What does Paul mean when he says “she will saved through childbearing”?
A wife’s fulfillment of her role will be one of the evidences of perseverance in the faith.
Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Tim 2:15)
The interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15 has been an item of great debate among commentators. The confusion over the meaning of this verse is reflected in different English translations. For example, the NASB says that “women will be preserved,” whereas the ESV says that “she will be saved.”
The NASB reflects the view that Paul is merely stating that faithful Christian women will be preserved physically when they give birth. But this is implausible because we know that not all faithful Christian women survive childbirth. The ESV is nearer the mark. This particular Greek word always refers to spiritual salvation elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles, and we have no reason to think the verb is being used differently here.
If this is the case, is Paul suggesting that women are saved by means of bearing children? This would seem to contradict Paul’s teaching that salvation is by grace through faith apart from works (e.g., Eph 2:8).
One ancient interpretation of this text avoids this question by holding that this statement refers not to childbirth generically but to the childbirth of the Messiah Jesus. This interpretation harks back to Genesis 3:15, which says that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the Serpent, a prophecy fulfilled ultimately in the birth of Christ, who destroys the works of the Devil. Thus, women are saved through the childbirth of Christ. But that interpretation makes little sense in context.
The wider meaning
As Tom Schreiner points out, it is more likely that Paul uses childbearing as a figure of speech known as a synecdoche. A synecdoche is a figure in which the part stands for the whole. Childbearing is a part of a larger whole, which is the woman’s wider role to care for the home. This is the same role Paul describes in Titus 2:4–5: “Young women [are] to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.”
So, in both 1 Timothy 2 and Titus 2, Paul declares that wives have a God-ordained role to play in caring for children and the home. This is not claiming that a woman must have children in order to be saved. It is not even teaching that a woman must be married to be saved. But for those women who are married, God assigns a special responsibility to care for the home.
A wife’s fulfillment of this role will be one of the evidences of perseverance in the faith. Salvation is future in this verse: “She will be saved.” Thus it is not entrance into salvation that is in view but the future consummation of salvation. Women who embrace their God-ordained role while continuing in the Christian virtues of “faith and love and holiness, with self-control” will find themselves saved on the last day.
Female readers might consider whether their assumptions about discipleship line up with Paul’s. It would be unbiblical and unhealthy to assume that careful Bible study and theology are the exclusive preserve of men. This is not what Paul teaches. When Christian women gather together with the church, they are there to be instructed and discipled in the Word, just as men are. All people must be students of the deep things of God.
God has so ordered the church that its teaching authority resides with the pastors (elders). The congregation recognizes and puts forth qualified men for this position. And women are called to learn in quietness and submission within this order. God has a reason for ordering the offices of the church in the way that he does. And Satan hates that reason. God intends the all-male eldership to reflect the principle of male headship established at creation.
God intends male headship in marriage to portray Christ’s loving headship over his bride the church. That means that the principle of headship is not an imposition on God’s people. It symbolizes both to God’s people and to the world the unsurpassed beauty of Christ’s saving work.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon: Volume 11 edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr, and Jay Sklar. It was originally published on the Crossway Blog.