Women will be saved through childbearing?

I have been preaching through Paul’s letter to 1 Timothy in my church over the last several months. Yesterday, we looked at one of the more enigmatic verses in all of scripture:

“But women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
-1 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)

The exegetical issues here are too complex to unpack in a single blog post, but I thought I’d share briefly what I understand this text to be saying.

The conflict over the meaning of this verse is reflected in the different English translations. The NASB renders it “women shall be preserved,” while the ESV says that “she shall be saved.” The dispute is over the meaning of the Greek term sozo. The NASB reflects the view that Paul is merely saying that faithful Christian women will be preserved physically when they give birth. But that doesn’t make sense here because we know that not all faithful Christian women live through childbirth. The ESV and NIV are nearer the mark on this one. This particular Greek word always refers to spiritual salvation elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles, and there’s no reason to think it means anything different in 1 Timothy 2:15. So this term is talking about spiritual salvation.

If it is talking about spiritual salvation, is Paul then trying to say that women are saved by means of bearing children? As if doing this particular work causes salvation to happen? As if childless women cannot be saved? If Paul were saying that, wouldn’t that contradict Paul’s teaching elsewhere that salvation is by grace through faith apart from works? (à la Eph. 2:8)

One ancient interpretation of this text avoids this problem by saying that this isn’t just “childbirth” generically speaking, but the childbirth of the Messiah Jesus. This interpretation hearkens back to Genesis 3, which says that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent, a prophecy ultimately fulfilled in the birth of Christ, who destroys the works of the devil. Thus, women are saved through the coming of Christ. But that interpretation makes little sense in context.

I think it’s more likely that Paul uses “childbearing” as a figure of speech called a synecdoche (see Schreiner, Women in the Church). A synecdoche is a figure in which the part stands for the whole. This is a figure that we use all the time. It works like this. If I say, “Come outside, and see my new wheels,” you know I’m not really trying to get you to look at tires. “Wheels” is the part that stands for the whole car. If someone tells me after church that they’ve gotten a “head-count” of our attendance, I know that they’re not really just counting craniums. The “head” is the part that stands for the whole person. So a head-count is a count of the number of whole people who are in attendance.

Paul uses the term “childbearing” in the same way. “Childbearing” is a part of a larger whole, and the larger whole is the point. Childbearing is a part of the woman’s wider role to care for the home. It’s the role that Paul indicates in Titus 2:4-5:

Young women [are] to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored.

So both in 1 Timothy 2 and in Titus 2, Paul says that wives have a God-ordained role to play in caring for their children and home. This verse is not saying that a woman must give birth to children in order to be saved. It’s not even saying that a woman has to be married to be saved. That would be pressing the figure too far and would contradict the encouragement that Paul gives elsewhere for singles to remain unmarried (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 25-35).

Having said that, the emphasis in this verse is on the wife’s role in the home. This text is not saying that fulfilling that role causes women to be saved. It’s saying that fulfilling that role will be one of the evidences of perseverance in the faith. Notice that salvation is future in this verse: “she shall be saved.” This indicates that it’s not entry into salvation that is in view, but the future consummation of salvation. Women who embrace their God-ordained role while continuing in the Christian virtues of “faith and love and holiness with self-control” will find themselves saved on the last day.

In this sense, this verse fits in the Bible’s wider teaching that true believers must persevere. Such perseverance in love and holiness is required of all Christians, not just women. Still, this text accents the Christian wife’s obligation to embrace a role that God has given to her—to care for children and home.

To be sure, there is much more that can and should be said about this text. My sermon fleshes out some of the implications of this text for our lives today, and you can listen to those below or download here.

“Women in the Church” – 1 Timothy 2:11-15

11 Responses to Women will be saved through childbearing?

  1. Don Johnson July 28, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    I think one needs to look at the Greek, specifically the use of the Greek article before “childbearing” so that it is best translated as “the childbearing” as in the ONE DEFINITE ULTIMATE childbearing that supersedes all other childbearings, which is Mary’s bearing of the Christ child. So then the question becomes WHY did Paul use such an unusual phrase? I think it is because of the cult of Artemis of Ephesus, Paul is trying to show that there is a faithful way to use the words that the cult uses, as Artemis of Ephesus was an earth mother goddess of fertility and childbirth.

