How Does Childbirth Save Women?
Welcome back to this new week on the podcast, week number 530 for us. Amazing. Thanks for being a part of this podcast over the past decade, and thank you for praying for God to sustain us in this work.
Last Monday, we talked about the value and dignity of womanhood. It was a really important episode in a world blind to God’s glorious, intentional design for male and female creatures. That was APJ 1909. And we’ve celebrated the incredible glories of motherhood as well. On motherhood, I regularly recommend one episode from seven years ago that we recorded. I’ll never forget it. It’s titled “I Want Kids. My Husband Doesn’t.” It’s just a great, classic episode in the archive on the glories of motherhood. And as always, you’ll find our archive at askpastorjohn.com. There you can search for episodes 908 and 1909.
Speaking of the glories of motherhood, we have an international question today about 1 Timothy 2:15, an important text, a curious text, that we haven’t touched on in about four years now. We should. And we will because today’s question is from a listener to the podcast named Luba, who asks, “Pastor John, can you please comment on 1 Timothy 2:15? What are we as women supposed to be saved from in childbirth? And what does this mean for women who will never have children? This verse is highly discussed among us Christians inside of Russia. Thank you for your wisdom.”
In this context right here in 1 Timothy 2, Paul is making the case that spiritually qualified men should be the authoritative teachers — or you could say pastors or elders — in the church rather than women. Now, we’ve addressed that issue several times in Ask Pastor John. But this time, the issue is different.
Saved Through Childbearing?
Here’s the text at the end of verse 15, with a very puzzling sentence. I’ll read the whole two verses and then underline that last sentence that she’s asking about.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to 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. [Now, here’s the sentence:] Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:12–15)
So what is the meaning of verse 15? “Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
Who’s she? “She will be saved” refers to “the woman” (or Eve) in verse 14, but I think Paul means for us to generalize it — I think Luba is right to make that inference — because he shifts from the singular she to the plural they in the very next phrase. He says, “She will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith.” The natural way to take this they is “women in general.” So, I think she’s right to ask the question she’s asking the way she’s asking it.
So what does it mean that women in general “will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”? What about women who never have children? How does the verse apply to them?
Some have suggested that “through childbearing” refers to the birth of Jesus. Since a woman bore the Savior, we could say that women are saved through that childbearing. But that’s unlikely because, among other reasons, the only other use of this Greek word childbearing is found in 1 Timothy 5:14, where it simply means ordinary childbearing among women in general. It says, “So I would have the younger widows marry and bear children” — childbearing. So I don’t think that’s what it refers to.
“In spite of childbearing being part of God’s curse on sin, women will be saved through it.”
What then does it mean that “she will be saved through childbearing”? Here, I’m happy to give credit to Henry Alford, a British scholar who died in 1871, who pointed me to a text in 1 Corinthians that I think holds the key to Paul’s meaning here.
‘In Spite of’ Childbearing
So the key question is, What does through mean when Paul says, “She will be saved” — women in general will be saved — “through childbearing”? I think what gets most of us off on the wrong foot is that we almost all jump to the conclusion that through means by means of: “She will be saved by means of childbearing.” Then we cast about for how that could be the case. There is another possibility for what through means, and that was the clue I saw in 1 Corinthians 3:15, where Paul uses this very word in a similar situation and it means something very different.
So here’s what Paul is talking about there. You remember he’s talking about the judgment according to our works — in particular, whether we’ve taught true things in the context of the church. He says there’s wood, there’s hay, there’s stubble, and if some of your works are wood, hay, and stubble, they’re going to be burned up at the judgment. And then he holds out hope that the person himself — even though the wood, hay, and stubble of his works gets burned up — might be saved even though he has not lived the life that he should have lived in any perfect way. He says it like this: “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). So there’s that saved idea and through idea.
Now, what’s the meaning of through here, which is the same word used in 1 Timothy 2:15? It does not mean by means of — that is, “by means of fire.” He will be saved through fire in the sense that fire is threatening him and he comes through it safe. It means, virtually, “in spite of fire.” Even though he is under the threat of fire, yet he will be saved. He will come through it saved.
So my suggestion is that this is the way we should try to understand the word through in 1 Timothy 2:15 when Paul says, “She will be saved through childbearing.”
Overcoming the Curse
Now, how would that work? “She will be saved in spite of childbearing” sounds kind of odd, — or “through childbearing” the way a person comes through some threatening circumstance. Well, go back to Genesis 3 and remind yourself what happened after Adam and Eve sinned, which is the context here in 1 Timothy 2. What happened was that both of them were told that the curse of sin would fall on each of them in their respective, special role: Adam in his farming work, the sweat of his face, and Eve in her childbearing. So, Genesis 3:16 says, “To the woman God said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.’”
“The pain of childbearing, the misery of its long-term effects, often was a reminder of God’s displeasure over Eve’s sin.”
Now, let’s let that sink in for a minute. How that must have landed on women for centuries, especially before modern medicine — no hygiene, no spinal blocks, no episiotomies, no sutures, no Cesareans, no antibiotics, no pain killers, and often no recovery. Untold numbers of women died in childbirth, and countless more suffered the rest of their lives from wounds, tearing that prevented childbirth or any kind of normal sexual life. In other words, there were aspects of childbearing that felt like a curse from God because, in a sense, they were.
Often, that burden lasted a lifetime, not just in the moment of birth. How easy it would have been for women in Paul’s day, for example, or through the centuries, to despair and feel that God was against them. He’s just against them. He was their curser, not their savior. The pain of childbearing, the misery of its long-term effects, often was a reminder of God’s displeasure over Eve’s sin.
Now, I think that is what Paul is responding to. And his response was gospel hope. In other words, no to the curse. No, these pains of childbearing, even if they last a lifetime, are not God’s word, his final word, to women. God intends to save. They will be saved through the fiery trials of childbearing, through the apparent curse of childbearing. In spite of childbearing being part of God’s curse on sin, women will be saved through it.
By Faith in the Savior
Then Paul adds, “. . . if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control,” which simply means, I think, “if they’re Christians.” That’s the link with the Savior. She’s justified by faith, and then love and holiness and self-control are simply the fruit of faith that confirm that it’s real for men and women. She is a real Christian, and that’s how she will be saved, in spite of the painful reminders of the curse of God in childbearing through Eve’s disobedience.
So in answer to Luba’s question, “Well, what does this mean for women who have never had children or will have children?” it means this: though they may never have tasted the pain of childbearing in their own bodies, they still might feel a solidarity with all women under the curse of the pain of childbearing because of sin entering the world. So they can share in the same hope as women who have had children — namely, the hope that in spite of the pain women have to endure, in spite of that pain because of the fall, nevertheless, God is for them, not against them, and if they trust in Jesus Christ and walk in lives of holiness, they will be saved.