Orphans and Widows:

Your responsibility before G-d

Timely teaching from

a ministry partnered with Restorers of Zion

James 1:27 says:

"Pure and undefiled religion before G-d and the Father is this:
to visit orphans and widows in their trouble,
and to keep oneself unspotted by the world."
In the Hebrew translation, "religion before G-d" appears as avodat Elohim, which is usually translated to English as "worship of G-d" or "serving G-d".  There is good reason for this choice of words: the Greek word for "religion" in James actually has two meanings, and is translated elsewhere as "worship".

The passage thus takes on a remarkable new meaning not often taught among the Lord's people: Caring for needy orphans and widows is viewed by G-d as worship - one of the purest expressions of worship that you can offer Him!

Clearly, it is a high priority for congregations (at least, those who want to offer pure worship to G-d) to identify the widows and fatherless among them.  And yet misunderstanding and lack of teaching causes a large category of needy widows to be overlooked.

According to Ot-U'Mofet, a ministry to orphans, widows and single parents founded by an Israeli believer (and single mother) Orna Greenman, "widows" include more than married women whose spouses have died. Unwed parents and divorcees are also widows.

Sounds radical, doesn't it?  Is this redefinition just a strategy to draw attention to a growing "problem population" in our modern society (and in our fellowships), and to make believers feel obligated to support them?  Or is it a restoration of the original meaning, clearly supported by Scripture but later lost to the Body of Messiah?

On a practical level, what does G-d expect us to do for orphans and widows?


Read on, as we present Orna's teaching (adapted and summarized from Hebrew)
on a vital subject that has received little attention in the Body of Messiah.

Part 1:  What the Bible really teaches about widows

We know from the Tanach (Old Testament) that G-d cares about the poor and those on the margins of society.  He identifies Himself as "a Father to the orphans and a Judge for (and defender of) the widows", and He calls us to follow Him in caring for them.  And yet the New Testament goes out of its way to focus on orphans and widows as a priority equal with personal purity.  Obviously we need to readjust our sense of priority to match Scripture.

But we must be clear about who these top-priority needy ones are.  Otherwise we will miss those closest to G-d's heart.

The first readjustment may come as a surprise:  Our recognition of orphans and widows cannot be limited to those whose men are dead.  Rather, any head of a family who is unable or unwilling to fulfill his duty to his family in a significant area, in that area he is "gone", and his wife and children are orphans and widows left without provision in those necessary things.

By the same token, families where the woman is "gone" have been left without provision in critical areas covered by the wife and mother.  Therefore, we must recognize that the state of widowhood may include abandoned men as well.

There can be orphans and widows even when there is a husband or father at home.  For example, if the man is not a follower of Yeshua, the family may be provided for in material and emotional things, but bereft of the spiritual protection and leadership that the Lord intended the man to provide: they are orphans and widows on a spiritual level.  Such a family attending a congregation would not be in need of economic aid, or a male role-model for the children, but rather spiritual support and training as they face a world filled with temptations and deceptions.

When the man is living apart from the family physically, the lack of provision becomes even more obvious (especially at the spiritual level, if not economic too).  Therefore, we have to recognize single mothers, divorced women and abandoned women as widows, and their children as orphans. A growing number of congregations must deal with "widowers" as well, where wives have walked away from the husband and children (physically or otherwise).

How can we justify making a decision to expand the accepted definition of orphans and widows?  The key is who they were understood to be in Biblical times.

How Scripture defines "orphans and widows"

We know that women giving birth out of wedlock either were stoned, or the father was forced to marry her.  Divorced women returned to their father's household or tribe, which was expected to provide for them.  A woman whose husband died was to marry the brother of her dead husband, unless he refused to take her.  Only the last type was obviously an innocent victim of circumstances she could not have avoided.

So on the face of it, we might have trouble accepting a wider definition of widows and their claim on our support - especially as believers.  We are sensitive to the issues of sin, and we are prone to withhold support from a woman who may be (or clearly is) responsible for the fact that she is without a husband.

However, G-d does not see it that way; He is looking at the missing family framework, and He commands us to provide for any who do not have that framework - regardless of their transgressions.  Obviously the sin that led to divorce needs to be addressed for repentance to take place, but it should never serve as a reason to withhold help from these people.

