Individual-Group Distinctions

by Bryan Sharp

I Timothy 5:16 tells us, "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." (ESV)

This one verse is a gold mine of practical application because, in this one verse, God separates the group from the individual.

Do you know why we have what we call liberal and conservative churches? Throughout my life, I have heard that it is because of authority issues. While this is absolutely true, it is also only a generic, or a general answer. More specifically, many, maybe even the majority, of our differences exist because people ignore this one verse.

To many, it only makes sense that because the church is composed of individuals, the church can do what individuals can do. This idea has been repeated over and over again since churches split in the 1940s and 1950s. The individual is supposed to be charitable. The individual is supposed to care for orphans, the sick, and the poor. Individuals make up the church so the church must also have these responsibilities. Thus the church is supposed to build orphanages, operate soup kitchens, and donate to hospitals and universities. The problem is that in I Timothy 5:16, God separates the group and the individual. God makes different rules for the individual Christian and for the group of Christians we call the local congregation. There are things the individual can do that the group cannot, and there are things the group can do, that the individual cannot.

And this is our one main point. If you don't get anything else out of the lesson, get this one thing. There is a difference between the group and the individual. There are different rules for each.

So we are going to go through I Timothy 5 to see not only this command laid out but also the reasons for it. We will see that this is not some arbitrary statement, culturally limited to New Testament times or New Testament lands and of no real importance to us. Rather, God makes this distinction in order to help us universally. It is just as relevant today as when it was written and we ignore it at our peril. After we make our way through the text, we will end with everyday, practical applications.

Three Reasons

So what is the context of verse 16? What is the purpose of this individual-group distinction and how does it apply to us?

The first thing to notice is that the church is commanded to honor widows and this honor takes the form of financial support. However, this honor is not to be extended to all widows. Much of this context is devoted to differentiating among widows and explaining why the church must honor some and must not honor others. Paul lists three reasons for this distinction:

Individual Responsibility

Some widows have families to care for them. This is what we read in verse four: "… if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God." (ESV) In other words, if my mother or grandmother is in need, I had better be the one to care for her and not push my responsibility off on you.

Unintended Consequences

In verses five through seven we are told that church money leads some people into sin. Did you get what I said? When the church gives money to some people, the result is not people turning to God, but people turning to sin. Now, why does this happen? This happens because of the character of the person helped. In verses five and six, Paul details the differences between the two types of widows; the widows the church is commanded to help and the widows the church is commanded not to help. These differences describe godly and ungodly lives.

Godly Women

In verse five, the widow who is left all alone sets her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. Supplications are petitions. They are requests. So this is an emphasis of the fact that this widow is depending on God and not on family or anyone else. "Night and Day" shows consistency and continuity. So this is something she does all the time. Now compare this woman to the woman of verse six.

Ungodly Women

The widow of verse six is self-indulgent. Her focus is not on God, it's on self. Where one woman continues in supplications and prayers night and day, the other is spiritually dead.

Church Money

In verse seven Paul alludes to the fact that the sins of these self-indulgent, spiritually dead, widows are due, at least in part, to church money. He says, command these things "so that they may be without reproach" or blameless. The word "they" in verse seven may include the congregation, but at a minimum, it refers to the widows. In other words, Paul commands the congregation to make a distinction in who gets money, so that widows will be blameless. So how does giving money to some people and not to others keep them blameless, or above reproach? He explains this in the next section.

Verses three through eight are the introduction. We see the basics. In the next section, Paul expands on verse seven and explains how this distinction is beneficial for all involved. Beginning in verse nine, we get a detailed list of the differences between the two groups of widows. And if we pay attention to these differences we can understand how helping some widows and not others will keep them blameless.

Godly Women

First, Paul discusses the true widows. In verses nine and ten we see the true widow has spent a long time, possibly her entire life, in God's service. She is at least 60 years old and has spent her years developing both her character and her reputation for good works. She has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints' feet, cared for the afflicted, and devoted herself to every good work. This woman and all others like her are of great value to the church, both in service and example. She has outlived all of her family and so her congregation is commanded to honor her, to demonstrate their value of her, by caring for her as her family would have if they were still alive.

Ungodly Women

That's the true widow, or the widow indeed. Now let's examine the other type of widow, the one the church is commanded not to help, and as we read, notice the next few verses do more than describe the other type of widow, these verses also reveal the financial support we are discussing includes more than just one-time aid. This is important. These verses show us there is an extended period of time involved in her financial aid. We know that because the changes that occur in verses eleven through thirteen take some time to happen.

Look at verses 11 through 13: "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." Now what is meant in verse 12 by "abandoning their former faith?" This means the younger widows broke their vows of celibacy. In other words, after their husbands died, these widows vowed to live a celibate life of service like that of Anna in Luke chapter two, but over time, their passions drew them away from Christ and they broke that vow. Do you remember Anna, from Luke 2?

Luke 2:36-37 tells us: "Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day." Anna lived in the temple, apparently depending on the temple and its resources for her sustenance. In return, she devoted her life to fasting and prayers.

