Salvation Through Childbirth: A Reflective Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:15
By Al Maxey
In Plain Site
I want to share with you a very small portion of an e-mail I received over the weekend following Thanksgiving from a dear sister-in-Christ from the beautiful state of South Carolina. Her struggle has touched my heart deeply, and I promised her I would do a study of this issue and make it available to all of you. It is my fervent hope and prayer that the thoughts and insights shared in this present edition of my Reflections will bring peace to her troubled soul, and perhaps to others who may be facing the same doubts. The following is the pertinent portion of her letter that I shall attempt to address:
Brother Maxey, Having been raised in Churches of Christ, I am having a hard time breaking away from a works-based attitude into one more grace-based. I just can’t seem to break free of this constant fear for my salvation based on the fact that I am not following perfectly each and every verse in the New Testament. For example — I am now an older woman. My husband and I never wanted our own children for many reasons. However, now, when I read the verse about women being saved through childbirth, my heart aches over the thought that this decision of mine may be one which keeps me out of Heaven. It was a willful choice on my part not to have children, and my heart actually hurts when I contemplate where my decision may be sending me when I die, and so I lie awake at night! Bro. Maxey, any insight or help you can offer me would be very much appreciated!
The passage to which this sister alludes is
“But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” [1 Timothy 2:15. NIV].
Disciples of Christ have been scratching their heads over this one for centuries! “This verse is obviously a difficult one to explain” [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11, p. 362]. Even such a noted scholar as Dr. Kenneth Wuest, in his classic Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, wrote, “Verse fifteen is most difficult of interpretation” [vol. 2 -- The Pastoral Epistles, p. 49]. The online commentary produced by InterVarsity Press observes, “Verse 15 sounds strange to the ears in any version, and, not surprisingly, its meaning is debated.” Dr. Kenneth Waters, Sr., a professor of NT studies at Azusa Pacific University, stated, “Few verses have generated as much anguish and controversy for interpreters of the Pastoral Epistles as 1 Timothy 2:15.” The well-known biblical scholar Andreas Kostenberger, in a lengthy featured article which appeared in the periodical produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote, “This simple statement has mystified average Bible readers as well as Christian scholars for centuries” [CBMW News, Sept. 1997, p. 1]. As stated above, the confusion is not necessarily cleared up by its treatment in the various versions and translations. Note just a few:
· But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint. — New American Standard Bible
· But she will be saved through childbearing, if she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with good sense. — Holman Christian Standard Bible
· But women will be saved in their work of having children. They will be saved if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, and control themselves in the right way. — Easy-to-Read Version
· Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. — English Standard Version
· Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. — King James Version
· Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control. — New King James Version
· She will be saved through childbearing, provided she continues in faith and love and holiness — her chastity being taken for granted. — New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition (a Catholic version)
· Yet she will be saved through motherhood — if only women continue in faith, love, and holiness, with a sober mind. — New English Bible
· So God sent pain and suffering to women when their children are born, but He will save their souls if they trust in Him, living quiet, good, and loving lives. — Living Bible by Ken Taylor
· However, she will be saved through child-bearing if they continue in faith and love and dedication with good sense. — NT Translation of the Everlasting Gospel by Hugo McCord (a noted leader in Churches of Christ; now deceased; a former Reflections subscriber)
· But women will be saved through motherhood, if they continue to live in faith, love, and purity, blended with good sense. — The NT in the Language of the People by Charles Williams
· But women will be saved by having children, if they stay faithful, loving, holy, and modest. — Contemporary English Version
· However, she will be kept safe through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and sanctification along with soundness of mind. — New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (a Jehovah’s Witness version)
· But she shall be saved through her childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety. — American Standard Version
· Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. — Revised Standard Version
The great variety of translation is obvious. Some say “women” will be saved, others say “she” will be saved. Some declare the subject of the phrase will be “saved,” others state she will be “preserved” or “kept safe.” Some have “motherhood” in the place of “childbearing.” In the second phrase of the verse, some have “if they continue” and others have “if she continues.” There are also diverse renderings of those things in which she/they must continue. To put it bluntly, if one had to rely upon the English translations of this passage, one would have quite a confused view of authorial intent.