How do we know this to be true?  The way the word for "widow" (almanah) was used in the Tanach (Old Testament) is our answer.  Did it always refer to a woman whose husband had died?  This is how we define widowhood today, and whenever we see it in Scripture, we automatically color it with this modern understanding.  That is a mistake.

Biblical Hebrew was quite flexible, and in many cases one word could carry multiple meanings. When this ancient language was revived (only within the last 100 years), its architects noted the difficulties this flexibility would cause in a modern world.  They set out to invent new words for things that did not exist in Biblical times, and also to narrow down the definitions of existing words for better clarity and shorter sentences.

One of those redefined words was almanah, which originally referred to any woman who was left without a provider, for any reason.  Jewish literature shows that this much broader definition in fact survived for thousands of years - all the way up until 150 years ago.  The reason it remained unchanged for so long was due to the use of almanah in the Jewish Bible, which comes through even in the modern English translations.

For example, in Isaiah 54, G-d describes a woman "forsaken" by her husband and "refused" because of shameful behavior (v.6) - someone we can easily recognize as a divorced wife.  Yet He goes on to say, "For you will forget the shame of your youth, and will not remember the reproach of your widowhood anymore." (v.4)  And clearly her husband is still alive: "For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is His Name...." (v.5)

Another example in Scripture shows that widowhood did not necessarily mean total abandonment.  There were ten women whom King David left in his house when he fled from his son Absalom.  He returned to find that Absalom had slept with them.  David provided generously for all their material needs for the rest of their lives, but because he refused to resume his sexual relationship with them, their condition was called "widowhood" (II Sam. 20:3).  Also note that these "widows" were David's concubines (pilageshim - a status below ishah or "wife").  They had a legitimate claim on David for support and relationship, along with the children he fathered with them, and yet they had never been married to him.

In short, it is easy to recognize that single-parent families of today are in the same relational, economic and spiritual states as those who were called "orphans and widows" in Old Testament times.

There is one variation today that was not addressed in Biblical times:  Thanks to "women's liberation", our modern society includes men whose wives have left them (and in extreme cases, the children as well).  Although abandoned husbands and single fathers are less common, and their economic situation may not be as precarious as with abandoned women, there are still many unmet needs and hurts due to their abandonment and rejection.  If we faithfully apply the Scriptural principles, these families also have a claim on our help as orphans and widowers.

What we need to resolve now is a possible moral question - because divorce or abandonment, unlike death, is due to personal failure in the relationship, for which the wife may well bear some of the responsibility.

Moral issues relating to single-parent families

From the Scriptural model given to us by James for orphans and widows, "their distress" is the reason we are responsible to care for them.  If we compare women who lose their husbands to death, there is generally more distress among unwed mothers and divorced women: struggling with self-condemnation and guilt, the sting of being rejected by the man, and often the trauma of humiliating divorce proceedings (the rabbinic framework is traditionally biased toward the husband).  Added to this is the stigma placed on such believers by other believers, which can cause them to be denied the very compassion and support they so desperately need, and further add to their distress.

Suppose that there is clearly guilt on the part of a woman for her abandoned state.  Some believers are convinced that this should influence our decision to support her.  Think for a minute about the implications of that belief:

We need to move away from superficial or legalistic judgment, into a response motivated by mercy and geared toward restoration.  And for this as well we have a Scriptural model.

What does the Bible have to say about fatherless families from a standpoint of moral judgment?  Using a concordance, you will discover that it says a great deal.  Following are some points that stand out:

1. Widowhood is a curse, sometimes deserved.
In Lamentations, Jeremiah the prophet describes the situation of Jerusalem as a "widow", and the details he chooses have their parallels in single-parent families: defenseless, without peace, deprived of home and inheritance, lacking even daily necessities (food, water, heating fuel).  She is at the mercy of strangers, weary, joyless, heartsick.  She was abandoned by her Husband because of her sin.

Her widowhood was understood to be a curse.  So was widowhood on a personal level.  One of the strongest cries that David could express against his enemy, who returned him evil for the good he had done, was to wish widowhood on his family (Ps. 109:9).

