The following study of 1 Timothy 2:15 interrupts my series of articles on the “Bible and the Future.” I am writing on this subject for two reasons. First, many proponents of the ordination of women to church office appeal to the apparent obscurity of this verse to prove that 1 Timothy 2:11–15 is a notoriously difficult passage to interpret. If we don’t know what this verse means—so the argument usually runs—then how can we be sure we know what the preceding verses mean? Second, I want to honor my mother and other godly mothers whose lives confirm the teaching of this verse. Though these things continue to be hidden from the “wise” of this world, God gives us in this verse striking testimony to the honor and dignity of being a mother in the church of Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria!
One of the troubling features of contemporary debates about the interpretation of Scripture, and in particular the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15, is the frequency with which participants label the biblical texts unclear. Because the text is allegedly unclear, or liable to different readings, we may safely conclude that it has no direct bearing upon us. An unclear text is, of course, a text that cannot function as an infallible rule for our faith and practice. As a result, many members of the church who have been following discussions of various issues in the church have been deprived of their confidence in the text of Scripture, that it provides the people of God clear direction and instruction in the midst of the confusion of the present day.
There is perhaps no more striking instance of this than the way references are often made to 1 Timothy 2:15. I cannot begin to recite the number of occasions on which I have heard advocates of the ordination of women, for example, refer to this verse as an obviously obscure and mystifying text. Why, they ask, should we be so confident that we know what 1 Timothy 2 is teaching, when it concludes with a verse like this which no one can claim to understand? Perhaps there are aspects of this text and chapter 2 that are simply incapable of being seen through. Therefore, we should simply admit that the chapter as a whole is obscure and move to more clear passages in Scripture (say, Galatians 3:28) to determine what the Bible teaches about the roles of men and women.
Interestingly, seldom do those who refer in this way to 1 Timothy 2:15 bother to take a closer look. It is simply assumed that this text is so obscure that it will not repay closer scrutiny. Trying to interpret this verse will only land you in a labyrinth, like the fly that becomes entrapped in the spider’s net. The harder you try to extricate yourself, the more entangled you will become in its web.
Though I am convinced that the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–14 does not depend upon the interpretation of verse 15, the teaching of this verse does illumine the verses which precede it. Read within its immediate context, verse 15 does not prove, upon closer examination, to be that obscure.
THREE TRADITIONAL READINGS
In the history of the Christian church, there has been a general consensus that 1 Timothy 2:15 is addressed to the general subject that has the apostle Paul’s attention in this chapter, the subject of the respective calling and role of men and women within the household of faith, the church of Jesus Christ. In verses 12–14, the immediate context for the remarkable statement of verse 15, the apostle Paul has prohibited a woman from teaching and exercising authority over a man. There is a kind of teaching and exercise of authority which is forbidden to her within the life and ministry of the church. This prohibition is grounded upon two unchanging factors: the priority of Adam over Eve in creation (verse 13, appealing to Genesis 2), and the circumstance of the fall into sin in which Eve was deceived when she succumbed to the serpent’s temptation (verse 14, appealing to Genesis 3). The affirmation of verse 15 continues to address the question of the role of the woman, but now in a positive way, in terms of an affirmation rather than a prohibition.
This calls to our attention a second feature in the text which has been generally acknowledged in the history of the church. Whatever the positive meaning of the apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:15, it is intended to be set in contrast with the prohibition of verse 12. The second word of verse 15 is a disjunction, translated appropriately in English as “but.” The relationship then, of verse 15 to the verses which precede it, is contrastive. The apostle Paul is, in effect, saying, “not this…but this,” when it comes to the subject of the peculiar calling and role of the woman within the household of faith. Verse 15 means, accordingly, to give positive expression to the calling in which a woman of faith has her peculiar glory and honor.
Though there is general consensus on these two points—that the text addresses the issue of the believing woman’s calling and draws a contrast with the preceding verses—this consensus breaks down when it comes to the interpretation of the positive declaration of verse 15. What does it mean to say, “But (she) shall be saved through the child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with sobriety”? Historically, there have been three predominant readings of this verse.
