Old white men need to step aside…Sexual harassment of women law students, and the me too movement…people claiming benefits they are not entitled to …The retirement of the baby boom generation and how that will stretch superannuation…Person appeals sacking because the correct complaints procedure was not followed…Who is fit to lead…Exploitation of immigrant work force and human trafficking… They are the kind of things you’d find in the headlines of our papers and news feeds today. They are some of the issues that we face as a community and a country. Yet they also are very much the kind of issues that Paul is helping Timothy and the Church at Ephesus to deal with and he offers some very practical advice which is still helpful and relevant for us today.
We are working through what are called the Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon, letters Paul write to co-workers and fellow leaders working in difficult pastoral situations. We are looking at them to see what Paul has to say to us about church leadership, about maturity and ministry within the household of God. This week Paul gives some very practical and sage advise. It’s not totally easy to simply transfer to our own time and place… as one commentator says “sorting out widows was not only a pastoral burden in the early church, it has also proved to be an exegetical one for modern commentators”. In other words, it is a hard passage to understand, interpret and apply.
In the pastoral epistles Paul’s overriding metaphor for the church is the household of God. It was appropriate as most if not all members of the church and society were structured in households, and Churches met in people’s households, not in church buildings, so it was obvious and applicable. Church leaders were called elders, like they were family or household heads, there were slaves and masters, people of different generations, men and women, young and old. So when talks of issues to do with pastoral care and pastoral concern it reflects that structure.
The first two verse we had read out to us today reflect that, Paul gives Timothy advice on how to relate to people of different age and gender, so he uses the idea of family to explain it. You’ll remember from last week that Timothy was younger than a lot of the people and leaders in the church and this was an issue Paul gives him instruction about overcoming. Now Paul gives him the correct posture and tone to adopt as he goes about his ministry of teaching and preaching. To the older men he is not to rebuke them harshly, rather he is relate to them as he would his own Father, the word he uses then is exhort, it has the idea of persuasion rather than command. He is to treat younger men as his brother, if you remember from Psalm 133 the idea of brothers living together in harmony is the image used for God’s people having unity. He is to relate to older women as he might to his mother. There is the undertone of respect and care and honour. Finally, Paul says when it comes to younger women he is to see them as sisters, there is an added clause with absolute purity. Recently young women have been speaking up about how they have been mistreated and sexually harassed or worse in the work place education and sadly some of them in churches, here Paul is very clear and serious about the fact that the church should be a safe place, where hey are treated as sisters. It sets a good pattern for all of us in showing honour and dignity to one another.
In some cultures that attitude to older people is very strong. When I worked at the university I was organizing an event with an Asian Christian organization and I started to speak and sort of got off track with a long drawn out story, half way through I thought this must be a very profound thing I’m saying because everyone was silent and intensely listening… then I twigged… and said this is an age thing isn’t it… everyone gave me a rather embarrassed smile and I said OK and we got back on track… so lets get back on track again.
Paul then takes some time to work through how to care for the widows in the church. The number of widows in the church community and city was a major issue in the first century, life expectancy was short and a women’s well being was embedded in her relationship to a man. Either her father, her husband or her children. Men’s life expectancy was far shorter than a woman’s. In Acts 6 we see one of the first conflicts in the church was over the care of widows, making sure that the Hellenistic, with a Greek background and Judean widows were treated equally. The issue at Ephesus is working our who are the real widows in need. So Paul goes through a whole series of different scenarios to help Timothy in that process. Age, their own resources, life style, and the ability of family to look after them. The primary care for widows in Jewish and roman society was their sons, or other close relatives, and the church would take that role for those who didn’t have that. In fact Paul is very careful to insist that families take responsibility for their widows as he does not want to see the level of are for the widows be less than the pagans, because they can leave it to the church, maybe in our day the state.
Commentators wonder about putting people on the list, and it seems that older widows were cared for, but also given a role to play in the pastoral care of others in the church. Not only was the church their to care for them as their household, but they gave widows purpose like they would find in a household, Paul goes through some of those bringing up children, hospitality, washing the feet is probably more to d with service and care rather than just actual foot washing, caring for the poor and other practical things. There is some discussion that this may have been a position like a woman elder, set aside to minister within the church. So there is not only the need to belong and be cared for but to contribute. Paul’s teaching about younger widows wanting to get married again, is that yes that is a good idea for them, but it would be hard for them to commit themselves to the life of service in the church and then have to give that up for being in their husband’s household.
Paul also talks of widows making choices about what they do with their lives as well, and seeing that people like Anna in Luke’s gospel who was living in the temple and dedicated herself to prayer, and is the first person to really witness to Jesus Christ. Widows are warned against following a life of ease and luxury and Paul is very aware that benefit dependency can be a danger. He ells of widows who have been lost their faith because of some of them.