2. G-d can turn widowhood into a source of blessing.
Isaiah 54 teaches us that even if widowhood is the result of sin on the part of the wife, the abandoned woman can be restored and delivered from this curse.  Verse 4 shows that it is even possible for a restored widow to forget the shame and dishonor she experienced.

As the Body of Messiah, we are all affected by dishonor and weakness among our members - whether we recognize it or not (I Cor. 12:20-27).  But rather than ignoring or sidelining them, we are instructed to give extra respect to those who are weak... or at least appear to be, at first glance.  Paul made a point of saying, "the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary," and it is the "less honorable" which nevertheless end up being clothed with more honor (v.22-23).  He goes so far as to say that G-d Himself compensates the less honored parts with added honor of His own (v.24).

What does all this tell us about single-parent families, habitually viewed as some of the weakest and most problematic people in our congregation, with the least to offer everyone else?  To the extent that we ignore these dishonored members, not only is our congregation ignoring some of its essential parts, but no one is benefitting from the hidden honor given to them by the Lord! It will remain undiscovered and untapped until all the members of the Body "have the same care for one another, and if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it". (v.25-26)

A single-parent family is in crisis, just as surely our bodies go into crisis when a part is broken or maimed.  When the Lord's Body reacts like a healthy body would to the trauma of one of its parts - sending extra supplies of blood, oxygen and germfighters to the site of the injury - we will be healed. In spiritual terms, G-d can do what is sometimes impossible for physical bodies to do: recreate missing pieces and restore mutilated parts so that they will be whole again, and even stronger than before!

3.  G-d judges us if we neglect the orphans and widows.
He calls Himself the Father of the orphans and the Judge (Advocate) of the widows.  Can we identify with His heart?  It is easily seen in Scripture that He blesses those who do so... and curses those who don't.

Job's friends take for granted that neglect of orphans and widows can affect our own health and wellbeing (22:9-11) - and so does Job, who proves his innocence by testifying of his care for them (31:16-20).  In Isaiah 1:23, G-d condemns His people for their treatment of this needy and neglected group.  To deny the orphans and widows justice is equated with robbing them and living off their possessions, inviting a horrific punishment (10:1-4).

The governments of modern Israel and many other nations are just as neglectful of the single-parent families and their rights as were the leaders in Isaiah's day.  That being the case, it is even more essential that the true people of the Lord to step in and support them, to avert a well-deserved curse on our community and on our nation.

4. G-d rewards those who provide for the orphans and widows around them.
 Israel was commanded to divert their tithes from the Temple every third year and deposit them in their own towns."And the Levite... the stranger, the orphan and the widow who are in your gates, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the L-rd your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do." (Deut. 14:28-29)  Obedience to this command gave the worshiper the right to approach G-d in "His holy habitation" and ask for blessing on his personal labors (the "ground" given to him by the Lord) and on his people (Deut. 26:12-15).

In addition, Israelite landowners were commanded by G-d to remember orphans and widows every time they harvested a crop from their fields and vineyards.  They were to intentionally leave behind some of the produce for them (Deut. 24:19-21).  Again, this was "in order that the L-rd your God may bless you in all the work of your hands." (v.19)

When a believer in financial trouble turns to his congregational leaders for help, one of the areas usually examined is whether the individual has been faithful in sharing his income through tithes and offerings.  Yet many congregations are themselves suffering from chronic lack - financial shortages, dwindling numbers, burned-out leaders, a weak witness in the wider community, or some other effort that is not bearing fruit as it should.  A similar examination should be carried out:  Are the needs of orphans and widows living "in the gates" of the fellowship being satisfied?  If not, how can the Lord bless the work of their hands?

The budget of every congregation and ministry should automatically include a fund for single-parent families, making sure that their needs are met.  Those who labor in the "fields" and "vineyards" of the congregation should see to it that abandoned women and children (and men, if applicable) also receive a share of their time and efforts.  Then the promise of G-d to bless all their efforts can be released.

