God’s Design in Marriage and Labor
Passage: 1 Timothy 5:11-15
When I get up to preach each Sunday, I always have two basic responsibilities. First, I am responsible to explain what God intended to say to the original audience. In the case of 1 Timothy, what did God inspire Paul to say to the Ephesian Church in 65 A.D? Second, I am responsible to challenge you regarding the significance of what God said for your life.
This movement from the 1st century world to our world is sometimes called “Bridging Contexts.” Sometimes this bridge is fairly short and simple. For example, Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” That’s pretty straightforward, and it has the same significance today that it had 2,000 years ago. We need to forgive like Christ.
But sometimes the bridge is quite a bit longer and trickier to discern, and this is true of our passage for today. It is directed to a very specific situation in the Ephesian Church. If we don’t understand that situation, we could make some bad applications what Paul says. Therefore, we have to understand what it originally meant, and in the case of our text, we have to understand the biblical principles that undergird what it meant. Then we have to cross the bridge into our world so that we don’t we will miss the rich significance this passage has for us.
Because the situation at Ephesus is kind of tricky, I want to begin by asking, what was happening at Ephesus? Second, what was the solution Paul proposed? And third, what does this mean for us? If you track with me to the end, I think you will find that God has a lot to say to us in this passage that is very significant for our times. My outline is a bit wordy, so I have decided to display it on the screen.
First, let’s answer the question…
What was happening at Ephesus?
Again, it’s a bit tricky to reconstruct the situation, because we are listening in on one side of the conversation, but we can draw three pretty definite conclusions. First…
The church had committed to giving long-term financial support to young widows.
This section assume that the Ephesian Church had a list of widows whom they had committed to provide with full, or at least significant financial support. This commitment was not for a couple of months or even years. It was intended to be lifetime support. The primary purpose of vv. 3–16 is to detail whom the church should and should not have on this list. Verse 9 says that the church should only enroll or commit long-term to elderly women. However, vv. 11–15 assume that the church had enrolled some younger widows, which created some real challenges. In particular…
Some younger widows had succumbed to sexual impulses (vv. 11–12).
Verses 11–13 are worded as a warning; however, v. 15 is clear that Paul’s concerns were not just theoretical. Some of these widows had made spiritually devastating decisions.
Again, they lost their husbands when they were still relatively young—in the childbearing stage of life. Normally in Greek society these women would have been very motivated to remarry because they needed a husband to provide for them financially. Without one, they would typically have a hard time providing for themselves and any children they had. Roman law actually required a widow under the age of 50 to remarry within 2 years of her husband’s death. This law is hard for us to imagine, but it goes to show how important marriage was for a woman’s security.
But the young widows in the church were not very motivated to get married, because the church had said it would care for them. They didn’t need a husband to survive.
At first, this might sound like a great arrangement, but the church’s generosity was actually hurting these ladies because it failed to account for human nature.
In particular, God made men and women to be completed in marriage, and discouraging younger women from remarriage created a powerful temptation to sin. Verse 11 says they grew “wanton against Christ” and “desire(d) to marry.” I have no idea what “wanton” means, but the Greek verb describes strong sexual desire. These women were not cut out for a celibate lifestyle. They wanted to get married.
Sadly, v. 12 indicates that this desire for marriage led them into “condemnation.” But how? The text isn’t supper clear.
Some believe that in order for a widow to be put on the list the church required them to take a vow of celibacy, to promise to never marry again. Those who take this view will typically translate the final phrase of v. 12 as saying that they have “cast off their previous pledge”—or their pledge to remain celibate.
There are a couple of problems with this view. First, why would the church require such an odd vow, when marriage is a good creation of God? The bigger problem with this reading is that Paul uses very strong language to describe the significance of these women’s sin that seems too strong to merely describe breaking a vow to celibacy. Verse 11 says that their actions are “against Christ,” and v. 12 says they have brought “condemnation” on themselves. In case we aren’t sure what that means, v. 15 explains when it says they have “turned aside after Satan.” These women had seriously rebelled against God.
I believe a more likely explanation for Paul’s strong language is that these women had chosen to satisfy their sexual impulses by marrying pagans. Paul is clear in other places that a Christian should not marry an unbeliever. First Corinthians 7:39 states to Christian widows, “A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord,” in context, only to a fellow-believer. Therefore, if you are single, marrying an unbeliever should not even be an option for you. Just set up that wall in your mind, and don’t move it.
But it wasn’t just that they were breaking this command. It was assumed in Roman culture that a woman would adopt the religion of her husband when they got married. And so by marrying unbelievers they rejected “their first faith,” as v. 12 says. They abandoned Christianity and turned aside to Satan. This was a devastating step that in some sense resulted from the church putting them in a compromised position by not encouraging them to pursue marriage with a Christian man. The church’s policy was shortsighted and having terrible consequences. Verse 13 then adds a second consequence.
Some of these younger widows had grown lazy and were using their extra time to spread gossip (v. 13).
