Worse than an Unbeliever

How can someone who is in the church be worse than an unbeliever?!

Here are the fruits of some research time here at school that were reviewed well by my professor (Dr. Bob Yarbrough) during my “Pastoral and General Epistles” course.  The topic was to pick a statement from Revelation, 1 or 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 or 2 Peter, James, Hebrews, or Jude and ask “what did [the author] mean by [insert verse in question here]?” So…here it goes:


What Did Paul Mean by ‘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.’?

In 1 Timothy 5:8, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “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.” This statement is a stark warning and warrants serious attention. It raises a few questions. Are the “members of his household” just referring to widowed mothers and grandmothers as those to be provided for or are there others included such a young children? How could someone who was part of the church community be worse than an unbeliever? What did Paul say about unbelievers in this statement? What effect was this statement intended to have on Timothy and those under his care? These questions all press readers to think carefully about a warning such as this.

My thesis is that Paul gave this warning because of his deep concern for belief in Jesus Christ producing behavior in accord with his teachings. Therefore, Paul’s statement means that the people who have widows in their family and also claim to believe in Jesus Christ deny the faith when they fail to take care of these widows. What is implied then is that even unbelieving families take care of their widows! Therefore, if even unbelievers take care of widows in their family, people who profess Christ become deniers of the faith if they do not behave in a way that applies words of Christ for the sake of love of God and neighbor. This statement would have been corrective to those who took the care of widows in their families lightly and in doing so presented a poor witness of following Christ. Paul’s concern was for believers in the faith to walk the walk that matched their confession.

The context of this verse is within a section on the treatment of older members of the church in chapter 5. First, in vv. 1-2, Paul dealt with addressing older men and older as well as younger women. In vv. 3-16, Paul addressed the care of widows by both the church as a larger body and by specific family members of the widows within the church. The section that follows in vv. 17-25 deals with issues regarding ruling elders and the purity that Timothy has been called to for the sake of the church of Jesus Christ. So, in its immediate context, v. 8 is part of Paul’s practical instructions on issues regarding older members of the church.

Though care of children is an important issue in the Bible, children are not the focus of receiving provision from family in this verse. Paul’s warning is aimed particularly at family members who don’t take care of their widowed mothers or grandmothers. The words τῶν ἰδίων καὶ μάλιστα οἰκείων, “one’s own [relatives] and especially [members] of his own household” likely pinpoints the focus on the children and grandchildren of a widow mentioned previously in v. 4.[1] Also, when Paul says that the individual ἤρνηται, (has denied) the faith, this matches the description Paul gave elsewhere in the pastoral epistles of false teachers who had denied the faith.[2] This is important because it serves to emphasize the seriousness of failing to take care of one’s own family in regards to the faith. This leads to the next words of note: τὴν πίστιν. “The faith” is different from just “a faith” and is a reference to a specific thing, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ.[3] What then did Paul mean by bringing the “unbeliever” (ἀπίστου) up in this verse? Paul is not condemning unbelievers here.[4] Elsewhere, Paul points out that even unbelievers “are known to do the works of the law.”[5] So, when Paul wrote that the one who doesn’t care for his family ἔστιν ἀπίστου χείρων, “is worse than an unbeliever,” he pointed out how those who believe in Jesus Christ especially have no excuse for failing to take care of their families. Paul is concerned for the church’s deeds according with their confession, so he called out those who “profess to know God” but “deny him by their deeds”[6] in this failure to love their family well.

In conclusion, Paul’s warning in 1 Timothy 5:8 is a specific and practical concern that is part of the more encompassing one: the witness of the church to the rest of the unbelieving world. If the church was going to be consistent with its confessed faith in Jesus Christ, even those outside of the church must recognize many of their actions as righteous. In this case, outward deeds based on faith in Jesus Christ that Paul emphasized were things that unbelievers recognize as good and right too. Care of families by members of the church had potential to say what was important to Christians not just in words but also in practice. Failure to care for widows, especially by members of their own immediate family, would be considered disgraceful even by those outside of the church. If people who confess Christ failed to do this deed, they did something that even unbelievers knew was wrong and therefore were even worse than them, for unbelievers never claimed to follow Christ yet still do this good deed. This warning from Paul was ultimately about church members living out their confession through the care of widows within their own families. For members of the church, their actions, like ours, could either affirm belief in the faith of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by word and deed or they could become worse than an unbeliever by denying the faith by confessing belief in word but denying it in deed.

[1] George W. Knight and III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary On the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 220.

[2] Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy and Titus (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1994), 120. Also, cf. 1:6; 4:1, 6:21; 2 Tim. 2:18; 3:5; Tit.1:16

[3] Knight, 221.

[4] Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers / Paternoster Press, 1995), 118.

[5] Knight, 221.

[6] Thomas C. Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 155. Also cf. Luke 7:9-13.


Fee, Gordon D. 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers / Paternoster Press, 1995.

Hultgren, Arland J., and Roger Aus. 1-2 Timothy, Titus / 2 Thessalonians. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984.

Knight, George W., and III. The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary On the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

Oden, Thomas C. First and Second Timothy and Titus. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.

Towner, Philip H. 1-2 Timothy and Titus. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1994.

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About JJardin

Jesus, family, friends, music, food, movies, video games...yep, that about covers it.
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One Response to Worse than an Unbeliever

  1. Pingback: Adult use of Video Games for Leisure: A Christian Ethic | Halls of Green

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