“Where Have All the Widows Gone?” – Schizophrenia, Part Two


As promised, it is time to get into 1 Timothy, but I’d like to take an important sidetrack to start. It starts in the form of church structure, something which we try to emulate in Churches of Christ.

Historically speaking, we do not know what deacons did in the first century any more than we know exactly what the distinction was between elder and overseer. When one looks at the church of Jerusalem (and other churches, like Antioch, Corinth, etc. as well), one does not find deacons, but only elders, very likely because of the structure of a synagogue. Where we find deacons, namely in Philippi (Philippians 1:1), Cenchraea (Romans 16:1) and Ephesus (1 Timothy 3:8-13), we don’t know what they were doing; all we know are qualifications, and that from 1 Timothy 3. There are more verses spent on widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16) than on deacons and yet we do not have established widows’ ministries in our churches. Paul does give clear instructions on what he wants to happen with widows, both older and younger, and yet we do nothing to support widows in our churches. Have widows disappeared? Have husbands stopped dying? Maybe widows don’t need as much help as they used to need. Is that true? Is it easier to be a single parent today than it was in the first century? I really doubt it. Why don’t we have an established way of taking care of them like the church at Ephesus had? Why is that not important to us?

This is in my opinion a curious case of a clear example (i.e. in our hermeneutic of command, example, necessary inference) of something that is clearly not cultural, at least in the sense that widows exist in both cultures and need help, that has not even been attempted to be followed in our churches. What is our justification for ignoring this? I really know of none; we just simply ignore it. Maybe someone else can explain otherwise. If so, please enlighten me.

Continuing on with 1 Timothy, while we are busy ignoring the example of the widows, we spend much time in making sure women are kept from the public eye based on our understanding of 2:11-15. Here is the NRSV translation:

11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

What we tend to leave out is 2:8-10, which reads (NRSV):

8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.

One thing that has always seemed problematic to me is how we treat Scripture as if it were written directly to us. Some would deny the need for studying the historical context to understand the situation better, as if doing this somehow took away from the authority of Scripture. Some might try to get around the implications of Scripture this way, but others, wanting to avoid this, would rather promote a misunderstanding of Scripture if that were what we’ve always thought. This is a good example in the text under discussion. If this letter were written directly to us, it sounds strange that men should be told to pray “without anger or argument.” I don’t know about your church, but I haven’t found it to be the case that men have a problem with anger and argument when it comes to prayer in the church that I attend. While I think we would agree that these have no place in prayer time, it seems that we could also see that there is some historical situation in Ephesus about which Paul knows something we do not, and so he is addressing it in this verse. Men at Ephesus were having a certain problem with anger or argument (or both) in prayer and it needed to be addressed.

Continuing on this trajectory, and back to our schizophrenia when it comes to application of Scripture, women in our churches do wear braided hair, gold, pearls, expensive clothes (not to mention provocative clothes, which is probably a much larger problem), basically everything that Paul tells women NOT to wear here in 1 Timothy 2:9. I ask again, knowing the answer, is the distinction between rich and poor any different today than it was then? Is it more proper today for those with wealth to show off by wearing extravagant clothing and jewelry, thereby exalting themselves and in some sense shaming those with nothing, than it was in first century Ephesus? If this problem has not gone away, then why aren’t we dealing with this issue? This is a command! And we ignore it! And in this same passage we condemn those who “lift up holy hands” today, even though it is a command to do it! What is this about? Is this a cultural thing? Was there something happening in Ephesus with certain rich women that Paul needed to handle just as he did with the men who had anger and were arguing when it came to prayer time? I think we would agree that this is possible. So, then, does historical knowledge help us interpret Scripture? It seems so.

