An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


A woman who has remained unmarried since the death of her husband. In biblical times, women were very much dependent on male relatives for their welfare. A woman could find herself in a vulnerable and defenseless position when her husband died. An untimely and early death of the husband could be seen as judgment for sin, which could also mean disgrace for the widow (see Is 54:4). After the death of her husband and sons, Ruth lamented that God had dealt harshly with her and brought calamity on her (Ru 1:20-21). The OT calls for the care and protection of widows (see Dt 10:18, 14:28-29, 24:19, 26:12). The plight of widows was at times associated with orphans. The Lord upholds the orphan and widow (Ps 146:9), and they are not to be abused (Ex 22:22). In the NT, Jesus warns that those who devour widows' houses and say long prayers for the sake of appearance will receive the greater condemnation (Lk 20:47). The Letter of James (1:27) describes pure and undefiled religion in terms of caring for orphans and widows in their distress. Seven members of the Christian community were appointed to the task of waiting on tables after the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1-7). A widow's family should contribute to her support (1 Tm 5:4, 16). There was a distinct order or society of “real widows” in the early church (see 1 Tm 5:3-16). Real widows set their hope on God, and continued night and day in supplications and prayers. In order to be placed on the church's list, a widow had to be sixty years old, married only once, and well attested for good works, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the saints' feet, and helping the afflicted. Concern that younger widows would want to marry again led to advice that they should not be put on the list of widows (1 Tm 5:11). Enrolled widows constituted a charitable organization or ministry for the church. Their duties included nursing the sick, giving alms, and evangelizing pagan women. The order of widows had declined by the fourth century, and their work was done by deaconesses. In the church, widowhood came to be associated with honor and service rather than shame. See Foot Washing.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.