Updated: Apr 26, 2021
It’s not just what we teach people; it’s how we treat people.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Timothy 5:1-21
Paul tells Timothy that the basis of his ministry in a church will not only be how he teaches, but also how he treats others. He is to treat all groups (particularly widows) with respect. And he is to teach the church members to do the same, particularly as they look after the needs of the pastor.
But if anyone does not provide for his own family, especially for his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5:8
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
How Much Should We Pay Our Judges?
If you want to get your people thinking down an interesting path, just ask them that question. I’m hoping you get an answer like “enough that they don’t feel like they have better opportunities elsewhere” and “enough that they won’t be easily bribable”. Eventually you’ll find people in your class who think they are wildly overpaid and those who think they are wildly underpaid. Cut the debate off at that point; there’s no way everyone in your class will agree on “how much is too much/too little”. The point: if we want high-quality judges who are not susceptible to bribes, we need to pay them adequately. It’s no coincidence that the five most corrupt systems in the world (Venezuela, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, and Pakistan) are among the poorest with the most aggressive “private” industry. (Incidentally, America ranks 19 by the World Justice Project, owing to some situations of political influence.)
If you don’t want to talk about judges, almost any profession will work for this opening illustration. Just find something where corruption is a real fear. The point of this would be to transition to pastors. How do churches determine how much they pay the pastor? In my first church, we had people who believed openly that the pastor should not make more money than they did (they were laborers, just fyi). What kind of a message do you think that sent to the staff? There’s a great deacon joke: “God, You keep him humble, and we’ll keep him poor”. What kind of an attitude is that? What happens when a pastor makes too little money? (In addition to moonlighting and/or quickly leaving the church, there’s the possibility of falling prey to the influence of purse-keepers.) Paul tells us that the worker is worth his keep. I encourage all churches to take care of their staff.
Get off My Lawn!
A totally different approach you might take would be to have your class tell some memorable “Mr. Wilson”-type story from when they were growing up. Maybe an older neighbor said something to the effect of “hey kids, get off my lawn!” to you, and so you played a prank on him/her? (If you’re too young for this, look up stories of Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson’s love/hate relationship for fodder.) If at all possible, keep it on the more positive stories. Your transition would be to say that there are too many examples of older people treating younger people with extreme disrespect, and vice versa. (In case you didn’t know, June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It sure is. According to the UN, 1 in 6 old-er people experience some form of abuse.) In my experience, many younger people do not feel like they are given respect by their elders. Unfortunately, they do not always act in such a way as to earn it. Likewise, many older people feel like they are disrespected by the young. And guess what, they do not always act is such a way that would earn respect from those young people. Here’s where you would go with this: after establishing that the generation gap can lead to major challenges, explain that in the church every generation is to treat every other generation with extreme respect (as Paul will explain…)
This Week's Big Idea: Old Age in the Roman Empire
Below, I give you a focus on one of the big questions families face today: making the decision on whether or not to put mom in assisted living. Here, I’m just going to talk about general attitudes. Let’s start with some numbers. Infant mortality in the Roman Empire was 30-35%. If you survived to be a teenager, you were very likely to live to 50. If you were still alive at 50, you were likely to live to 65. But the numbers go down quickly. Here’s a rough “life table” (with USA numbers for comparison):
Women Men [USA]
Live to 50 24% 21% [94%]
Live to 60 17% 13% [88%]
Live to 70 8% 5% [78%]
Live to 80 1% 1% [58%]
(I included USA numbers from the CDC/2016 just because I knew you’d be interested.) Wow! The general attitude in Rome was that adults should remain useful to society as long as they lived. And with demographics like that, you can see how that was a reasonable expectation! The oldest living male in a family (the paterfamilias) was in charge of family. He had complete control over all family property (namely his sons and their children). He determined if a child was “legitimate” or “worth keeping”. Once he died, the sons became legally independent. Men often did not marry until their mid-twenties, so it was rare for a paterfamilias to govern the lives of an adult grandchild.
Most of the work in the empire was labor-intensive, either farming, traveling for commerce, or war. But it is not at all strange for us to consider a 70-yr-old doing hard work. The number of men who lived into their frail years was negligible. And about the only jobs conducive to an older person were being a senator or being an educator. (There was a law which allowed older senators to miss some of the sessions if they needed to.) Otherwise, older/oldest people were considered a drag on society and economy once they could not “produce”. Note that this also applied to the infirm or the sick. For example, during a plague in the 3rd century, Romans literally deserted the sick in the streets (Christians, though under heavy persecution at the time, provided care for them).
