Q: What does “she shall be saved in childbearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15 mean?
1 Timothy 2:15 is generally regarded as one of the most challenging verses to interpret. In full, the verse reads:
“Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”1 Tim 2:15
The Apostle Paul cannot mean that women may be saved by having children, for that would contradict his doctrine that our salvation is by grace through faith (e.g. Eph 2:8-10).
That settled, some believe, firstly, that the word “saved” here should be taken as meaning “preserved” or “kept safe,” and therefore, Paul would be suggesting that godly women would be kept safe through childbirth or blessed with a smooth and safe delivery of their babies. Those who hold to this view would be aware that many godly women died while giving birth (e.g. Rachel, Gen 35:17-19), but they would point out that many filial children also die young despite the general promise of the Fifth Commandment. Nevertheless, this interpretation does not fit well into the context. It posits a meaning for the word “save” (σώζω, sōzō), which is entirely foreign to the way that the Apostle Paul usually uses this word. In fact, in the same chapter, he says that God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). There, we can have no doubt that he is referring to eternal salvation. Therefore unless the context demands, it would be wrong to think he is using the word in a different sense (which sense is never used by the Apostle if we exclude the epistle to the Hebrews).
A second interpretation popular today amongst some modern interpreters is that the childbearing referred to points to the birth of Christ. They argue that in verse 14, Paul is speaking about the Fall, and this thought leads to verse 15, where thinking about birth pains as a curse of the Fall, Paul offers the consolation that, nevertheless, childbirth is a means by which the Messiah will come and bring salvation to women and the world. They suggest that Paul probably had in mind Genesis 3:15, and then to bolster their arguments, they add that in Greek, the word “childbearing” (τεκνογονία, teknogonia) has a definite article so that it may be rendered “the Childbearing.”
This interpretation is rather ingenuous and would appeal to those who hope to escape from the force and implications of the proper interpretation (see below). But it is as forced and abstruse as ingenuous, so it is even difficult to refute it with clarity. Lenski, the respected Lutheran commentator, puts it this way:
Dropping [the] strange reference to the curse of birthpains, the fact that the Son of God was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary by God’s miraculous act means no more than that God used one woman for his saving purpose. Nor does this effect women as a class more than men as a class, or, stated in a different way, all have the Savior alike. It is idealizing to see either all mothers or all womanhood in the Virgin. So we might idealize all crosses and all tombs by way of Christ’s cross and tomb (comm. in loc).
Lenski explains that the definite article in the term ‘childbearing’ “refers to the well-known childbearing, common motherhood by way of common fatherhood, and not to the miraculous birth from the Virgin” (ibid.)
The third interpretation of this verse is most difficult to accept from a modern cultural standpoint, but I believe it is the correct view. This is the view supported by Calvin and Lenski, among others. It points out that in the context, Paul is talking about the different divinely appointed roles of men and women in the church (see v. 8-12). In verse 15, he is pointing to the highest and most glorious calling, which God has appointed women in the building of the church of Christ, namely childbearing and, by implication, childrearing or motherhood. Calvin puts it this way:
First, here the apostle does not speak merely about having children, but about enduring all the distresses, which are manifold and severe, both in the birth and the rearing of children. Secondly,… when a woman, considering to what she has been called, submits to the condition which God has assigned to her, and does not refuse to endure the pains, or rather the fearful anguish, of parturition, or anxiety about her offspring, or anything else that belongs to her duty, God values this obedience more highly than if, in some other manner, she made a great display of heroic virtues, while she refused to obey the calling of God (comm. in loc).
Christian women shall be saved in obeying God’s call and serving Him according to His divine appointment to bear and rear children. Or, to put it in another way: Motherhood is the pathway appointed by the Almighty God for Christian women to experience the fullness of salvation in this life. But take careful heed that this does not mean women can merit salvation by having children. Paul does not say, “she shall be saved by childbearing,” but “she shall be saved in or through [dia; + genitive] childbearing.” When Paul speaks about salvation, he usually has in mind not just justification but the Christian life of sanctification and perseverance that follows. This is very clear in Philippians 2:12, where he tells the Philippians: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Thus, when he says, “she shall be saved in childbearing,” he is saying, “she shall work out her salvation” or “she shall persevere as a fruitful Christian woman” in childbearing. The second part of this verse confirms this understanding, for he refers explicitly to perseverance and sanctification when he adds: “if they continue [i.e. perseverance] in faith and charity and holiness [i.e. sanctification] with sobriety.”
Does this interpretation imply that women who remain unmarried or cannot have children are, therefore, unsaved? Certainly not! Our salvation is by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God is not bounded by means or manner of providence in leading us through our Christian pilgrimage. If, by His wisdom, He has ordained that a sister in Christ should remain unmarried or childless, can His arm be too short to save her?
However, we may infer from what the Apostle Paul is saying that a woman who selfishly refuses marriage or refuses to have children for selfish reasons is living in sin and rebellion against God. Ω