In 1 Timothy, chapter 5, Paul has two main themes. First, he instructs Timothy how widows are to be treated. John MacArthur gives us an understanding of the Greek word “widow”.
The English word widow describes a woman whose husband is dead. The Greek word chēra (“widow”) includes that meaning, but is not limited to it. It is an adjective used as a noun, and means “bereft,” “robbed,” “having suffered loss,” or “left alone.” The word does not speak of how a woman was left alone, it merely describes the situation. It is broad enough to encompass those who lost their husbands through death, desertion, divorce, or imprisonment. It could even encompass those cases where a polygamist came to Christ and sent away his extra wives (William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], 105).3
In the first part of the chapter we learn that widows are to be those who are destitute. He is also talking here about widows in the church, to be supported by their local church. He tells Timothy that she is a person who has truly manifested her commitment to Jesus Christ in the life of this congregation. Ligon Duncan clarifies about “the list” Paul referred to:
He speaks in verse nine of a widow being put on “the list.” Now, what in the world does that mean? Well, it’s clear from this passage that “the list” involves a widow who is in the situation of material need described in verses three through eight. She is a widow indeed. She has no one else to care for her. But this widow indeed is also one who performs spiritual and charitable functions for the church. In other words, she assists the deacons and the elders in the ministry of the church. She’s over sixty years old. She pledges herself that she will serve the church for the rest of her life, and she will assist in the ways that the church deems best. She will be an intercessor for the church. She will pray. She will give counsel to younger women. She will visit the sick. She will prepare women for baptism and communion. She will give guidance and direction to other widows and orphans supported by the church. She will serve in all these ways.
Early church writings speak of a widow’s order, which could possibly be what we see created here in Ephesus. In the late first and early second centuries, Ignatius and Polycarp wrote of such an order. Tertullian, who lived in the latter part of the second and early part of the third centuries, also mentioned it. The third-century document known as the Didascalia, and the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions also refer to an order of widows.
Paul goes on to discuss elders, their support by the local church and the sad situation of some being accused of serious sin. He gives explicit instructions how they are to handle accusations and bases it on Old Testament case law from Deuteronomy 19:15 to give Timothy the principle.
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.
We see in this chapter that the local church is to be a community of mutual accountability, and how we live matters. This passage is about all of us, and we see principles here that are valuable for us today.