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