That’s not unique to Rome. There have been many cultures throughout history that have respected their elders until they became unable to care for themselves. There are some cultures, on the other hand, in which respect and care for the elders has been a core value (see the next aside).
Something I hope to explain throughout this handout: when Paul talks about respecting and supporting our elders, he’s not just talking about providing health care. He’s talking about treating them with respect all around. A discussion you might have with your class is “what does it mean to treat someone with respect?” If we can come to a consensus on that question, I think we can go a long way. (That’s actually a hard definition to agree on; for example, I believe that you can respect someone’s opinion while still disagreeing with it. For me, I think it comes back to the truth that every human has been created in the image of God. Be courteous and sensitive; listen to people and think about their feelings; be kind and polite and gentle. You can do those things without avoiding conflict or ignoring the truth.)
Our Context in 1 Timothy.
I have to admit that I’ve wondered about the transition Paul makes here. He’s been telling Timothy how to handle false teachings and false teachers, and how he is best to conduct himself to show himself worthy of respect. And then it seems that Paul makes an abrupt pivot and is now giving the entire church instruction about how to treat different groups of people in the church. But I think we’re better off reading this passage as an extension of what Paul previously said. Paul told Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely”. Well, how we treat the people in our church is intimately connected to that. Think about it: a pastor teaches sound truth in a church but then has an affair with a member—what has become of his ministry? It’s destroyed. If Timothy is going to be an effective leader in this church, he needs to pay careful attention to how he takes care of widows, and so forth (would you agree? can’t that be a minefield for a leader?).
So, wait, does that mean that our passage today is just personal instruction to Timothy? Well, yes. But, remember that Paul is giving Timothy the tools he needs to build up leaders in the churches who will continue the ministry after Timothy is gone. These are instructions for all church leaders. And when we read these verses carefully, we realize that they are most effective when the entire church family cooperates together in observing them. Everybody in the church needs to understand to whom the money is going, so to speak. Everybody in the church needs to treat each group with respect. In Baptist life, we have a phrase: “every member is a minister”. Consequently, everything Paul says to Timothy in these verses applies equally to each one of us.
Part 1: Respect All (1 Timothy 5:1-2)
Don’t rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters with all purity.
What a way to start the passage! The point is simple: you can be full of Bible knowledge; you can command authority in a congregation; but if you don’t treat people with respect, you will never be the “pastor”, and your ministry will suffer. Now— Even if you’re not the pastor, you’re a Sunday School teacher. Your class members note more (and maybe even care more) how you treat them than what you teach them. Paul is telling us that we have to prioritize both, what we teach and how we treat.
The word “rebuke” has a very harsh connotation. It’s about snapping at a person, or demeaning them in public (shaming them). Why would a young man ever consider doing that?! I can think of two scenarios I’ve observed: (1) a young leader in the church was “feeling his oats” and asserting himself against what he thought were the “out-of-touch” elders in the church; (2) an older person was slowing down physically and mentally and was (even unintentionally) made to look foolish. As hard as this may sound, I think that Paul is telling Timothy never to call out an older person in a public church meeting (except in case of heresy). That seems extreme, but I think that Paul is saying that an older person has earned the right to be pulled aside and talked to in private. The word “exhort” has a connotation of calm instruction.
Note: Paul is definitely talking about “older people” and not “elders” i.e. pastors. I personally prefer to say “respect your elders”, but in this context, some have been confused into thinking that Paul is only worried about elders/pastors here. Not true. Paul is talking about all older people.
I love the language Paul uses. It’s entirely dependent on you having a healthy nuclear family (which Paul did). Treat all older men like your father. Treat all younger men like your little brother. Treat all older women like your mother. Treat all younger women like your little sister. Note that Paul includes the phrase “with purity” there. He’s talking specifically about sexual impropriety—an affair, even between two consenting unmarried adults. But remember that women were basically considered property in that day, so they didn’t have language in the line of “sexual abuse” or “rape” or “indecency with a minor”. Paul is including all of that in his “with purity” line. Church leaders must stay away from any kind of sexually inappropriate dealings with church members—and they can do so by thinking of others as kid sisters and brothers. (Paul isn’t saying that a church leader cannot fall in love with and marry a church member; you can fall in love and get married and stay sexually pure.)
Ask your class members if they find themselves struggling to show respect to a particular age of people in the church. If so, why? How does Paul’s statement address that struggle? What are things we do in our church to show respect to all ages?
Aside: Care for the Elderly in Our World Today
If you want a quick and easy summary of this topic, I trust the oversimplified work of “A Place for Mom”—like this article, https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/10-10-16-how-different-cultures-take-care-of-seniors/
The truth is a bit more complicated—there are scandalous documents about elder abuse in Japan—but they have the gist of things.
