Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Yet she will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. 1 Timothy 2:15

1 Timothy 2:15 is a difficult verse to understand. One of the more disturbing interpretations of this verse is that women cannot be saved unless they have children. I have heard several well-known ministers teach this faulty interpretation.[1] For example, Jim Hamilton, (an associate professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a preaching pastor at a Baptist Church in the USA) has stated that “All women must embrace their role as women by bearing children and, if they do this in faith, they will then be saved.” (Bold added.)

I challenged Jim on this and he responded, “Well, read 1 Tim 2:15—Paul isn’t contradicting Jesus.”

I have no idea what Jim meant by this. I’m aware of what Paul said in 1 Timothy 2:15, but Jesus never said anything at all about women having to have kids in order to be saved.

What did Jesus say to women?

saved childbirth 1 Timothy 2:15On one occasion Jesus had the opportunity to affirm the “virtue” of motherhood. A woman in the crowd cried out and said to him, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Jesus replied, however, “Blessed rather are those who are hearing the word of God and obeying it” (Luke 11:27–28 NIV). In no way did Jesus indicate that being a mother was necessary, or the only way, women can obey God’s word.[2]

In his conversation with a Samaritan woman—the longest conversation between Jesus and an individual recorded in the Gospels—Jesus does not broach the subject of motherhood. Instead, he and the woman have a long theological discussion about true worship, during which, Jesus offers the woman the gift of Living Water (John 4:4). It is not recorded that Jesus offered this gift with the proviso that she embrace her role as a woman and have children.

Mary and Martha of Bethany, good friends of Jesus, may have been ascetics. If so, they would have been unmarried and childless. When Mary sat at Jesus’ feet learning from him, was he teaching her about the necessity of being a mother in order to be saved? When Jesus later had a theological discussion with Martha about the resurrection and eternal life, did he insist that Martha embrace her womanhood in order to receive eternal life? (John 11:25-27). I doubt it.

Jesus and Paul contradict Jim

By saying that “All women must embrace their role as women and bear children, and if they do so in faith they will be saved” Jim is effectively adding a clause to the gospel.

The gospel message I know is that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. And that, if we put our trust in Jesus as Savior and faithfully follow him as Lord, we—both men and women—share in his eternal life. This is the gospel message, the message of salvation.

I don’t recall any New Testament author, including Paul, saying or implying, “Oh, and by the way, women must embrace their role as women and have children if they want to be saved because Jesus’ blood spilled on the cross isn’t enough to save you” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1ff).

Paul does not contradict Jesus. That is because neither Paul nor Jesus connect salvation with supposed gender roles. I believe that Jim has misunderstood Paul’s meaning and intention in 1 Timothy 2:15. [My interpretation of this verse is here.]

What about childless women?

In 1 Corinthians 7:34, Paul says that singleness is a better state than marriage for people who want to serve the Lord with undivided devotion. But if having kids is how women are saved, how will single and childless Christian women be saved?

Jim bears the childless women in mind and adds yet another caveat to the gospel: “This doesn’t mean that single women or barren women can’t be saved, but they should by faith embrace what it means for them to be women.” (Bold added.)

It is easy for the majority of people to embrace their sex, as our sex is an intrinsic part of who we are. As a female, I know what it is to be female. I don’t even need faith to embrace what it means to be a woman—I just am a woman!

Being a woman is not a defining role, however, as there are many varied roles that godly women can take. The Bible shows us that women were involved in all kinds of activities, ministries, and life situations. Many of these Bible women were not defined by their marital status or by whether, or not, they had children. [More on biblical roles for women here.]

The gospel of Jesus has no gender bias

There is something very wrong with a gospel message that has a gender bias, where faith in Jesus Christ’s redemptive work is not enough for women, and they are required to negotiate extra “ifs” and “buts” that apply only to them. Moreover, it is unsound to alter the gospel to make it fit with a faulty interpretation of one single Bible verse, namely 1 Timothy 2:15.

Paul warned about people who try and pervert the gospel of Christ:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Galatians 1:6-8


Endnotes

[1] Jim’s article is not new, but I would think that if he had changed his mind on this topic he would have taken down his post. His post is here. Other complementarians, such as Bruce Ware, hold to similar views. John MacArthur implies in this video that the only redemptive act women can perform is having godly offspring.

[2] Procreating is a joint responsibility. The command to be fruitful and multiply was given to both men and women (Gen. 1:27-28). Having children is not the sole responsibility of women.

[3] Here is my paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:15: “But she [the woman addressed in 1 Tim. 2:11-12] will be preserved through the bearing of children if they [her and the man of 1 Tim. 2:12] continue in faith and love and sanctity and self- restraint.”