Going further along this trajectory, could it just be possible that 2:11-15 deal with something historically happening in Ephesus just as the previous three verses, whether we know exactly what that was or not? Let’s look at some things that we do not understand. 2:15 says, “she will be saved through childbearing” if she continues in certain ways of behaving. Not only does that sound like being saved by works, how does childbearing have any place in salvation history? I am a man who cannot bear children. What do I do to be saved? I think the point is clear that, yes, even here, there is something happening at Ephesus that Paul addresses that makes him write these verses to Timothy. Due to the word connection between 2:9 and 2:15, which both use the term for “modesty” (it is the same Greek word), it is extremely likely that the women who dress extravagantly are the same ones that Paul is addressing here in 2:11-15. A further point, without even going into a serious examination of the Greek text, concerns whether or not this is about wives and husbands at home or about some form of church gathering. It is at least possible that what Paul is saying in 2:12 is that he does not permit wives to have authority over their husbands, and is not speaking categorically about all women being subject to all men. The example of Adam and Eve, a husband and wife, gives even more credence to this interpretation, though I will not push the matter further. It is also at least possible that the false teachers mentioned in 1:3-7 are the same wives that are teaching error and it is these who are told to be silent. This is not clear, but it is at least possible. There is also a possible connection with 5:13, young widows who are going from house to house spreading gossip (teaching too maybe?), who are referenced here, but the connection is not clear. It is interesting that the same Greek word is translated “woman” here in 2:11 and is translated “their wives” (even though the Greek word for “their” is not in the Greek text) in 3:11, though that very likely refers to women who are deacons, not wives of deacons, but I will get into that more deeply next posting.

Finally, as I believe that our inconsistency has been put forth pretty clearly as I understand what we have done in selecting certain parts of 1 Timothy to follow while ignoring others, I will whet your appetite for next week by mentioning one final passage, this time from Romans 16:1-2. The NRSV, against ALL other translations, I realize, reads:

16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2 so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

I submit to you my firm belief that if there were a male name before the word here translated, rather appropriately I might add, as deacon, we would have no problem saying that he held the office of deacon at the church of Cenchraea. Since it is a female name instead of a male one, we resort to torturous interpretive methods to confute the “plain meaning of Scripture” because our current understanding of women’s roles does not allow for a woman to be a deacon. Is this virtuous? Is this an attempt to understand Scripture? Just because we have a problem with the idea that a woman could learn in silence and still be a deacon, does that mean Paul also had this problem? In my opinion, Paul did not see a contradiction where we see one. Is this his schizophrenia or ours?

Where have all the widows gone anyway?


8 Responses to ““Where Have All the Widows Gone?” – Schizophrenia, Part Two”

  1. DeJon Redd Says:

    Duane, appreciate the words, but I’m sure you would expect it from me.

    Here’s my beef. You personally read the text with more insight and context than most. And while I appreciate your explanations to me (an example of the average pew-sitter) there is someting with which I’m losing all patience.

    Its the anti-educational bias. Likely held by those that most staunchly oppose views contrary to popular belief.

    I understand these folks are trying to demonstrate faith and walk in obedience to God to the best of their abilities. But you’ve seen it–the emotion that pours forth when culturally accepted traditions are challenged by text-based challengers/thinkers.

    Not only am I suppose to tolerate this spiritual immaturity, I’m supposed to love the anger-filled pseudo-believer.

    That’s why I’ve come to see much of the so-called faith associate with church attendance as a bunch of hogwash.

    We don’t really get it. Do we?

  2. Sandi Says:

    Duane, I appreciate your thoughts. I am not really qualified to participate in this discussion, not having been to church in several years. It seems to me that the verses about widows highlight the fact that the Bible was written within a specific historical context that is not necessarily applicable now. For much of history since the writing of the Bible, widows probably have needed financial support — because men were the possessors of all of the wealth. Thankfully, that is much less the case now than it used to be. I would find it offensive for a church to have a “widows’ ministry”. Financial support should go to those who need it, no matter who they are. Widows are not necessarily more likely to need support than anyone else.

    The verse about braided hair, gold and pearls also belies those who say that the Bible must be read literally. I doubt you could find many Church of Christ members who literally believe that you cannot wear pearl earrings or your wedding ring to church.

