A Confusing Passage
Perhaps you have stumbled across the passage in 1 Timothy 2: 14-15 that reads,
Maybe some of you have just glossed over this passage with little to no thought or confusion. For others though, this passage has been a huge area of concern and has generated many questions over time:
- How are women “preserved” or “saved” through childbearing?
- What does that mean for women in general?
- What about Christian women who:
- cannot bear children
- whose husbands are infertile, or
- who remain unmarried?
Four Points of View
This blog will explore the differing viewpoints of four New Testament commentators regarding the questions raised by this passage. We will attempt to discover through these four voices what Paul originally meant and the implications this has for the modern churchgoing woman.
View 1: William Hendriksen
Verse 15 comes at the end of a discussion where Paul is instructing the church at Ephesus regarding how women are to behave in public worship. Hendriksen makes the point that in verses 13-14 Paul refers back to Genesis, emphasizing that Adam was created prior to Eve and that Eve then led the way into sin when she was deceived. Instead of following Adam, Eve chose to lead and thus led them into sin. Hendriksen argues that because of the order of creation and because Eve was created as the helper, those roles should not be reversed in public worship. Hendriksen then concludes that women should not reverse the divinely established order. Women should not be encouraged to do what is contrary to their nature. Women should not assume roles that were not intended for them. According to Hendriksen, no woman should teach, lead, or rule in public worship. Rather she should learn, obey, and follow.
This background information is necessary to inform the reader how Hendrikson answers the question of women’s salvation through childbirth. According to him, women attain to real happiness and salvation through bearing children: “Childbearing will mean salvation for the Christian mother, for what Christian mother does not experience inner delight, joy, blessing, and glory in seeing the image of her savior reflected in little ones who belong to Him?” The way that leads to salvation is a person’s obedience to God’s ordinances. It is the will of God that a woman influences humankind “from the bottom up” (through child rearing), not “from the top down” (through the leadership roles that should belong to a man). The curse given to Eve included both submission to her husband and painful child-bearing (Gen 3:16). Due to God’s grace the curse of child bearing was changed into a blessing here in verse 15.
View 2: Gordon Fee
In Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, NIBC, he asserts that while in verse 14 Paul has said the woman was deceived, he then in verse 15 says she will be saved. Between these two verses there is a slight shift from Eve to the women in Ephesus. In verse 14 Eve serves as the representative woman who, through her deception in the garden by the serpent, became a sinner. Likewise in 1 Timothy, Timothy was facing false teachers who were leading many Christians astray and some women had already turned away to follow Satan (1 Tim 4:1; 5: 15). Paul is not referring to Eve’s salvation but to the salvation of the women in Ephesus.
It is how women are saved that has caused many problems for readers of the New Testament. Many suggest an alternative clause: “will be kept safe through childbirth.” This idea, however, is refuted because many godly mothers have died in childbirth. In addition, Paul’s use of the word “saved” has always related throughout his letters to the idea of redemption from sin and the attainment of eternal life. Paul uses a different word to connote the idea of being “kept safe” (2 Tim 3:11). Fee believes Paul is saying that a woman’s salvation from sin and for eternal life is to be found in her being a godly woman and a model who is known for her good works, which include marriage, bearing children, and keeping a good home (1 Tim 5: 11, 14). “But Paul could never leave the matter there, as though salvation itself were attained by this ‘good deed,’ so he immediately qualifies, ‘Provided of course that she is already a truly Christian woman,’ that is, a woman who continues in faith, love, and holiness.”
In his book Hard Sayings of Paul, Manfred Brauch observed that Paul spent much of his ministry preaching that salvation could not be attained through works or exercising a specific role but only through Jesus (Acts 4: 12; 2 Tim 1: 9). Therefore Brauch concludes that this passage is not referring to personal salvation. In Timothy’s situation, there were heretical teachings being circulated against the validity of marriage. Marriage and the bearing of children were viewed in a negative light and were considered unworthy of the truly spiritual community of “saved” believers. Brauch is suggesting that in verse 15 Paul may be affirming that child bearing, a natural function of a woman, is perfectly acceptable and does not keep her from the community of saved believers:
View 3: Ben Witherington
In Ben Witherington’s commentary Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, he gives special attention to the definite article placed before the word translated “child bearing”. Because of this, verse 15 is referring to a single specific birth- namely Jesus born of a woman (Gal 4:4). The curse acquired by Eve is reversed through Mary.
The fall came through a woman but then also salvation was brought through a woman. The term “women” used in 1 Tim 2: 15 is likely referencing women in general and “child bearing” is referring to a specific birth, the birth of Jesus. Women are saved by Jesus’ coming, dying, and resurrection.
View 4: Gareth Reese
Gareth Reese, author of New Testament Epistles: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on 1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy and professor at Central Christian College of the Bible, affirms that this passage is a promise to women for the forgiveness of sins through the incarnation of Jesus. This promise was given to Eve early in Genesis. The verb “preserved” or “saved” is in the passive voice. “This ‘deliverance’ is wrought for her by someone else. It is future tense, and points forward from Eve to the promised future deliverance ‘through the childbearing.’”
Reese notes that the Greek for “childbearing” is singular. Like Witherington, Reese also pays special attention to the definite article. The definite article can easily be explained as pertaining to the virgin birth of Christ. It is, however, difficult to explain the presence of the definite article if this verse is referring to childbearing in general. Rather, the “child” is the intermediary that provided salvation from sin and condemnation to Eve and other women. At the end of verse 15, Paul is reminding the Christian women in Ephesus of the need to remain faithful until death. It is crucial to observe how God’s part (the reference to the virgin birth) and man’s part (continuing in love, sanctity, and self-restraint) in salvation are both evident here.
The problem with the first two interpretations of these verses is that Hendriksen and Fee are claiming salvation is dependent on a woman’s works, contrary to other places in scripture where it says salvation cannot be attained through works but only through Jesus (Acts 4: 12; 2 Tim 1: 9). In addition they do not answer what this means for unmarried women or Christian women who cannot bear children. Will they not be saved because they did not bear children? Will their sins not be forgiven? Gareth Reese points out that Paul mentions elsewhere in scripture that the single life can be perfectly acceptable to God (1 Cor 7:25-35). Both the interpretations of Witherington and Reese harmonize best with what is found in scripture elsewhere, which ultimately states that women (like all believers) are saved by the birth of Christ who is the only source of salvation.
Much of this material has been studied at Central Christian College of the Bible in the class Pastoral Epistles taught by New Testament professor Dr Eric Stevens. I have really enjoyed digging into the Pastoral Epistles and many other classes of this nature. If this idea is interesting to you as well, consider applying here.
Hannah Dunn is currently a student at Central Christian College of the Bible.