Editor’s note: Scripture references are to the NASB unless otherwise noted. This essay is a summary of the author’s argument in “Ascertaining Women’s God-Ordained Roles: An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15, ” Bulletin of Biblical Research 7 (1997): 1-38.
“But women will be saved through childbearing” (NIV): this simple statement has mystified average Bible readers as well as Christian scholars for centuries. Is Paul here suggesting salvation by works? In what sense can a woman be “saved” by bearing children? What would be so virtuous about bearing children that could become the cause of women’s salvation? And what about single women or married women who do not or cannot have children? Even apart from these interpretive questions, the passage sounds horribly sexist and out of date in the days of female Prime Ministers or Supreme Court Justices. How are we to understand this passage, and how are we to apply it?
Consulting The Translations
Turning to existing translations does not alleviate the difficulty. The NASB reads, “But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children”; the NIV has, “But women will be saved through childbearing”; the New Living Translation adds to this in a footnote, “Or ‘will be saved by accepting their role as mothers,’ or ‘will be saved by the birth of the Child.'” To which the Contemporary English Version adds, “Or, ‘saved by being good mothers.'” Clearly, there is no agreement on what this passage means!
Checking The Commentaries
Consulting commentaries likewise does not solve the problem. Indeed, the array of alternatives surely must cause most to throw up their hands in utter despair of ever arriving at the verse’s meaning. Some church Fathers, such as Augustine, thought Paul was here speaking of the bearing of “spiritual children,” that is, good works. Other ancient interpreters, such as Chrysostom and Jerome, thought women’s salvation was contingent on their (physical) children’s perseverance in holy lives of faith, taking the latter part of the verse (“if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint”) as referring not to the women themselves but to their offspring. Or perhaps Paul, as G. Knight claims, is here speaking of “the” childbirth, Mary’s giving birth to Jesus the Messiah, which became the cause of our salvation. But then why is 1 Tim. 2:15 merely referring to women and not also to men, since surely men are the beneficiaries of Christ’s saving work as well?
In light of the high rate of women dying in childbirth in the ancient world, some, such as C. Keener, have suggested that the verse speaks of women’s physical preservation through childbirth. But what of the Christian women who were not kept safe but rather died while giving birth? Non-evangelical interpreters may claim that the author (not the apostle Paul) really believed, for some odd reason, that women would experience spiritual salvation by fulfilling their procreative role, however that may be understood. This, of course, would introduce a contradiction into the canon, since the statement could hardly be reconciled with Paul’s adamant insistence that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith — and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Finally, the most common interpretation among conservative evangelical interpreters today is that women will eventually be spiritually saved by adhering to their God-ordained role centering around the home. This view seeks to alleviate the difficulty of the phrase “saved through childbearing” by interpreting the term “saved” as referring to a woman’s consummated salvation on the last day rather than the salvation she already has received at the time of her conversion. And “childbearing” is understood as referring not merely to the birthing process but, by extension, also to the raising of children and the managing of the home.