Paul’s real meaning here was that he wanted a Christian woman in Ephesus to know that getting married and having children would not jeopardise their salvation. Paul associates moral purity with childbearing because some people in the Ephesian church were forbidding marriage and teaching that celibacy was a necessary moral virtue (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3a). Paul encourages the Ephesian women to get married and have children, which they couldn’t do if they held to the false ideal of virginity and celibacy (cf. 1 Tim 5:14). (More on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 here.)

© 23rd of June 2013, Margaret Mowczko

An abridged version of this article was published by Christians for Biblical Equality (International) in their Arise e-newsletter on the 25th of July 2013.  (Arise archives)

Image Credit: “Mary holding the Child Jesus before starry blue background” © mammuth (iStock)


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21 thoughts on “What must a woman do to be saved? (1 Timothy 2:15)

  1. The Bible says believers put on Christ (Rom. 13,14; Gal. 3,27); it doesn’t say there is a pink and a blue version of the Christ garment.

  2. I agree completely, Karin.

  3. This is a great article, thanks Marg!

  4. Thanks Sarah. 🙂

  5. Thank you for this. I’ve shared it.

  6. Anyone who adds a single requirement of salvation, save grace, preaches heresy. Period.

  7. 1 Tim. 2:15 is more often quoted ignorantly making it out to be heresy than it is quoted responsibly. As you point out women do not have a different route to salvation than men do.

    It is of note that after Christ was born, women are no longer praised in Scripture for bearing children. Why? In the OT the promise was that the Messiah would come through the seed of a woman. All of God’s people looked for the birth of the Messiah. After Christ was born, lived, died and resurrected, it was done. Now, all of God’s people should be looking for how men and women can live after the example of the Messiah. That is God’s gift to us through Christ’s great sacrifice and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit given to all who believe if we continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.

  8. Robyn, for sure!

    TL, It amazes me that many serious Bible teachers suddenly forget the basics of Salvation when they read 1 Tim 2:15, and they try to make this single verse fit in, somehow, with the gospel.

    These teachers are reading too much into the verb sōzō (which means save, deliver, keep safe, preserve, or make well, etc) and making this single verse apply to all women, everywhere, rather than recognizing that Paul is addressing a local problem and a local heresy that forbade marriage, and therefore having children (1 Tim 4:3a).

    I suggest that Paul’s real meaning here was that he wanted the Christian women of Ephesus to know that getting married and having children would not jeopardise their Salvation. Paul associates moral purity with childbearing because some people in the Ephesian church were forbidding marriage and teaching that celibacy was a necessary moral virtue (1 Timothy 4:3a). Paul wanted to encourage women to have children, which they couldn’t do if they held to the Artemissian ideal of virginity and celibacy. Different strains of Gnosticism emphasised either sexual licentiousness or abstinence. Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:15, in effect, cleverly corrects both extremes. [From here.]

    I agree that our main responsibility is to live our lives by following Jesus’ example. The earth has been populated; the command in Genesis 1 to “be fruitful and multiply” has been fulfilled. Perhaps Christians should focus on taking better care of the people who are already on earth, rather than encouraging marriage and motherhood as the primary calling for women.

    I also think it’s warped to say that women have a greater responsibility than men to have children. Having children is a joint responsibility and blessing.

  9. This is a difficult passage, perhaps the most strange one in the NT. A Japanese non-Christian asked me what it means. In this post, so far you have explained what it does NOT mean. I already know that, and I explained that to her. But can you please offer your interpretation of what it DOES mean? How can we equalitarians interpret this responsibly? What statement can we make about its contents rather than about what it doesn’t contain? It would be extremely helpful if you can provide an answer to this, or point me to one.

  10. Anonymous, It is indeed a strange verse in a difficult passage.

    I attempt to provide an explanation of the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:15 in my series on 1 Timothy 2:12 in Context. The series begins here: https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/1-timothy-212-in-context-1/

  11. I have always, ever since I became a Christian, understood this verse in the meaning of woman’s role in general: women are the ones who give birth to children – not men. The verse is not about each women individually.

    1. Hi Joanna,

      The noun in this verse is not strictly speaking about giving birth, there is another Greek word for that. The Greek noun teknogonia is a broad term and covers the raising of children. (The related infinitive occurs in 1 Timothy 5:14.)

      I believe that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is addressing the behaviour of a particular man and woman in the Ephesian church, probably a high-status couple, as they are spoken about diplomatically. They are also spoken about anonymously.

      It was difficult to keep correspondence private in the ancient world, so sensitive information about certain people was written without names (and without articles), but the correspondents would know who was being referred to.

      We can see this in the following papyri where the person being spoken about is simply referred to as “a person” without a name and without a definite article. (In English, however, it would be translated into English as “the person”.)

