When it comes to the hard parts of the Bible you can’t get much harder than 1 Timothy 2:15. The first commentary I looked at stated: “This is one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament to interpret.”
1 Timothy 2:15 says in the NIV:
But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.
The ESV says:
Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.
What makes this verse so hard to interpret?
- The verse looks like it says eternal salvation from women is through childbearing. But isn’t salvation only through faith in Jesus Christ?
- If that’s what it is saying, what about women who do not bear children? Are they stuck without opportunity for salvation?
- How can salvation be dependent on continuing in faith, love, and holiness?
- In the original language it’s unclear whether the article in front of “childbearing” should be “a” or “the”.
- Who is the “they” who are continuing in faith, love, and holiness with propriety? The word interpreted here as “women” is actually the singular “she”. So does “they” mean women or does it mean parents?
Some of these points can be cleared up if we take a look at the context of the verse.
What is 1 Timothy all about?
1 Timothy was written by Paul to Timothy, a younger pastor. Along with Titus and 2 Timothy these books are referred to as the pastoral epistles since they are letters from the apostle Paul to young pastors, Timothy and Titus, and they are full of instructions pertaining to proper church function. There are instructions for choosing leaders, organizing worship, dealing with false teachers, and caring for widows.
What is 1 Timothy 2 all about?
1 Timothy chapter 2 is full of instructions on public worship with particular attention paid to the women’s attitudes. Paul begins the chapter urging the Christians to pray for all people even their governing officials so they “may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” He tells men to pray without anger and disputing (v.8) He encourages the women to focus on adorning themselves with good deeds instead of the latest fashions (v.9). He encourages women to learn in the public worship gathering in quietness and full submission and not to “teach or assume authority over a man” (v.11-12) because Adam was created first and Eve was the one who was deceived (v.13-14). Then comes the statement “but women will be saved through childbearing-if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety (v.15).
What could verse 15 possibly mean?
- Chrysostom, a church bishop in the 300s, took this verse to mean that nurturing children is a means of salvation. But since Scripture is clear that salvation is by faith through Jesus Christ, it is not possible for this verse to mean that eternal salvation is gained through giving birth.
- The joys of raising children outweigh the pain of giving birth. The ones who hold to this view interpret “childbearing” as child-rearing, in other words, doing their part in bringing up the next generation. Using this term opens up the verse to include those who do not physically give birth yet still spend time pouring into the next generation. This view would say yes, painful childbirth is a consequence of the fall, but in the end, teaching and loving the next generation with faith, love, holiness with propriety is a beautiful thing. It’s like Paul is saying “sorry, ladies, that birth is so painful, but it’s worth it.”
- Women are saved from being useless in the public worship gathering by having a place in teaching the children. This view is similar to the previous view but makes more use out of 1 Timothy 2’s discussion of public worship. Earlier the women are told they do not have authority over a man, but this verse would be saying that their proper place would be teaching and exercising authority over children. To fully dig into this view of verse 15, you would need a fuller discussion on verse 11-12 about what a woman is doing in worship, but that will be another post for another day. I’ll just simply say that a better interpretation for “assuming authority” over a man is probably “to lord it over.” The emphasis is the woman’s attitude of learning and listening instead of being bossy and overbearing.
- The child-bearing (Jesus’ birth) has given salvation. This interpretation aims to keep the interpretation of the word “salvation” consistent with other parts of Scripture in referring to eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Using the word “child-bearing” reminds us of Genesis 3:15 where God is telling the serpent that Eve’s offspring would crush his head and he would strike his heel. And since Paul was just referring to the fall in verse 14, this could make sense. The problem with this view is that every other place Paul mentions salvation, he refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection, not His birth. Plus, there is the trouble of the conditional nature of the verse i.e. they will be saved IF they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety. This sounds at first like salvation by works. How could doing something earn your salvation? However, Walter L. Liefeld in his NIV Application Commentary explains that problem can be solved by pointing out that faith, love, and holiness are “not good works, but are qualities that mark a believer.” Donald Guthrie also prefers this interpretation, but he acknowledges that it’s still not an easy interpretation. He says “if that were the writer’s intention he could hardly have chosen a more obscure or ambiguous way of saying it.”
Despite the interpretation difficulties of the verse, there is still plenty of instruction and encouragement, particularly for women.
Key Take Aways
Pursue faith, love, holiness with self-control. How can a woman do that? What does that pursuit look like? Paul already listed many ways to pursue those qualities in chapter 2. We can pray for all people, especially those in authority. When was the last time you prayed for Donald Trump? Or your kid’s school principal? We can dress modestly and decently. We can spend more time on good deeds than we do on shopping for clothing and jewelry. We can learn to listen instead of being bossy especially with our church leaders.
Parent with faith, love, and holiness with propriety. John Calvin said on this verse that he urges the women to “happily embrace” the hard and difficult things that go along with childbirth, but he also reminds women that child rearing “only pleases God if it springs from faith and love.” That’s so true. It drives me crazy when my son mumbles and murmurs and complains the whole time he unloads the dishwasher. He did the job, but there was no pleasure in it because of his attitude. How does God feel when we fulfill our responsibilities as parents with grumbling and complaining?
Pour into the next generation. Whether or not you have children living in your home, what do you intentionally do to reach the next generation with the love of Jesus?
What are your thoughts on 1 Timothy 2:15? Do you favor a particular interpretation? Are there other interpretations you have heard that are not mentioned here? What bearing does the verse have on your life? Please comment and share!
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