As evangelicals, we are aware and convinced of our responsibility to the Great Commission although few carry it out. And the second half of the greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), which among other things embodies being merciful, has been received with mixed feelings. This is because of the fear to undermine the preaching of the gospel by ending up preaching a social gospel. This fear is borne from the thought that we might end up with churches that are bent on performing social work, albeit with some spiritual flavour.

The Scriptures are quite clear on this matter. The Christian’s call is to reach out to the whole man—both soul and body—with the gospel. My task in this article is to lay before you the evidence of Scripture concerning the church’s responsibility to widows and orphans. I would like to identify the reasons why the church does not care for the widows and orphans as much as it ought, I will attempt to suggest some solutions to this problem, and end the discussion with some practical lessons. [1]

Old Testament evidence of the church’s responsibility to widows

 Divine order: Apart from the Levites who God had instructed the Israelites to take care of using resources collected through tithes, there were also the orphans and widows on that list (Deut. 14:28–29 and 26:12).

Creational fatherhood: God is said to be the father of the fatherless and the defender of widows against those who would take advantage of them (Ps. 68:5 and 146:7–9).

Divine displeasure: The Lord warns his people—the Israelites—against the oppression of the underprivileged, i.e. the destitute, the orphans and widows (Isa. 10:1–3, Jer. 7:5–7, 22:2–5, Zech. 7:9–11 and Mal. 3:5).

Clearly, the voice of the Old Testament is loud enough for the church today to be aware and convinced that she ought to be concerned to take care of its widows and orphans.

New Testament evidence of the church’s responsibility to widows

 Messianic defence: The Lord Jesus Christ cared for the widows by condemning those who took advantage of them (Luke 20:46–47). He felt for them and had concern for them (Luke 17:12–16 and John 19:26–27).

Apostolic secondary ministerial concern: The apostles would not leave their primary ministerial responsibility of preaching the word and prayer, but nonetheless they devised a way of taking care of the widows who were left out in the welfare distribution program in the early church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1–2). The fact that they never dismissed the complaints saying that those complaining were simply being ungodly and worldly, but instead wisely devised an answer for them was indicative of the fact that the church is under obligation to care for its widows.

Individual Christian volunteerism: In the early church, individual Christian volunteerism took care of the widows and one such clear example of this selfless action was Dorcas. When she was dead there was a cry from the widows about her ministry of mercy to them (Acts 9:36–39).

Apostolic directive: The fact that the apostle Paul outlined a policy on how to take care of the widows speaks of the church’s obligation to its widows. This is clearly spelt out in 1 Timothy 5:3–16.

Marks of true religion: The apostle James states in James 1:27 that the marks of true religion include the visiting of widows and the orphans.

Causes of lack of care for the widows

 Church growth: The problem of neglecting some widows, the Hellenist’s (Greek-speaking Jews), in the daily distribution of food in the early church arose from the increase in the number of the disciples (Acts 6:1). When the church is growing there is a possibility that a number of things will be overlooked and one of them is the care of those who are lacking in provisions.

Community conflicts: When the church increases in number there is an increase in the social differences that can be a source of future problems if her leadership is not sensitive or lacks wisdom.

The Hellenists, who were in the minority, were being left out of the social welfare program. The Hebraic widows, who were Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Jews and natives of Jerusalem, could have felt superior to their counterparts and therefore caused ethnic friction between the two camps. Social status in the Christian community can easily cause marginalisation or even exclusion altogether of people from the church’s fellowship. The church may begin to form social strata. Among the liberal and vernacular churches these groups are formed along tribal lines. Unfortunately, even among Evangelical Christians, these divisions can easily occur to the neglect of those in dire need. Those who are usually victims are orphans and widows.

Administration weakness: The apostles gladly admitted their weakness in failing to meet the demand of distribution of daily needs because of ministerial priority. They concentrated on the preaching of God’s word and prayer (Acts 6:2b). The neglect of the destitute and vulnerable, i.e. the widows and orphans, is usually due to the fact that they are overlooked because of weak administrative structures in the church. As a result of this weakness, the church does not seem to notice them and they fall into the cracks.

Scarce finances: Scarcity of resources could have necessitated the neglect of some widows in the early church in Jerusalem because it then would have demanded careful and equitable distribution of the few resources.

Conviction dearth: The church must be persuaded and determined to engage in the ministry of mercy as much as they are determined to preach the gospel. In the early church, the problem of widows being neglected would have been perpetuated if the elders then (the apostles) were not convinced about the church’s responsibility to the widows.

The fact that they said they could not leave the word and prayer did not mean that this was a problem they would not solve. Otherwise they could not have thought of a permanent solution. The apostles were well acquainted with Christ’s mercy ministry and, therefore, could not disregard the widows. They had a commitment to serve God this way.

