Being a single mother is one of the toughest jobs in the world. God designed the family in such a way that it takes two to make a child—which also means that, ideally, it takes two to raise one.
However, the reality of the fall—as well as the unpredictability of God’s providence—means that families are never ideal. Sometimes that means women are left to raise their children alone.
How, then, do we apply the patterns outlined in this book to the single mother? Or is it even possible? What’s the role of the church in the process? What about the extended family?
As usual, the Bible hasn’t left us in the dark on the matter. God most assuredly has a heart for the widow and the orphan. “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5; see also Lev. 19:10; Deut. 14:29; 16:11; 24:19-21; 26:12-13). And we would do well to apply this compassion of God to our own response in helping single mothers in this area.
In the Old Testament
The Old Testament is replete with examples of God’s care for widows and orphans—and of judgment upon those who oppress them. In fact, one of his principle grievances against his people Israel—resulting eventually in their captivity—was that “they do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them”(Isa. 1:23).
And yet at times Israel was a shining example of benevolence to widows and orphans. We see this in many ways, but the two principle means were the gleaning laws (Lev. 19:10) and levirate marriage (Gen. 38:6-26; Deut. 25:5-10). In both provisions we see a clear picture of the difficulty inherent in raising children alone and the importance of the community of faith in lightening the load.
Much could be said about the Old Testament practice of taking care of widows, orphans, foreigners, Levites, and the poor. However, the question we must ponder is, how does this translate in the New Covenant? How do we help single mothers today? Specifically, how do we help them exercise their role as family shepherds?
The New Testament gives us the framework.
In the New Testament
The clearest expression of the New Testament approach to ministry toward widows (and, by extension, to orphans) is found in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy:
Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:3-8)
There’s much more in these verses than we can unpack here, and the issues addressed go far beyond this book’s purpose. Nevertheless, we see a pattern that gives us a framework for thinking through our approach to family shepherding in the context of a single-parent home.
The text outlines three main levels of responsibility. The first is that of the nuclear family. The second that of the extended family. The third and final level of responsibility is that of the faith community. These levels of responsibility don’t change simply because a father is absent from the home. Therefore, single mothers need to keep them in mind.
Level one responsibility: the nuclear family
First, there’s a man’s responsibility to his immediate family. Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:8 represent the strongest rebuke possible. What could the apostle possibly say to a man that would be stronger than this: “You have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever”? Moreover, the context here is caring for widows. Thus, Paul is leveling this charge not against a man who refuses to take care of his wife and children, but against a man who fails to care for his widowed mother! How much worse is it when a man finds himself neglecting the former?
We clearly see that the biblical lines of accountability and responsibility for family welfare begin with the nuclear family. This fact doesn’t change when a woman finds herself raising children alone. Difficult though it may be, a single mother’s first resource for the discipleship of her children is staring back at her in the mirror.
Regardless of the extenuating circumstances, a single mother must recognize that the primary responsibility for shepherding her family lies with her. A single-parent home is no less a family and has no less responsibility for raising children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4) than do other families. This means a single mother must first look to the resources she has at hand, and she must make every effort to carry out the tasks expounded upon in this book.
Level two responsibility: extended family
Second, adult children and the extended family are to care for the widow or single mother. “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Tim. 5:4). This means brothers, uncles, and even older sons can and should be a resource for a single mother whenever possible.
This doesn’t mean she should call on extended family to bear the day-to-day burden of shepherding her family. That would violate the first principle of self-government, or one’s duty to see to the needs of one’s own household. However, there are times when a single mother needs help with a growing son, for example, when it would be very appropriate to call on a male relative for advice or intervention.
Level three responsibility: the church
Finally, there’s the responsibility of the church family. Many people are surprised to discover that Paul puts the church last, not first, in the line of defense for the widow/single mother. This is due in part to unbiblical patterns that more closely resemble the work of social welfare agencies than the New Testament church. Consequently, many Christians would be offended to have a pastor advise a single mother to call on her extended family for help before coming to the church for it. However, that’s precisely the biblical thing to do! The church is the last line of defense.
And there’s good reason for this.
