What did Paul mean in 1 Timothy 2:15 when he wrote “she will be saved through childbearing”? Is having children is somehow connected to a woman’s salvation? Here is the phrase in context.
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or 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 2:11-15
To begin to understand salvation through childbearing, we must start where Paul does, with the story of Adam and Eve.
Creation Order and Temptation Order
In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul refers to the familiar story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. There are two key observations that Paul draws from this familiar text. First, notice that the temptation order (Eve first, then Adam) is a reversal from the creation order (Adam first, then Eve). The significance of Satan approaching Eve is magnified when we observe that God had given the command about not eating the tree directly to Adam prior to Eve’s creation (2:16-17), and Adam was with the woman during the temptation (3:6). When Satan approached Eve, the woman took the lead in responding to Satan while the man, who was there prior to the woman and heard the commandment directly from God, stood by silently and never intervened.
Satan never addressed the man directly. But by approaching the woman first, and using her initiative over the man, Satan successfully brought about the failure of both man and woman. Paul points to Genesis 3 to remind them of what happens when Satan subverts God’s created order, and what happens when men stand by silently while their wives take the lead. Satan has used this plan of attack in the past. When Satan attacks man through the woman, we should not be caught off guard. He is using play number one from his play book.
Eve’s Salvation Through Childbearing
Secondly, observe that Genesis 3 does not leave Adam and Eve without hope. Towards the end of the story, as God is speaking to the serpent, God makes a very interesting promise.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,Genesis 3:15
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.
The snake and the woman will each have offspring. There will be enmity between these two seed lines. The seed of the snake will strike, but the seed of the woman will crush the snake. For Eve, salvation from the curse was quite literally going to be found in bearing children so that her offspring could crush the serpent.
This idea – salvation through childbearing – doesn’t stop in Genesis 3:15. It is developed time and time again throughout the Old Testament scriptures. As we keep reading about the woman’s offspring, we eventually get to the story of Abraham, who was promised an offspring through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3; 22:18). Late on we get to the story of David who was also promised an offspring who would establish a kingdom (2 Sam. 7:12).
As we read through the prophets, it becomes clear that hope for God’s kingdom was going to be found through a “holy seed” (Isa. 6:13); through a virgin who would conceive and bear a child (Isa. 7:14); a child who would bring salvation (Isa. 9:6). According to Isaiah, salvation really was going to be found through childbearing.
For this reason, childbearing carried very special significance for God’s people, because one day, salvation was going to come through an offspring. This helps explain why Malachi, in addressing the problem of divorce, refers to “godly offspring” as the very purpose of the marriage relationship (Mal. 2:15). To reject the covenant of marriage was to reject the hope of godly offspring.
The point is that salvation through childbearing is not simply strange phrase used by Paul in one obscure verse. Rather salvation through childbearing was a well-established principle in Jewish thought, tracing all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve. For a woman to suffer through the pain of childbirth (cf. Gen. 3:16) was an act of faith in God’s promises. The pain of childbearing was not only the curse that was going to be reversed, it was also the means by which that curse would be reversed. Childbearing was the act through which Eve, and all women, would be saved.
Childbearing After The Birth of the Savior
But if Paul was thinking of the seed-promise, why would Paul refer to salvation through childbearing while writing to the early church? Would Paul have continued to view childbearing with the same saving significance after the Savior had been born?
Here it is helpful to remember that the word “offspring” can be used to refer to one specific individual as well as to an entire group of offspring. For example, I could refer to my son as my offspring, or I could refer to all of my descendants as offspring. Galatians 3 is a place where Paul applies the seed-promise to Christ individually (Gal. 3:16, “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring’ who is Christ.”) and then moves quite easily to apply the seed promise to all those who are in Christ when he writes, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).
When Paul applied the seed-promise to Christ individually, he didn’t simply say “now that promise has been fulfilled, so we can put a checkmark by prophecy as fulfilled.” When Paul saw that the seed-promise was fulfilled in Christ, he quite naturally applied the promise collectively to all those who belong to Christ.
Yes, Jesus individually fulfilled the seed-promise when he rose from the dead, robbing the snake of his power (Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:10). But because of Christ’s fulfillment, now all those who belong to Christ have the power to resist the influence of the serpent (Rom. 16:20; Jas. 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:8-9). Yes, childbearing brought salvation through the birth of the Child, Christ. But, because of Christ, now all in Christ can have the same power to crush the influence of the serpent. The birth of Christ does not end the significance of childbearing; it fills childbearing with even more hope! Because of Christ, the offspring of women can themselves be snake-crushers.
Implications For The Church
With this in mind, go back and reflect on the passage in 1 Timothy 2. After prohibiting a woman from teaching and exercising authority over a man in verse 12, and after reminding readers of Eve’s deception in verse 14, it is not surprising that Paul should positively affirm a woman’s peculiar honor in bearing children. This explains the conjunction “yet” at the beginning of verse 15. Verse 15 should be understood in contrast to what immediately precedes it. Paul is, in effect, saying, “this way isn’t good, yet this other way is” in reference to the peculiar role of women in the church. Salvation for women is not going to be found in reversing the creation order like Adam and Eve did, yet salvation is found when godly women devote themselves to childbearing. From a biblical perspective, childbearing has incredibly important significance for the world. Childbearing is the act through which Eve’s curse is reversed; it is the act through which women are saved.
Because this verse so strongly affirms the blessedness and value of a godly woman’s role in bearing children, and even ties childbearing directly to salvation, some might conclude that women who are single or childless have diminished value, or are perhaps be unable to be saved. This conclusion might follow if the text were to teach that childbearing is the only thing that women can do to bring about salvation, but that is not what 1 Timothy 2:15 teaches. Although the text does teach the blessedness and honor of women in bearing children, it does not logically follow that alternative avenues of service for Christian women are not available within the church.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:7-8 Paul teaches that there is real advantage to remaining single, so that one can be fully devoted to the work of the Lord. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul refers to older widows, who though unable to bear children, devote themselves to supplications and prayers night and day (1 Tim. 5:5). Nothing in 1 Timothy 2:15 would contradict with these verses.
What’s more, we know from the New Testament that women have served the Lord in a diversity of ways beyond simply bearing children. Women were among the first the report the news of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:7, 10). At Pentecost, the Spirit fell on both men and women alike (Acts 2:16-18). Men and women are both equally “one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). Women played an important role in the early church, serving as “fellow workers” with Paul (Rom. 16:1, 3).
The affirmation of women in 1 Timothy 2:15 does not diminish any of these diverse ways in which godly women have served the church. In fact, in appealing to the way this verse gives unique honor to women who bear children, it should remind us to be even more sensitive to and appreciative of the tireless service of those women who have not been given that opportunity.
Also note the way Paul switches from the singular pronoun (“she shall be saved through childbearing”) to the plural pronoun (“if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”). This indicates that Paul was looking to Eve as representative of women collectively speaking. So while it is true that salvation for women is found when women, as a collective whole, devote themselves to bearing children, it does not follow that each individual woman’s salvation depends on her individual ability or opportunity to bear children.
So without diminishing the faithful efforts of godly women who are unable to bear children, Paul resoundingly proclaims the dignity of a godly woman who devotes herself to work of being a mother. Though it certainly sounds old-fashioned, or even unacceptable in our modern western culture, this verse was given to the church to remind us of something we too often overlook: godly women who devote themselves to bearing and raising children play an immensely important role in God’s plan to save the world from the curse of sin and death.