It is no surprise, therefore, that there are several dramatically differing interpretations of this passage, some no less confusing than the plethora of human translations, with a few being quite extreme. Perhaps the most extreme of them all is the doctrine that women of marriageable, child-bearing years can only be saved from the fires of hell through an act of procreation. For example, Dr. Charles Ellicott feels the apostle Paul is placing the primary blame for “the fall” upon Eve. “Adam and Eve both sinned, but Adam was not deceived. He sinned, quite aware all the while of the magnitude of the sin that he was voluntarily committing. Eve, on the other hand, was completely, thoroughly deceived — she succumbed to the serpent’s deceit. Both were involved in the sin, but only one (Eve) allowed herself to be deluded” [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 188]. Thus, it’s all Eve’s fault, which is why Paul is saying women aren’t fit for leadership (they are too easily deceived). But, God in His infinite wisdom and mercy is willing to save these feeble-minded creatures if they will fulfill their purpose in life by bearing children. Ellicott writes, “In other words, women will win the great salvation; but if they would win it, they must fulfill their destiny; they must acquiesce in all the conditions of a woman’s life — in the forefront of which St. Paul places the all-important functions and duties of a mother” [ibid].
David Padfield, who is the minister for the Church of Christ in Zion, Illinois, wrote an article titled “Saved in Childbearing” in which he saw this whole passage in Paul’s letter to Timothy as a warning against women seeking to take the lead in the church. They are basically being told to “keep your place.” He asks the question: “Since they were not to become elders, deacons, preachers or even Bible class teachers in the public assembly, how could women be saved? Paul answers this very question by stating that women ‘will be saved in childbearing.’” Somewhat surprisingly, some well-known leaders from the past would agree with Padfield. William Barclay, in his commentary on Paul’s letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, wrote, “Women will find salvation, not in addressing meetings, but in motherhood, which is their crown. Whatever else is true, a woman is queen within her home.” David Lipscomb, in his commentary, wrote that a woman “is not by nature, physically or morally, suited to public positions or to counteract the rougher elements of the world. But she is of finer texture … and is better fitted (superior to man) for the work of nursing, training children, and keeping the home attractive and cheerful. … The woman who neglects the duties she owes her children and her home for the public life that God has created for man, leaves her work, her character, and her mission.”
I firmly believe God intends for there to be a distinction between the sexes with regard to many areas of responsibility, and also with respect to our physical appearance — i.e., men are to look like men, and women are to look like women. I firmly believe that leadership among His people is to be carried out by men. However, I also believe many men have “played this for all it’s worth,” and have only succeeded in abusing the very ones God has called us to cherish above our own lives! Honoring God’s order within the family and church does not suggest the inherent superiority of men, nor does it suggest the inherent inferiority of women. Far from it. It suggests the sovereignty of God, and our respective roles within His kingdom. To try and take such a passage as we have before us in this study and to then employ it as a tool for suppressing women, even suggesting they can only be saved by presenting us men with babies, is both abominable and unconscionable! Thus, I completely reject such an interpretation of this passage, even though “the most common interpretation among conservative evangelical interpreters today is that women will eventually be spiritually saved by adhering to their God-ordained role centering around the home” [Andreas Kostenberger, CBMW News, Sept. 1997, p. 1]. If this premise is true, are we then to assume that all those women who are barren, or who remain unmarried, or who choose, for whatever reason, not to have children, are thereby eternally lost? Dr. Paul Kretzmann tries to provide a loophole, saying, “Unless God Himself directs otherwise, a woman misses her purpose in life if she does not become a helpmeet of her husband and a mother of his children. … The home, the family, motherhood, is woman’s proper sphere of activity; her primary function in life; her highest calling” [Popular Commentary of the Bible, The NT: vol. 2, p. 378].
Examining the Text
There are some words, phrases and grammatical constructions within the text of 1 Tim. 2:15 that I believe we need to examine a bit more carefully, as a better understanding of these will aid us greatly in arriving at a more reasonable interpretation of the passage. Context is also critical … as always! The immediate context of verse 15 is to be found in the two preceding verses [13-14], in which Paul returns his readers to the garden, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the fall. Without revisiting every aspect of the early chapters of Genesis, I believe we can all agree that both man and woman erred greatly, even though the motivating nature of their respective transgressions may well have been different. Both were driven from the garden, both had the sentence of physical dying placed upon them, and both were given a specific “curse.” The curse upon man was that he must now labor long over the land to scratch out an existence from it [Gen. 3:17-19], whereas the curse upon the woman was, in part, that her pain in childbirth would greatly increase [Gen. 3:16]. In that same passage God told Eve that her husband “shall rule over you.” Paul alludes to all of this within the overall context of the passage before us in his first epistle to Timothy. Thus, women were not to exercise rule or authority over the men, and they were further to accept the role God ordained for them, and not seek to rebel against it.