Church Money

The young widows in I Timothy 5 were trying to live a life of service like Anna. Although not specifically mentioned, the context implies such a vow. How else can we connect their desire to marry with their passions drawing them away from Christ? When their husbands died, these women made a vow of celibacy and committed themselves to a life of fasting and prayers. Without a family, they relied on the church to support them. However, the single life was harder than what they imagined and so when their passions, or desires, drew them away from Christ, they desired to marry, and eventually they broke their vows. And even before they remarried, rather than living like Anna, they became idle and their idleness led to all the sins of verse 13. This is why Paul says he wants them to marry. Marriage not only provided an outlet for "passions" or "desires" but at the same time, it kept them busy and out of trouble.

Parents know it's not good for their teenagers to have too much free time. Paul shows us the same is true for others of us as well. Too much free time can lead us into trouble. The older women, regardless of whether their passions were as strong as they had been in their youth, had a stronger character, a character they had developed over a lifetime of service and so were better equipped to live this life.

Notice once again that it is not one-time aid that is under consideration in I Timothy 5. The congregation is not prohibited from one-time aid when a Christian is in need. The congregation is prohibited from placing certain people on a permanent distribution list because, although it may be done with good intentions, it leads to unintended consequences.

Limited Resources

We said Paul gives us three reasons not to support certain widows. The first reason is individual responsibility. I have to take care of my own family and not steal from the church just because I don't want to spend my money on my family. The second reason is unintended consequences. Placing younger widows on the church payroll, in a permanent fashion, so that they get a regular handout, not only puts them in a situation where sexual desire can be overwhelming but also encourages them to be idle and participate in all the sins that come with idleness.

Now for the third reason, consider the prohibition from the congregation's perspective. This is verse 16. "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." In addition to everything else Paul said, the congregation must realize that we can't do it all. Giving money to everyone is a burden we cannot bear. When we try, we won't have enough money to support those we are really supposed to be helping. Paul commands the congregation not to give money to younger widows so that it can do its real job. So what is the congregation's real job? In this context, it is honoring true widows.


Now think about what we have just read and put it all together. The church at Ephesus was giving money to people it should not. That's not the view the majority of the world has of the church, is it; a religious organization that refuses financial assistance to those in need, and not just to anybody, but to widows? In fact, Paul tells the church at Ephesus that it cannot give money to Christian widows who are members of that church! So why does Paul make this demand? Three reasons: First, this is an individual responsibility; some widows have a family to care for them. Second: to avoid sin. There are unintended consequences. Giving money to some people encourages them to live sinful lives. And finally, the church has limited resources. Spending our resources on the wrong things means we do not have these resources to spend on the right things. It takes away from the church's real work.

What is our one main point? God gives us different rules for the group and the individual. Can we not see that this rule and these principles apply to more than just supporting widows? I Timothy 5:16 is not some arbitrary command and it is not limited to a specific time or place. So let's take a look at some other applications.



It is not the job of the church to provide entertainment. This is an individual responsibility. Nowhere does God give the group the responsibility to entertain anyone. If I want to join a softball team from work or school that's fine. If I want to be part of a book club at the library, that's great. If you want to go camping or go to Six Flags with friends, have fun, but do it on your time and your dime.

The congregation has limited resources. When we make entertainment the congregation's work, we take away from our real work. Time and money spent on entertainment is time and money that is not spent teaching the word.

There are unintended consequences. When we use the church to provide entertainment, we carnalize or debase, the church. We corrupt its spiritual nature and make it worldly. Using food to attract people to Christ attracts people interested in food, not in Christ. Using a gym to attract people to the gospel, attracts people interested in gyms, not in the gospel.

An Objection

I once heard a preacher object to this point by saying, "If it takes a candy bar to bring people to worship, I'll give away all the candy bars I can, and then teach people when they get here." Yet Christ refused to do just this. Look at John chapter six. In this chapter Jesus used a miracle to prove he was divine, but not as a substitute for the gospel. Jesus performed a miracle to establish the gospel, then when people came for food, he refused to feed them. Consider what happened after the feeding of the 5,000. In John 6:14 we read, "Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world." Even though the crowd had seen a miracle and believed Jesus was sent by God, they were not interested in his spiritual teachings. They admitted he was a prophet, but all they cared about was eating. So the next day, after Jesus fed them, when people came back for the food, Jesus said, "Great, now that candy bars got you, here let's have a Bible study!" Of course not. In verse 26, Jesus rebuked them by saying, "Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled." Then he refused to give them any more food.

God did not design the gospel in such a way that we must bribe people to listen to it. Rather, the gospel is meant to appeal to some and not to others. The gospel appeals to those who have a good heart, and those who love the truth more than anything else. Bribing people to listen will not change their hearts.


The church is not a glorified political action organization!

