Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What About Widows?

I ran across a post today about "church membership" that throws down the common trump card of enrolling the widows in 1 Timothy 5 as a defense for a formal system of church membership. Here is the passage in question.

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan. If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. (1 Tim 5:9-16)

See, see! They made a list of widows! Ipso facto the early church kept all sorts of lists which must have included formal lists of "members" even though that is never mentioned. Case closed! Or is it?

Is "church membership" implied here? Only if you have already decided on church membership as a practice and are searching for justification for that tradition. What is Paul saying to Timothy? He is describing the parameters for a woman who has been widowed to be financially supported by the church. This passage parallels Acts 6: 1-6 where certain widows were being neglected in the daily distribution and men were called to make sure all of the widows were cared for. Paul is addressing a specific question here: which widows should the church support? This conversation happens in the context of the more general responsibility of the church to care for one another and really has nothing to do with what we consider to be "church membership".

Paul tells Timothy that the church should include in their financial support those women that are actually widows of a certain age (at least 60), having only been married to one man (not dealing with remarriage here as we see below, I assume he meant divorce or polygamy) and being a woman with a reputation for good works. Younger widows are not included but are to be encouraged to remarry and believers who have widowed relatives should care for them directly. What we have are parameters for including a widow in the financial support of the church. Does "enroll" here mean what we would think of as enrolling someone in a program? Maybe. Did they write out a list of widows that qualified? That doesn't necessarily follow. As the church would know one another, it would seem to make sense that the women in the church who were widows would be known to the church and those that met the qualification Paul lists out would also be known. I don't know that they would need to have a list here. I know the people in our gathering of the church that are married, that have kids, that homeschool, that work in this profession or that. I don't need a list to know who the homeschooling parents are. The problem in the church is not that we don't have enough lists, it is that we don't spend enough time together to really know one another.

Even if we assume that there was a formal list of widows, which is not at all apparent here, does that logically lead to a formal list of church members? Not hardly. First and foremost, the Bible makes no mention, not even an implication, of a system of formalized local church membership. Second, the notion of church membership requires an understanding of the church as it is practiced today where local churches compete with one another and people see their primary allegiance to individual and divided local churches rather than to the community of believers as a whole which is the model we see in the New Testament. If the church related to one another as brothers and sisters in an adopted family, church membership would be irrelevant. Finally the system of church membership is based on a pastor-centric, authoritarian church model where people are expected to "submit" to clergy based on their membership in a local church and the title the clergy holds. This is the very antithesis of Biblical leadership where we follow men based on the manner of their lives rather than by the titles they hold, men we follow out of love and respect not as an obligation of our "membership".

"Church membership" not only is absent from Scripture it serves as a fake substitute for real relationships. Being a "member" of a local church doesn't do a thing to foster relationships and having a real relationship makes "membership" irrelevant. The fact that Paul created parameters for widows to be supported financially by the church is completely distinct from the issue of "membership" and trying to imply that the enrollment of certain widows is evidence of church membership is eisegesis of the worst kind. The defenders of "church membership" would do themselves and the church a favor by encouraging us to live sacrificial lives in relationship with one another instead of defending a man-made tradition we adopted and adapted from Rome.


Chad said...

It is also clear, from Acts, that new believers "were added to their number". There seems to be some math going on here. Believers were not baptized into a life of independent, disconnected religious solitude. We become "members" of one body, right? What does that mean, in your mind?

Arthur Sido said...

Chad, there is a wide gulf between being baptized into the one body and recognizing a new brother or sister and a system of church membership where we add a layer of distinction into the Body of Christ, dividing us not just from the world but also from one another. Certainly the church knew who became part of the redeemed people of Christ and even seemed to know the approximate number but there is not even a hunt that they divided themselves up into exclusive relationships with competing local churches.

Marshall said...

drawing a church membership list from the New Testament writings is no more difficult than "financial support" for widows indeed. In both instances, wWe're filtering the text with a modern-western perspective.
Just as there is a significant difference between truly supporting widows and "financial support" for a widow, so also our knowledge of one another need go deeper than an inscribed list.

Arthur Sido said...

Marhsall, that is a valid point. I used financial support kind of loosely. We know that widows received food from the church as needed and the church as a whole shared with one another financially. I didn't mean to imply they got a regular check in the mail though.