Paul’s Teaching on Widows Marrying

Last night, a classmate astutely pointed out a couple of tough texts in Paul’s letters that seem to contradict one another. The texts are 1 Cor. 7:39, which says, “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord,” and 1 Tim. 5:11-12, which says, “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.” So, Paul, can widows marry, or do they “incur condemnation” if they marry? This, of course, is one of the reasons many scholars say that 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus must not be written by Paul. However, let’s look closely and see what each of these passages is trying to say.

1 Cor. 7:39 is fairly straightforward here, but I think it is important to take careful notice of the way Paul says what he says. Paul says that the widow “is free to be married.” She may choose whether or not to marry again; she has the right or the freedom to marry…with one important limitation: “only in the Lord,” which I understand to indicate that the man whom she would marry must be a believer. But, at any rate, the widow may marry if she so chooses.

1 Timothy 5 is a little more complex. The issue Paul wants Timothy to address is whether or not a widow should be enrolled on the church’s official list of widows who receive support from the church. The widows who are to be taken care of by the church are only widows who have no other family who can support them. Thus, these widows are completely alone now that their husband has died (1 Tim. 5:5). Therefore, Paul says that these widows put their hope on God and are devoted to constant prayer because they are in desperate need. So, the church, as the body of Christ, must supply their needs, as God answers their prayers through the church. Then, Paul adds some other qualifications that widows must meet in order to be enrolled and thus taken care of by the church. They must not be younger than about 60 years old (which was a rare age for people to live in his day anyway), and must have lived lives of godliness up to that day (1 Tim. 5:9-10). This is where verse 11 comes in. Paul commands Timothy not to enroll younger widows, which I suppose means widows younger than about 60 years old (but I suspect he has much, much younger women in mind). His reason for this refusal of younger widows is his observation that their sexual impulses run rampant now that they are left all alone, tempting them to abandon their faith in Christ. Since their sexual desires are unable to be abated, he says, they will then desire to be married again, to fulfill their sexual needs. And Paul seems to be saying that this desire to be married will lead them to incur condemnation, but the specific reason they receive condemnation is because they “have abandoned their former faith.” This is an odd phrase, indeed, but I think it refers to their profession of faith in Christ, since earlier he indicated that their sexual desires, as they get out of hand, would draw them away from Christ. So, how does their desire to be married fit into this scheme?

Well, I think the main issue that we need to hold onto is that Paul is concerned that younger widows will deny their faith and abandon Christ if they are put into this situation. We also need to keep in mind the purpose of the list on which these widows are being enrolled. Widows are enrolled because they have no one left in their families to care for them, and they are turning to God to provide for them through the church. So, I think the issue with the younger widows is that, once they have been placed on the list, and therefore are receiving care from the church, they are more prone (perhaps) than older widows to be drawn away from relying on God to meet their needs through the church, and have a tendency to desire for another husband to take care of their needs (including their sexual needs, which the church cannot provide). I think this is the case because Paul says that, instead of being enrolled on the official support list, younger widows should go get married, “and give the adversary no occasion for slander”! Thus, Paul is concerned to protect the faith of these young women. Their condemnation is due to their response to their widowhood, not specifically because they desire to marry again. He also predicts that such women will not only abandon their faith, but they will even become idlers, gossips, and busybodies, which Paul may mean to include their carrying of false teaching from house to house.