Faith and Babies: Reflections on 1 Timothy 2:15

1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (ESV).

It’s the kind of passage that makes even the most stalwart inerrantist want to pack up shop and slip out the back door before anyone notices. Maybe Paul was simply a misogynistic recovering Pharisee after all. Of course, if we truly believe that all Scripture is God-breathed like we say we do, then we have plenty of reason to stay and grapple with it. And given the state of our current culture, I’d say that we must.

State of the Union

For several generations, our society has wrestled with issues of gender identity, reproductive rights and the sanctity of marriage. The struggle has entered the church in the form of feminist theology, female clergy, widespread acceptance of divorce, and most recently, the blessing of same-sex unions. As the conservative church, we have responded with a full-out push back, reaffirming biblical norms and principals.

But, I’m afraid, recovering a conservative understanding of gender has been accompanied by a growing legalism surrounding roles and applications. You can’t deny that ours is a subculture where the Duggars are celebrities and more and more Christian couples are equating their ability to reproduce with their spirituality. By extension, being single or infertile is increasingly a spiritual liability.

Given this, 1 Timothy 2:15 is going to be among the first passages to be manipulated, misunderstood, and misapplied. The liberal church will dismiss it outright while conservatives will be tempted to layer it with implications God Himself never intended. The rest of us will simply try to whistle and look the other direction as if we didn’t notice it was there in the first place.

But we can’t; it’s essential that we get this one right.

Recently several notable conservatives have tackled this passage including Tim Challies,1 Mary Kassian,2 and William Mounce.3 After generous discussion of the Greek, singular and plural pronouns, synecdoche, typology, and allusion, all are quick to acknowledge that this verse does not teach obstetrics-based salvation. Some suggest that “she” references Eve and alludes to the salvation God promised in Genesis 3:15. Some allegorize the verse, teaching that it refers to the spiritual fruitfulness of the Church. What, in my opinion, has been surprisingly absent from the discussion is how this verse relates to the larger context of 1 Timothy, particularly how it relates to Paul’s teaching about worthy widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16.

Worthy Widows

It’s probably just a matter of missing the forest for the trees, but the similarities between 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and 1 Timothy 5:3-16 seem noteworthy. Both discuss characteristics of godly women, both reference childrearing and domestic roles, both caution against misuse of the tongue, and both warn against Satan’s deceptive nature. Perhaps Paul is doing what he often does in linking a practical application (5:3-16) to a principle he has previously stated (2:15).4 If this is the case, we can learn more about the original principle as we see it applied.

The issue in 1 Timothy 5 is differentiating between widows who should receive assistance from the church and those who should not. Among other qualifications, Paul lists that a worthy widow will have brought up children—the same concept he references in 2:15. He then paints a portrait of a spiritually mature woman who is full of faith, consistent in prayer, and self-sacrificing.5

By contrast, Paul warns against assisting younger widows. He predicts that these women will be led by their passions, become idle, gossipy, and involved in other people’s affairs.6 His remedy is for young widows to pursue domesticity—to marry, bear children, and manage their households (because as any wife and mother can tell you, doing this well will leave little time for anything else).

The question then becomes, does Paul see a direct connection between a woman’s spiritual condition and the physical act of birthing and rearing children? These verses seem to indicate that he does.

Childrearing and Faith

If this were the first time Scripture linked childrearing and faith, it’d be easy to minimize these passages. But it’s not. The Old Testament is full of examples that tie the two, with the paradigm often being that faith leads to conception. Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, even Jochabed, are examples of women who conceived or reared children by faith. And while their circumstances are exceptional, the exceptions confirm the rule: faith and children are inextricable.

But what happens if we flip this paradigm on its head? Is it possible that refusing to bear and rear children could be a manifestation of a lack of faith as Paul seems to imply in 1 Timothy? Surprisingly, yes.

Consider the Genesis 28 account of Onan and Judah. Under the semblance of producing a child to continue his dead brother’s family line, Onan took his brother’s widow Tamar, but while in the very act he refused to impregnate her because he knew the child would not be his. In response, God killed him. On the heels of this, his father Judah, afraid of losing another son, refused to give Tamar a husband to give her children. This decision led to an ironic series of events that resulted in Judah himself fathering the children that his son should have. In the end, Judah acknowledged that his guilt lay, not primarily in sleeping with Tamar, but in not giving her a husband and enabling her to conceive by proper means.

