the arguments and hurt feelings that you would suspect from such conflict began to hurt the church. In order to avoid unnecessary financial burden on the church (and possibly on Timothy as well), Paul set up guidelines for which widows needed to be supported by the church. As difficult as the guidelines are, it seems that Paul did not think that this should be done often. Here is a summary of the qualifications from 1Timothy 5:
- They are to be destitute of children or nephews who could take them in or help them (v.4). If she has family, it is their responsibility to care for her. Those who will not care for a widowed mother or aunt are worse than infidels (v.7-8).
- She is to be known for a steady and consistent prayer life (v.5) and not be given to living for pleasure (v.6).
- She needs to be over sixty years of age (v.9).
- She needs to have been married only once in her lifetime (v.9). Note: the thought behind these last two points is that younger women and women who have married before are more likely to marry again (v.11-12). This also shows that the idea that the widow indeed who is supported by the church is "taken into the number" (v.9). Evidently, she is expected to continue her prayer and service ministry while being supported by the church. This support is not simply a free ride.
- She must have a testimony of ministry during her lifetime (v.10): bringing up children, lodging strangers, washing the saints feet (a proof of her spirit of hospitality), relieving the afflicted, and doing every good work.
When younger widows receive support, they tend to become idle and busybodies (v.13) and some turn aside after Satan (v.15). It is better therefore to encourage the younger widows to remarry and take care of their household (v.14). Paul closes this passage by declaring once again the primary responsibility of family members in the care of widows (v.16). They need to do it so that the church will not be charged.
If strictly applied, there are probably few widows that would be taken in by the church, and that seems to be the purpose of Paul's teaching on the subject. However, we must remember that Paul is speaking here of full support for the widows. There would be other cases where temporary or partial help would not require such strong prohibitions. In other words, helping a widow with an occasional utility bill would not require the same restrictions as providing full support would.
The final passage that deals with care for the widows is found in Acts 6:1-4. Although this passage may give us some help in dealing with widows, we need to be careful not to force these practices on the New Testament church. Paul in 1Timothy 5 is dealing directly with the issue of churches supporting widows. The situation in Acts 6 is quite different. First, the church in Jerusalem is going through its temporary early stage as a communal organization. Everyone sold their goods, gave them to the apostles, and lived off the gifts. This was never required of the early disciples and it did not last long. It is not a solid example for present-day church practice. Second, the assumption that the seven men chosen to care for the widows are deacons is just that--an assumption. Although these men may be good examples of deacons, they are not called deacons and we cannot use them as an authority for what deacons must do. This church was run by twelve apostles; not a pastor (though James later seems to take that role). It is not at this time a solid pattern for church order for today's churches.
The problem was that the widows were "neglected in the daily ministration" (Acts 6:1). That means that in the communal operation of the early church at Jerusalem, there was a daily administering of food and supplies to the believers. The church was divided into the Jews who fully held on to their Hebrew heritage (usually coming from Judaea or Galilee) and those who had taken on many practices they had learned from the Greek culture of the time (mostly from other parts of the empire). It is similar to the distinction today between orthodox and reformed Jews. The Grecian Jews were considered outsiders by the Hebrew Jews. Evidently, these prejudices were not erased by their faith in Christ.
What happened is that the Greeks saw that their widows were not taken care of while the Hebrew widows were fully cared for. This caused such a murmuring among the congregation that the apostles determined that something must be done. They were concerned that dealing with such carnal issues would take them away from the ministry of prayer and the word. Therefore, they led the church to choose seven godly men to take care of the problem.
Although there is nothing wrong with a church deciding to generally follow this pattern in their own operation, it is not a binding command for churches today. These men may have been an early stage of what later became deacons, but they were not the rule for what deacons do today. That is decided by the individual church. Paul gives the qualifications of deacons, not their duties. Evidently, they do what the leadership of the church determines they need to do. In this, the incident in Acts 6 is a good pattern.
Finally, what is our responsibility to widows today? We should certainly pray for them, visit them, encourage them, and help them when they have special needs. In certain cases, it would be right to fully support them. However, in this day and age in America, very few widows are destitute to the level required by Paul. Fewer still meet spiritual requirements he laid out. But again, this is not to say that we do not give aid to widows or others in need. I have made it a general rule of our church that no member of this church will be allowed to go without food or be put out on the street. However, since financial problems are often the working of God to teach us how to live, I do not attempt to solve their financial problems. If we do this, we will soon find ourselves paying for their cable television and meals at O'Charley's. Though each case must be considered separately, the biblical guidelines will help us much in approaching this problem and need.