A former student sent me a question. He asked, “How do you understand “the childbearing” in I Timothy 2:15”? Short answer: “With difficulty”. Long answer: This is a complicated one, so I thought I’d share my thoughts with the four or five of you who read this.
In order to address this question, I think that at a minimum we need to address the immediate context, the range of word meanings, Paul’s understanding of salvation, the OT reference and finally Paul’s audience.
The immediate context is not without difficulties but in general is clear. Paul is defining gender roles and proper behavior when believers gather together. He is writing to Timothy to assist him (Timothy) in his task of correcting certain doctrinal problems in Ephesus. This tells us a few of things. First, this applies to gatherings of believers. He is talking to and about men and women who follow Christ as their savior. Second, the reference to women is in the context of Christian gatherings, not specifically to roles of wives and mothers. Third, this is to correct some issue or issues in the gatherings in Ephesus.
There are a couple of difficult words here. The first is the word for salvation. It can mean spiritual salvation or deliverance from an immediate danger or problem. If Paul means deliverance from danger, then there should be some reference to the problem. This seems to be absent. Perhaps we can say that the problem is the strife in the community meetings, but it is difficult to see how childbearing would deliver women from that. Thus, by the process of elimination, I will assume that Paul has spiritual salvation in mind.
The second difficult word is the word for childbearing. This is the only New Testament usage in the noun form, so we don’t have much help from New Testament authors. It is singular and part of a prepositional phrase. The preposition phrase denotes “means”. It could be rendered something like “by means of childbirth”. In this case the singular takes on a collective meaning. Or it could be rendered something like, “by means of the childbirth”. The definite article is present and this would preserve the singular number of the noun, but it changes the meaning to refer to a known specific birth.
Whatever the meaning, the grammar of the prepositional phrase (δια της τεκνογονιας) tells us that this is the means of the salvation. The tense and voice of the verb, σωθησεται - future passive, tell us that the subject, “woman”, is not the active agent in her salvation. The active agent comes from the prepositional phrase. So, whatever we conclude, the woman must be passive in her salvation and the noun of the preposition phrase must be the active agent.
Even though the noun in the prepositional phrase δια της τεκνογονιας means something like “childbearing”, I think it is safe to say that Paul does not mean that women are eternally saved through giving birth to children. That would present some significant theological difficulties. First and foremost, it would present a means of salvation other than by grace through faith. It would also present a separate means of salvation for men and women. Further, it would seem to violate what Stott calls the “principle of harmony” - that the Bible is word of God and thus does not contradict itself. It would seem to be inconsistent with the way Paul interacts with women like Priscilla, Lydia, Euodia and Syntyche. There is no mention in any of his interaction with these women about salvation through having children. We also come up against the problem of single women. If women are saved through giving birth, what of those who are not married? Should they have sex outside of marriage, so they can have children and be saved? In Paul’s words, “May it never be!”. If he doesn’t mean that women are saved by having children, then what does he mean?
The OT reference may provide some further insight. In the context of I Timothy, verse 2:15 is a contrast to a historical argument from Genesis 3. Paul makes the point that in the garden of Eden the woman was deceived, and it is implied that paradise was thus lost. Then, in 2:15 Paul says that she will be saved δια της τεκνογονιας. The parallel to the Genesis story seems pretty obvious to me. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve sin, God pronounces the curse and then immediately, in Genesis 3:15, pronounces the hope of future salvation through the descendent of the woman who will crush the head of the snake. As Paul writes, this flow of logic would be fresh in his mind. In I Timothy 2:15, he simply finishes the thought of Genesis 3 in his modern terms.
If this is the case, then a translation something like, “but she will be saved by means of the birth [of the child]…” fits very nicely. I admit that it is not the most natural meaning at first glance, but when we consider Paul’s audience, it seems to me very probable. This is late in Paul’s ministry. Timothy has been his disciple for some time and has grown to the point where Paul trusts him to correct false doctrine in Ephesus. He and Paul have a deep history together. With this in mind, it is not difficult to see that in a personal letter, it would not be unreasonable for Paul to expect Timothy to understand an indirect, yet poetic, reference to salvation through Christ. This “δια της τεκνογονιας” could even be language the that Paul and Timothy had used together.
Next, we must say a few words about the phrase, “if they continue in faith, love and holiness”. As evangelicals, we are very sensitive to anything that may indicate salvation by works. So how are we to understand this conditional statement. Put more formally, this is a third-class condition, which broadly means that the author is expressing uncertain but likely fulfillment. It is like a proverb. If you act this way, that will most likely be the result. Paul presents this kind of formula:
If they (women) continue in faith, love and holiness, then they will be saved δια της τεκνογονιας.
I think this is a reference to what Carson calls, “the persevering quality of saving faith” or the like. In other words, faith that saves is faith that perseveres. If we mix in the third-class condition, Paul is saying that most likely their faith will persevere. It is an encouragement. It is probably an over-translation, but you could almost say, “since they will continue…”
Finally, the phrase, “with a sound mind” is probably a reference to Paul’s argument in 2:9-12. There he describes behavior that results for sound thinking.
So, what did Paul mean by σωθησεται δια της τεκνογονιας? A possible over-translation to make the point to our ears today could go something like this:
"But, she (the woman) will be saved by means of that specific birth of the child referenced in Genesis (i.e. Jesus and implied: just like all mankind), since they will continue in faith and love and holiness with sound minds (in line with what I was talking about earlier).”
Hope this is helpful, my friend.