An affirmation that the “curse” will be alleviated
The first reading of this verse takes it to be an affirmation that the “curse” pronounced upon the woman in Genesis 3:16 will be alleviated. Despite the “birth pangs” with which God cursed Eve after the fall into sin, she “will be kept safe” or “be preserved” through the experience of childbirth. This reading proceeds from the context in which explicit reference has been made to Eve’s being deceived. This deception became the occasion for God’s pronouncement of the curse upon her, a curse that is now said to be diminished by God’s gracious preservation of her through the bearing of children. Typically, those who read 1 Timothy 2:15 in this way take it to be a promise applicable to Eve and believing women who exhibit the qualities mentioned at the closing of the verse (“if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with sobriety”). They also point out that, though the verb used means “saved” and is the common verb in the New Testament for the fullness of salvation, it can also mean “to be kept safe” or “to be rescued from a circumstance of distress or peril.”1
There are several serious difficulties with this reading of 1 Timothy 2:15. The word used in this text which is usually translated “the child-bearing” or “the bearing of children” does not simply refer to the act of giving birth. It is an expression which, by synecdoche, taking the part for the whole, refers to the whole complex of activities related to the bearing and nurturing of children. Though it refers explicitly to the act of child-bearing, this aspect of motherhood stands for the whole complex of tasks associated with being a mother. This is confirmed by the use of the same word in verbal form in 1 Timothy 5:14 where the apostle Paul encourages young women to many and to “bear children.” Another difficulty with this reading is its incompatibility with the conditional clause with which the verse concludes. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how continuing in faith and love and sanctity would enable a godly woman to be “kept safe” in the limited circumstance of giving birth. This also suggests a further difficulty with this reading: is it plausible that the apostle would use the verb “to save,” only to refer to something so limited as the preservation of a woman’s health in child-birth?2
For these reasons, this reading of 1 Timothy 2:15 is rather implausible and has few adherents.
An affirmation of Eve’s role as the mother of Christ
A second reading of this verse, one which has few adherents today but which has been advocated throughout the history of the church, takes it to be a reference to the role of Eve as the mother of the seed of promise, the Christ. According to this reading, Eve (and all faithful women) finds her salvation in giving birth to the Savior. Though this reading is intriguing, few defend it today. How, then, have its advocates defended it historically?
Defenders of this reading of the verse begin by stressing the fact that the verb “to save,” should be taken in its most common sense in the New Testament. There is no reason to take this verb to mean anything other than “to be saved” in the full biblical sense of salvation. The conditional clause at the end of the verse only reinforces the strength of this verb when it speaks of the virtues exhibited by believing women. Furthermore, the expression “through the child-bearing” should be translated “on account of the Child-birth.” The preposition used can mean either “through” or “on account of.” Here it means “on account of” because it explains the means by which the woman is saved. The noun, “the child-bearing” also has a definite article, referring not to all births in general but to the birth of the child of promise. Since the context refers to Eve and her temptation, recounted in Genesis 3, it is only proper that the affirmation of verse 15 be taken to refer to the role Eve and believing women should play in giving birth to the Savior. Her salvation and the salvation of all believing women, comes through the birth of the promised Savior.
However intriguing this reading of 1 Timothy 2:15 maybe, it shipwrecks on a number of exegetical rocks more imposing than those which stand against the previous reading. First, as we have already noted, the verb “to save,” does not always have to refer to the fullness of salvation in the usual sense in which it is used in the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 4:10 the apostle Paul uses the word in its noun form (“God who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers”) to refer to God’s preservation and care over all men, even those unbelievers who are not saved. In the New Testament there are several instances where this verb is used to refer to a general circumstance of health, well-being or blessedness, but not to the fullness of salvation (Matt. 14:30; 27:40,42,49; James 5:15). Second, the use of the definite article in the expression, “the child-bearing” does not justify taking it as a designation of a single child-birth. The definite article only reinforces the general sense of the expression, used, as we noted above, to refer to the whole complex of tasks associated with the bearing and nurturing of children. Third, the only other instance of the use of this term for “child-bearing” (in 1 Timothy 5:14) describes the general task of bearing and rearing children, not the specific act of giving birth. Were the apostle Paul referring with this expression to the birth of the Christ, he would be using a most unusual, obscure and unparalleled form of expression. And fourth, it is inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture generally (and the teaching of 1 Tim. 2:5–6, in the immediate context) to say that women, but not men, find their salvation through giving birth to the Savior!
