“But she will be saved through childbearing…” [1Tim 2.15]. This verse can be difficult to understand. It not only sounds strange, but seems to contradict the rest of the New Testament (NT) when it comes to salvation. However, this is not the case. It is not as strange as it might sound and it does not contradict the rest of the NT on salvation.
First, salvation is based on faith and grace, not anything anyone does (i.e. “works”) [Acts 15.11; Rom 5.15; Eph 2.5,8-9; 2Tim 1.9; Titus 2.11, 3.5,7; 1Peter 1.5]. This seems to contradict 1Tim 2.15 which seems to make salvation conditional. Now, I am not aware of any serious scholar who entertains the notion that this is indeed a contradiction. It would go against Paul’s own teachings and writings as well as the other parts of the NT. However, it is not good enough to simply deny a particular interpretation of this passage, we must also provide a positive interpretation. That is, we must say what this passage is saying.
Examining the context of the letter as a whole and of this specific passage is going to be incredibly useful in understanding this verse. At the beginning of the letter Paul says specifically that he left Timothy at Ephesus in order to counter false doctrine and teach correct doctrine [1Tim 1.3-5]. Ephesus was not some obscure city in the Roman Empire and in Acts 19 we have an extended account of Paul’s stay and difficulties in this city. It was a center of worship of the goddess Artemis and there were craftsmen in the city that made good money off selling silver shrines of Artemis [Acts 19.24]. Paul stayed for quite a while in Ephesus contending for the Christian faith and was able to win some converts. Eventually the craftsmen started losing money selling shrines of Artemis and became angry at Paul and caused a riot.
Paul does not tell us specifically what false doctrines are being taught, so we are left to deduce these for ourselves from the context and what Paul says in the letter (e.g. he wouldn’t say “teach them not to do X,” if they were not doing X in the first place). So, we know that Artemis worship was prominent in Ephesus. Now, Artemis was not some obscure ancient deity and there is a lot known about her. Relevant to our purposes here though are two things. First, she was often invoked by women as they went through labor. Second, Artemis appears to have always resisted the love and attention of men. In fact, when the hunter Actaeon (a mortal who was trained by Chiron) came upon Artemis in the nude bathing in the forest, possibly by disguising himself as a stag, she turned him into a stag and he was chased and killed by his own hunting dogs. In my opinion then it seems likely that in this section of the letter Paul is countering both invoking Artemis during childbirth and a teaching that essentially made women superior to men, or at least created some sort of rift between them (see also 1Tim 4.3 which mentions some who are teaching that marriage is forbidden).
Additionally, 1Tim 1.7 indicates that the false teachers were likely Jewish in background. Paul does not say to what extent their background is Jewish, but only that they do not understand the law nor what they are saying. In light of this, the above Artemis story, and the context of 1Tim 2.15 (see below) I am going to speculate (because this is a blog and I can do that here) that the specific false teaching Paul is concerned with here basically interpreted the Fall in Genesis as Eve (as the representative of all women) winning her freedom from Adam (as the representative all men). To this was then added the belief that women were superior to men, likely based somewhat in the Artemis story related above. This teaching then more or less found a place for Artemis worship within Christianity and let women continue to ask her for aid during childbirth.
The specific context for this passage really begins with v.8 and continues through v.15 [1Tim 2.8-15]. It is almost entirely (except for v.8) addressing women, their role, and behavior. Since these things are addressed by Paul it is likely that they required correction and that they were brought about by the false teaching being spread at Ephesus. While we don’t know the exact content of the false teaching (although I have speculated above) we can reasonably conclude, I think, that it led the Christian women of Ephesus to do things that were not proper for Christian women to do, like possibly praying to Artemis and considering themselves superior to men. Otherwise, there would be no point for Paul to mention these things and instruct Timothy to teach them.
For the verse we are discussing here the most immediate context starts with v.12:
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 [But] she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
While a detailed exposition and analysis of these verses will have to wait for future post(s) I can give some brief thoughts on these verses. I think Paul’s aim here in these specific verses is to argue against an authority structure that the false teachers had been spreading, one that put women above men. First, in v.12 he is saying what should not be: women should not be domineering towards men (understanding αὐθεντεῖν, usually translated: “to exercise authority over,” to mean “to domineer,” or “to control,” and διδάσκειν, “to teach” as synonyms). Then he gives two reasons supporting this assertion. The first, is that Adam was formed first, then Eve. According to the law of primogeniture (which was followed in Paul’s day) gave men (represented by Adam) greater responsibility and authority than women (represented by Eve). It is an appeal to commonly held belief that goes against what the false teachers are teaching. The intent being to say something like: “If anyone is superior to anyone it is men who are superior to women, not women to men.”
The second reason is that it was Eve who failed to be obedient to God’s commands not Adam. This second point, I think, is intended to challenge a specific point of the false teaching being spread. If my speculation above is correct (or close) Paul’s intent with this verse to say that Eve did not win her freedom from Adam by eating the forbidden fruit, but together they both brought sin and death into the world. The point being that when it comes to the current state of the world women are just as at fault as men are.