At the root of Judah and Onan’s actions were fear and self-interest; and in the end, they were deceived by sin and failed to act in faith to produce children. This is precisely the same thing that Paul warns women against in 1 Timothy 5. His concern is not that the church would suffer a population deficit but that young women would be deceived by Satan, fall into sin, and thus be drawn away from Christ. One way this deception would manifest itself is by their neglecting the God-given trust of childrearing.

This squares nicely with the verses just prior to 1 Timothy 2:15 in which Paul alludes to Satan’s deception of Eve. And while some have used these verses to teach the spiritual superiority of men, it seems more reasonable, given the additional insights of 1 Timothy 5, that Paul’s main concern is to guard women from Satan’s tricks and affirm their essential work of bearing life.

Today, we don’t have to look very far to see how Satan has deceived women in precisely this manner. Women are taught that children ruin their bodies, interrupt their marriages, and keep them from pursing personal fulfillment. After her 2011 Oscar acceptance speech, a pregnant Natalie Portman was publicly criticized for claiming that motherhood was the “most important role of [her] life.”7 And we can’t forget that the very basis of the pro-choice movement is the belief that each woman has sole authority over her body and she alone decides if and when she will have children. No one—not even God Himself—can tell her she must.8

Works Reveal Faith

So what does all this mean for our understanding of 1 Timothy 2:15?

First, it is not extraordinary for Paul to link childrearing and spirituality. The greater context of 1 Timothy and the backdrop of the Old Testament affirm that reproduction, like every other area of life, has spiritual implications. So while “she shall be saved in childbearing” is likely an allusion to Eve, we should not interpret it exclusively as allegory. In fact, the previous verses and 1 Timothy 5:3-16 argue the exact opposite. Paul has no qualms in identifying a worthy widow as one who has reared children and is quick to advise young widows to pursue motherhood in a very literal sense. Probably then, the best understanding pairs the allusion to Eve with the very practical application of encouraging women to bear and rear children.

Second, like any other good work, godly childrearing is simply a manifestation of a deeper faith, the completion of a work that is happening in the soul and is now being played out in public. In this case, Paul’s statement that “she will be saved through childbearing” is really no different than James’ when he declares that “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26) and “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Noted Greek scholar William Mounce affirms this when he says,

Paul is talking about how women work out their salvation, in the same sense that Paul says all of us should work out our salvation…with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).9

This understanding is also confirmed by 1 Timothy 5:8, a verse that is the antithetical parallel to 2:15. In the middle of discussing worthy widows, Paul states that a man who does not care for his family “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” So it seems, if 1 Timothy 2:15 teaches that a woman can expose her unbelief by not caring for a family, 1 Timothy 5:8 teaches that a man can expose his unbelief by the very same neglect.

Nonetheless, 1 Timothy 2:15 is a difficult pill to swallow. Perhaps this is why God chose to place it squarely in context of one of motherhood’s most beautiful success stories. There is no better illustration or surer defense for 1 Timothy 2:15 than Timothy himself. From childhood, his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois faithfully taught him the Scripture and molded his character, probably without the benefit of a believing father. This mothering undoubtedly prepared his heart for the gospel and contributed to his ability to assume pastoral responsibilities so young. It was this mothering, then, that led indirectly to the writing of 1 Timothy and ultimately to our ability to hold it in our hands.

Given this, who among us could question that godly motherhood is a saving grace?

Notes

1 http://www.challies.com/bible/saved-through-childbearing

2 http://www.girlsgonewise.com/women-typology-and-1-timothy-2-15/

3 http://www.koinoniablog.net/2009/05/saved-through-childbirth.html

4 It should be noted that the nature of a pastoral epistle lends to a somewhat looser, more personal approach than the tight structure of, say, the prison epistles, and that principle and application weave through the book simultaneously.

5 This seems to mirror his admonition in 2:15 that women “continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

6 This tendency to sins of the tongue contrasts interestingly with Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 about how a spirit-filled woman will control hers.

7 http://www.salon.com/entertainment/tv/feature/2011/02/28/natalie_portman…

8 In my opinion, counteracting this deception does not necessitate a “quiver full” application. What’s at stake is the disposition of the heart. A woman selfishly refusing to bear children is not the same woman who is physically and emotionally unable to care for more. As with any decision, we must apply the broad spectrum of Biblical teaching, including the principles of stewardship and dominion.

