“All the widows stood around him, crying…” (Acts 9:39). The description of the recently deceased Dorcas or Tabitha does not mention that she was a widow. It does note, however, that those who mourned her were not her relatives but widows. It is likely, then, that Dorcas herself was a widow.
As we know from the institution of deacons, care for widows was one of the first functions that the earliest Christians undertook. It was not long before these women were organized into formal groups with specific responsibilities in the Church.
St Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, written 20 to 25 years later, includes a chapter devoted to overseeing the formal group of widows in the Church at Ephesus. The epistle indicates that this group should include:
∙ Widows Who Had No One to Care for Them – “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grand-parents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (verses 3-8).
That families care for their elderly members is a hallmark of most traditional societies. There are always exceptions, however, due to inability, greed or other circumstances such as upheavals in societies. In 2012 China enacted a law requiring adult children to visit their parents regularly, As Chinese traditional society changes into a modern urban nation, the elderly are often left to their own devices. The new law threatens court action against those who abandon or neglect their parents.
“If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need” (verse 16).
∙ Widows 60 Years of Age and Older – “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, … As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan” (verses 9, 11-15).
By the time this epistle was written widows in Ephesus has a recognized status in the Church. Like the bishops and deacons, enrolled widows had to show a certain stability of life before they could be enrolled. They had to be content with their station in life, to be psychologically free to pledge themselves to the service of God and the Church. This is the same principle behind the later regulation that married men could be ordained deacons, but once ordained could not marry.
∙ Widows Known for Doing Good – “… and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds” (verse 10).
Dorcas is described in the Scripture as “always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). We do not know what else she did but we do know that she made “robes and other clothing” (Acts 9:36) because the mourners displayed them to Peter. Handiwork was a preferred occupation for women in the Church for centuries, lay and monastic. In nineteenth-century Britain a “Dorcas Society” was founded to provide clothing and other necessities to the poor. Chapters that continued to exist since then diversified to include other forms of community service.
Widows in Later Centuries
Widows’ institutes continued to be a feature of Church life in the second and third centuries. We find references to them in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, in The Shepherd of Hermas and in the works of Clement of Alexandria and Origen.
The late second-century Didascalia or Instructions of the Apostles describes the principles governing enrolled widows in Antioch. Bishops are enjoined to only enroll widows over 50 who are mild and even-tempered. They were to be at the service of the bishop and have one particular occupation. Didascalia 15 lays down this precept: “A widow should have no other care save to be praying for those who give, and for the whole Church.”
In 1899 the Syriac Catholic Patriarch, Mar Ignatius Ephrem II Rahmani published a fifth-century Syrian work called The Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Syrian Church at the time widows seem to have served as eldresses. They are charged with instructing other women, supervising the deaconesses, and visiting sick women, “but in the church let her be silent” (Testament 40). A prayer for instituting widows is given in which the bishop prays that the widow be instituted “for edification and good example.” In this prayer the widows are called “those who sit in front” in recognition of their special status within the Church.
In The Testament’s order for the Oblation (Liturgy), however, the widows are positioned “within the veil” on the left side of the sanctuary, behind the presbyters. The widows are directed to receive the Eucharist after the deacons, but before the readers and subdeacons.
This is the last reference to an order of widows that survives from the early Church. It is assumed that this order, like those of virgins and deaconesses, was absorbed in the newer institution of monasticism. Women monastics would exercise many of the same functions as these earlier women both in their monasteries and in the churches of the people.
Up to our own day widows and other older women continued to contribute their handiwork and other forms of service to the Church. Many of our churches dating from the nineteenth century were supported by the older women in the community who baked or cooked various foods every week to raise money for their church.
More recently the Church has focused on providing senior citizens (men as well as women) with opportunities to socialize (bingos, trips etc.). Would not some of these seniors find new life devoting themselves to prayer and/or service? The Church might best serve them by reminding them of the words of St. Paul: “The widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.”