    • Christiane Smith July 29, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

      Hi DON JOHNSON,
      you wrote this: ” I think one needs to look at the Greek, specifically the use of the Greek article before “childbearing” so that it is best translated as “the childbearing” as in the ONE DEFINITE ULTIMATE childbearing that supersedes all other childbearings, which is Mary’s bearing of the Christ child.”

      a quote of interest concerning this comes to us from Anselm of Canterbury:
      ” “From the moment of her fiat,
      Mary began to carry all of us in her womb.”

  2. johntjeffery July 28, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Of interest on this are the following:

    William D. (“Bill”) Mounce, “Women are saved through the bearing of children (Monday with Mounce 35)” (MAY 2009), on Koinonia at http://zondervan.typepad.com/koinonia/2009/05/saved-through-childbirth.html [accessed 21 JUL 2014].

    Andreas Kostenberger, “Ascertaining Women’s God-Ordained Roles: An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 7 (SEP 1997), pp. 107-144; on the Institute for Biblical Research at https://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_1997_08_Kostenberg_1Tim2_15Women.pdf [accessed 21 JUL 2014].

    Andreas Kostenberger, “Saved through childbearing? A Fresh Look at 1 Timothy 2:15 Points to Protection From Satan’s Deception”, in CBMW News 2:4 (SEP 1997), pp. 1, and 3-6; on CBMWat http://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2-4.pdf#page=0 [accessed 21 JUL 2014]. Note: The end of this article contained the following note: “This essay is a summary of the author’s argument in “Ascertaining Women’s God-Ordained Roles: An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 7 (1997): 1-38.” The page numbers for this article are actually pp. 107-144.

  3. johntjeffery July 28, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    I must disagree with all of the above at various points. I would contend that, in common with the majority of others who have dealt with this text, insufficient attention has been paid to the immediate context of this verse. I would point to the following failures as hindering even the best of exegetes who have done an otherwise fine job of dealing with some of the issues involved, from adequately answering the question, “Saved from what and to what?”

    1. Failure to observe the connection to and significance of the usage of the verb in the immediate context in 2:4.

    This usage is in line with the normal understanding of the verb in the general sense of rescue or deliverance from or to something. This is seen most clearly in passages like the following selection from Matthew’s Gospel: Mt. 8:25; 14:30; 27:40, 42, and 49. Theological problems are created at this point by exegetically untenable assumptions that import a spiritual understanding to the verb here having to do with deliverance from sin, and death and hell, and to righteousness, and life and heaven. The context merely refers to social stability in which the work of the Gospel is unhindered as it would be with unrest and disruption in the civil realm. The connections to verses 2-3 must be observed here. As might be expected, notions of a universal ransom are barriers to the exegesis of the first 6 verses of this chapter.

    2. Failure to observe the contrast between 2:1-8 and 2:9-15 in the focus on the responsibilities and roles of men and women as driving the flow of the passage.

    When this is grasped, the question of “saved from what and to what” focuses on the issue addressed in verses 11-14. If she is not allowed to do what the men are in public or corporate worship, then where is her ministry, and what fruit can she expect? The answer is in vs. 15!

    3. Failure to differentiate between merely giving birth to children and the actual raising of children in the full significance of the term translated “childbearing” as intended by Paul.

    When this is placed in context with the mention of “good works” and “godliness” in verse 10 the focus is not on how she appears in public (2:9), but how she submits publicly (2:11-14), coupled with how she raises her children privately (2:15).

    4. Failure to observe the significance of the final conditional clause in 2:15 for the intended deliverance.

    Often seen accompanying this is a coordinate failure to observe the shift from the third person singular pronoun, “she”, to the third person plural pronoun, “they” in this verse. If the significance of this difference is considered in relationship to the broader sense of “childrearing” rather than the limited sense usually associated with “childbearing” (see 3. above) it will clarify the understanding of what she is saved from and to. Attempts to interpret this verse as if it read either: 1) “Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if she continues in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety”, or “Notwithstanding they shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety”, simply will not do. Some translations are at fault here, contributing to this failure by inexplicably and wrongly supplying the plural subject “women” to the singular verb, e.g., NASB, NIV, and NLT. The immediate antecedent for a supplied or assumed subject is there in the preceding verse, “the woman”. Why these translations would chose to ignore both that singular antecedent in verse 14, and the singular verb here in the first clause of verse 15 may be due to a presupposition concerning the significance of the verb in relation to the last clause of verse 15, but in any case it is indefensible.

