Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
When in this article we concentrate on the calling of the elders of God’s church to care for the widows, we do not mean to deny the need of the widowers, nor do we mean to minimize the elders’ calling to care for them as well. Widowers mourn the loss of their wives and they are lonely. They too need to be comforted by the Word of God, and the elders must see to it that these are brought the Word of comfort. In addition, much of what we shall have to say concerning the elders’ calling to care for the widows applies also to their care of the widowers.*
Widows are mentioned often in Scripture. The Israelites were warned in no uncertain terms not to afflict any widow or fatherless child. The punishment for doing so was the supreme penalty, death (Ex. 22:22-24). Scripture says the Lord must be feared and obeyed because He is a great God, and, “he doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow” (Deut. 10:18). The Israelites were called to support the widows with their tithes (Deut. 14:29; 24:17). The one who perverted the judgment of the widow was cursed by God (Deut. 27:19).
The Lord expresses His gracious compassion for the widows in many of the psalms. God is a Father of the fatherless and a judge of the widow (Ps. 68:5). Among the great sins for which the wicked are judged is that “they slay the widow and the stranger and the fatherless” (Ps. 94:6). And the inspired psalmist writes, “The Lord relieves the fatherless and widow” (Ps. 146:9).
God, through the inspired prophet, calls His people to “plead for the widow” (Is. 1:17). The Lord warns us that the widows must not be oppressed and we are not to do them violence (Jer. 7:6; 22:3).
We find these same emphases in the New Testament Scriptures. One of the sins for which Jesus condemns the Pharisees is “devouring widows’ houses” (Matt. 23:14). The office of deacon was instituted in the church of the New Testament so that the Grecian widows would not be neglected in the daily ministrations and to enable the apostles to busy themselves with the preaching of the Word (Acts 6:1-6). That this received God’s approval and blessing is evident from the very next verse, which reads, “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly…” (Acts 6:7).
According to the Epistles the church is called to honor widows who are widows indeed (I Tim. 5:3). Widows must trust in God and continue in prayer. They must be provided for by their relatives, and if these are unable to do so the church must provide for the widows. Widows are called to walk in good works, lodge strangers, wash the saints’ feet. The younger women ought to marry and bear children (I Tim. 5:3-16). To cite no more, part of pure and undefiled religion before God our Father is that we visit (the Greek verb translated “visit” by the A.V. means “come to the aid of”) the fatherless and widows in their affliction (James 1:26-27).
These passages (and more could be cited) certainly indicate that the Lord has a great concern for the widows of His church. And Christ, the Chief Shepherd of the sheep, takes care of the widows primarily through the elders of the church!
Consider what the believing, godly widow has lost. She has lost her husband, i.e., the man who loved her just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it (Eph. 5:25). She has lost her godly husband, who loved her sacrificially and unselfishly and with all his heart. Her husband, to whom she submitted in love just as the church submits to Christ, she has lost (Eph. 5:22-24). The love, the bond of perfectness, which they had for each other in their hearts, that love which made them one flesh in the Lord (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4-6) is lost. That most intimate, wonderful, and profoundly beautiful relationship, the union of one man and one woman in the bond of marriage is lost when the husband dies. Who can adequately describe or appreciate the pain experienced by a godly widow?
Still more, the widow has lost the one who was her head (Eph. 5:23). As the head of his wife the husband is responsible for her care. The husband is to provide for her earthly needs: food, shelter, clothing. This may not be as keenly felt today in our affluent society as it was a number of years ago. However that may be, in the death of her husband the widow has lost her head.
More than this, however, is the fact that the widow has lost her spiritual head and her family’s spiritual leader. Her husband’s instruction, his encouragement, his guidance, his wise counsel for the children and his discipline of them, all this and more are lost when the Lord takes a husband and father from his wife and family.
This last point was brought home to me when a widow expressed some criticism concerning what I had written regarding family visitation in an earlier article. In that article I stressed that the elders should control the visit and bring the Word. The widow’s criticism was that this would deprive her of her only opportunity to learn about what is happening in the congregation and, as well, the opportunity would be lost to let her voice be heard. After all, the Bible does say, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (I Cor. 14:34-35). This widow’s point was of course that she had no husband “to ask at home” concerning matters going on in the congregation. This is one of the reasons why the elders must take the time to “come to the aid” of the widows of the congregation. If the widows are visited by the elders on a regular basis, once per month and more often if necessary, there will be ample opportunity for the widows to ask their questions and express their concerns for the affairs of the congregation. Family visitation ought not be reserved for this.
Let the elders of Christ’s church be sensitive to the great loss experienced by the godly widows of the congregation. With the sympathetic understanding of God’s love, the elders must bring to the widows the comfort of God’s Word. This, after all, is the only source of comfort for the Christian. Nothing else than the Word of God’s grace, mercy, and love in Jesus can comfort the widows. And, again, let the elders remember that God’s Word is always effective. God’s Word never returns void. It always accomplishes God’s purpose!
The Word of comfort must be brought as soon as possible after the death of the husband. And the Word of comfort must be brought in the weeks and months following the funeral. These are the most difficult days for the widows. The busy activities of the funeral are over. The days are long and the nights are even longer for the lonely widows. They need to hear from God’s Word that God is always good. They must submit in their sorrows to the Lord and His way for them. God did it after all! “God took your husband,” the widow must be told. He is the sovereign Giver of life and He is the sovereign Taker of life. Widows must not complain or rebel against the Lord. They must submit to His way and learn to be content also in the state of the widow (Phil. 4:11, 12).
Is this easy? Absolutely not! This is incredibly difficult! No, this is impossible! Apart from the grace of God in Christ, this is impossible. Godly widows cannot bear the loss without God’s grace. And God’s grace is given by means of the Word! God loves us with eternal, unchanging love in Christ Jesus. God is our all-wise Father who knows what is good for us. Even though we may not be able to understand God’s way, God is good in all His ways. In His infinite goodness to us in Christ, God causes all things, also the loss of our spouses, to work together for our good and salvation.
Think of that! The widow’s loss is great. A cause of agonizing grief and terrible loneliness is her loss. But widows do have God as their heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake. Their sins are washed away in Jesus’ shed blood. Widows have been given new life by the power of the resurrection of Jesus.
This earthly life, therefore, is emphatically not all there is. There’s more, much more! Life on this earth, and all that belongs to it, also marriage, is a pilgrimage. Everlasting life! Perfect, everlasting fellowship with all the saints in Christ Jesus. And in Christ Jesus perfect communion with God our Father. Fellowship with God in Christ and with all the saints in the wonderful glory of the new heaven and earth. This is the end of our earthly pilgrimage!
This is what the apostle John has given to us. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit John wrote, “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away. … these words are true and faithful” (Rev. 21:1-5).
This is the great comforting hope of the widows and of all the saints in God’s church. In this hope they will never be put to shame!
* We are aware of the fact that the deacons too are called by God to care for the widows and widowers of God’s church. We leave this subject for our colleague Rev. Douglas Kuiper, whose assignment is to write on the deacon’s office.