The Indispensible Widows
Keith R. Keyser, Gilbertsville, Pa., USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
On such a list of the
On such a list of the‘Who's Who’, would we find people who are commonly called widows? Striking a bit closer to home, would we choose to build a new assembly around a core group of widows? Most church planters would probably prefer to begin a new local testimony with young individuals or couples, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such a desire. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the assembly has a desperately needed role for the widows to play. They are especially useful to God, and need to exercise their ministry among His people.
WIDOWS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
In appreciating the value of the godly widow, it would be helpful to study the history of God's concern for these women.
The Old Testament is filled with admonitions to care for the widow (such instructions are frequently coupled with instructions to help the fatherless and the stranger). Consider the fact that the Mosaic Law commanded Israel to care for the widows. In Exodus 22. 21-24 the Lord says, ‘Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless’. Deuteronomy 10. 18 assures us that ‘he doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment’. Widows and orphans were to be fed from the obligatory tithes that Israelites paid, Deut.14. 29, and they were to be included in the festivities accompanying the Feasts of the Lord, Deut.16. 11, 14.
In ancient times, widows were in most cases unprotected and destitute.If she did not have family to care for her, no one looked out for the widow's rights, or made sure that she was sustained. In some societies to this day, widows are forced to eke out whatever living that they may find. Such poverty and need found an answer in the word of the One who described Himself as ‘A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habita-tion’, Ps. 68. 5.1
Clearly God is devoted to the widow's defense and provision. His scathing indictment of the failure of Israel's leaders in the days of Isaiah includes the fact that ‘they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them’, Isa.1. 23. Years later, the Lord assured Israel that such oppression would result in divine judgement, Mal. 3. 5. These are but a few of the many Old Testament references to God's unceasing love and concern for widows.
WIDOWS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The Lord Jesus' ministry shows us that God's interest in the widow was not confined to Old Testament days.Repeatedly, He condemned the scribes and Pharisees for their abuse of widows, e.g., Matt. 23. 14; Luke 20. 46-47. Furthermore, on seeing a mourning widow following the bier of her only son, the Lord intervened and restored the boy's life, Luke 7. 11-17. At the time of the crucifixion, it is highly possible that Mary was a widow. The Lord's compassionate desire to have her protected is seen in His statement from the cross, ‘Woman behold thy son . . . son behold thy mother’, John 19. 26-27. In both the Old and New Testaments it is apparent that the Lord loves the widow.
WIDOWS AS PROVIDERS
Having established God's ongoing interest in the widow, one may inquire, ‘What then is the importance of the widow to the assembly?’ Firstly, the Lord has used widows to provide for His servants. In the Old Testament, He used a gentile widow to shelter Elijah during part of the famine, 1 Kgs. 17. 8-24. During the church age He has likewise used many widows to house and help His people. Among the marks of a godly widow in 1 Timothy 5. 10, is that ‘she [has] lodged strangers . . . [and] washed the saints' feet’. At the Judgement Seat of Christ many widows will undoubtedly be honoured for using their modest homes and meagre possessions to further the work of God.
Second, widows are indispensable for the assembly because they were used by the Lord Jesus to set the standard for selfless giving.On one occasion He observed many affluent worshippers casting large sums of money into the temple treasury. Rather than single out some huge financial contribution as an example of giving, the Lord Jesus focused on a poor widow, who threw in two mites – a paltry amount in comparison to the gifts of the wealthy contributors. Nevertheless, the Lord affirmed that she set the standard on sacrificial giving by throwing in all that she had. One has noted that she had two mites, and therefore, could have kept one for herself. Who could blame her? Instead, she gave all that she had. God affords the widows the honourable place of contributing out of their poverty, a privilege that many with large bank accounts will never know, Luke 21. 1-4.