Part 2:  Practical advice on caring for widows

Fatherless or motherless families, in spite of their incomplete state which renders them in need of ongoing support, do not have to remain forever broken and defeated.  The question is: How do we go about restoring them?

Many congregations are at a loss for practical answers.  How can an over-burdened, under-staffed leadership, faced with several of these broken families in their fellowship, meet this responsibility set before them by the Lord, to whom they will someday have to give an account as leaders?  What can regular members of the congregation do that will really help single-parent families?  What is not helpful and should not be done?

If you want to be used, G-d wants to use you.

It all starts with realigning our hearts and eyes to feel and see broken families as the Lord does.  He alone knows how to meet the deep needs and heal the hurts inflicted by abandonment.  Recognizing our obligation and setting up a support program is not enough; we must spend time in prayer for these families, one by one, before our heavenly Father - the Father of these fatherless ones and the Defender of these defenseless ones - until we receive from Him the specific instructions for meeting each need in its turn.

In this context, there are some very practical things a congregation can do.

1. Appoint responsible, mature believers to oversee the needs of incomplete families in your congregation.  The very first "deacons" ever appointed by a church (Acts 6) were commissioned solely to care for neglected widows.  This incident in itself shows what a high priority was given to widows. (Actually, the widows who were being overlooked were among the Hellenists.  They were not only abandoned but also strangers in the Land, and so doubly deserving of care.)  The complaint itself (v.1), as well as the response, were due to an understanding gained from Scripture, and driven by their view into the very heart of G-d through the Holy Spirit.

Note that this task was not taken up by the congregational leaders, whose priority was to study the Word and teach (v.2).  Yet it was not dumped on any volunteer with spare time who was not needed for something "more important".  Nor was it considered a job for mature women.  The Spirit-filled fellowship in Jerusalem invested discussion and prayer to choose seven of the very best men from among them - "men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom." (v.3)

Not many leaders today would recognize this as a strategy for evangelism.  But what happened to the Jerusalem believers when they focused on caring for these neglected members?  "And the word of G-d kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith." (v.7)  The believing community's care for their widows had a compelling effect on the unbelievers - especially on those who knew best what G-d's Law requires.  Do you want to impress the Torah-observant Jewish community with the truth of the gospel?  Make the care of your widows a higher priority.

2. Begin with the most basic kinds of help.  No amount of counseling, or encouragement that "the Lord will provide", will have any effect on single-parent families if everyday needs are not being met.  Our faith is expressed by deeds, not words (James 2:15-20).

The deacons in Acts were entrusted with a surprisingly mundane task: to make sure that all widows had enough to eat.  This shows how basic the needs can be among single-parent families.  Due to the loss of the man, who is usually the main "breadwinner", it is a safe assumption that both bread and money are scarce: just as in apostolic times, the mother may have difficulty providing nutritious food for the family.

There are other difficulties with everyday tasks that fall to "the man of the house": elementary household or car repairs, painting, garden work or other physically demanding jobs.  One way to serve the single-parent families is to designate a "fix-it day" every month or two, in which members of the congregation make the rounds to the homes of widows to paint, repair and make improvements.  If the fellowship lacks skilled handymen, one can be hired for this purpose.

3. Relieve their isolation. "A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows... G-d makes the solitary to dwell in a home." (Ps. 68:5-6)  Make efforts to improve the environment of single-parent families who are isolated physically, socially and/or spiritually.

If they are not mobile, the congregation should provide transportation to the congregational activities.  If distance is a persistent problem, it may be worthwhile to help them find housing closer to the meeting area, or closer to other believers.  Due to poverty, they may be living in a neighborhood where schools, health clinics and playgrounds are not available - relocating them could meet several needs at once.  Maybe their children cannot safely walk the streets - the fellowship can organize kids' clubs (ideally taking place while the women have a meeting of their own), where all are exposed to healthy activities and the Word of G-d.

4. Supply a male/female role model for the children.  A healthy family provides both mother and father figures, with a balance between them.  Children need help with the parental image that is missing from their home (most often the father).  But the man who wants to serve as a role model must seek the Lord in prayer first, because this is a sensitive issue.