Far Eastern cultures have the strongest reputation for caring for their elders. In China, according to the law, parents can sue their children for emotional and financial support (!). In Japan, where real estate is so scarce, it is quite common for 3 or 4 generations to live in the same house. That has gone a long way toward improving attitudes of the young to the old. In Vietnam, elders cook the meals and care for the grandkids; they are considered the source of wisdom and the keepers of tradition.
Unfortunately, the current belief is that 1 in 6 elders around the world (and this generally refers to people over 65) suffer some form of abuse. One expert on this at USC believes that much of that abuse is not intentional—it happens as a result of both stress and ignorance which leads to neglect—which means that education and support can bring that number way down. But as long as life spans continue to increase and the elderly begin to outnumber the young (it’s already that way in Japan), those conditions will only worsen.
The challenge in America is that we so highly value independent living, which leads to an entirely different kind of abuse/neglect—namely that adult children don’t know everything they need to know to provide the best care (be it through distance or willful ignorance), but more below.
Part 2: Care for Widows (1 Timothy 5:3-8)
Support widows who are genuinely in need. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them learn to practice godliness toward their own family first and to repay their parents, for this pleases God. The widow who is truly in need and left all alone has put her hope in God and continues night and day in her petitions and prayers; however, she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command this also, so that they will be above reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his own family, especially for his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
These words can be hard for us to understand because we live in a different world. How do you determine “genuine need”? Well, Paul gave guidelines that were perfectly understandable for that day. (1) Not a widow with living children or grandchildren. It was their responsibility to provide the support for the widow, not other church members’. You might say, “Paul doesn’t know the situation!” But remember the world. Older people with serious health conditions simply didn’t survive. Very few people lived long enough to become frail. 95%+ of all widows really only needed a safe place to sleep and access to food—something that any child or grandchild could provide—and they would even “repay” by helping around the house and caring for little ones. The people Paul was talking about who weren’t taking care of the widow in their family were wrong and selfish. (2) Not a widow of means. Then as now, men died first. And some of those men were wealthy. As the manager of the home, some widows managed to make sure they had plenty of money coming their way. They didn’t need church support, but they were happy to get free support, allowing them to spend their money on other things they wanted (“self-indulgent”). Paul had harsh things to say about that kind of widow. (Paul elaborates more in the verses we skip. He sets the cutoff age at 60 because younger women in that day tended to want to remarry, and they had too much “energy” to sit and pray all day, so they would be busybodies. I assume that Timothy had the authority to make exceptions to this general rule. It might sound like Paul only wanted to help “super-Christians”, but he just means those women who have demonstrated their faith in their works.)
Rather, the widow that Paul told Timothy to support was the one who had no one left to support her (from death or abandonment). All she could do was pray to God for daily bread. And Paul believed that God sent the church to answer that prayer. But the words Paul used to describe the prayers of this widow imply that she was not only praying for her own needs—she was constantly interceding for the needs of others. She was what we call a prayer warrior. We all know widows like that. Our lives are made better through the prayers of these selfless women. It’s not ask-ing much for the church to make sure they have what they need. (Note: the world has changed. They didn’t have utilities and insurance and assisted living and social security in those days. Paul was asking Timothy to make sure that a widow had a safe place to sleep and enough food to eat. That can be trickier to provide in our world today.)
Paul ends with two tough statements. The “command” he’s talking about is for all church members to fulfill their responsibilities for the widows, but I think it might also include telling the widows to be honest about their need. Most importantly, Paul says harsh things about the person who abandons his responsibilities toward his mom or grandma. They are worse than an unbeliever! Why? Because even unbelievers cared for their elderly parents. And God specifically commands us to “honor our fathers and mothers”. As medical care extends our lives longer and longer, this can get harder to do. Paul isn’t saying it should be easy. But it is necessary.
Aside: Nursing Home or Not?
This is a very touchy subject, but I have to believe that it will come up when you go through this passage—this is the one passage that speaks most directly to the subject! I have had many Christian friends who have gone through extreme guilt when they decide that they need to move mom into an assisted living facility. They infer from early Christian texts that Christians kept mom and dad in their homes until mom and dad passed. And that’s mostly true.
But there are significant differences from the first century world and ours. The biggest is that maybe 7% of the Roman Empire’s population lived to be over 70. (By 55, men were excused from certain offices, and by 65, even jury duty.) Think about that for a second. How worried are you about the independence of a 60-yr-old. Or a 70-yr-old? The number of 80-yr-olds in Rome was negligible. (There’s a book I just discovered—Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome by Karen Cokayne; I haven’t read it yet.)
