A Pepper Grinder Post

Ministry for the Average Person - Part 5

In the last four posts, we looked at Titus 2:1-5 in an attempt to find out what ministry looks like for the average Christian. In Parts and , we saw that Paul wants older men and older women to have seriousness and strong Christian character. Paul especially commanded the older women to teach the younger women. In Parts and , in a flurry of compound words, we found that younger women should be husband-lovers, children-lovers, and home-workers.

For me, as a guy who (I like to think) has not quite arrived at the position of being an older man, it leaves me wondering, "What am I supposed to do?" Even for the older men, the passage in Titus focuses on character qualities more than marching orders. One thing is clear. All Christians are given gifts and roles to fulfill in the church. (For more on this, see .) So both men and women should be pursuing whatever their particular calling is. But is there some general thing all men should be doing, similar to Paul's exhortations to women in Titus 2?

I believe there is, but it's found in an unusual place. Here is what Paul says when giving instructions about caring for widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-8 (my translation):

Honor those who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let these first learn to do ministry in their own households by repaying their parents or grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. But those who are widows and left all alone put their hope in God, and offer prayers and requests to him night and day. The widow who lives a life of self-indulgence is dead, even while she lives. Command such widows to be above reproach. If anyone doesn't provide for his relatives, and especially the members of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.

cornOne of the things that makes this passage seem foreign to us is the difference in the government's role in helping the poor in our day from that of the Roman government in Paul's day. The Roman government of that time actually DID have a program to help provide people with food, but it was quite different from the government programs designed to help the poor we find in many countries of the world today. For one thing, the Roman program was limited to a provision of food (just corn at the time the New Testament was written). This corn was usually not given away, but sold at a reduced rate. Perhaps most different of all from many modern welfare programs was the fact that this subsidized corn was not just offered to the poor, but to all Roman citizens who lived in Rome. As you may know from the story of Paul after his arrest, being a Roman citizen was a pretty special thing. When you then limit the recipients of this Roman version of welfare not just to Roman citizens, but to citizens who actually lived in the capital city, you have a relatively small group of people who enjoyed the government's largess.

This means that without a doubt, the widows without relatives Paul is speaking of would have no safety net, since they were not living in Rome, and were unlikely to be Roman citizens in any case. They usually would have little if any way of making money, and if family members or groups like the church didn't help them, they might literally starve to death. Most of the early Christians were not wealthy, so the church had limited resources. Because of this, it was critical that children and grandchildren help out their parents and grandparents. Paul is commanding something that is intensely practical and very much needed.

In this way, it's no surprise at all that Paul commands this. One of the things that made me sit up and take notice, though, was how he talks about it. I translated the phrase of interest as, "let these first learn to do ministry in their own households." The NIV translates the phrase as, "put their religion into practice," while the New KJV goes with, "learn to show piety at home." The main Greek verb we're trying to render into English often has the sense of worship. When I hear "worship," I picture someone singing, with their hands raised to God, but it is clear that what is meant here is something a little different. I think someone providing for needy relatives is doing a kind of worship or ministry, but it is an intensely practical type of ministry. As the NIV conveys, it is a way of taking our love for God and expressing it in practice. Just to be sure we don't miss the point, Paul adds, "this is pleasing to God."

old womanAn unusual thing about this passage is the way Paul jumps back and forth between talking about what is expected of widows, and what is expected of relatives of widows. After the initial command to take care of those who are truly widows (by which Paul means widows who have no relation they can turn to for support), Paul addresses those who have relatives who are widows. Now he jumps back to talking about what the ministry of older widows is, or at least should be. (Paul talks about younger widows a little later in 1 Timothy 5:14.) Their ministry is intense night and day prayer. Paul doesn't expect these widows to go out and get useful employment, and he isn't asking them to get plugged into some church program. He is asking them to pray. He expects them not to have the goal of satisfying their own desires, to the point where he says that widows who do this are as good as dead.

I think we often sell prayer short. Pastors talk about the importance of prayer, but it seems to me that in many churches I have been in, there is much more focus on what the church does than on how it prays. It was refreshing to me when my wife and I visited a church (not in our area, sadly), where the church acted like one of their most important ministries was prayer. They trained prayer teams. They gave many opportunities for people to ask for and receive prayer. They acted like praying was one of the most crucial things they did.

Now suddenly we jump back to people with widowed relatives. This is where Paul really lays it on the line. He says, "If anyone doesn't provide for his relatives, and especially the members of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever." Wow.

Probably the most interesting part of this verse to me is the phrase, "he has denied the faith." Here again, we have that connection between our Christian faith and the very mundane task of providing the necessities of life. Many modern societies have striven greatly to separate religious belief from the sphere of the practical and scientific realities of life. "Yes," we're told "You are totally free to hold your own beliefs and to worship as you please on Sunday morning." However, if, for example, we have the immense bad taste to let those beliefs influence what drugs we are or are not willing to pay for our employees to receive, then we have crossed the line from being a "religious person" to being a "fanatic." The Bible makes no such distinction. Our faith is to pervade and influence everything we do. This connection is so strong that if we refuse to use our money to support family members in need, we have "denied the faith."

At this point, the astute reader might be saying, "Hold on a minute. You started out saying you wanted to find out if there was some universal ministry men are called to, but this passage doesn't say anything about men." Good point. It's true that when the verse above says, "if anyone," it uses a masculine version of the pronoun. On the other hand, Biblical Greek, like most languages with which the gender police have not yet caught up, can use masculine pronouns either when males are meant, or when it refers to a mixed group of men and women. So which is it in this case? I believe that males are meant for a very simple historical reason. When Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write these words, it was very unusual for a woman to earn money. Anybody reading this in the first century would know that of course the "anyone" who was supposed to be providing for his immediate family and relatives would have to be a man.

axe and glovesBut what about now? In many places in the world now, people would expect a woman to go out and earn a living, just as much as they would expect a man to. Why should something that was written to a society where men and women had vastly different roles apply to our society, where they don't? The most compelling reason for me is what we saw in , about women's calling. The calling of women to be home-workers is part of a package deal. If we decide to excise that portion of Paul's teaching, like a surgeon removing a tumor, then the ultimate authority on what is true and what is not has become US. This is a problem.

Admittedly, this is all somewhat tricky. I do believe that some parts of the Bible, such as parts of the Old Testament law, no longer apply to us in the literal ways they were written. On the other hand, in light of Matthew 5:17-19, I don't think simply chucking any part of the Old Testament out the window is a good idea. Although I think men's and women's roles is a subject where sincere Christians may have a difference of opinion, I would be very careful about deciding not to follow a pattern laid out for the early Christians. If you would rather believe that being the bread-winner is not solely or primarily the job of men, you should be super careful about deciding that is the correct interpretation of the Bible.

Join me , as we look at some of the practical implications of this teaching.


*Photo Credits: Corn by , old woman by