11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
The previous 2 parts looked at learning in quietness and submission, and permission to teach and hold authority. The reason I’ve looked at this in three parts is because when we read this with modern eyes, let’s face it, its horrible. It reads as if women are stupid and should be kept silent. It’s infantilising, oppressive, rude. It seems at odds with the gospel accounts of how Jesus treated women. So is this just Paul being a jerk and adding things based on his own misogyny? But if so, why was it accepted as canon?
This was written in another time and place, so we need to dig into what Paul was communicating within the immediate context. It was also written in Greek and so we need to review the language because while the translation might be faithful, these words have inferences to us now that they didn’t have back then – which means we could be adding things in that aren’t there. But while Paul was writing in a specific time and place, this is God-breathed words that communicate to all of us and so we need to be humble, listening to what God’s words have to say to us.
In the previous sections we see that there is a direct line that can be drawn from creation, to Jesus’ actions, and then to Paul’s pastoral outworkings of the issues. So now we get to an odd line – women will be saved through childbearing. Really? What about the women who can’t have children? But also, isn’t faith in Jesus enough? Paul is always clear that salvation is through faith and in Christ alone so he must be saying something else.
There are quite a few different interpretations of this passage. One favors it meaning that women will be saved through the birth of the child Jesus.1 But this seems an oddly opaque way for Paul to say what he says elsewhere very clearly. Another is persuaded that it refers to the dangers of pregnancy and that God would preserve them safely through the danger.2 But this seems out of context with what the rest of the passage is saying.3
What seems more logical is the amplification of what Paul has been saying throughout this passage, and related to one of the reasons for writing the letter.
1 Timothy 1 shows us that Ephesus has been infiltrated by false teachers. Some of the false teachings include myths and false genealogies, as well as, we see later in 1 Timothy 4:3, forbidding people to marry. The reason for this kind of abstinence was a misguided sense of purity, both physically and spiritually. Jesus had been sexually pure and had called his disciples to drop everything (including families) and follow him. This kind of purity was built on the holiness and morality traditions of the Jewish world.
The itinerant preachers of the early church seemed to live outside the social mores of the time, free of clan ties, strategic marriages and seemingly liberated from temptations of the flesh. They appeared pure and holy and many aspired to that life as an apparent example of what kingdom life should look like.
Paul was also preaching to many who what we would consider rich or middle class in the Roman world. In this world, wealth gave leisure time, allowing for experimentation in social and religious thought. We see this more clearly in Corinth, another Roman city in Greece where, in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to them because they too have decided to renounce marriages – almost making their lives clean slates, ready for the new creation.4
A form of this kind of renunciation appears evident in Ephesus with false teachers, as we saw in 1 Tim. 4, teaching against marriage. Paul was keen to nip this kind of teaching in the bud. While wandering preachers might hold to this kind of celibate focus on gospel work, the early church community grew through flourishing households. They were a community in the world – not a monastery separate from it. Marriage is where children are taught and nurtured and from which the household could witness to others. It is the heart of the new community. Marriage is also the place where the unique mystery of Christ and the church is illustrated (Ephesians 5).
So when Paul says “women will be saved through childbearing” he is not being prescriptive, nor limiting a woman’s means of salvation contrary to the gospel. He is carrying forward the idea of women retaining their roles in society (ie within a household) rather than the roles the false teachers are advertising (ie separate and celibate). The addition of “if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” also seems to carry through the thread of humility in worship and reverence in study. So the woman should not renounce her place in her current community and live out her Christian walk with what essentially are fruits of the spirit – patience, kindness and self-control.
I think because these words are directed at women (and we are sensitised through a history of inappropriate treatment), we assume these words are oppressive. They read as if we are being patronised. Like we are naughty children to be put back in our place. But Paul is combating false teaching that is telling women (and men) to renounce their households. What is important for us is what it still says to us today.
We have false teachers all around us too. We are awash with people selling easy and seductive cures for anything and anything that will “save us”. On top of that, to our modern ears, anything that sounds like a limitation on our freedom seems bogus, wrong, wicked.
But God’s word is timeless and immutable. Paul is working out pastorally what Jesus was living and teaching. And Jesus amplified the role of women but he did not overturn their traditional place. He gave women freedom to be disciples and follow him but he did not call them to abandon their traditional roles in society. He gave those “roles new significance and importance.“5 This continues the thread of Paul pastorally working out what Jesus taught and demonstrated in practice that exemplified God’s created men/women functional relationship. This doesn’t mean an alternate prescriptive command for women to stay at home (this is not a work versus stay at home thing which would be pushing this passage further than it is intended to go) – this is a general exhortation to not abandon her role within her family or household grouping but let it be amplified through discipleship. What creation and Jesus’ amplification spoke into though, was a harmonious co-working of functions of equal value. Not the broken power tussle many of us experience today
What this leaves us with is this whole passage saying (in shorthand) – If women want to learn and be disciples they should, and be encouraged to do it. A woman should not Teach authoritatively in the gathered assembly and should sit under the church authority and the gospel with humility. Women will not be saved by walking away from her created goodness in favour of whatever roles the false teachers offer. Her ongoing sanctification will lie in being a disciple within her “household” (or local family grouping/community), which then takes on a new significance as a faithful, loving witness within her house, witching her church and within the world.
What this means is a few things:
- As women, we need to remember to read this as a community and not just as an individual – we need to remember our place in our household, in our family grouping, in our community and the value of what we provide there as women and as disciples of Christ
- As women,we need to read this also as individuals and do the work on our character and heart as we seek to be more Christ-like and, like him, seek greater outworking of humility and reverence in our Christian communities
- For men, it may mean understanding how this can come across to women, especially given the history of imperfect application of functional difference through history and being sensitive to what that means for the women in your lives
- For men, it might mean some self-reflection to remember to lack of difference in value placed on functional differences between men and women and seek greater outworking of humility, reverence, kindness and love
- For all of us, it could mean re-looking at where God has planted us in our households and know, and be encouraged, that our discipleship and household roles are intertwined.
- For all of us, it is a reminder to curb our impulses when we read passages like this and not make assumptions about what we think it means, or would like it to mean. We need to do the work to understand what is saying and, in humility, allow God to mold our hearts
- For all of us, to appreciate what the passage is imagining – a perfectly harmonious community of believers, and to wonder at the beauty of the new creation that God is bringing about.
This is Part 3 of a 3-blog series looking at this passage. Part 1 looked at learning in quietness and submission. Part 2 looked at permission to teach and hold authority.
1 John Stott, 1 Timothy and Titus, 87
2 John Piper, How are Women Saved Through Childbearing https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-are-women-saved-through-childbearing
3 Claire Smith, God’s Good Design
4 Peter Brown, The Body and Society. Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, 53
5 Ben Witherington III, Women and the Ministry of Jesus, 118
Robert W. Yarborough, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (PNTC)
Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (NICNT)
Thanks for sharing, this was very helpful. There are so many people who misunderstand this passage and teach it in an oppressive way and it’s so important to understand it correctly. It’s obvious it could not have a meaning that contradicts the rest of the Bible, but not many people look deeper to find out what it really says.
God bless you!