      ~P.Oxy. 3.531 Letter of Cornelius to his sweetest son (2nd century)
      ~P. Princ. 2.67 Letter of Theano to her brother (1st or 2nd century)

      Even though the couple are spoken about anonymously, the letter would have been read aloud in church meetings in Ephesus. (We are still reading the letter aloud.) And the couple would have recognised that Paul was speaking about them. But their identity remains hidden to us.

      The Greek verb “she will be saved” is singular, indicating an individual woman. The Greek word for “woman/wife” used in verse 11 and 12 is also singular, as is the word for “man/husband”. This is in contrast to previous verses where men and women are spoken about in plural words. The Greek verb for “they remain/continue” is plural, suggesting that this is speaking about the couple.

      Thus Paul is speaking about a woman in verse 11 who must learn quietly. In verse 12, Paul tells Timothy he is not allowing her to teach a man (possibly her husband) in an unacceptable manner. In verses 13-14 Paul gives a correction to the faulty teaching and behaviour of the woman. (More about this faulty teaching here.) And in verse 15, Paul provides reassurance that the woman will be saved (or not lose her salvation) if she has children and the couple behave themselves.

      Note that the verse immediately following verse 15, 1 Timothy 3:1, contains the phrase: “This is a faithful word.” This phrase is always used when speaking about salvation. I believe verse 15 is speaking salvation and not just health and safety.

      The woman will not lose her salvation is the couple abide in godly virtues. In the early church, chastity and abstinence were considered godly virtues. Some even taught that chastity and abstinence were necessary for salvation. But Paul is telling Timothy that the woman will be saved if she raises children. More about chastity in the early church here:https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/chastity-salvation-1-timothy-215/ 

      Note that in modern western society, in many families, men and women share the role of raising children.

      1. Thank you so much for your elaborated reply! I think I understand this passage better now.

        1. You’re very welcome, Johanna.

  12. At 44 I have been struggling like crazy since my teens to find a godly Christian husband because I was told God would never be pleased with me until I married and bore children. Lately I began to question my salvation. I searched my life for sin, but a lot of women with sin in their lives easily found husbands long ago simply because God blessed them with beauty and charm. (He blessed me with minimal amounts of those.)

    How does that make them righteous and a 44 year old virgin like me a Jezebel? Can God still love me? Why are beauty and charm more important than holiness? I’m going through the change and have despaired of God ever loving me.

    If faith saves me why is elaborately scheming and manipulating a man into marriage and having his children necessary? Isn’t that a work? Why do churches teach this?

    It’s not simple idolatry, but I have been taught God hates women who have failed to be wives and mothers. We have no part in the Kingdom of God. And the Body of Christ wants to cut us off.

    Please tell me He can love me anyhow despite this abysmal failure and life long shame!

    1. Hello Marah,

      Being single and childless is not a failure in God’s eyes. It doesn’t even come close to being a failure. In fact, for most of the history of the church, singleness and celibacy was seen as a more holy state than being married.

      Were Mary and Martha married? I doubt it. Were Philip’s four daughters married? No. Paul encouraged single and celibacy.

      “An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” 1 Corinthians 7:34-35.

      Marriage and motherhood is not the ultimate or highest calling for women, as some say. Being a devoted disciple of Jesus is. I hope you will find rest in this calling.

  13. Hello Marg,
    Oh, how thrilled I am to find this! I was searching for some clarification on verse 15, and happen to stumble upon yours Your interpretation gives me so much understanding of these scriptures. I’ve been searching in Hebrew and Greek for a lot of interpretations, for scriptures to make sense! Thank You for your study and insight. I will be reading more of your posts.

    Filled with Joy,
    Paula

    1. That’s great to hear, Paula!

  14. I remember hearing the interpretation that women have to embrace motherhood as a good work to be saved. I remember feeling incredibly confused about how any work could save us, much less a work that some women cannot do. I like the point about how Jesus never extolled the virtues of motherhood. But I was curious about the verb “continue” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Does it indicate that the couple was already living in faith, love, and holiness; or that they should start living in that way and persevere it in? The idea that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is dealing with specific misbehavior makes sense, but if “they” are to continue living in faith, love, and holiness as they already were, I wonder how the woman could be misbehaving by being domineering, since that is an unholy and unloving behavior. So I was wondering if it indicates continuing those actions, or taking up those actions and being consistent in them.

    1. Hi Taylor,

      The verb for “they continue/remain/abide” (meinōsin), which is subjunctive, does not presuppose the couple were already abiding in the three virtues: faith, love, and holiness with self-control. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t.

      The verb can be used when something or someone begins to remain/abide or when something or someone continues to remain/abide. (See here.)

      The point is that childbirth (the result of sex) will not jeopardise a woman’s salvation, especially if the couple are abiding in Christian virtues such as faith and love …

      I believe the woman thought abstinence was a Christian virtue, tied to salvation, but Paul does not think this, so he mentions other virtues.

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