"Honor widows who are widows indeed; but if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God. Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day. But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives. Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above 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 5:3-8)We have very little told to us about exactly how the early church cared for and supported widows in their day. We do know that the care for widows was part of the life of the church and that of the early believers. James instructs us that, "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27) Pure religion compels us to care for those who are distressed and alone; to be help to the helpless and to comfort those who have no one else to comfort them. We also know that the early church had a special place in their heart for widows. Luke recounts the story for us when Peter raised Dorcas from the dead. "So Peter arose and went with them. When he arrived, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them... And he gave her his hand and raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive." (Acts 9:39, 41) Notice that he called the saints and widows. They obviously had a special place in the heart of the believers and in the care of the church. Also, in the Jewish tradition, there were widows who dedicated themselves to the service of God and were provided for out of the temple. "And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers." (Luke 2:36-37) Similarly, it was the tradition of the early church to send left-overs to the widows after the "agape" or "Love Feast." It was this practice from which arouse the complaint, "Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food." (Acts 6:1)
So what is Paul saying? Two things are important to understand here. First is that the church does not replace the family. The church and the family coexist and each has their own set of responsibilities as it comes to the care of those in need. When one is in need, it is their family that must first step up to provide and care for the one in need. Today, it is often convenient to push off our needy family members to welfare, nursing homes, of even the church. leaving it up to them to care for our family members rather than ourselves. But this is not what our faith teaches us. Piety begins at home with our own relations and then extends to the church and to others.
Secondly, the church is not a welfare organization. The church does not exist to take care of hurting people; that is the responsibility of individuals and families. In dire circumstances, where there is no one else to help, and the one in need has proven their faith and Godly character to all, then the church can step in to provide what is lacking, but this is the exception and not the rule. Some may see the church as an extension of themselves, and that is understandable, and they see giving to the church as giving to those in need, as the church distributes their offerings to the needy. However, we can never abnegate our personal responsibilities to the church nor look to the church as our provider instead of seeing to it ourselves. Let the church care for those who are truly destitute and alone, and let us care for those with who we have relationships; family first, then others.