    I guess I just don’t really understand fundamentalism at all. It seems like the same kind of black/white, anti-nuance dogmatism that annoys me in the political realm too (on both “sides”). The interesting questions and the most enlightening answers inevitably involve the ability to admit that we don’t know everything.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Not a lot of time right now, so I’ll just offer a little play-by-play:

    Duane: Modern practitioners of Christianity are generally schizophrenic, saying that they believe the Bible was written directly to them, but not acting like it.

    DeJon: I hang around with these people. I find the schizophrenia troubling.

    Sandi: I don’t hang around with these people. I find them troubling, too.

    Al: I’ve got to go to Wal-Mart.

  4. Bob Lollar Says:

    Duane, Part and parcel with our schizophrenia is our fellowship’s ignoring or completely denying any historical occasion to the letters of the NT. It’s almost as if one was on an island and found a corporate letter outlining the behavior of some employees at a water cooler in the world trade center and trying to (without context) apply the behavioral expectations to those on the island. This a-historical paradighm has been around for a long time – so long in fact we don’t even remember what we did or thought 50 years ago. But there is also another problem that I understand and in many ways empathize with: a loss of identity. I faced this yesterday morning when one of our respected a nd well loved members told me he was offended by the Nativity scene on the background of the song slides. “Church of Christ doesn’t teach these things about the birth of Christ. There was no Nativity scene in the NT.” I know the background of the brother and he’s going through some tremendous changes in this life right now; and the one thing that has been his anchor is now changing. He just can’t face anymore change right now. I guess I find it ironic that our tradition, which has basically ignored “historical” context, ignored the history of thought about God and the people of God finds losing its own recent “history” so painful. The only answer left is to keep the dialogue open and maybe be creative like the prophets. Bob

  5. DeJon Redd Says:

    Yeah, Bob — Would’ve been less controversial to put a snowman or reindeer.

  6. Whitney Says:

    Hey guys,
    This is not at all related to Duane’s post, and Duane, I’m really not trying to hijack you. I just don’t know another way to post this.

    Joe finally made it to Cuba. If any of you would like his e-mail address, e-mail me and I’ll be glad to give it to you. I don’t want to paste it here.

    He’s getting settled and said life down there is like living in a small town. He’s in an apartment with one other guy, so he’s by no means roughing it.

    Unfortunately, he doesn’t have Internet access at “home” and he can’t access any site that requires a username/password at work. That being the reason he hasn’t posted anything here. He should be up and running in a few weeks.

    Thank you all for your prayers while he’s gone. Merry Christmas to all of you!

  7. Duane McCrory Says:


    However best to get the word out, I don’t mind. I’m glad to hear he has arrived safely.

    I agree with you on much of your comment, but find it hard to understand how a “widows ministry” would be offensive to you. Maybe it would be more culturally appropriate to have a “single parents ministry” instead, but I find that without some focus, saying in the abstract that we should help people who need help really does not result in anything getting accomplished, in my experience that is. I would envision such a ministry that would be only part of a larger focus on helping people as you mention, but with certain foci and certain leaders to gather groups of people to focus on certain needs, if that makes sense. I’m trying to keep this short, but it might seem rather vague.

    For the rest, I knew I brought up several areas of interest in this post and wondered where people would target for comments. The anti-intellectualism is a serious problem.

    I think it goes back to what Sandi said about “black-and-white” thinking. Things are not so simple as some make them out to be.

  8. Coolhand Says:


    You’ve done a tremendous job of articulating what a lot of us believe instinctively, I think, without being able to express it so clearly. I think perhaps the most valuable thing you’ve done is to force us to wrestle with the coplexity of these issues. Like Bob said, many people cling so tenaciously to their traditional ideas because they’re comforting and provide greatly desired clarity. It’s much easier to be able to fall back on the party line as to what you believe on an issue than to explain why or to do the hard work of untangling these thorny issues. Thanks for being willing to do that work.

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