If he is married, he and his wife must be in agreement on the extent of his involvement, for several reasons.  If the wife is not supportive, all will suffer from the resulting friction.  On the other hand, if a married couple makes this decision together, and invites the children on activities as a couple, they can supply yet another missing model for the adopted family: that of a healthy husband-wife relationship.  This is obviously more appropriate when girls are involved (who also need a father image).  It is also the proper approach to those rare cases involving single fathers whose children need a mother figure.

If a would-be father figure is not married, he must exercise even more caution.  A lonely woman looking for someone to lean on is very vulnerable, and he must be very sure that he is called by the Lord to spend time with her children.  Even then, adult-child activities should be in groups with other men and children, and supervised by the congregational leaders.  Picnics, pizza parties, sports and camping trips are all great ideas.

5. Use teenagers as "big brothers and sisters".  Godly teens are highly motivated to serve and often have spare time.  They make especially good babysitters or other helpers to single mothers with young children.

6. Restore positive authority in their lives.  Many of us have had a problem with submission to various kinds of authority.  Abandoned women have been hurt by a man failing in his exercise of authority, and this can cause conflict in their relationship to male congregational leadership (not to mention G-d the Father).  In extreme cases, a general hatred of men may need to be overcome so that healing can take place.

As most of us know in our own lives, such a problem cannot be removed simply by pointing it out; the damage must be undone before the proper attitude can be learned.  Only G-d knows how to accomplish that, so again, leaders must turn to Him in prayer for these damaged families, in order to know how to proceed with each one.

But in a counseling situation, an elder or deacon should not meet with single mothers alone - or even with another male leader.  At least one other woman should be present as well. Single mothers are better able to receive correction and open their hearts to a female authority figure.  And this is a good beginning for the next step:

7. Teach the congregation to be an extended family.  Restoring fractured families requires a whole family to give of itself - to "adopt" those who are missing some of the framework.  What better way to share this burden than to involve the entire congregational family?  This takes education, plus a true calling from the Lord.  So as you teach about our responsibility to widows, ask Him for a spirit of adoption in your congregation.

8. Teach adoption through prayer first.  When the people in your congregation express an interest in adopting single-parent families, their first act should be only to pray - without saying a word to the adopted family.  This is important for a couple of reasons:  First, they need to receive direction from the Lord on exactly what they should do, and when.  Also, the last thing an abandoned family needs is someone who makes promises and doesn't keep them... yet another adult who enters their lives only to disappear again.

For those who are faithful in opening their lives to orphans and widows, the experience has proven to be a blessing for both sides.  Yet prayer itself is an act of adoption, and is both necessary and effective: there are needs that only the Lord can meet.

9. Teach the single mothers self-reliance.  They come to the congregational leaders with a basket full of needs, dump it, and expect them to fix everything.  When these expectations are not met, they can become angry, accusing and bitter.  Often they will seek out other disappointed women for solace - which then reinforces the helplessness of both, and feeds their bitterness (against male authority in particular).

Preaching at an abandoned woman about how G-d sees such behavior will only add to the problem... Here is yet another Male Authority who makes demands of her - never understanding how hard it is for a woman alone to keep the household functioning, raise the children and earn enough income to make ends meet, all at the same time.  Her worries are extremely practical, and until they are answered, she is unable to receive spiritual input that will build her faith in the Lord (which she also desperately needs).

It may surprise you to know that every single mother wants to do something to improve her family situation, despite the complaints.  But often she doesn't have the faintest idea what she can do on her own.

The solution might be some practical pointers about hanging a shelf or taking the car to the garage.  A patient handyman can even teach repair skills to those who have the desire to learn.  The answer to some dilemmas may be even simpler: changes she can make in her habits that would make her life easier. They may seem obvious to others, and yet they may be completely new ideas to her.

This can easily happen because a single mother is carrying a burden day and night that was meant for two full-time adults.  She has no time to actually stop her constant running and consider her situation.  And this brings up another practical form of help, which is easy to provide:

10. Give single mothers routine time off from parenting.  A couple of hours a week for herself, while the kids are in the care of someone from her congregation, can go a long way.  She can gather her thoughts, spend uninterrupted time with the Lord, think of her personal needs for a change.  The kids benefit from the time-out as well.  Incidently, it doesn't matter whether the congregation's time and funds will allow for a trip to the movies, a day at the beach, a trip to the local playground, or just time at someone else's house.  It is the dependability that counts.  The mother will bless G-d that she no longer has to beg someone to step in when she just can't take any more...!

