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.
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?
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.
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.