I think we can imagine this one pretty easily. You have a group of younger women with lots of energy, but they aren’t pushed to do anything productive with that energy because the church is fully supporting them. As a result, they have lots of time, lots of energy, and they are going to find something to do with it.
We’ve probably all heard the proverb that “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” and this is exactly what happened with these young widows. They “learned to be idle.” They had grown content with being very unproductive. Have you ever noticed how someone can have a very easy schedule and still think that they are incredibly busy, or how some people think they are working really hard when they actually have no idea what it means to work hard?
Paul says these women had learned to be idle, and they were using their free time to go from house to house gossiping and sticking their noses in other people’s business. That’s never a good thing for the health of a church. Imagine a wife and mother who is working hard to keep up with life. She is so focused on her tasks with family that she doesn’t really have time to notice everyone’s business or to worry about every little issue at church that could be better. And she is happy. And then one of these lazy widows stops by the house while the kids are napping. And the widow starts to talk. “Did you notice what so and so said?” Or “I can’t believe we are doing this program when we ought to be doing this other one.”
And all of a sudden, this busy mom who has been quite content starts to grow bitter herself, all because this lazy widow has nothing better to do than go around and plant seeds of discontentment in others. Of course, she doesn’t just do this one lady; she is going “house to house” spreading gossip and discontentment that is really affecting the mood of the church.
Of course the young widow is ultimately at fault, but the church was also at fault for putting her in a position that encouraged her to be unproductive.
Before we go on, I think it’s always good for us to remember just how careful we need to be with our speech. Proverbs 29:11 says, “A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back.” You don’t need to comment on every fault that you see in someone, and you don’t need to express your every frustration. If there’s not an edifying reason to say something, then don’t say it. You can do terrible damage to people and to the unity of the church simply by being a blabbermouth. Watch your speech carefully, and don’t tolerate gossip from others either. If crosses a line in your presence, let them know gently but firmly that they are not loving like Christ. So that’s what was happening at Ephesus. The second question we need to answer is…
What was the solution?
The first and most obvious solution was…
The church must stop enrolling younger widows (v. 11).
Paul makes that pretty clear in v. 11. Now, that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do anything t help young widows. Again, the purpose of this passage is to define who should be enrolled on the list of widows who would receive long-term support. I’m sure that the church was involved in many kinds of benevolent works outside of this list, and young widows who have no income would certainly qualify for short-term aid. But ultimately…
Younger widows should pursue marriage (v. 14).
Again, Paul makes this very clear in v. 14. However, we shouldn’t read this as an absolute requirement. First Corinthians 7 also addresses God’s will for widows (1 Cor 7:8–9). Paul argues that there are ministry advantages to remaining single. But he also recognized that not everyone has the gift of celibacy. Therefore, it is better to get married than to try and resist a strong urge to marriage that can lead someone into immoral activities.
It was obvious that the young widows in Ephesus didn’t have the gift of celibacy, and so Paul tells them to get married. Of course, based on what we said earlier, he would only to a Christian man.
I hope that we can find some freedom in this command because a lot of the time we can think that a widow or widower is somehow dishonoring a deceased spouse by getting remarried, especially if they do so quicker than we think they should. And that’s just foolish. I’ve told Heidi that if something happens to me, find a godly man and get married because she is going to need godly companionship, and my boys will need a dad.
I realize that there are a lot of difficult sentiments that come with losing a loved one, but if you are a widow or a widower, God says to go forward. And if you have a parent who is in that position, don’t make that parent feel like he or she is dishonoring your deceased mom or dad by getting remarried.
Younger widows should stay productively busy (v. 14).
After saying that these young widows should get married, Paul says they should fulfill the normal responsibilities of a younger woman. They should raise children and manage the home.
The Bible consistently teaches that God designed the husband and wife to fulfill different roles. The husband is responsible to be the breadwinner, and the wife is responsible to manage the home, as v. 14 says. It’s worth noting that managing the home means a lot more than just keeping the house clean and pretty. The word for manage is a fairly strong term, and it was normal in the ancient world for the wife to manage the children as well as other household affairs—such as slaves or even business interests. This fits well with the Proverbs 31 woman. She doesn’t sit on the couch and watch soap operas all day. No, she is very busy and very productive in caring for her family and even in helping to provide for them, but her primary responsibility is in the home.
And that’s what Paul wanted for these young widows. Rather than wasting time going about gossiping, he wanted them to be productive in the role that God made them to fill.
So that’s what Paul said to the Ephesian church in light of their historical situation. So now we need to build a bridge from 1st century Ephesus to 21st century Apple Valley. My final question today is…
What does this mean for us?
I’ve got four conclusions I’d like to make from this passage in light of the broader testimony of Scripture.
God designed humanity to function a certain way, and there is safety in embracing his design.
The failure of the Ephesian policy was rooted in the fact that it ignored three basic features of God’s original creation. God made us for marriage. He made us to fulfill certain roles in marriage, and he made us to work and be productive.