    Her fruitfulness is focused on the godly heritage invested in her children’s character. Her salvation from frustration and rebellion is a deliverance unto successful ministry and fruitfulness in her own family. Her deliverance from fruitlessness and lack of fulfillment lies in her hope-filled devotion to raising her children.

  4. pauljacobsblog July 28, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    I think I might be agreeing with you on this. I am scheduled to preach from this passage this coming Sunday and have been struggling with the text. I think if you look at the broader context of the preceding verses, this tends to back up your argument. Paul warned that true godliness is expressed in all manner of presentation, so as to not look like a harlot or be mistaken for an immoral woman. This is played out in the way that she dresses, but also to her attitude displayed in worship – She is not to be argumentative with the pastor during the study of Scripture.

  5. Seth Miller July 28, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

    As I understand this passage. Paul was providing reason as to why woman shall not have authority over man. The reason given was two-fold 1) Adam was formed first and 2) Eve was deceived. Obviously, Paul was not suggesting that Adam was innocent; he testifies to Adam’s guilt elsewhere (Rom. 5:12). So while it is true that both sinned; it is not true that they sinned in the same manner.

    As a consequence, Eve placed a stigma upon all womankind for her contribution to the Fall. It is a stigma that is present to this day. I hear people often say, “If only Adam had not listened to Eve” as if all the blame fell on her. I believe that Paul is trying to counteract that stigma with the gift of child-bearing. I do not believe the salvation he is speaking of in this passage is about salvation from sin, but salvation from this stigma. What the God given gift of child-bearing does is prevent mankind to say to womankind she has no worth or value due to her failure in the garden. Men are not able to say that since Eve fell in the garden then we have no use of women. On the contrary, as long as womankind has this gift, she is saved from that rotten mentality. Paul says this in his letter to the Corinthians as well, “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes throught woman; but all things are from God.” (1 Cor. 11: 11-12).

    So again, Paul is condemning women for their unique contribution to the Fall of mankind but is maintaining their worth because of their unique contribution to the salvation of mankind. After all, Jesus never would have been born if it were not for a woman. So in a round about way, both genders contributed in their own unique way to the plan of salvation. Mankind can boast that the Messiah was male whereas womankind can boast that a woman brought the Messiah into the world and cared for Him till the cross.

    That is my two cents…

  6. Suzanne McCarthy July 28, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    We must, however, account for all the women who are not associated with child-raising but still seem to have some use anyway. These are Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Esther, etc., In the early church, Paula, Melania, Olympia, etc. made it possible for us to have the writings of Origen, Rufinus, Jerome, Chrysostom, etc. They may have had children, but without these women we would not have the Bible as it is or the writings of many of the early church fathers, who were mostly supported by widows who took them on as charitable cases. Perhaps this is what women must do. Provide for poor male scholars.

    Also Fabiola found the first hospital in Rome, and worked within this hospital for many years. What about women who founded schools and seminaries? Where does the domestic start and stop? Women have done more for the church than just bear and raise children. St. Nina evangelized and started many churches. Women have at some point in time done everything in the church that men do.

  7. Wm. Dwight McKissic, Sr. July 28, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    Denny,

    Very helpful. Thanks.

  8. Ryan August 8, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    Denny, I preached this text on a few months ago on Mother’s Day. If you have time to listen while exercising or doing the dishes, I’d love your feedback! Based on what you wrote above, I think you’d be mutually encouraged by my homiletical conclusions (https://www.dropbox.com/s/xg786npr069nzrz/20140511_MothersDay_1Tim2_15_RyanGold.mp3).

    I appreciate your blog and ministry, brother!

  9. Christiane Smith August 24, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    there is no ‘mankind’ separate from ‘womankind’ . . . how did that thinking get started?

    WE are all made in the image of God and have been given eternal souls by God, and this is the foundation for our belief in the worth and dignity of the human person.

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