Why is that? Medicine and public safety. And that’s considering the health benefits of living on the Mediterranean! Today, we can nurse people through injuries and illnesses that would have killed them in ancient times. Consequently, the decisions that we have to make regarding the care of our elders are very different today than they were in Paul’s day. If your dad is able to take care of himself and even help out around the house, but you don’t want him living with you because that would be inconvenient, that’s what Paul was talking about. Today, our elders might need 24-hour support or even advanced medical care. If a family decides that the best and safest place for mom to be is in assisted living, and they take responsibility for ensuring that good care is given, and they stay involved in mom’s life, I believe that’s completely within what Paul was saying when he told us to “provide for our own family”. It’s not a sin to admit that you, as an individual or family, are incapable of providing the kind of specialized care your mom or dad needs and need help doing so.
Part 3: Care for Pastors (1 Timothy 5:17-21)
The elders who are good leaders are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, and “The worker is worthy of his wages.” Don’t accept an accusation against an elder unless it is supported by two or three witnesses. Publicly rebuke those who sin, so that the rest will be afraid. I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels to observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing out of favoritism.
I’ll be short with these verses. Because there are so many false and bad leaders out there, a church with a good one should take care of him. The word “honor” is where we get our idea of “honorarium”. But what does “double” mean? Double what a widow gets? Double what a bad elder gets? No, we translate it as a figure of speech (similar to how we do today): “double” in the sense of “ample”. If the church should provide for the widow in need, how much more should it provide for the leader whose family and future is in the church’s hands! The second way in which a church cares for a pastor is in giving him fair “trial”. Verify accusations before acting on them. Many pastors have had their ministries ruined by baseless accusations. But note the shift in verse 20: if an accusation is true, be swift and stern and public. Churches today might want to sweep pastoral impropriety under the rug. But as the SBC recently voted (see below), that’s unacceptable. A church cannot protect a pastor from the consequences of his sin. (This does not mean that the church has to air the details!) In fact, such a public rebuke might wake up other elders to their own sins (think about the way the Catholic Church has/hasn’t handled their sexual abuse scandals).
And then Paul wraps this up with a note about prejudice and favoritism. “Without prejudice” means that decisions should not be made without all of the facts. “Favoritism” means taking sides. How much trouble have church leaders gotten into from prejudice or favoritism! How much dam-age has been done to the witness of the church from prejudice or favoritism! Timothy and all church leaders are to approach every person and every position with the same respect and expectation. Guess what—the same applies to every church member. Are we treating all people with equal respect? With equal protection? With equal justice if it is determined that someone was in the wrong? Have your class summarize the rules Paul gave us for treating people. How helpful do you think it would be for us to memorize and apply those rules every day?
Aside: Preaching and Teaching
Paul’s words “especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” have given rise to the model that there are teaching elders and there are other kinds of elders (like “leading” elders). There are sorts of categories of elders in some churches/denominations. That’s not what Paul was saying. It’s real simple: every good elder (pastor) should be cared for, but the ones who work particularly hard at teaching should be cherished. We all have heard of pastors who don’t work hard on their sermons. Or any teaching duties. That’s all Paul is saying here.
Closing Thoughts: Southern Baptists and Sexual Abuse
If you kept up with news from the Convention a couple of weeks ago, you heard an awful lot about sexual abuse. (Note, to any who say there is an “epidemic” in SBC life, that’s just not true. A fraction of a percent of churches have reported incidents over the past decades. One incident is too many, but let’s not paint every church with the same brush.) In some churches, there has been the tragic tendency to protect the accused and slander the accuser (usually because church members “couldn’t believe” that so-and-so would do that). Read any public news sites with respect to the convention, and you will find a lot of stern told-you-so pieces.
The convention voted to do two things: (1) create a committee whose job is to investigate and evaluate allegations made against staff members of SBC churches (sure wouldn’t want that job); (2) strengthen language that allows the SBC to expel any church that does not respond adequately to any such allegations. The general consensus among victim advocates is that those are good steps, but it had better not stop there. As a member of our circuit’s Domestic Violence Task Force, I agree with them.
Paul was addressing this exact issue 2000 years ago in 5:1-2. Understanding that some sibling groups are not safe from each other, in general, I believe that Paul’s suggestion to think of young men as a younger brother (or perhaps a son), and young women as a younger sister (or perhaps a daughter) could absolutely help a leader keep his/her mind out of the place where sexual impropriety begins. The human mind is far more complex than that, but trying to create a one-statement-for-all-cultures, I believe that Paul has given us a good foundation.