WIDOWS: AN EXAMPLE OF FAITH
Thirdly, widows set an example for the assembly in their life of faith.1 Timothy 5. 5, reminds us that ‘she who is really a widow and left alone, trusts in God, and continues in supplications and prayers night and day’, NKJV. It is all too easy to mechanically give thanks for one's daily food without really being grateful for it. For the widow with little or no means of visible support, procuring food and clothing is a repeated exercise in dependence on Jehovah Jireh's faithful provision. It is likely that the reluctance of many young people to devote all of their time and energy to the Lord's work on the foreign and domestic mission fields results from their lack of understanding God's ability to provide for His workers ‘on faith.’ Although such questions naturally occur to the human mind, such believers would do well to study the pious widows, who depend on the Lord without ‘letters of commendation’.2 The assembly, by having faithful widows is reminded of God's absolute faithfulness toward His children.
WIDOWS: A BAROMETER OF PIETY
Another vital function that the widows play in the Lord's assemblies is as a gauge of the piety of believers. James phrases this aspect of widowhood well, ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world’, Jas. 1. 27. How a believer responds to those who are less fortunate than himself is an excellent barometer for our love, sympathy, and selflessness. If left to themselves, Christians often get wrapped up in their own problems and needs. The presence of needy saints like widows serves to remind Christians to care for the weak and show the love of Christ in practical ways.
GOD REMEMBERS THE WIDOWS
Widows also demonstrate God’s faithfulness and mercy. Though widows are sometimes forgotten by humans, the Lord never neglects them. He affords them the inestimable privilege of being the objects of His special affection and compassion. To the theologian, God is academically merciful; to the widow, His mercy is known in every day experience.
WIDOWS AS SERVANTS
Any assessment of widows would not be complete without noting their remarkable contribution to the work of the Lord. The distinguished history of widows’ service takes us back to Anna, who ‘departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem’, Luke 2. 37-38. Anna has her modern counterparts in the church. Many widows faithfully serve the Lord around the globe as missionaries.3 Likewise, in North America and the United Kingdom the efforts of widows have a strong impact on the character of the work of the Lord. Often it is still ‘the widow’s mite’ that supports the work of the Lord. Similarly, in their prayer lives and worship, many widows are the backbone of the local assembly. Anna was a woman of prayer; likewise, only heaven will accurately tell the distinguished history of the widows who waged spiritual warfare through prayer. Often critics of biblical principles of gathering accuse women of having a nonfunctioning role in the meetings of the assembly because they are silent. On the contrary, God hears the silent worship of the sisters (including the widows), and is pleased by it.
Having scanned the long history of the Lord’s appreciation for and treatment of widows, one must conclude that they play a vital role in the work of God. Rather than overlooking the widows, local assemblies need to practically care for them, pray for them, and tap into their piety in the testimony of the fellowship. May the Lord teach us the value of widows and the significant role that they play in His plans. Furthermore, may we like the Lord, love them and help them in their quest to bring glory to the almighty God. May they, in turn, be encouraged in the knowledge of God’s constant care.
Many of the principles that are mentioned in this article also apply to widowers, single elderly sisters or brothers, and ‘shut-ins’. God remembers them all, and will reward them in a coming day at the Judgement Seat of Christ.
- In this verse, the word ‘Judge’ is being used to describe one who makes sure that a person is protected and that their rights are maintained; that is to say, the widow's sins are not in view in this verse.
- I certainly support the biblical use of letters of commendation; it is feared, however, that in some quarters they are seen to be a guarantee of financing from the Lord’s people. On being commended, a wise servant of God counselled me, ‘Look to the Lord for your support, not to the assemblies’. I have found this to be good advice. God doesn’t need ‘a letter’ to support those who do His business. J. Hudson Taylor’s famous axiom bears repeating, ‘God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supply’. Widows show the ability of the Lord to provide for His own, apart from all human conventions.
- Along with single sisters, widows compose a large segment of active servants in gospel work and other ministries on the mission field; for verification of this, one may consult the CMML Missionary Handbook or the Echoes of Service handbook. It is easy to forget the widows of missionaries/fulltime workers once their husbands have passed off the scene. Let us continue to financially support the widows on the field, who are in many cases neglected.
AUTHOR PROFILE: KEITH KEYSER is a commended full-time worker, married with a young family, and is in fellowship in the assembly meeting at Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania. He ministers throughout North America and spent some time in Spain. He also regularly writes material for assembly magazines.