This reading therefore, does not stand up to closer scrutiny.
An affirmation of the peculiar honor of child-bearing
The third, and most common, reading of 1 Timothy 2:15 takes it as a resounding affirmation of the peculiar honor of a woman’s bearing and nurturing of children. Read in the context of 1 Timothy 2:15, this verse contrasts the unhappy circumstance of Eve’s being deceived when she took the lead and listened to the tempting words of the serpent, with her (and other believing women’s) happy circumstance in bearing and nurturing children.
There are a number of textual considerations which support this reading of 1 Timothy 2:15.
First, this reading fits well with the context. After prohibiting a woman from teaching and exercising authority over a man in verse 12, and after describing the circumstance of Eve’s being deceived in verse 14, it is not surprising that the apostle Paul should positively affirm a woman’s peculiar honor in the calling to bear and nurture her children. This fits the context not only, but also explains the disjunctive “but” at the beginning of the verse. An appropriate paraphrasing of this contrast might read: “Whereas I do not permit a woman to teach and to have authority over a man, and whereas the initiative and independent acting of Eve in the face of the serpent’s temptation brought ruin and the curse, herein lies the peculiar calling of a woman, that she bear and nurture children within the context of a steadfast faithfulness, love and sanctity with all sobriety.”
Second, this reading legitimately translates “to save,” in its most basic meaning. Though it does not say that a woman finds her eternal salvation in the bearing and nurturing of children, it does say that her “blessedness,” “safety” and “preservation from danger” resides in the fulfillment of her calling as a mother. It is impossible that “to save” in this verse means salvation in the full sense of eternal salvation. This would not only contradict the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:5–6 and a host of other New Testament passages that teach one way of salvation for men and women of faith alike, but it would also exclude single or childless women from the hope of salvation! However, it is perfectly consistent with the basic meaning of the verb “to save” and its use in several New Testament passages already mentioned above, to take it to refer to the way in which a woman of faith will find her blessedness and safety. Nowhere will her blessedness and safety be more obviously experienced than in the fulfillment of her calling in creation to bear and nurture her children.
Third, this reading does justice to the most obvious meaning of the expression, “the child-bearing.” As has already been pointed out, this expression, taking the part for the whole (synecdoche), refers to the whole sphere and orbit of things pertaining to the calling of a mother. It refers not only to the bearing of children, but to the care, nurture and upbringing of those children in the Lord. Within this sphere and its faithful discharge, a godly woman will find her blessedness and realize her dignity before God and all other creatures. This honor and task is hers, and it bespeaks an honor and glory as great as that given to any creature.
Fourth, this reading is confirmed by the conditional clause at the close of this verse. Clearly, this verse does not affirm the honor of child-bearing in a narrowly defined sense. It refers rather to the whole conduct and demeanor of those Christian women who, by continuing steadfastly in “faith and love and sanctity with sobriety,” experience the grace of bearing and nurturing their children in the Lord. Verse 15 ends for example, with a word which earlier appears in verse 9 of the same chapter. It is a word which describes the quiet demeanor and conduct of a godly woman who does not seek to take the initiative in teaching and exercising authority in the context of public worship.
In addition to these considerations, it is also interesting to observe that in 1 Timothy 4:3 the apostle Paul refers to those who “forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods.” Apparently, there were among the churches in Ephesus some who were diminishing the importance and honor of marriage, with all that accompanies it. Whatever their motives, it may well be that the apostle Paul’s affirmation of marriage and motherhood in 1 Timothy 2:15 is aimed against these false teachers who were belittling the importance of marriage and family, and calling the women of Ephesus to other tasks regarded as of greater value.
Before concluding our study of this verse, however, I want to warn against some misunderstandings.