Solution to the problem of neglect of widows

 Diaconal office: There was need to form a new administrative organisational structure in the church—the diaconate—apart from that which already existed, namely, the eldership. The equitable sharing of the daily provisions for the widows lay in refining the organisational structure of the church. The apostles needed godly men to assist them in the welfare program because they could not sacrifice their ministerial priority for this (Acts 6:2-4). Ordinarily the office of deacon should sort out the problem of the neglect of the needy in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ because it was born specifically to adequately meet the needs of the widows.

The problem is that the deacons who are supposed to be the answer to the problem are often the ones who perpetuate it because of their wrong outlook to the office. The church also contributes to this perception by elevating them as “executives or board members” instead of them being an office of mercy to needy people.

Christian volunteerism: The early church seems to have had individuals whose ministry was to the poor and the needy. One such person is Dorcas. Dorcas was an outstanding example of Christian dedication and commitment to the care of widows. She was an ordinary member of the church who did not occupy any office, but simply volunteered to meet the needs of the brethren. She provided for the needs of others.

Relational obligation: The first line of obligation for the care of a widow belongs to her family (1 Tim. 5:4). Believing relatives (children) to the widow must take care of their relative as Scripture says, as a way of paying back and acknowledging their faith (1 Tim. 5:8). When the family has taken care for its own widows, the church is freed to channel its scares funds to help those who have no family to assist them at all (1 Tim. 5:5, 16).

Policy to welfare program among the widows

 Unconnected widows: The church must care for those needy widows who do not have believing relatives (1 Tim. 5:4). These widows are genuinely destitute and in need of help because they are entirely by themselves with no one to help them (1 Tim. 5:5). The church must recognise them in order to care for them financially (1 Tim. 5:3). The word “honour” is the word used in relation to elders who rule well in the church (1 Tim. 5:17–18) with respect to providing for their financial needs. So, to honour your father and mother includes giving them monetary assistance in their old age. This truth is supported in both Mark 7:10–13 and 1 Timothy 5:4.

Believing widows: The church must care for the widow who has continued to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, like Anna in Luke 2:36-38 and not given herself to self-indulgence (James 5:5) after the demise of her husband. Her religion was not only lived out when her husband was alive but even when he was gone (1 Tim. 5:5–6). Such widows the church must honour because they are real widows deserving the church’s support.

Godly widows: These believing widows must now be living a godly life. They must also have a godly record of having devoted their lives to raising godly children, showing mercy to the poor, the afflicted, strangers, and the needy in the church (1 Tim. 5:9–10). Her godliness must be visible.

Elderly widows: The widows that qualify for a permanent welfare program in the church must be elderly in terms of age (1 Tim. 5:9–10). “The reason the young widows are left out on the permanent list is to guard them from temptation (1 Tim. 5:11–14), such as idleness, becoming busy bodies and to avoid sexual scandals (1 Cor. 7:8, 9)”.[2]

 Practical lessons for the 21st century church

Usually the problem in applying truth is how it must be done. Let me suggest a few practical ways the church can care for its widows and orphans.

Practical visits: The church usually supports widows during the bereavement, but immediately after the burial everyone disappears including the church officers. Very few return to visit, but even when they do it is a very social visit with only verbal comfort. While I must admit that this is necessary, to end there is to only partially meet the needs of widows. The church needs to be a little more practical. Our visit must have an aim of meeting some of their practical needs as well. Assess the situation as you talk with the widow and sometimes openly discuss her practical needs with her. Some of the areas are: How she would survive, educate the children, pay house rent, meet medical expenses whether incurred during the spouse’s sickness or after, disposal of the late husband’s estate, investment of their resources, meeting of daily needs, etc. If no one else asks such questions, certainly the deacons must. Mercy giving is their calling. They must wisely collect the data and offer a helping hand. Deacons must provide help where there is real need, directly as resources permit or indirectly through Christian volunteers and partners of the church. It is a shame to assure the penurious of your concern and prayers (“be warm and be full”), when you have the resources to meet their physical needs. The ministers of mercy must be in the forefront to finding solutions for needy widows and destitute orphans in the church.

Particular help: Our visit to the widows must not end up with only general empty promises to help, such as, “Call us whenever you need anything”. Do not offer to help unless you really mean it. But even when you do, be specific otherwise the needy may feel tied to nothing specific and be too shy to bother you. Pledge to meet particular needs, e.g. paying house rent for the next six months. The church may have to place some widows on its payroll for life. We will be adorning the gospel of our Lord Jesus by showing love for our needy brethren and the gospel will continue to spread (Acts 6:7).

Professional assistance: Widows and orphans must not be left to suffer because God has endowed the church with talents and gifts for the common good of the church (1 Cor. 12:12ff). Specialist help can be rendered to the widows and the orphans. This can be mobilised by the church or by individual Christians who make it their ministry to help. Lawyers can offer free legal services to those in need of their help, and medical doctors can provide health care for the destitute and vulnerable.


Strauch Alexander, Minister of mercy, the New Testament Deacon, Lewis & Roth publishers, 2012 Edition,

Harris Charles, life struggles article, the life of the widows, church responsibility to her,,

[1] A heavily borrowed outline from Charles Harris’ article

[2] Harris Charles, article