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The point of 1 Timothy 5:8 is rather clear. Failure to care for the needs of particular individuals is tantamount to rejection of one's faith. And a person of faith who acts in such a way as to deny that faith in practice is worse than those who never profess faith in the first place.
What creates difficulties for us is the rigorous tone of this instruction and the finality that seems to be attached to one's failure in following the instruction. A related difficulty--in light of Paul's insistence that salvation is by faith and not by works--is the close connection in this text between a very particular action and one's faith, and therefore one's salvation.
A careful look at Paul's argument in its larger context and within his thinking about faith and its fruits should alleviate the difficulties.
Our verse is part of a longer passage (1 Tim 5:3-16) in which Paul is concerned about the place and care of widows in the church. In the ancient world, partially due to patriarchal family and social structures, widows were often among the most weak and vulnerable members of society. It is clear from the Old Testament that God has a special concern for the least, the little ones, the oppressed, the powerless. And that concern includes widows (Deut 10:18; 24:17; Ps 68:5; Is 1:17). From Luke's account of the ministry of Jesus and the early church (Lk 7:11-15; 18:2-8; 21:1-4; Acts 6:1; 9:39), we see that concern for widows naturally continued in the "new Israel," that the Christian community saw care for widows as a special responsibility, and that groups of widows in the churches were particularly involved in good deeds of charity for others in need.
The larger passage, of which this text is a part, reveals this abiding concern for widows. It also shows that particular circumstances called for greater clarity regarding the church's responsibility in this area. Paul distinguishes between "widows who are really in need" (1 Tim 5:3) and those who have family able to care for them (1 Tim 5:4). Given the fact that the early churches, on the whole, were constituted of people who were from the lower socioeconomic strata (see 1 Cor 1:26-28), their economic resources cannot have been extensive. Thus the need arose to channel limited resources to meet the most urgent situations of deprivation. It may even be that the church's compassion for widows was expressed so consistently that charity became something to be expected, even when there was no real need.
In any case, Paul's instruction is that the primary responsibility for the care of widows rests on members of the immediate family (children or grandchildren, 1 Tim 5:4). Only when that assistance is not available, when the widow is "left all alone" (1 Tim 5:5), does the larger community become responsible.
Paul grounds that instruction in two ways. Such action is, first of all, "pleasing to God" (1 Tim 5:4). The imperative to care for parents was derived in Judaism from the fifth commandment ("Honor your father and your mother," Ex 20:12), and obedience to the commandment was understood to bring with it God's blessing. Second, Paul grounds his instruction in a truth stated over and over in the Word of God; namely, that one's faith, one's beliefs, must find expression in concrete action and relationships. Thus, following a harsh rebuke against the emptiness and shallowness of Israel's worship (Is 1:10-16), Isaiah calls on the people to "seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case for the widow" (Is 1:17). A right relationship with God is expressed in the doing of justice, the loving of kindness (Mic 6:6) and the demonstration of steadfast love (Hos 6:6). The truest expression of the worship of God is when God's people are involved in letting "justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24).
This central Old Testament conviction is also at the heart of the message of Jesus and his followers. We shall be known by the fruit we bear (Mt 7:16, 20) and thus bring glory to God (Jn 15:8). The world will know that we are Jesus' disciples if we genuinely love one another (Jn 13:35). If God's forgiving, reconciling work does not find expression in our relationships, then our worship of God is empty (Mt 5:23-24). The fruit of the Spirit in us, says Paul, expresses itself in kindness and the practice of goodness (Gal 5:22). New life in Christ (Col 3:1-3) is to express itself in a life clothed with compassion and kindness (Col 3:12). Faith that is not evidenced in deeds is judged to be dead, inauthentic faith (Jas 2:14-17). Religion that is "pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress" (Jas 1:27).
Within this larger New Testament perspective, Paul's directive for the care of widowed mothers or grandmothers by children or grandchildren must be understood. They should "learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family" (1 Tim 5:4). The reality of our relationship with God most naturally flows over into our human relationships. And the members of our immediate families are the first ones to feel the impact of our relationship with God. The expression "Charity begins at home" is rooted in the conviction that if love of neighbor does not express itself concretely in our closest relationships, then our claim to love God ("our religion") is a lie (1 Jn 4:19-21).
This is why Paul judges a person who does not provide for family members to have "denied the faith" and to be "worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim 5:8). Though this judgment seems harsh in relation to this particular failure in practical Christian behavior, Paul's concern throughout the letter that Christian life be above reproach from outsiders (1 Tim 2:2; 3:1-7; 5:14; 6:1) helps us to understand his strong word. The phrase "to be worse than an unbeliever" implies that even unbelievers are expected to care for those of their own households. Believers who neglect this responsibility are thus acting "worse than" unbelievers. Whenever that happens (see also 1 Cor 5:1-2), the church is not being God's alternative community in a broken, fragmented world. And such a life in the world represents a denial of the faith.