In 1 Tim. 2:14 Paul’s focus is clearly upon “the woman” who was deceived. He is speaking specifically of Eve. This is very important to establish, because verse 15 begins (in the Greek text) — “But she will be saved through the bearing of a child.” Although some translations say “women will be saved,” this is an assumption and an addition to the text. The word “women” is not present in the original text. Rather, the word for “saved” appears as a future passive indicative, 3rd person singular — “she will be saved.” Who is the “she” (singular) in view? Clearly it was Eve, from the previous verse. For some translators to change the singular to a plural, and then insert the word “women,” is to take liberties with the inspired text that can only lead to a twisting of the original intent. When Paul spoke of “salvation” in verse 15, he had only one person in view at that point; it was the woman of whom he was speaking in the previous statement — Eve. Adam Clarke wrote, “The word ‘saved’ in this verse refers to ‘the woman’ in the foregoing verse, which is certainly Eve” [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 593].
The apostle Paul states that Eve, “being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But she will be saved through childbirth.” In what possible sense would Eve be saved by giving birth? Saved from what? The word we translate “save” is sozo, which means “to save, rescue, deliver, set free.” It has a wide variety of uses in Scripture [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 2, p. 49] and does not always refer to spiritual or eternal salvation. “It is used in the NT of the healing of a sick person in the sense that he is saved from illness and from death — Mark 5:34. It is used in the sense of being saved from drowning in a shipwreck — Acts 27:20. Paul uses it in relation to being saved from becoming entangled in false teaching — 1 Tim. 4:16″ [ibid]. “The salvation spoken of here (1 Tim. 2:15) is not salvation in the ordinary sense of the word, as when a sinner puts his faith in the Lord Jesus, and is saved from sin and becomes a child of God” [ibid]. There are several theories proposed as to the nature of this salvation:
Some have suggested that since part of the curse against Eve (and by extension to all women) was increased pain in childbirth, the gracious provision of God to this fallen woman was that He would safely bring her through this time of tribulation. Therefore, Paul is saying, according to this theory, that although she will suffer great pain in giving birth, as a penalty for her transgression, nevertheless she would “be saved through childbirth” — she would not die, but would live to see her sons and daughters begin to fill the earth. God would give Eve pain, but would preserve her throughout the process. He would deliver her through the delivery, so to speak. The New World Translation translates the passage: “she will be kept safe through childbearing.”
Many scholars believe the Greek word teknogonia, from which we get “childbirth,” may have a broader meaning. W. E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of NT Words, says it also “implies the duties of motherhood.” Indeed, the NEB reads, “she will be saved through motherhood” (as do some other versions). The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT says that this word may mean “the rearing of a family” [p. 399]. In this theory, Eve’s salvation would be from the grief of seeing her children turn away from God, IF “they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control” [NKJV]. Thus, if she proves to be a good mother to these children, training them up in the way they should go, and they walk in that path of righteousness, she would be saved from a life of grief through her effective motherhood. By extension, then, the same would be true of all women whom God has blessed with children.
One of the most popular theories, however, is that Paul’s statement about Eve and about childbearing is Messianic in nature. Much significance is placed upon the Greek construction here. In the text we literally read: “But she will be saved through the childbirth” or “through the birth of a child” (singular). A great many commentators and biblical scholars see this as a clear reference to the birth of the Messiah, who ultimately would save Eve (and all others) from their many sins and transgressions. Thus, Paul speaks of the fall, of Eve’s transgression, and then states her salvation is through the birth of a child. That child, who did indeed descend from Adam and Eve [Luke 3:38], was Jesus, the seed of the woman, who would crush the head of the serpent of old [Gen. 3:15]. Frankly, I think this view has much to commend it, and it seems to fit the contexts of both Genesis 3 and 1 Timothy 2 better than the others. At present I tend to lean strongly toward this interpretation, although I am still open to further study on the matter.
