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saved through childbearing?

I was asked yesterday about the meaning of something Paul wrote in 1 Timothy. First Timothy has some of the most debated words in all of Scripture! The specific question I was asked is this: “We know we are saved by grace through faith, yet Paul writes verse 15.” She’s referring to 1 Timothy 2:15. First, let’s examine the context.

Everything Paul is writing in 1 Timothy is to instruct Timothy how “one ought to behave in the household of God”—the church. Very specifically, many of his instructions have to do with the gathered assembly (see 1 Timothy 3:14–15). We’ll look at this more closely this Fall / Winter when we work our way through 1–2 Timothy.

In chapter 2, verses 8–15, Paul is addressing proper behavior in the gathered assembly. Men should pray, lifting holy hands but without anger or quarreling (v. 8), and women, he says, should wear “respectable apparel”. That is, they should wear clothing that is appropriate for the occasion. It would not be appropriate to wear, say, a bathing suit to worship on a Sunday morning. Instead, they should dress with modesty. Often when we hear the term “modesty” we immediately think of not being scantily clad or dressing in a provocative manner. That’s not what modesty means here. That’s what “respectable apparel” requires, but that’s not what modesty is. Paul specifically identifies the immodest showing off of wealth: “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (v. 9) Yes, this means wearing your “Sunday best” may well be immodest if it shows off your wealth! Modesty suggests dressing in a manner that does not draw undue attention to one’s self.

Paul goes on to tell Timothy a woman should learn, but he does not allow women to teach in the gathered assembly. Again, we’ll look at this more closely in our upcoming sermon series. The reason Paul gives is the order of creation: Adam was created first and then Eve was created. Further, he says, Adam wasn’t deceived. He willfully and deliberately chose to rebel against God. Eve, on the other hand, was deceived and through this deception she transgressed God’s instruction to Adam before Adam did. This brings us to the verse in question.

Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy 2:15 ESV

What in the world? Salvation is by faith alone. It always has been. God has always required faith of his people. What is Paul saying here? Notice he switches from the singular to the plural. “She” will be saved through childbearing, if “they” continue in faith. He’s already mentioned Eve. She’s the obvious person that “she” refers to in this verse, but Paul seems to be speaking more generally here. “She” refers to any woman in the church.

There is much debate as to the meaning of the reference to childbearing. Some think it refers to the birth of Jesus, the one long-promised to Eve, the very one who would crush the head of the serpent. Eve overstepped her bounds and grasped authority she did not have. No one has the authority to disobey the Lord! Even though Eve disobeyed the Lord—albeit by having been deceived—yet Eve will be saved while she remains a woman. It is at this point that Paul shifts back to referring to all women. Eve will be saved in the same manner as all women who will be saved: by faith in Jesus, faith that persists in love and holiness and self-control.

While the reference to childbearing may refer to the promise of Jesus, still others think it is synecdoche—a figure of speech in which the part stands in for the whole. For example, saying “the White House” when referring to the entire Executive Branch of the United States of America is synecdoche. The Executive Branch is much larger than the White House, yet “the White House” is used to refer to it. If “childbearing” is synecdoche, to what whole is it referring? It’s referring to womanhood in general.

Childbearing is the exclusive domain of women. Not all women will bear children, or even can bear children, yet only women truly bear children. This is a gift God has given to only half the human race. Whether a woman can, has, or will bear children is not the point; childbearing is a reference to womanhood in general. The part stands for the whole. In Paul’s day the overwhelming majority of women married and bore children so he uses childbearing as a stand-in for womanhood in general.

When Eve transgressed by eating the forbidden fruit, Genesis tells us she was deceived. She was deceived because she was not there when God gave the command. This is Paul’s point when he says Adam was created first. He was, quite literally, but God told Adam he must not eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil before he created Eve. This means it was Adam’s responsibility to teach Eve God’s commands. Adam clearly did not do so, at least not well, and so Eve was able to be deceived. We see a hint of this in her response to the serpent’s subtly manipulative question:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

Genesis 3:1–3 ESV

The problem is God did not say they could not touch the fruit. It’s not hard to imagine the wily serpent picking a piece of the fruit and tossing it to her. Her instinct would have been to grab it—and when she did, she did not die. That’s speculation on my part, but it shows how Eve’s recounting of what God told Adam was not quite accurate. This is how deception works: take some truth and twist it—not a lot for that would be too obvious. Twist it just enough that the person is left slightly confused. Being deceived, Eve overstepped her bounds and ate the fruit. With this in mind consider Paul’s words.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy 2:8–15 ESV

In the gathered assembly Paul says he does not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man. The reason is Adam was formed first and then Eve. Though Eve overstepped her bounds and became a transgressor, she will be saved through childbearing, that is, as a woman, as will all women who continue in faith and love and holiness and exercise self-control. A woman does not have to become a man or like a man.

What is really happening in this text? Again, Paul is instructing Timothy with regard to proper behavior in the church generally and the gathered assembly particularly. He says in the previous paragraph that the church in Ephesus is to pray for all people. Then he says in the above paragraph that men are to pray for all people, but without anger or fighting. Women are to dress appropriately in the household of God by not showing off their external beauty with things like gold and pearls. Instead they are to focus on good works as their adornment. They are not to overstep their bounds by assuming authority over the church, though they are to learn. Even though this is Paul’s practice, that is, to not let women teach in the gathered assembly or exercise authority over the church, women will still be saved as women in the same way men are saved: by faith in Jesus.

What is often lost in this discussion—as if the issue of “saved through childbearing” were the primary part debated in this text!—is the incredible word of hope that it is. Our value, both here on earth and in God’s kingdom, is not dependent on our role! Our value is in this: we bear God’s image. Male or female, we are created to represent the Lord here on earth in whatever capacity he gives us, whether an elder or deacon or lay member, whether a CEO or a temp worker, whether rich or poor, black or white, educated or uneducated. I love how New Testament scholar William Mounce put it:

Can essential equality and functional differentiation exist side by side? Underlying much of the discussion lies an implicit assumption that a limited role necessitates a diminished personal worth. It is no wonder that the discussion of women in ministry can become so heated. Yet the equating of worth and role is a nonbiblical, secular view of reality. Nowhere in Scripture are role and ultimate worth ever equated. In fact, we constantly find the opposite. The last will be first. The Suffering Servant himself is not worth less than those he served. Paul’s analogy of the church as Christ’s body teaches that role and worth are unrelated: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body”.

Willam D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, p. 148

Paul’s words about a woman being saved through childbearing is itself synecdoche, for as a woman is saved by faith regardless of her earthly status, so we are saved by faith regardless of whatever role we occupy in this world. Society’s notions of worth and value are simply irrelevant in the economy of God. He loves his people and he shows this love in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Christ did not die for us because you and I have some inherent worth in us. Christ’s death creates in us the very worth God seeks. His love is what gives us value.