Politics involve individual responsibilities. Nowhere does God give the group a political agenda. Jesus did not come to establish a utopian society. He came to save souls, Luke 19:10. Individuals may have political liberties, but do not get the church involved in politics. The congregation has limited resources. When we involve the congregation in political, economic, or social reformation efforts, we take away from our real work. The emphasis of the church is not on changing laws, but on behavior. Regardless of what the laws are, we should behave in a certain way. Now if everyone would behave in the correct way, the sinful laws would go away, but civil laws are not the group's goal, people's souls are. The congregation is not concerned with a perfect society, but with saving souls. Therefore, as a group, we do not campaign.

There are unintended consequences. When we involve the church in politics, we debase the gospel. We cannot use politics to bring adults to Christ any more than we can use carnival rides and camping trips to attract the youth. Paul never said, "I am not ashamed of birthday parties and daycare." Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation…" (Romans 1:16).

What does that mean for us? It means the church obviously cannot campaign for candidates or make financial contributions to political parties. Individuals can. As an individual, I can petition for or against certain laws. As a group, we teach the rightness or wrongness of certain behaviors. The congregation can teach people about what policies we should and should not support, but the church cannot host a political debate. (e.g. Rick Warren and the Saddleback Church during the 2008 presidential campaign). The church cannot send people to political rallies or use its building as a polling place. When we do this, we take what is holy, set it apart, and defile it. We take the emphasis off of God and place it on this world.

You may think this is a fine distinction, but this is what Jesus taught in Luke 12:13-14. Jesus is in the middle of a gospel sermon, teaching deep, spiritual truths when "one from the crowd said to Him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." But He said to him, "Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?" " Now, this is the creator of the universe. This is the king of the world who will judge us on the last day saying, "who made Me a judge?" So what did he mean? He means, "do you really think that's what this is all about? You are interested in the wrong thing." I did not leave heaven to arbitrate your physical inheritance. I came to give you a spiritual, eternal inheritance. Get your priorities straight! The lesson for the congregation is the same. We must get our priorities straight, abandon concerns of this physical world, and focus on the spiritual.

Social and Economic Inequality

The church of the Lord is not a civil rights organization!

Social and economic conditions are tied to individual responsibilities. People will go to hell for racism; Acts 17:26 tells us "God has made from one blood, every nation…" and Acts 8:34 says "God does not show favoritism." If God makes no distinction between the races, then what right do I have to do so? As individuals, we have every right to try to see that our government treats all people fairly, to mold our society, but nowhere does God give this responsibility to the church.

The congregation has severely limited resources. Time and money spent on civil rights rallies is time and money not spent on saving souls. Time and money spent on ensuring all people have the right to vote is time and money not spent on ensuring people make it to heaven. People can get to heaven without ever living in a democracy, but people will not get to heaven without the gospel, Romans 1:16. The church must spend its resources on getting people to heaven.

Involving the congregation in civil rights activities has unintended consequences. People will go to hell for their sinful attitudes and actions based on nothing more than skin color, but as sinful as racism is, it is not the congregation's place to have MLK memorial services. We have one memorial service every week. Each Sunday we assemble to commemorate the death of our Lord through partaking of the Lord's Supper. When we share that honor with anyone else, by assembling for their memorial, we devalue what we do for Christ.

Peter told slaves to patiently endure their suffering and not to rebel or flee (I Peter 2:18-25). In the book of Philemon, Paul sent a runaway slave back to his master. In a society of gross injustice and even slavery, the inspired apostles made no attempt to change the social or economic order. The gospel is spiritual, not social, and the church is not a civil rights organization. When we involve the church in civil rights or social justice, we take the focus off of Jesus and replace his law with our wants.

Christ did not suffer on the cross to establish social, political, and economic justice. Our mission is not to establish a perfect society on earth - not any more than Jesus' job was to defend someone's right to an inheritance.


Usually, when I discuss this topic I only discuss verse 16 and show that God has made a distinction between the group and the individual. Then I reason that if God makes this distinction just once, we can never just assume the distinction does not apply. That is, I can never assume that what is good for the individual is good for the group. I must separately show where God authorizes a work for the individual and for the congregation. In other words, just because it is a good work for me to care for my widowed mother does not mean it is a good work for the group to do the same thing.

Now we have gone beyond verse 16 to show not only that God makes a distinction, but the reasons for the separation. Hopefully, this will help us to better understand and apply this principle. For example, now we can see that just because it is a good work for me to provide for the social and educational needs of my family does not mean it is a good work for the group, the congregation, to do the same thing.

Thus this distinction between group and individual is not limited to the financial support of widows. There are many specific ways to apply this principle. We can discuss what the job of the church really is: changing this world or preparing for the next. We can discuss how the church can spend its money; whether the church has the right to support colleges, hospitals, and soup kitchens or even to host weddings. We can discuss whether the church ever has the right to give financial assistance to non-Christians or whether there are enough Christians in need and whether there is enough evangelism of the lost to be done and whether there is enough teaching and edification of the church still necessary, that this should never be an issue. So while, in this context, the principle is specifically applied to certain widows, the difference between what the group can do and what the individual can do has a much broader application.

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