Now, to be clear, this does not mean that it is perfectly fine for men to be domineering over women [Eph 5.25-33; Col 3.19; 1Pet 3.7]. It is wrong to infer that if something should not be then the “opposite” of it should be (or should be allowed). Paul is not describing what should be. He is describing what should not be. Just felt I should point that out.
I think these verses need to be understood within the context of countering a specific false teaching that was spreading at Ephesus. The underlying assumption behind these verses seems to be that the Ephesian women (or at least some of them) considered themselves to be superior to men. In response to this belief Paul is trying to knock them down a bit to their proper position (as equal with men in Christ). I do not think that here Paul is dealing with a group of women that considered themselves equal to men and then by knocking them down makes them subservient to men. I think the group of women in view thought themselves superior.
In any case, I do not think these particular verses are describing a church structure that more or less excludes women from teaching ministry. I think these verses are better understood as aimed at healing a rift that developed between men and women on the basis of a false teaching.
And with that we have established the context of this verse.
Before I move on though allow me to recap what I have said so far. Paul is writing to Timothy who is in Ephesus and has been charged by Paul to counter false teaching and teach what is correct. Ephesus is a city where Paul spent a lot of time and encountered considerable opposition. Artemis worship was prominent in the city. She (Artemis) was often invoked during labor for a safe birth and resisted the romantic advances of men. This probably led to a false teaching which combined Artemis mythology and the story in Genesis 1-3. This false teaching provoked hostility between men and women, likely by attempting to make women superior to men. To counter these teachings Paul reminds Timothy that women are not superior to men (nor are men superior to women).
Relation to previous verses
The first matter to be discussed in interpreting the verse is how the conjunction δὲ (de) is functioning. It is connecting this verse with the verses that came before it and establishes the relationship between them, so we need to figure out what this relationship is. This is also part of the reason why I went through establishing the context earlier. The possibilities are:
- Emphatic (“even”)
- Connective (“and”)
- Contrastive (“but” )
- Transitional (“now”)
Technically speaking all conjunctions are connective, but they are only classified as connective when that is all they are doing. I think δὲ is doing more here than simply connecting two clauses together. So, it is not connective.
Emphatic is unlikely partly because δὲ is usually paired with καὶ (kai) when it is emphatic and partly because it doesn’t make sense. The first part of this verse is talking about being saved through childbearing, but the previous verses are discussing how women who desire to be Godly should behave, not bearing children. There’s just nothing in the context that suggests or warrants an emphasis on childbearing.
Transitional is, I think, unlikely. When a preposition is transitional it usually either resumes a previously interrupted discourse, inserts parenthetical information, indicates a change in speakers or topics, or does something else that could be considered transitional. Paul is still on the same topic in this verse (how Godly women should behave) and not changing topics, resuming a previous thought, changing speakers, or doing anything else that could be considered transitional.
Contrastive then, I think, is most likely here and this is how most English translations understand this conjunction as well. This is the most common use of δὲ and by process of elimination it is basically our only realistic option left.
However, this creates somewhat of a problem for us: what is it supposed to be contrasted with? Well, remember the context. The overall letter instructs Timothy to counter false doctrine and teach what is correct. The broader context of this verse discusses the behavior of women, which implies it needed to be corrected. The immediate context of this verse discusses the creation of Adam and Eve and Eve’s role in the Fall. And all of this is within the context of a Christian congregation in Ephesus, a city where Artemis worship was prominent and where they encountered considerable opposition. The contrast then, I think, is with an element of the false teaching (that was known to both Paul and Timothy but is not stated in the letter) that Timothy is supposed to correct. A false teaching which likely attempted to make it acceptable for a Christian woman to invoke Artemis during labor. And this false teaching was probably attractive because it was accommodating of Artemis worship which would lessen hostility towards them.
So, the overall sense of the verse would be, I think, something like: They are incorrectly teaching women that Artemis will keep them safe through the childbearing process. Artemis will not save them, but if they continue in the Christian faith (“in faith and love and holiness with self-control”), only then will they be saved through childbearing.
Meaning of “will be saved”
The verb translated “will be saved” is σωθήσεται (sōthēsetai) from σῴζω (sōzō) meaning “to save.” It could mean to save from physical danger or from spiritual danger (e.g. eternal death) or even both (e.g. Mark 8.35, Luke 9.24). Usually the context helps determine which meaning is intended. For example, in Matt 14.30 when Peter is sinking and about to drown in the sea and he says, “Lord, save me” the context makes it obvious that physical danger is intended. Similarly in Titus 3.5 where Paul says that God saved us by “the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” the context makes it obvious that spiritual danger is intended.
At first glance the context of this verse may seem to imply “saved from physical danger” (i.e. the mother survives the birthing process) since child birth is a physical thing. However, it has never been the case historically that Christian women were somehow afforded divine protection during labor while all others were not. Additionally, this would be the only place in Scripture where such a promise to Christian women is made and it would be a promise easily proved false.