I think it’s always good to emphasize that God decreed these things before the fall, and all of them are for our good. We always function best when we embrace God’s design. And the basic problem with the policy at Ephesus was that it created an unnatural state. It was encouraging these women to ignore the fact that God made us for marriage, and he made us for productive labor. They shouldn’t have been surprised that their policy failed.
Sadly, they aren’t the only ones that have failed here. The Catholic Church has always been asking for trouble by encouraging men and women to take vows of celibacy as a path to godliness. Those vows deny nature.
Of course, these institutions are under heavy attack in our secular age. Marriage and gender roles are especially under attack. Our culture likes argues that the biblical view of marriage is oppressive and that people need to be liberated to do what they want.
But anarchy doesn’t generally work out well for anyone, and wise rules benefit everyone. For example, aren’t you thankful for traffic laws? I am so glad that we have a standard for which side of the road we drive on and that we have standards for who has the right of way at intersections. These rules are not oppressive; rather, they free us to drive safely and efficiently.
And the same is true of God’s design in marriage and gender. God knows human nature better than any of us, and he knows the best way for humans to flourish. And the evidence bears this out. There is no question that children who grow up in the biblical home with a mom and a dad and a mom who is invested in managing the home do better. And there is no question that our society’s movement away from God’s model has adversely affected our culture.
But what about me? Aren’t we happier when we can throw off the restraints of marriage and do what we want? There may be some temporary pleasure in that, but it cannot touch the joy that comes when a man and woman embrace God’s full design, and that’s important because God’s design is about more than hanging in there, and it has no room for the awful abuses that sometimes take place in marriage.
I know that some of you have been deeply hurt by bad marriages. Your spouse neglected you, abused you, took advantage of you, and ultimately abandoned you. Or maybe you grew up in a home with an awful marriage, and you had to listen to your parents behave in terrible ways toward each other. Therefore, you have a hard time seeing the goodness in God’s design. I can’t imagine enduring some of those things, and I would urge you to run to God for grace. He sees and he cares.
But also understand that the problem is with sinners who act selfishly, not with God’s design. God’s design is beautiful. When a couple invests in a strong marriage and in serving each other according to God’s design, there is great joy in that home.
Folks, God’s way is the best way. And no matter how much the world stomps their feet and tries to tell you otherwise, the truth remains the truth. Trust God’s Word. It is wise and good.
In light of that, I’d like to make some comments about each of the issues at stake in our passage.
Marriage is for our good.
Genesis 2:18 is very clear about this fact. “Two are better than one.” And so I want to say to the younger singles among us, to embrace God’s design. The world tells you to delay marriage as long as possible and have a good time. But that advice is rooted in an ungodly view of marriage, and it will set you up for the same kind of spiritual failure the young widows at Ephesus faced. Find someone who loves Jesus (and that is very important), build a God-centered relationship, and get married. It’s really not that hard. If two people love God and are manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, they will love each other and have a great marriage even if some compatibility test says otherwise.
Now, I realize that it takes two, and maybe you want to be married, but God hasn’t allowed it. That’s hard, but God is sufficient, and so run to him for help. And please understand that even while we hold marriage very high as a church, you are not a second-class Christian because you are single.
Marital roles are for our good.
The Scriptures are clear that the man is primarily responsible to provide and the wife is primarily responsible to manage the home, as v. 14 says. Now, I realize we live in a fallen world, where this doesn’t always work out as neatly as we would like. Sometimes circumstances push a woman into the workforce in a way she would not prefer. There’s nothing wrong with that. Again, the Proverbs 31 woman helps provide for her family. And it would be far better for a woman to go get a job than for her family to hardly squeak by financially. I have no issue necessarily with a woman working.
But the Scriptures are clear that God gifted the wife to manage the home, and if a woman rejects that design and seeks her joy in career and the world’s definition of success rather than God’s, that is not wise. Ladies, be very careful here that your focus remains where God would have it and don’t let the world tell you that it knows better than God what is for your good and your family’s good.
Productive labor is for our good.
Sometimes, we have this idea that people who don’t have to work are happier. And we picture ourselves someday in heaven just sipping lemonade and starring into the sky. But God created labor before the fall. God made us to be productive, and to find joy in being productive. Certainly, we need rest, but as we saw in v. 13, laziness is not a recipe for spiritual success. You will struggle spiritually if you sit around and stare at T.V. or play video games for long stretches, or if you just around and look for things to be discontent about.
Therefore, if you are busy with a job with school, with family, or with volunteer work, don’t look at it as a necessary burden that you can’t wait to get out of. No, embrace it as God’s good design for you, and pour your heart into it. And if you have a lot of free time, or you are not productive, then find something to do. If you are struggling with that, come see me, because we have lots you can do here at the church.
Folks, what a blessing it is to know that we serve a good and wise God, whose will is always best. Don’t lose sight of that reality. Trust God, obey God, and enjoy the satisfaction that comes in his way.