9 http://www.koinoniablog.net/2009/05/saved-through-childbirth.html

[node:bio/handerson body]

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There are 5 Comments

Kevin Subra's picture

Thank you for your article. To me, it is coarse and frank, and it takes some broad jabs that are very general, but I would largely agree with your conclusions. I have taught much the same thing for many years.

I too believe that the contexts of 1 Timothy 2 & 5 are essential to understand 1 Tim 2:15 (though not the "Eve" view, but sanctification). I also believe that the context of Scripture from the first 3 chapters of Genesis onward are fundamental to understanding that the entire topic, including that verse. One has to ignore the foundational commands, principles, and patterns of creation and explain away the commands, principles and patterns throughout the Word (including 1 Timothy and Titus) by some means to draw other than obvious, literal conclusions. The hard work comes from people wanting to explain away what these types of texts clearly state, and I believe it is largely from what people do not want the texts to mean, even though they can clearly see what they say. "The texts do not match our practice and culture, so they obviously cannot mean what they say..."

Though I am glad that "the Duggars are celebrities" (the few episodes I have seen seem lead me to believe that the Duggars attempt to honor God and His Word, and I'll take that over anyone in Hollywood any day), I have not experienced the growing number of "Christian couples are equating their ability to reproduce with their spirituality." If anything, throughout my Christian experience I have heard and seen just the opposite. Limiting children is usually seen as being "spiritually responsible." This would include Bible college professors (who, when you think about it, largely have as a group had to reject these passages to pursue their degrees and keep the present educational system intact), pastors (trained by those within the aforesaid educational system), mission board policies and pressures, etc. This direction of influence seems to have no champion in Scripture that I can find.

Though producing children is no evidence of spirituality on its own, I believe that a proper theology of God's wisdom and design of the genders and His control of conception is spiritually mature, theologically accurate, and essential to the overall understanding of Scripture. It impacts every area: home/family, work, church/ministry, politics, etc.

I am glad that people are at least brought to re-think this area of life instead of just accepting what has become the new norm in the Church without examining the Word's abundant teaching on such matters.

I believe that is impossible to explain away the gender-role defining passages such as 1 Timothy 5 and Titus 2 and not distort God's pattern of creation, weaken the authority and inspiration of the Word, and yield the ungodly consequences that follow. I believe that the Church, having done so, has indeed altered its impact immeasurably.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

handerson's picture

Kevin - I'm sorry if you considered the article coarse. Frank, yes, but coarse was never my intention. I purposefully "tamed" the wild and wooly Genesis text that referenced Judah, Onan, and Tamar. (Let's be... errr.... frank, the Scripture itself is often more direct than we are comfortable with.)

And you are correct that I took a broad approach. Many others, including Martha Hartog, have done a fine job with the details; my concern was more literary--to step back from the details and get the bigger picture in relationship to I Timothy.

To all: On a tangential note, I'm curious to add this thought to the discussion about birth control:

The command to be fruitful and multiply was given in hand with the dominion mandate. How do those two interplay? Certainly there is a case that reproducing allows us to further our dominion over creation; but does the dominion mandate include an implication of having dominion over our own bodies? Is there a case to be made that we cultivate and manage our biological systems (in this case, reproduction) as much as we cultivate and manage the earth?

Curious for feedback.

Kevin Subra's picture

Not coarse in content (you did fine there). Coarse in approach (brash?).

To jump into your broadened scope (and make it even broader):

To me, the 5 blessings / mandates are connected but obviously separate. The earth is NOT our body, and so the dominion idea is not referencing one's body (which belongs to the Creator). One command does not override another.

I struggle with the view that the first 3 mandates somehow are no longer valid for today (even though they are repeated in some way over and over) and yet people embrace as fully valid the 4th & 5th (which are not repeated anywhere). The right and responsibility to subdue and have dominion over the earth comes only from Genesis 1. We have no right to raise animals or raze a field to build apart from these mandates remaining in effect. They rise or fall together.

Thanks.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't think Hannah's take on the passage has whole lot to do with Genesis "mandates." Several of these are blessings, not mandates... and we are not dependent on a mandate for the right to raise animals etc. The lack of a command is not a prohibition.

But in any case, Hannah's argument doesn't depend on a particular view of "be fruitful and multiply."
"Course" and "brash" are certainly not words I'd use for the essay either. But to each his own I guess.

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