At the same time, Paul does not romanticize widows, and does not unduly elevate them, as he still stresses the equality of the church and the need for all to be treated equally---this was the counter-cultural corrective to the usual treatment of widows. It stands written: “Honor widows who are truly in need” (1 Timothy 5:3a). Unsurprisingly, Paul commences with the use of “honor” language. As is known, this goes far beyond treating them deferentially or simply respecting them, as talk of honoring widows affords them a status (a status that is to be shared by all, as all honor would ultimately be directed to the Lord that has subjected Himself to the greatest shame) which they would be unable to attain outside of the church. This is balanced with the “in need,” as Paul keeps the unity of the church body in view, always cognizant of the fact that the scale, owing to the social conditioning that is a component of human nature, can often be tipped too far to one side, with widows being afforded honor that is quickly converted to rank, status, and special privilege.
The “in need” is followed up with “if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to fulfill their duty towards their own household and so repay their parents what is owed them” (5:4a). Here one notes the mention of “their own household,” which is a contrast with the church body, which, owing to the fact that the gatherings of the church took place in private homes around a common meal, would be often referred to as a “household.” Though there would be no honor involved in caring for a widowed mother or grandmother, and especially because there would be sacrifice on the part of the children and the grandchildren, it is insisted upon that “this is what pleases God” (5:4b). Speech, conduct, love, faithfulness, and purity indeed.
In contrast to the widow that has children or grandchildren, “the widow who is truly in need, and completely on her own, has set her hope on God and continues in her pleas and prayers night and day” (5:5). As part of the non-romanticizing of widows, on the other hand, “the one who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives” (5:6). Here, it is necessary to make a further point about honor and shame, in that shame was equivalent to death. So an interesting construct has been created.
Paul insists that widows that are truly in need be honored, which will include her receiving the support of the church body and their meeting all of the necessities of her life, which is contrary to cultural norms. This has been tempered with a call to duty for children and grandchildren of widows to live sacrificially, in accordance with the demands that the Creator God has placed upon His covenant people. Paul then revisits the widow that is truly in need, who should be on the receiving end of the honor that would not normally come to her, pointing out that part of her commendation stems from her continuation in pleas and prayers, contrasting that with the widow that is concerned only with the pursuit of pleasure (Epicureanism?), who is already dead (shameful).
To this is added, “Reinforce these commands, so that they will be beyond reproach” (5:7)---reproach being a term of honor versus shame, as conceptions of honor and shame are reworked and appropriately retooled within the church. Though the church community will not be structured by perceptions and assignments of honor and shame, Paul very much desires the community of the covenant of faith to develop new and revolutionary ideas in regards to that which is truly honorable and deserving of honor, and of that which is shameful and deserving of shame. To that end, he insists that “if someone does not provide for his own, especially his own family, he has denied the faith,” the mark of the covenant that is calling Jesus Lord, with all that is implied thereby, “and is worse than an unbeliever” (5:8). For the body of Christ, there could be no greater source of shame.