Reviewed by Kirk Wellum
This is clear, straight-forward treatment of an important but neglected vein of biblical teaching regarding the care of widows. In the western world, citizens often depend on governments and government programs when it comes to looking after people who are in financial need. In some ways, these policies and programs have been influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethical system that is derived from the Bible. But, at the same time, the shifting of responsibility for such care from individual citizens to the government can obscure the responsibility of Christians and Christian churches to care for their own in tangible ways. Against this background, Croft and Walker do an admirable job calling the Christian church back to biblical norms and expectations before they turn their attention to the application of biblical teaching to real life situations.
In the first half of the book Walker works through the biblical warrant for the care of widows. Starting with the example of Jesus during his earthly ministry (cf. Mark 12:41-44; Luke 17:11-17; 18:1-8), he moves to the classic definition of James that, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (1:27). Then, returning to the Hebrew Scriptures, he demonstrates by way of examples and precepts that the neglect of widows was one of a cluster of sins that brought down the judgment of God on the nation of Israel, and eventually led to their exile from the land. As a counterpoint, he then tells us of the compassion of Boaz toward Naomi and Ruth, both of whom were widows, and how these acts of kindness were providentially used by God to forge a generational link to King David, and in the fullness of time to Jesus, David’s greater Son.
From there, Walker, reminds us that widows had significant parts to play in the stories of the great OT prophets, Elijah and Elisha. And in addition to this there were provisions and protections that were enshrined in the Mosaic Law to ensure that this vulnerable group was not taken advantage of by others. In fact, God intended that the care of the weak and vulnerable be one of the things that distinguished Israel from the surrounding nations. Unfortunately, Israel failed in this regard, but where they faltered, the church, or new Israel, should lead the way. And this is what we find the church doing when we come to the book of Acts and then go on to the NT letters. In Acts the proper care of widows provides the impetus to choose what many regard as the first “deacons’ in the church (Acts 6:1-7), and later we have the positive example of Dorcas, a widow who distinguish herself by ministering to the needs of others (Acts 9:36-43). In 1 Timothy 5, Paul gives detailed instructions to his protégé Timothy explaining how the church is to care for widows that are in need.
In the second part of the book, Croft, takes the clear biblical mandate established by Walker’s exposition and applies it to real people and situations. Beginning with the ministry of the word, he talks about the need to share the scriptures and the instruction and comfort they bring to those who may feel all alone. This sharing, however, is not just something for pastors and elders to do – the church as a whole should be encouraged and equipped to minister to widows in need in ways that are appropriate to their individual situations. Simple, and yet in reality not so simple things, like visiting, listening, writing a card, taking a gift, involving other family members, taking time to enjoy their company, remembering anniversaries, and adopting a widow for the holidays, are set forth as practical things that Christians can do to care for those who need help. Nothing that is suggested in this section is too difficult and all of it could be organized and carried out with a little planning and effort. I think this is important, because it minimizes the danger of people thinking that an elaborate organization is necessary and consequently they do nothing. Croft’s suggestions are practical and doable!
Finally, there are two short appendixes that round out this very helpful volume. The first is part of a circular letter written by Andrew Fuller in 1815 on need for Christians to do what they can to provide for the widows and orphans of Christian ministers, and to care of ministers themselves who because of their age or permanent affliction are in distress. Fuller’s letter reminds us that these issues are not new, and that the gospel should make us sensible to the needs of others, and to our responsibility to help as we are able. The second appendix is a short list of things that young mothers can do with their children to minister to older women in the congregation who are alone.
Personally, I found the book easy to read and to digest, which is significant given the practical nature of the subject and the ongoing need for accessible resources for church leaders and congregations alike. I think that Croft and Walker have done a great job synthesizing the biblical data and setting before the church an aspect of Christian living and responsibility that can be easily overlooked in our “selfie-culture.” At the same time I also believe that it is important to remember that “widows” along with “orphans” are examples of people who are vulnerable to abuse and neglect in the ancient as well as the modern world. In our contemporary setting readers of this book would do well to ask themselves who else falls into the same category besides widows and orphans narrowly defined, and then find ways to show them the kindness of the Lord. Closely connected to this is the need to consider how Christians might encourage more widespread systemic change when it comes to public policy and private practice so that vulnerable people do not find themselves in distress in the first place, while at the same time providing help for those in need.
This book is a must read for pastors and church leaders, and it would also be a great little book for Bible study and ministry groups within the church to read and discuss together.
Kirk M. Wellum is Principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary and book Review Editor for Pastoral Theology here at Books At a Glance.