Because this verse so strongly affirms the blessedness and value of a godly woman’s calling to bear and care for her children, some might draw the conclusion that being single or childless as a Christian woman diminishes her standing or restricts her opportunities for service within the fellowship of the household of faith. This does not necessarily follow from this reading of 1 Timothy 2:15. It might follow were the text to teach that salvation in the full sense comes to a woman only through child-bearing. But this is not what 1 Timothy 2:15 teaches. It teaches that there is no greater sphere of blessedness or honor than in the calling to bear and nurture children. But this does not mean that there are not additional and alternative avenues of service for Christian women within the fellowship of the church.
The apostle Paul, for example, clearly teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:7–8 that there is a real advantage in remaining single so far as one’s devotion and attention to the work of the Lord is concerned. Being single, whether as a man or a woman, is a “gift” that ought to be cherished and wisely used in the seeking first of the kingdom of God and its righteousness (I Cor. 7:7). There is nothing in 1 Timothy 2:15 that needs to be seen as in tension with this teaching. The only occasion for conflict would arise were one to argue without warrant that the respective affirmations of the gift of singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 or the honor of motherhood in 1 Timothy 2:15 were incompatible.
Furthermore, we know from the New Testament that women who belonged to the household of faith served the Lord in a diversity of ways. They were by no means limited in the exercise of their God-given gifts to the calling of bearing and nurturing children. It is undeniable that Christ gave a prominent place to women as well as men in His ministry. Women were among the first to report the news of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:7,10). The Spirit of Pentecost falls upon men and women alike (Acts 2:28–32). Men and women are equally “one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). Women played an important role in the early life of the church, serving as “co-workers” with the apostle (Romans 16:1,3).3 The affirmation of 1 Timothy 2:15 does not compromise or diminish these diverse forms of service of godly women in the church.
The affirmation of this verse does not diminish the gift of singleness, the diversity of opportunities for service afforded to women in the household of faith, or even the fulfillment and worth of a married woman to whom the Lord has not given children. Indeed, in appealing to this verse and its affirmation about the honor of being a mother in the church of Jesus Christ, we need to be much more sensitive than has often been the case to the callings of those women who are single or without children in the household of faith. We need to do greater justice to the diverse ways in which women of faith may labor in the church of Jesus Christ.
Notwithstanding these cautions, however, there is no other conclusion to be drawn than that 1 Timothy 2:15 resoundingly trumpets the peculiar dignity of a godly woman’s calling as a mother. Though it may sound to our “modern” ears rather quaint or even unacceptable at first hearing,4 this verse has been given to the church through Christ’s apostle to remind us of something we are apt to forget: no privilege or calling on earth is greater or more acceptable to God our Savior than to be a believing mother in the household of faith. No greater stimulus could be given us, as sons and daughters of godly mothers, “to rise up and bless” them (Proverbs 31:28), than that given in 1 Timothy 2:15.
1. This view is suggested by the NASB translation, “preserved through the bearing of children,” and also by Moffat’s translation, “get safely through childbirth.” It is certainly true, as I will note in the following, that the verb “to save,” does have the root meaning of “to be kept safe” or “to be preserved from danger.” This is also true in common English usage: “to save” a drowning person means to rescue him from his particular distress, not to grant him eternal salvation.
2. I might also add that this affirmation would not be true; all godly women have not been kept safe in this sense through childbirth.
3. Readers are encouraged to obtain a copy of Norman Shepherd’s booklet, Women in the Service of Christ (South Holland, IL; Cottage Grove CRC, 1992), for a good treatment of the Bible’s positive teaching regarding the service of women. Shepherd does what many opponents of the ordination of women, including myself, have not often done, and that is treat the ways in which women may legitimately serve the Lord with the diversity of gifts He bestows.
4. In a culture in which feminism’s most public goal is what is euphemistically called “reproductive choice,” the teaching of this verse is a sharp reminder of the antithesis. What to many in our culture is the highest expression of freedom, is to the believer the most horrible form of tyranny, the slaughter of children in their mother’s wombs! To our shame as believers, we have often been unwilling to echo the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:15 for fear that we be thought unenlightened.
Dr. Venema, editor of this department, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Orange City, IA.