This essay by Frederick C. Mather, taken from The Early Church in Jerusalem, was the starting point of my search for answers to the difficult questions that were coming before our churches at that time. I encourage you to read it carefully and attentively.

Our brother Frederick C. Mather made the following statement:

"If this citation be accurate, then there is a substantial difference between 'widow' as used here and its use in Acts 6:1. There the term 'widow' appears to mean any women in need who are 'despised.' Inn other words, while James addresses the general problem of neglect (prostitution, poverty, etc.) which results in destitute widowhood, he believes the church has responsibility to relieve this general problem, not just to take care of widows, properly defined."

Since this quote implies that the Jude text defines a more inclusive category than simply 'widow,' we would like to examine exactly what it says.

For that purpose we will first turn to some definitions in reference works for those words, to look at the context in its immediate environment, and then examine all other Scripture where these words occur.

And we will start with the two main words that he cites in his quotation, 'widow' and 'neglect'.

The two main words, 'widow' and 'neglect':

When we look at the Greek word, 'widow', the primary dictionary definition is: "a woman whose husband has died; a woman without a husband" [Thayer]. But when this word is used in connection with the work of the early church, and when we also include the concepts and subjects implied in this context, several more ideas, quite different than the above definition, come up for consideration. We see a clear indication from this text and the reference words, that we should consider 'widow' as the larger group of people defined in the text that are now being neglected and mistreated. Such mistreatment might well lead to financial difficulties as well as other problems, whether physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional.

In addition, the biblical view, by comparing other passages, shows us that the idea of 'neglect' must be understood in the sense of not helping those within the household of faith first of all. The Lord Jesus gave the instructions that His apostles were to take care of the believers first, then after that take care of others. Of course, we do not need the commandments of Jesus to know that the Scripture urges the believer to take care of his own family. (1 Timothy 5:8) But these verses do spell out that a wider command has been given, one of service to fellow believers and brothers and sisters in Christ first of all.


The word 'widow' is used frequently in the New Testament. The KJV uses the word a total of 32 times, while the NKJV uses it 34 times. But this number alone is misleading. A large number of those times are only indirect references. For example, many are found in Paul's letters, which contain several places in which he urges the widows of particular congregations to abstain from the accusation of idleness, to be quiet and walk worthily of their call, for example:

"Teaching them that they should be keepers at home, and that they should give no occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. This charge they bear well in the house of God. For if a widow has children or grandchildren, let her learn first to practice piety in her own house and to make some return to her parents, for this is acceptable before God. Now she who is truly a widow is left alone, having hope in God and continuing in supplications and prayers night and day. But she who is self-indulgent is dead while she lives. Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach.

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." (1 Timothy 5:9-8)

However, there are also many instances, in both the Old and New Testaments, where the Scriptures clearly show that there was a special kind of respect for widows and a special duty laid upon the congregation to help them, even preferentially.

We also find clear statements of the duty of individual believers within a household:

"But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God. Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. But she who is self-indulgent is dead while she lives. Do not commit sexual immorality. And do not steal and do not lie. If a man has sexual relations with another man’s wife, one will be as one who kills his neighbor. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife.” (1 Peter 3:5-10)

The bottom line seems to be this: Widows, especially those with children and those living within households who are not suporting them or providing for them, should receive help from within the congregation. That should be preferential or priority before going outside the local congregation first, particularly when the needs of your own widows and believers in your community are pressing. Then, if these inner duties have been fulfilled, then the needs outside the congregation must also be met. This is demonstrated by the other Scripture where the Lord's direct commands, were given, to help those widows and orphans. There are no excuses, no exceptions, for the leaders of congregations. They are mandated to serve the believers in their care. Widows and orphans should never have been neglected. They were the children of Abraham! These people are relatives and family, and must receive help from the believers among God's people.

Conclusions from the two major words, 'widow' and 'neglect'

So based on the two key words we can conclude:

(1) Widows are the ones who should be helped when possible.

(2) But what about orphans? There is no doubt that they should be taken care of, if possible within the church, and first. But only if there is provision available.

(3) The basic root meaning of the two terms may have been intended, but the larger groups indicated in this context seem to have been the people that James had in mind. James also seems to have had in mind some of the concepts mentioned here. I believe that is the meaning of the passage. It is not unbiblical to think that this is the meaning. Many of the comments below try to improve upon this meaning. I believe that we will see they fall short of the requirements given here. But, like everything else we look at, it should always be looked at from the context of Scripture as a whole. That is the final arbiter in the matter.

The final note then, is that whatever is inferred from this passage should not be used to neglect help for the true widows, who are often the most vulnerable persons in any society. In most cultures orphans are also provided for, but not always widows. Even if their husbands die, the son continues to provide for them in most cases, and they will be financially secure. But widows will usually continue on with their own households, no longer have adequate income, and may not have help available from any source. We should not turn aside from widows on account of this passage, however, because the Scripture makes it very clear that the duty remains with Christians, to meet the needs of those in their families, the widows and orphans, from the congregation first before looking elsewhere, or for any other purposes.

How should this Scripture affect how we are to look at needy people today?

Is it possible that he is telling us that we should not discriminate and prefer one person over another, and instead try to take care of the needs of all people, whoever they might be?

Galatians 6:10 sums up our responsibilities quite sucinctly, "Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, let us do good to everyone -- and especially to those in the household of faith."

In my next article we will look at the evidence that has been gathered on this issue, and how it compares to the teaching of Scripture. It seems to me to be very out of step with the whole of the Scriptures and their clear directions.


David Palir

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