But what exactly are we to make of the last phrase in this Pauline passage — “if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control” [NKJV]? To whom does “they” refer?! And, yes, this is a change from the singular (“she shall be saved…”) to the plural (“if they…”). Some feel “they” is simply extending the promise given to Eve in the first part of the verse unto all women. Others feel “they” is a reference to the children of Adam and Eve (and, by extension, to the children of all women). Women would be saved from a life of grief if their children would live faithfully to their God. I am convinced, however, that there is a simpler explanation. If “she” in the first part of the verse finds its antecedent in the immediate context (a reference to Eve), then why wouldn’t “they” also find its antecedent in the immediate context? That would make “they” refer to Adam and Eve. If, in fact, the ultimate “salvation” of this first couple was to be found in the birth of a child (the Messiah), there would be a single set of conditions for this couple, and all couples, to meet in their remaining days — to live lives of faith, love, and holiness with self-control. Salvation, then, would not be works-based, but faith-based. Not by law, but by love. As He is holy, we must be holy!
Dr. Kenneth Wuest concurs, as do other scholars, with this particular view — “As to the plural pronoun ‘they’ … it seems better to understand the plural to be of the woman and her husband” [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 2, p. 51]. In a footnote to the New English Bible, this last phrase in 1 Timothy 2:15 is translated: “if only husband and wife continue in mutual fidelity.” In The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll says the same thing, almost word for word, “It seems better to understand the plural of the woman and her husband” [vol. 4, p. 110]. “If this view be accepted,” writes Dr. Nicoll, then the qualities mentioned by Paul (faith, love, holiness, and self-restraint) “refer respectively to the duties of the man and wife to God, to society, and to each other” [ibid].
One of the major problems with the interpretation that 1 Tim. 2:15 teaches women will be saved from eternal death by means of childbearing is that such a doctrine is clearly a works-based theology, one which discounts the realities of God’s grace and a woman’s faith. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” [Eph. 2:8-9]. If women are saved by means of bearing children, then the above passage to the Ephesian brethren is rendered meaningless. A number of biblical scholars have pointed out this inconsistency, such as the study by Jeff Spencer titled “Are Women Saved by Faith Plus Works?” which appeared last year in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the journal published by the Christian Research Institute [vol. 28, no. 5, 2005]. Andreas Kostenberger also asks, “Is Paul here suggesting salvation by works? In what sense can a woman be ‘saved’ by bearing children? What would be so virtuous about bearing children that could become the cause of women’s salvation? And what about single women or married women who do not or cannot have children?” [CBMW News, Sept. 1997, p. 1]. There is simply too much conflict in the above theory with Scripture and with plain old common sense.
Returning to the letter of the dear Christian lady from South Carolina, it is my studied conviction that she has no reason to fear being cast from the presence of God because of her choice not to bear children. The ultimate redemption of mankind is by faith in and acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ. I do not believe 1 Tim. 2:15 negates this fundamental Truth; indeed, it upholds it. Both Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, which Paul specifies in the verses prior to our text. However, as prophesied at the time of their fall, the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent who deceived her. Therefore, through the birth of a child would come salvation — i.e., through this fallen, sinful woman would come mankind’s Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who would cover all sins, even those of the pair in the garden. What must Adam and Eve evidence to receive such grace? Paul says it will be theirs “if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control” [NKJV]. They, like us, are saved by faith, a faith evidenced in hearts filled with love, lives of self-restraint with regard to the lusts of the flesh, and sanctification through the indwelling and transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
How strange that the apostle Paul would actually urge the unmarried, and widows and virgins, to remain single (1 Corinthians 7) if a woman’s salvation was conditioned upon her bearing children!! That would be contradictory advice. However, the problem is solved if Paul had in view the birth of a child, who would be the Savior of all. Our response therefore, whether male or female, is to live a sanctified, self-restrained life, one evidenced by faith and love! This has always been God’s desire for His people, and through the birth of the Messiah He has achieved our redemption. It is here that we must place our trust. Dear sister in South Carolina, rest easy tonight … your salvation is in Him, not in yourself. “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2:10-11].
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