There are two types of difficult Bible passages/verses. There are those that are easy to understand but hard to practise, for example “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). But there are verses that are just downright puzzling. Like 1 Timothy 2:15:
But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (NIV)
Women will be saved through childbearing? Is Paul saying that childless women cannot be saved? (And let’s be clear here that the word “saved” refers to salvation from sin.) One principle of Bible interpretation is that we interpret a tough verse/passage in the light of a clear verse/passage. And Paul had very clearly stated in Ephesians:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9 NIV)
We are saved by grace through faith. And not by works of any kind, including childbearing. So, what was Paul actually saying in 1 Timothy 2:15?
A basic rule for interpreting New Testament letters, like 1 Timothy, is to remember that they were occasional documents. In other words, a letter is written in response to a specific occasion; a specific need for which the letter is a response. Letters are not documents that exhaustively cover the topics mentioned. The letter writer is not writing a handbook or a dictionary. He is only citing what he needs to make his point. So, what could possibly be the occasion that caused Paul to write 1 Timothy 2:15? We cannot know for sure, but I am attracted to the following explanation:
The author is opposing the ascetic false teachers (4:3) who reject marriage and family in the name of true spirituality, teachers who were probably appealing to the earlier word of Paul in 1 Cor. 7:1–16, 25–40 . . . Such teachers taught that “marrying and generating come from Satan” (cited in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:24:2; 1:28:1).
(M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], 660.)
To be saved is to become truly human, not super-human, and having children is part of normal human experience. Therefore, if there were teachers teaching that to be truly spiritual is to leave childbearing behind, we can understand Paul’s polemic here, recovering childbearing as part of the normal human experience that salvation brings. Our experience of life in the life to come will be different (Matthew 22:23–33), but in this life children and family life are integral parts of our life in Christ (Ephesians 5:21–6:4).
The second half of 1 Timothy 2:15 is also very clear. We are saved through faith and our faith is evidenced by love and holiness. This is a teaching consistent with all of Paul’s letters. As for propriety, Paul is picking up on the subject he was dealing with earlier in the chapter (vv. 9–10). Women should be wise and, in the context of their culture, not to dress in ways that send out the wrong signals, something that some of the women in the Ephesian church may have been tempted to do as an expression of their new freedom in Christ. I am sure the same principle applied to men too but the problem in Ephesus was with the women. Epistles struggle with applying the unchanging truths of Scripture to concrete challenges.
The question of childbearing continues to be with us. We have encountered couples, believers, who question if there are any clear biblical injunctions to have children. It is my usual practice to try not to be legalistic. I usually ask why they don’t want to have children and look at their answers in the light of Scripture. (Graceworks is planning to publish a book that seeks to be a fresh apologia for the decision to have children.) In the light of 1 Timothy 2:15, it is safe to say that while childbearing is not the basis for salvation, it is one component of the saved life.