For us dealing with similar issues of need what Paul does with the widows is helpful. He firstly assesses the need. He looks to see what societal help is available, in his day it was the family, and wider whanau, and we need to be asking the same questions today, but in our day there are also state welfare agencies and aid. While it is not popular to talk about it, Paul also mentions, personal responsibility, church care and aid is not simply to help people carry on a lifestyle that is contra to the gospel.
Paul then moves to look at how to treat those who are elders in the church. Those who have the responsibility for administering and preaching and teaching in the church. The household heads as it were. He says three things. He tells timothy they are worthy of being honoured, which when Paul was speaking of the widows had the idea of care and support. People who devote their time in leading are worthy of being paid, particularly those who take on the role of teaching and preaching. He uses a saying from the Old Testament which originally had to do with animal care ‘do not muzzle the Ox while it treading grain” from Deuteronomy 25:4 which he also then links with the words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel “a workmen is worth of his pay”. In the Old testament the Levites set themselves aside to minister to God and the people in the temple, that was their inheritance and they didn’t have large blocks of land to farm, and so were cared for and provided for by the people.
Earlier In 1 Timothy 3:3 Paul had warned against those who tried to make a profit from their teaching and elsewhere in scripture there are warnings against greed. But Paul is encouraging Timothy and the Church to make sure those who minister in leadership are recompensed. In the Presbyterian church we are helped by that in that the minister living allowance, what we call the stipend is set nationally and is connected to the average wage in New Zealand and yes housing is also provided, or an allowance equivalent.
Paul also sets out a procedure for dealing with complaints against elders. There is a process of natural justice to be followed. In this case Paul follows the Jewish tradition that you need more than one witness to bring the charge, and they are to be admonished in public without any favouritism. I’ve been on a couple of commissions which is the way that our church deals with such issues, and can I say it is a difficult and strenuous process working through such complaints. I really valued the prayers of the elders and prayer team here at St Peter’s during that time. But is important as we are seeing in industry and entertainment that leaders and people in power are held accountable and that there is a rigorous and fair process. Inside the church as well as outside. We serve a God of Justice and we need to act justly.
Paul then goes on to tell Timothy not to be quick to lay hands on people, and this has to do with ordaining people and setting them aside for roles and offices, rather than simply praying for them. AS we saw with the book of Titus and also earlier in this book there is a process to go through to appoint people to leadership as well. The Presbyterian church has a very long and drawn out process to test the call of those who put their names forward for ministry, likewise we have a system for appointing elders which allows for people to bring up concerns and issues before we ordain someone.
It seems strange right in the middle of all this Paul should then give Timothy some teaching on his drinking habits. It maybe that Timothy was concerned about the aestheticism of some of the false teachers and so was drinking only water, which in first century times wasn’t as safe as it is today, so Paul tells him to have some wine for his health. Likewise it may have been he was staying teetotal to avoid the danger he saw with some in the church of abuse of alcohol. David Stewart was the principle of the Bible college when Kris and I were there, and he told us of being a missionary in china and seeing some of the local Christian’s watch the European missionaries from France an d Germany drink wine with dinner, and the Chinese followed suit and became alcoholics, so David Stewart, vowed to be teetotal as not to have the same thing happen to anyone around him. The section gets covered off with Paul’s assertion that peoples good deed and bad deeds will all come to light eventually, it’s a way of rounding off a section where he has talked of the character of leaders.
Finally, in this section Paul turns to deal with the master slave relationship. Remember in the church was one of the only places where slave owners and salves would have come together on equal terms socially. He commands the slaves to show honour and respect to their owners. For those whose masters are non-Christians it is so they will be able to show them by their service about their faith in Jesus Christ. The church was in danger of being seen as an institution that as opposed to order in society and as such would suffer persecution. He tells slaves with believing masters to be even more diligent because they are fellow believers and in a way of telling the masters how to behave says they are devoting themselves to their slave well being. While we don’t live in a society that endorses slavery anymore, there is a lot to say to us here about Christian employees and employers, that both should be committed to the well being of the other, to work for the employers good and to work at seeing your employees are treated well.
This passage may seem a bit dry a bit like implementing legislation and processes and best practises. But it takes the ideas of faith and love that Paul had been talking of to Timothy and brings them down to the nuts and bolts of relationships and dealing with pastoral concerns and issues. It helps us as a community in working through those things together in a just and caring manner, sometimes its easy for people to feel put upon by others and in what Paul says here are guidelines and boundaries and ways for us to both care and to know where to refer and to draw the line. To deal with being wronged by church leaders even. That’s not easy for people who want to share the grace and love of Christ to do so like young Timothy we benefit from Paul’s practical words and helps us to relate to each other in God’s household. It’s our faith and love in practical action and that is Good News.