Thursday, May 31, 2012

Widows (part 3 of 3)

Continuing what has turned out to be a rather lengthy dissertation on widows (a normally dismissed and marginalized segment of the populace---Paul’s extensive treatment of widows should tell us quite a bit about the way the church should operate), Paul goes on to write “So I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us” (5:14). From whence might this vilification arise?  It could arise from younger widows “going around from house to house,” learning to be lazy, while also being “gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not.”  The directive to marry, raise children, and manage a household fits well with that which Paul also says about overseers and deacons.  The overseer “must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity” (3:4).  Likewise, “Deacons must be husbands of one wife and good managers of their children and their own households” (3:12).

To the avoidance of vilification, Paul adds “For some have already wandered away to follow Satan” (5:15).  Here, he still writes about widows.  Lest we think that Paul is specifically singling out widows, or that he is calling out women in general for being gossips and busybodies, we can readily see that the same type of language has already been on offer in his talk of overseers.  We must not allow ourselves to think that Paul is being overly harsh with the women of the body of Christ.  Rather, we must hear him within the context of his efforts at leveling out the church, realizing that Paul believes that all classes of people are to be treated equally. 

Whenever our initial reading of a passage leads us to believe that Paul is placing general restrictions on a class of people in such a way that could lead to the structuring of spiritual hierarchies, to the demeaning or restricting of a group based on ethnicity (Jew/Gentile), gender (male/female---especially the passages about women being silent in the church), or social status (slave/free/widow/children), or the erection of a spiritual authoritarianism inside the church, it serves us well to re-read and re-think the text until our conclusion concerning the text accords with the egalitarian nature of the church as it was envisioned by Paul (as he attempted to live out and encourage what he understood to be the mission and vision of the church as enacted by Jesus and informed by the prophets).  Paul demands to be heard in his historical and cultural context, as the church found itself attempting to countermand, through the manifestation of the Spirit of God, the spirit of death that animated the world into which the church had been placed and out of which it had been called, that it may serve that world well (a bit of the paradoxical mystery of the faith---called out to be separate so that it may serve and transform, functioning as the kingdom of God and being the point of overlap between heaven and earth---the Temple---as an ongoing foretaste of the new creation and restoration of the earth).    

So as we consider whether Paul is being heavy-handed with groups of women, we can look to the third chapter and read “He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact.  And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap” (3:6-7).  This has followed from “But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God?” (3:5), which has followed the fourth verse and talk of managing a household, controlling children, and maintaining dignity.  Remember, we need to be looking for Paul’s efforts at leveling out the body, in contrast to the culture, rather than setting up hierarchies.  

Taken together then, not only do the words sound very similar to that which is spoken of widows (“for some have already wandered away to follow Satan”), but combined with the need to be well thought of by those outside the faith, we can here sense a prohibition against being a gossip or a busybody, about being lazy, and about going from house to house talking about things they should not.  There’s no reason to believe that this is somehow the exclusive domain of women.  If this is what will give the adversary the opportunity to vilify the church when such activities are undertaken by the widows (those normally dismissed by the wider culture), how much more then when the overseers of the meal table---the ones who would naturally be looked upon with as leaders of the assembly by the surrounding world (though they do not hold a formal position)---engage in the same.  Concurrently, we can notice that the same words are not applied to deacons.  This is understandable, because as table servants, they would not be accorded the same type of respect by those outside the church as would the meal overseer, though those who serve are accorded the highest honor within the church.  Such is the nature of Paul’s witness to the church, as he always has his eye on the church’s interaction with the culture, and its need to be a counter-balance to the stifling of true humanity that takes place in the cultures that do not bow the knee to the Lordship of Jesus.

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. 

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