One of the most perplexing verses in the New Testament is 1 Timothy 2:15, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (ESV). Although this is a difficult text to understand, the application of this text is important for our understanding of the roles of men and women. There are a variety of questions that arise from this text about the nature of salvation and even how childbearing fits into the equation. We address the most important of these questions as follows.
Who is the “she”?
The immediate context of 1 Tim 2:11-12 demonstrates Paul is speaking about the role of women in general. Women are to “learn quietly,” and to refrain from teaching or exercising authority over men. As support for this command, Paul refers to the history of Adam and Eve. As part of the argument, Paul notes Eve’s deception and transgression (1 Tim 2:14).
Following this statement Paul moves on to a major takeaway in verse 15 (i.e., “she will be saved through childbearing”). It makes most sense to see verse 15 as a reference to Eve in context. In light of this, some scholars take this passage as a historical discussion of Eve’s hope of salvation through the Messiah (i.e., she [Eve] will be saved through childbearing [e.g., bearing the line that ultimately culminates in the childbearing of the Messiah]).
The potential problem with seeing this as a referent to Eve alone is the following phrase, “if they continue in faith… etc.” Notice the plural verb here. Would this plural verb be talking about the children? It is unlikely since that would make Eve’s salvation dependent upon her children’s character, which is a very anti-biblical, anti-Pauline concept.
It is likely the plural verb refers to women in general. Hence, it is preferable to see the reference to Eve as a representative of women in general. This coincides well with the overall context, and also makes sense of the plural verb which modifies the statement “if they continue.” The plural verb specification seems to be ensuring the application to the women in the church.
What does it mean to be “saved” in this context?
“She will be saved through childbearing” could be a reference to either spiritual salvation or some sort of physical perseverance. The word for “saved” (σῴζω) can be used of safety in a physical sense, but throughout Paul it most often is used to refer to spiritual salvation from sins. When Paul refers to physical deliverance, he often uses a different word (ῥύομαι, cf. 1 Thess 1:10). The fact that this phrase is used adjacently to the idea of transgression (1 Tim 2:14) argues strongly that this is a spiritual salvation (as is normal for Pauline usage).
How is one saved “through childbearing?”
The question of how childbearing is related to salvation is important. In order to answer how one is saved through childbearing, we need to understand what childbearing is referring to. Some scholars state that the unique word “childbearing” (τεκνογονία), which is used only here in the NT, is a reference to the birth of the Messiah. Since this word has the Greek article it could be interpreted as “THE childbearing event” (aka Messianic birth).
Although this is a possible understanding, it would be a awkward way of saying something that is theologically clear elsewhere in Paul’s writings. Further, the use of the verbal cognate in 1 Timothy 5:14 shows the word seems to emphasize the act of childbearing itself, not the child per se. As such, it is difficult to say that salvation comes through the childbearing process of the Messiah. If this were Paul’s point, he could simply say the birth of the Messiah, or else the child who is the Messiah.
Putting salvation and childbearing together
How exactly is one saved through childbearing then? Throughout Paul’s writings he uses salvation terminology that coincides with believers working out their salvation by being obedient to God’s commands (cf. 1 Tim 4:16; Phil 2:12; Rom 2:6-10). In other words, salvation is always verified by being obedient to what God calls us to.
Using Eve as a representative of women (which he specifies in the following plural verb), Paul seems to be saying that a woman’s salvation and what that salvation presents itself as consists of her following God’s design for her in participating in the childbearing process. In this way, I agree with many of the scholars who take childbearing as a synecdoche (one part stands for the whole) of the whole role of a woman. In other words, childbearing is a unique part of the woman’s role in God’s creative design. Salvation is “worked out” by women who embrace their created role as submissive to their husbands, helpers, and unique privileged participants in the childbearing process.
So, for Paul, the woman’s value in God’s plan is related to her embracing God’s design for her. Her value is not in attempting to usurp the leadership around her. Now, this does not mean that women who can’t have children are inferior in any way to other women. If childbearing is a synecdoche for all that a woman is designed to accomplish and do, then the application definitely goes beyond childbearing. The main application is that if a woman contents herself in the role that God has designed for her, she is demonstrating her salvation with absolute clarity.
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