QUESTION: What did Paul mean when he wrote: “Women will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:15, NIV)?
As I often say, some passages lend themselves to different interpretations. In those cases we have to examine the immediate context, as well as the general biblical context, and offer what we consider the best option without being dogmatic. I assume that what many find disturbing is that this text seems to suggest that salvation is not by faith, and that it reveals a restrictive view of women (e.g., their place is at home rearing children).
1. Comments on Terminology: Notice these three terms. The first one is the verb “to save” (Greek, sozo), used in the Pastoral Epistles (1, 2 Timothy and Titus) to refer to the spiritual salvation effected by God through Jesus (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:15; 2:4; 2 Tim. 1:9). This salvation is always appropriated by faith. The second term is the preposition “through” (Greek dia). It appears to introduce the means of salvation, as, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:2. The third term is the noun “childbearing” (Greek teknogonia), whose verbal form means “to bear children,” and implies the pain that accompanies it (1 Tim. 5:14).
2. Variety of Interpretations: Those words are interpreted in different ways. The verb “to save” is taken by some to mean “to keep safe/preserve,” in the sense that the woman’s life will be preserved during childbirth. This is hardly defensible since Christian women have died during childbirth.
Others introduce ideas not found in the text. The noun “childbearing” has been taken as designating the birth of the Messiah. Women will be saved through the birth of the Child promised to Eve. But this, although possible, goes far beyond the text itself.
Many retain the traditional reading (“women will be saved through childbearing”) but interpret the preposition “through” in different ways. One of them is that women are saved “despite bearing children with pain” (i.e., childbearing is the accompanying circumstance of salvation, not the means), or that they will be saved by virtue of fulfilling their role as mothers.
3.Contextual Considerations: In 1 Timothy 2:11-14 Paul instructs women concerning proper attitudes during instruction in church. These learning experiences should take place free from divisiveness and in submission to the teacher. This counsel was needed because false teachers were using women to promote their teachings. Paul wants women to learn and not act independently of others. He illustrates the situation using the experience of Adam and Eve. Eve acted independently of Adam in her search for knowledge; and as a result fell into sin and became an instrument of the enemy. Paul does not want this to happen in the church. He wants women to experience salvation and to persevere in it.
4.Suggested Interpretation: Why is childbearing mentioned, and to what is it referring? First, notice that the subject of the verb is singular—“She will be saved.” In context the reference is to Eve as a representative of female members of the church. Second, childbirth seems to allude to Eve’s experience after the fall. The Lord said to her that she was going to have “pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children” (Gen. 3:16, NIV). This was one of the results of her fall. It would also appear that false teachers discouraged marriage and procreation and Paul seems to be opposing them (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3). Third, if that reading of the text is correct, it would be better to take the preposition “through” to mean “despite,” describing the circumstances under which salvation takes place (cf. 1 Cor. 3:15). The woman will be saved despite the fact that she continues to experience pain in childbearing—a reminder of her sin. That salvation is not through childbearing is indicated by the use of the passive verb (“she will be saved”), implying that God is the One who saves (the implied subject of the action). Fourth, the last part of the verse states that “they” will be saved “if they continue [persevere] in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (2:15b, NIV).
Salvation requires perseverance, not childbearing. The memory of our fallenness should not disturb our certainty of salvation, but should motivate us to faith, love, and holiness.