A related kind of practical help can be offered to a family without a car:  Let one day a month be set aside for those errands that are best done by car, moving in the adult world without children in tow.  Let someone in the congregation make their vehicle available for that day, while others care for the children.  Again, dependability is important.

11.  Offer financial support only in this framework.  Lack of money is the best-known need among single-parent families, and it is usually the first kind of help we think to offer.  The economic needs can be huge and never-ending.

Of course if the electricity is about to be shut off, or there is no food in the house, immediate help is called for.  But as a rule, financial support should be near the end of the list in helping a single-parent family.  Here's why:

When a monetary gift is given, someone (either a deacon or an adopting family) should be appointed to verify how the money is used. When there is already a relationship, no apology is needed for asking to see the grocery receipts, or the electric bill.  Once the single parent demonstrates that the money is being handled properly, gifts can be given more freely.

12. Teach single parents to give as well as receive.   The giving need not be financial.  People who lack what they need don't always think of giving what they do have, but they can always find someone worse off than they are.  They can even be encouraged to give precisely in areas where they feel they are lacking.  If a single mother struggles with depression and loneliness, she should seek to be a companion for someone more alone than she is.  If she needs help with her children, let her help another mother in need.

Being needed by someone else will restore a sense of worth and joy in service.  Besides, G-d's promise to reward those who care for the needy applies to everyone, including the needy!

13. Include broken families at holidays.  Israel's celebration of the Lord's Feasts was to include the orphans and widows (Deut. 16:11,14).  When a holiday is approaching, single-parent families are often forgotten, and those without extended family nearby will feel the loneliness even more than the rest of the year.  Make sure that no single-parent family in your congregation is left alone for the event; plan parties that will include them, or pair up single-parent families with whole families.  (It goes without saying that physical relatives should be caring for their own widows in this way - I Tim. 5:4,16)  By the way, be sure to remember Mother's Day in this context.

Birthdays of a single mother can also be remembered with a simple gesture; entrust the task to those in the congregation who enjoy this kind of service and will be faithful in it.  Birthdays of her children are yet another opportunity to offer practical help.  A few days beforehand, call her and find out if she has money to buy a gift, or if she needs help planning a party.

14.  Intercede for them on an ongoing basis.  There will be plenty of reasons to keep praying for the families entrusted to you.  Some needs (like a thorny legal battle over the divorce) will be beyond your ability to help with, other than prayer.  Wounded spirits in the mother and children are things only G-d can heal.  Even those needs that you can see a way to meet should be covered in prayer - the Lord may give you a new idea that works better.  New needs are likely to come up, requiring new solutions not mentioned here.

Lastly, you need to keep praying so that your attitude will stay right, allowing you to serve without judging the women for their situation, but rather with love and the goal of turning their curse into a source of blessing.

You can pray and serve with confidence, knowing that you are teamed up with their Defender, and dealing with a subject close to His heart.

A word about the ministry of Ot-U'Mofet

The name means "a sign and a wonder", taken from Isaiah: "Behold, I and the children whom the L-rd has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the L-rd of Hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion." (Isaiah 8:18)

Why "a sign and a wonder"?  Because when a single-parent family allows G-d to enter and become the Provider, Husband, Protector and Lover (everything they need), their life becomes a sign and a wonder testifying to His endless ability.  Only the Lord can take broken families - with no hope or future, with their faith in marriage shattered - and turn them into a victory and a source of blessing.

The ministry's founder, Orna Greenman, has been called by G-d to serve abandoned families among the believers in Israel.  Her firsthand experience of widowhood as a single mother has given her a unique rapport with other single women, and her teaching fills a knowledge gap in the Lord's Body, not only here in Israel but around the world.

Among other things, Ot-U'Mofet offers:

If your congregation or ministry would like to host Orna on her next speaking tour abroad, please contact her at: aleftav@netvision.net.il.

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