The church has limited jurisdiction. God designed the world with three distinct institutions—the family, the church, and the civil government—each with specific jurisdictions. The church can no more tell a family how to run its affairs than it can tell the state how to run theirs. Certainly, the church has a responsibility to teach, admonish, warn, and guide. However, it may not govern the other jurisdictions.
Children are commanded to obey their parents, not the church (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). As a result, the church is limited in what it can and cannot do for families. The day-to-day discipleship of children is outside those limits.
The church has limited access. In addition to limited jurisdiction, the church has limited access when it comes to shepherding families. The issues outlined in this book are of a day-to-day nature. This is something that requires a kind of ongoing access, which would be impossible (and quite inappropriate) for the church. What can the church be expected to accomplish on a weekly basis compared to the daily pursuits outlined in this book?
Moreover, the shepherding approach outlined in this book assumes the church’s proper role—that is, what the church does in addition to (not as a substitute for) the family approach to shepherding.
The church has limited resources. Though there are myriad mega-churches in our culture, the average Christian church has less than one hundred members. And even a ten-thousand member mega-church has a limit when it comes to resources. There are only so many people, so much time, and so much money to go around. Logistically speaking, it would be impossible for any church to step in and meet all the needs of all the families lacking fathers.
This isn’t to say the church has no obligation to help; it does. Nevertheless, that help has limits. Those limits include resources, access, and—most importantly—jurisdiction. Therefore, whatever the church does to help single parent homes, it must be governed by Scripture. And what you expect from your church must be governed by God’s Word as well.
There are, however, several things the church can and must do to assist single mothers as they strive to do the work of shepherding a family alone.
The entire premise of 1 Timothy 5 is based on the assumption that the pastor/elder has a duty to lead and instruct the church in matters concerning widows and single mothers. In verse 7, Paul tells Timothy to “command these things.” Moreover, the tenor of the passage indicates pastoral authority and responsibility in the matter. The apostle is giving young Timothy clear instructions that he’s to follow in his duties as pastor, which in turn translates to all those who hold the office subsequently.
Pastors serve as a resource to teach, counsel, encourage, and admonish single mothers in the matter of shepherding their families. They have neither the jurisdiction nor the influence necessary to replace a father in the home. However, they have both a duty and a tremendous opportunity to provide clear biblical instruction and encourage application. This can mean taking young men aside for one-on-one instruction, providing opportunities for single mothers to receive the same instruction given to other family shepherds in a setting more suitable for them, and instructing extended family members as to their biblical responsibility to the single mother (1 Tim. 5:4, 7).
The subsequent paragraph in 1 Timothy 5 (w. 9-16) outlines a detailed diaconal ministry. Whereas elders are assigned the task of teaching, deacons have the responsibility of implementation (see also Acts 6). This may take the form of visitation, benevolence, or oversight. I’ve seen this type of ministry take the form of changing the oil in a single mother’s car, performing household maintenance, taking boys to ballgames, and watching children while mom gets some needed rest.2 However, there are myriad ways in which a diaconal ministry can be leveraged to offer ongoing, tangible, meaningful ministry to single mothers—much like Job, who “caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy” (Job 29:13).
The second chapter in Titus outlines the biblical and theological foundations for a three-pronged approach to churchwide family shepherding ministry. This is never more crucial than when it comes to single mothers. Godly, older men and women in the church, plus godly, manly elders, as well as biblically functioning homes all serve together as a tremendous environment and support for the fatherless. Those who grow up without fathers need to see families functioning around them who do have strong male leadership. This serves to show them (1) the biblical model in action, and (2) the fact that problems and difficulties are not unique to their particular situation.
The church was never intended to be a substitute for healthy family life. However, it is most assuredly designed to be an aid and buttress. Single mothers have a tremendous responsibility, and that responsibility cannot and must not be pawned off on others.
A single mother is as much a family shepherd as anyone. She must see her extended family and her church as resources to strengthen her hand. Thus, while she may in a real sense be by herself in this duty, she doesn’t truly stand alone. “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).
Taken from Family Shepherds by Voddie Baucham Jr., © 2011, pp. 173-179. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.