Finally, rounding out his words for Timothy and the church in regards to widows, having given this group a seemingly inordinate amount of attention, Paul writes “If a believing woman has widows in her family, let her help them. The church should not be burdened, so that it may help the widows who are truly in need” (5:16). While Paul’s words clearly operate at a level that allows the church for all time to ascertain direction and ideals, one can’t help but believe that Paul has some specific people in mind here as he writes. We have little reason to think otherwise, and we have even less reason, considering the fact that Paul is dealing with specific situations that have arisen in the church letters, to imagine that Paul is suggesting guidelines to be applied to the church universally and for all time. What should get our attention, when considering how to apply these words of Paul, are the counter-cultural elements and the implications for service within the church and the church’s interaction with the world.
We stumble dangerously into anachronisms if we lose sight of the fact that Paul writes to real people, in real churches, at a definite time in history, dealing with real and pressing situations as the church sought to find its way in representing the kingdom of God while standing against the forces, though defeated by the cross and by the Resurrection, that sought to infiltrate and destroy the people of God---attempting to destroy the church’s ability to stand as witness to its sovereign Lord. When we take the honor and shame competition of the day into consideration, while also considering the possibility that in all of this talk (concerning overseers, deacons, and widows), Paul has certain problematic individuals in view, we can move helpfully away from reading this letter solely as some tractate concerning church discipline, and instead read it as a clarion call to a church, through the apostle’s emissary, to continue to align itself with kingdom ideals, seeking the way of the cross and of shame, as all honor continues to accrue to Jesus.
Bringing honor back into focus, and remembering that the activity of the church is designed to ultimately increase Jesus’ honor in the court of public opinion (honoring the man that suffered what was known as the greatest shame, which is a truly radical notion), we now hear Paul say “Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his pay.’” (5:17-18) It does not seem unreasonable to propose that Paul has himself in view here in this section of the letter. One could surmise that Paul is answering accusations that have been leveled against him, as self-defense is a semi-regular feature of the Pauline library. Most assuredly, the quotation from the twenty-fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, in regards to the ox, is not Paul finding a proof-text in regards to being paid for his teaching, with pay becoming equivalent to “double honor,” nor should it be construed as such. Rather, the entire section from Deuteronomy must be considered, and the context on offer is that of adjudication.
There we read “If controversy arises between people, they should go to court for judgment. When the judges hear the case, they shall exonerate the innocent but condemn the guilty. Then, if the guilty person is sentenced to be a beating, the judge shall force him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of blows his wicked behavior deserves. The judge may sentence him to forty blows, but no more. If he is struck with more than these, you might view your fellow Israelite with contempt. You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain” (25:1-4). So the statement about the ox is connected to controversy, judgment, exoneration, sentencing, and the carrying out of a sentence. If Paul is indeed referencing himself as the elder who provides effective leadership, then he is also demanding the double honor of just treatment. Why should he receive anything less? Though he is willing to suffer for his children, he will not be subject to unfounded accusations.
At the same time, we know Paul does not demand honor for himself, especially considering the fact that he writes things like “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man” (1:13a), while also referring to himself as the worst of sinners (1:15,16). He is happy to shame himself, with this self-shaming serving as a functional groundwork for what is to come, but he is not about to put up with slander and attacks, which, if we see Paul as the elder, seems to be implied. Perfectly in line with the Deuteronomy reference, and in another Deuteronomy quotation, Paul goes on to write “Do not accept an accusation against an elder unless it can be confirmed by two or three witnesses” (5:19). Of course, the possibility continues to exist that the elder is not, in fact, Paul referring to himself in the abstract, and that there is another problem in the church, which also runs back to the idea that this is not to be viewed firstly as words that establish church doctrine, but as words to be understood inside a historical and cultural situation that can, after appropriate processing, be applied as an operative principle for the church at large.