So, it’s not saved from physical danger and therefore not both physical and spiritual danger either. The only other option then is “saved from spiritual danger,” but this would seem to contradict the rest of the New Testament where salvation is based on faith and grace (see the beginning of this article). So, what are we to make of this verb then?
I think that as American Christians, which means predominantly Protestant, we are predisposed to see salvation in the spiritual sense as an either-or thing: either you are saved and will spend eternity with God, or you are not and will spend eternity apart from God. One (among several) of the problems with this perspective is that it sets up eternal punishment as the only spiritual danger we face and that simply is not the case. Things like lust, greed, pride, gluttony, etc are also spiritual dangers that we face and can lead us to renounce our faith. Greed, in fact, was one of the reasons why the seed that was sown among the thorns ultimately failed to mature and produce any fruit [Matt 13.22].
Or to put it in more traditional Evangelical terms: “will be saved” here really means “will be sanctified.” It refers to the process of sanctification, of becoming more holy, of becoming more like Christ.
I also think that it is possible the Ephesians were thinking of being saved through childbirth in purely physical terms. If this is the case then Paul would also be reminding Timothy to teach that salvation is not just a physical thing, but spiritual as well. Paul wants the Ephesians to know, particularly the women, that childbirth (not just the birthing process itself, but also the raising of children) can aid them in their sanctification.
So, I do think that “will be saved” here refers to being saved from spiritual danger. That spiritual danger is not eternal punishment, but sinful desires like selfishness and pride (among others) which can erode and undermine our faith and ultimately lead us to walk away and result in eternal punishment.
Identifying the subject
Now, we need to identify the subject of the verb. This is unfortunately not a straightforward thing. “Will be saved” is a (future tense) 3rd person singular verb, but the verb in the second half is a 3rd person plural. There is also no subject explicitly identified in either part of the verse. All this creates somewhat of a semantic mess because we have a singular person being “saved,” but the things upon which that salvation is conditioned are addressed towards a group. So, what do we make of this? How do we solve this problem?
The closest explicit person is “the woman,” who is Eve. Now, in Genesis 3.15 it does talk about “the seed of the woman” (i.e. Jesus) defeating the Serpent, but the context of this verse is discussing the behavior of women, not the birth of the Messiah. So, it’s unlikely, I think, that Eve is the subject here.
I think it best to simply view the singular subject as a collective singular. A collective singular is a singular noun or subject that is understood to include more than one person. In this case “she” means all women, not a specific singular woman. This usage is fairly common in the NT and even in contemporary language. For instance, “man” is a singular noun, but is sometimes used (usually in older Bible translations) to refer all of humanity, both male and female. Another example would be “team” which is necessarily a group of more than one, but is often paired with a singular verb (e.g. “Our team is good”).
This also makes sense of the change to a 3rd person plural verb later in the verse. Since “women” are a group comprised of more than one person you can also use a plural verb with it. If this sounds confusing it is essentially the same as saying: “Our team is good because they are talented and play hard.” The subject is “team,” but because it is a collective singular you can use both singular (is) and plural (are) verbs with it.
Paul left Timothy in Ephesus in order to counter false doctrines being taught there [1Tim 1.3-4]. One of those teachings seems to have been regarding the relationship between men and women, probably driven in part by the Artemis worship that was prominent in the area and in part by certain elements of Jewish teaching. The verse itself [1Tim 2.15] is likely meant to be contrasted with a specific aspect of what was being taught. This aspect is not mentioned in the letter, but was presumably known by both Timothy and Paul. In any case the contrast is likely something similar to this: They are incorrectly teaching that Artemis will save them through the childbearing process. Artemis will not save them, but if they continue in the Christian faith (“in faith and love and holiness with self-control”), only then will they be saved through childbearing.
The salvation mentioned in the verse is spiritual, not physical. It does not refer to salvation in the sense of eternal destiny. Instead, it refers to salvation in the sense of becoming more holy (more like Christ). This process is also sometimes called sanctification.
The overall meaning of the verse then is: childbearing will only help women become more Godly and more like Christ if they continue in the Christian faith through it and cease invoking Artemis, or some other deity, for protection through the process.
As much I would like to be able to personally verify that childbearing, or even raising children, can indeed help you grow spiritually I cannot. I can tell you however that later in the letter Paul has instructions concerning widows [1Tim 5.3-16]. In part of those instructions Paul says that he would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households so that they don’t become busybodies, idlers, or gossips [1Tim 5.13-14]. So, bearing children then would help women grow spiritually because the responsibility would prevent them from doing things that would hinder growth or lead them away from Christ.
Now, in closing I would like to say that I think these are general instructions and should not necessarily be applied to every circumstance. Meaning that women do not have to bear children to grow spiritually, nor is it supposed to be the role of every Christian woman to be a mother. Paul himself says in 1Corinthians 7.7-9 that he wishes everyone would be single as he is, but that not everyone has this gift and that to marry is not a sin. It is my opinion that singleness and marriage are both callings from God, so go wherever God is calling you, whether to singleness, marriage, or marriage and raising children. Following where God is leading you always results in spiritual growth.