Saved through Childbearing?
Is Paul teaching justification by childbirth? Are women who cannot have children, or single women, not regenerate? Did my wife “get saved” the day our first child was born? What on earth is going on here? Well, almost to a man, interpreters have agreed that this verse is not intended to teach justification by childbirth, partly because of the clear emphasis on God’s grace and our faith as the only requirements for salvation in the Pastoral Epistles, and partly because it doesn’t make much sense of the rest of the verse (“if they continue in faith ...”). But what alternative explanations are offered? And are any of them at all credible?
Frankly, most of them aren’t. The view that this verse really means “she will be saved through the birth of the child”, namely Jesus, purchases theological convenience at the cost of an all-but-incredible translation of teknogonia, which elsewhere means simply giving birth to and raising children (as well as raising the awkward question: aren’t men saved through Jesus as well?) Similarly desperate, in my view, is the idea that Paul meant “she will express her salvation, which she already has, by bringing up children”; this stretches the grammar of the sentence to breaking point. An alternative is to render it “she will be kept safe through childbirth, if they continue in faith ...” This is slightly better, because the context of Eve’s transgression in 2:14 makes a reference to the curse (pain in childbirth) possible, but it suffers from both exegetical and practical drawbacks. Practically, it sounds like a guarantee that believing women will not be harmed while giving birth, which has obviously not always been the case in church history. Exegetically, it involves reading dia (“through”) to mean “in the process of” rather than “by means of”, and if this were Paul’s meaning, we might have expected him instead to use en (“in”). So overall, it does not seem likely.
The most convincing approach, advocated in slightly different forms by Andreas Köstenberger and Tom Schreiner, is to start by asking the question “saved from what?”, and then to study the rest of 1 Timothy to see whether any similar ideas are expressed elsewhere. The immediate context, and therefore the best starting point for establishing Paul’s meaning, is about the woman’s having been deceived by Satan in the garden (2:14), so initially we might expect the thing from which the woman needs to be “saved” to be the devil. Now it may come as a surprise to some modern readers, but 1 Timothy as a whole is actually very preoccupied with the preservation of God’s people from being tricked and trapped by the devil, which would make this concern perfectly natural for Paul in 2:15:
2:14: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
3:6-7: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”
4:1, 16: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons ... Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
5:14-15: “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan.”
That is, from the wider context of 1 Timothy, as well as the immediate context of 2:11-15, it would appear that Paul is concerned with the preservation of people (in this case women, but elsewhere men who are new converts or of bad reputation) from being ensnared by the devil. Read this way, he would be saying that women will be saved from the tricks and traps of the devil by giving birth to, and bringing up, children.
But why would he say this? How does bearing and raising children cause women to be saved from Satan? The parallels with 5:11-16 are very helpful here. Paul is urging Timothy not to enrol younger widows because of the temptations they will face, and he explains:
But refuse to enrol younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan. If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.
Young widows who don’t get married and raise children, Paul argues, are at risk of three things. Their sexual passions may lead them away from Christ to the point of abandoning their faith; their excessive free time (since they are neither working nor raising children) may make them idlers and gossips, and generally foster ungodly lifestyles; and Satan will attack them through either or both of these things, leading some to stray after him instead of God. Consequently, Paul exhorts younger women to get married, bear and raise children, and manage their households. This lifestyle will foil the adversary’s plans, and preserve them from his attacks. Women will, in a very real sense, be saved from the devil through bearing and raising children.
Which is exactly what Paul is saying in 2:15. Man was created first, and the woman was the one who was deceived by Satan - and this foundation in Genesis 1-3 is the basis for Paul’s insistence that women not teach or have authority over men - but Paul is eager to show that it’s not like women are going to blunder on through history, being tricked by the devil at every turn. Rather, giving birth to children and raising families is a defence against the enemy. It nips all sorts of temptations in the bud (sexual immorality, laziness, gossip and so on), which then means that the women in question are safe from the tricks and traps of the devil.
There may be another factor at work here as well. Bruce Winter’s work on the so-called “new Roman women” draws attention to the first century trend towards abortion, particularly amongst affluent and functionally independent women. For Winter, the whole passage (2:11-15) is directed towards these women - their subversive dress, their rivalry with men, and their preference for abortion over childbearing - and verse 15 is a response to the latter. Winter reads verse 15 as bound up entirely with physical preservation through remaining pregnant, which though ingenious, struggles to make sense of the connection with verse 14. But if he is right to see the trend towards abortion as an important piece of background to this verse, then it could provide an additional reason for saying that childbearing saves women from the devil. We may never know for certain, but this response would certainly fit with Paul’s likely view of unborn children, and his high view of marriage and family life.
Not that there are no other ways of being saved from the devil, of course. Women who are single, or cannot have children, have a high place in the scriptural story, and there are many things, other than raising children, that biblical women do to avoid laziness, gossip and so on (Proverbs 31 is a good place to start!) Nor does childbearing have magical powers, so that the woman is saved from the devil by the mere act of raising a family; that’s why Paul says it is only effective “if they continue in faith, love and holiness, with self-control”. Nor, significantly, is rescue from the devil’s trickery something that women need and men don’t, as is clear from the fact that the most satanically deceived people in the Pastorals are all men (1 Tim 1:18-20; 2 Tim 1:15; 3:1-9; 4:10). But having children, for most women, is a gracious gift of God which, if they combine it with faith, love, holiness and self-control, causes them to be kept safe from the devil. And that’s something to praise God for.
Andrew Wilson’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, will be released on 16 March, published by IVP, and is now available to preorder.