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FAQ: Difficult Passages Blog #4

Posted on: August 21st, 2017 by E-Free Lethbridge

“But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness.” – 1 Timothy 2:15

Question: What does it mean “women will be saved through childbearing”?

Pastor Ian just preached on 1 Timothy 2 on Sunday, dealing with the question about women teaching and in leadership in light of this passage.

This verse is another problem (using the CAPTOR acronym) in the passage (for a refresher on CAPTOR, see [PART 1] of this series).

Before we can talk about what this verse means, we need to examine what the verse says. Remember that when you translate from one language to another, you also interpret the words. This makes sense because the author wasn’t just writing words. He had a purpose. There is meaning attached to those words. The translators’ job isn’t just to give you words but to help you understand what the author means. This is what’s happening here.

The original doesn’t say “women.” Instead, the verb “saved” is in the singular form. Translating the verb with less interpretation would result in “she will be saved through the childbearing if they continue…” To understand this verse we need to figure out who “she” is, what Paul means by “will be saved” and who “they” are. There are three main opinions:

1. “She” and “they” = all (Christian) women; “will be saved” = spiritual salvation:
Supporters of this opinion tend to interpret Paul’s instructions to Timothy in the previous verses as universally binding instructions for the proper order of worship: because Eve was deceived by the serpent, women are forever disqualified from teaching.

When Paul says “will be saved” he is talking about a deepening experience of salvation or persevering in the faith (‘continuing in faith, love, holiness, and propriety’). According to this view, therefore, Paul is either saying that women persevere in faith or have a deeper experience of salvation as they embrace their unique role in bearing children (ESV Study Bible, notes).

This contradicts what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:34-35 where he argues that men and women are better able to engage God’s mission in a state of singleness. It’s also hard to align this opinion with the description of the New Covenant in Joel 3:28-29 where God announces that the Spirit will be poured out on all God’s people and that “your sons and daughters will prophesy.” There is no indication that a women’s experience of the New Covenant will be childbearing. Further, this ignores the change from plural to singular forms of verbs in the passage.

2. “She” = the wife; “will be saved” = protected during childbirth; “they” = husband and wife
This position argues that the change from the plural to singular, starting in v.11, in the passage is intentional. Typically supporters of this opinion argue that Paul is addressing relationships in the home, rather than in church – or at least that the line between the home and church wasn’t as distinct as it is for us since the church met in homes. This means that Paul is probably addressing “the wife” and “the husband” from v. 11 to the end of the passage. In addition, the Creation account is an illustration of what is happening in Ephesus. Cynthia Westfall (Paul and Gender) argues that the inclusion of the Creation account is to combat the false teaching that was deceiving the women in Ephesus.

We need to understand that pregnancy and childbirth were the leading cause of death for women during this time. It was common for women to call on a particular god to save them during pregnancy and childbirth. Ephesus was the center of worship for Artemis who was the goddess of childbirth. In this context, it’s possible that Paul is reminding the women that their trust should be in Jesus, not Artemis, to protect them during childbearing.

Further, it seems that women in the church in Ephesus were refusing to get married or have children (1 Timothy 4:3; 5:13). This could be an attempt to gain authority over their husbands (v.12) and related to the false teaching spreading particularly among the women (2 Timothy indicates that men were the source of the false teaching).

According to this view, Paul is saying that women will be protected through the act of child-bearing if the husband and wife continue in faith, love, and holiness with self-control. In other words, the husband has a role to play in protecting his wife by involving her in the decision about the size of family and the frequency of intimacy, practicing self-control and faithfulness – despite the cultural expectations around the availability of household slaves and man’s sexual appetite, and ensuring his wife is properly cared for during her pregnancy.

One problem with this view is that it sounds like a guarantee that if the husband and wife are faithful and trust Jesus that she will survive childbirth. History shows that this is not the case. However, we need to remember that our faith is not based on formula – calling the elders to pray (James 5:14-16) does not always result in healing. There is a principle that if husbands and wives practice faith, love, and holiness with self-control that she will have a better chance of surviving child-bearing.

Another problem with this view is that “she” most naturally refers to Eve.

3. “She” = Eve; “saved through childbearing” = the Seed; “they” = ??
Reading from v.13, the flow of the passage goes like this: “For Adam formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived, but it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But she will be saved through the childbearing…”

Paul is using the creation account to illustrate what is happening in Ephesus: he references Eve’s creation (Genesis 2), Eve’s deception (Genesis 3:6), and the promised salvation that would come through Eve’s daughters (Genesis 3:15).

Perhaps the order of creation was part of the false teaching, and related to the Paul’s instruction that a wife should not exercise authority over the husband. In correcting the false teaching, Paul sees and opportunity to illustrate from the creation account: just like at Creation, it is the women who are being deceived by the false teaching. Verse 15 could then be an attempt to qualify his statement: women continue to play an important role in God’s mission as it was through the woman that the Saviour came into the world.

The problem with this view is that it does not adequately explain who “they” are and how continuing in faith, etc. are related to The Childbirth.

I always hated it when a teacher would explain the various options and then leave me hanging. However, I think the only thing that is clear about this verse is that it is not clear what Paul means. Personally, I would lean to opinion #2 but I’m not completely satisfied by that explanation. You’ve heard of a mystery wrapped in an enigma? This is a difficult verse wrapped in a difficult passage!

So, I think we should be really careful about how vehemently we defend our interpretation of the entire passage, let alone this verse. We should certainly be very careful that we are not interpreting this passage and this verse apart from the context of the entire letter, as well as other letters written to the same church (2 Timothy, Ephesians) and Luke’s account of the formation of the church in Ephesus (Acts 19).

This passage is an example of another objection that I’ve heard: how is the “average person” supposed to be able to understand the Bible? We need to remember that the Bible was not written to us but for us. So while the Holy Spirit speaks and convicts through the reading of Scripture, it does not mean that we should expect to understand everything immediately upon a cursory – or even careful – reading of the Bible, especially a passage like this one.

I don’t want to give the impression that we need experts or priests to tell us what the Bible says. I believe that the Holy Spirit is able to apply the Scripture to us and that the Lord’s intention is that we would be able to feed ourselves from Scripture. However, God has also made us part of a community of faith. I think his intention was that we would wrestle with these difficult passages in community. Included in our community are historians and scholars and linguists, etc. who all help us more fully understand the words of Scripture. Paul tells Timothy that it will require work and skill to properly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). This is still true for us today.

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