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The first century culture differed greatly from our modern culture. Rather than emphasizing the individual, first century culture highlighted the group. An individual’s identity derived from the group to which the individual belonged—the family, community (birthplace), and networks (trade guild) to which one belonged. The definition of success became honor—the highest good. Yet, only the worthy received honor. An individual’s role was to promote the honor of the group.
The New Testament also highlighted the importance of honor but in a counter-cultural manner. Rather than honoring the most honorable in terms of position, prestige, and power, the New Testament commands believers to honor the “lowest” members doing the lowliest task (1 Cor. 12:23). The honorific epitaph “great” belongs to the servant.
What does the term “honor” mean? The Greek term for “honor” has a threefold connotation. First, the term described the action of attributing a high status to an individual. Second, the term signified setting a value on an individual. Third, the concept described the action of showing respect by providing financial assistance. In the focal passage, Paul commanded Christians to demonstrate continual, on-going honor to widows and elders by attributing a high status to these two groups, setting a value to the individuals through high esteem, and respecting the individuals by meeting financial needs.
How does a church fulfill this command to honor widows and pastors?
First, a church must honor the un-honored—the genuine widows (1 Tim. 5:3-16). Because a widow experienced life separated from all groups from which she derived meaning (family, community, and networks), a widow lived on a marginal edge. As among the lowest, they received no honor, particularly widows in need. Paul noted three types of widows: “genuine” widows who were completely alone (vv. 3, 5, 16), widows with living relatives (vv. 3, 4, 8, 16a), and unspiritual widows (v. 6). Our focal passage discussed one way to honor widows—support them financially. While the church should honor all categories of widows with respectful treatment, Paul affirmed that the church had no duty to honor widows belonging to the second and third categories with financial assistance. The apostle detailed five reasons why the family has the primary responsibility for widow-care: sign of true piety (5:4), repayment to parents (5:4), pleasing to God (5:4), does not reflect negatively on the faith (v. 8), and family care relieves the church of responsibility (v. 16). For women who were genuine widows, Paul stipulated four prerequisites for church support: a minimum age (v. 9a), faithful in marriage (9b), exemplary life (10), and not actively seeking remarriage (11-12).
Second, a church must honor pastors or elders (1 Tim. 5:17-22). Paul identified three ways in which a church can and should honor elders. First, a church should honor the pastor with adequate pay (5:17-18). Paul used a scriptural analogy and a Jesus quotation to support honoring pastors with financial assistance. The analogy derives from Deut. 25:4—even an animal eats from the area in which the animal labors. The Jesus quote is from Luke 10:7. Second, a church honors pastors through the action of disciplining an erring pastor. A church must not discipline a pastor based on rumor but on fact established by two or three witnesses. The OT established the necessity of two or three witnesses in capital cases. Making an accusation against a pastor is as serious as testifying in a capital case. Further, the act of discipline must not “sweep matters under the rug.” The discipline of a pastor should be public to honor the office by creating a sense of fearful respect for other pastors. Moreover, the church must exercise pastoral discipline not on the principal of favoritism. Finally, a church honors a pastor by carefully examining pastoral candidates.
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