Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:15 that a Christian woman can be saved by bearing children. How can this be true?
That verse puzzles many people, because we lack an appreciation for the context of Paul's statement and because we judge Paul’s words by modern attitudes toward the role of women.
The verse reads in context:
1Tim. 2:8 Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.
1Tim. 2:9 Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments,
1Tim. 2:10 but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.
1Tim. 2:11 A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.
1Tim. 2:12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.
1Tim. 2:13 For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.
1Tim. 2:14 And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
1Tim. 2:15 But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.
First, notice the context. Paul is explaining the unique opportunities Christian men and women have for performing good works to “make a claim to godliness" (v.10). Godliness means displaying piety, so a claim to godliness refers to an outward display of our spiritual life intended to be noticed by the unbelieving world. In other words, God has ordained “proper” ways (i.e., ways that befit each gender) for men and women to reflect their godliness to the unsaved world.
Naturally, these good works must be countercultural (i.e., opposite from the world's ways) if they are to serve as an effective witness to the world. So Paul prescibes ways that men and women in the Church may behave to gain attention for the Gospel and for their relationship with the Lord. These behaviors are designed to reflects God’s word while repudiating the world’s thinking.
Turning to the instructions Paul gives to men, he wants men to gather in “every place” praying and lifting up holy hands without wrath or dissension. In the unsaved world (especially in Paul’s day), a large gathering of men anywhere in a city (apart from a work setting) was usually an occasion for trouble. Men would gather to commit lawlessness, immorality or for other conflict. Consequently, large gatherings of men were often outlawed or at least viewed with concern.
In contrast to the world, Paul says Christian men should gather in every place with “holy hands,” which means gathering without sinful intentions and with a holy purpose. Furthermore, they must not come together for the purpose of wrath or dissension, which is the world’s pattern. Instead, Christian men will come together to pray.
Obviously, such a gathering would be very countercultural. Imagine a large group of Christian men gathering on a street corner or in a marketplace praying together in unity. Observers would be amazed at the sight, and such a display could be used by God as a witness opportunity.
Turning to the women, Paul says Christian women should resist the worldly temptation to draw attention to themselves by adorning themselves in costly or excessive ways. From the dawn of time, women have adorned themselves in the hope of gaining the interest of a man or perhaps provoking jealousy in another woman. While men do similar things at times, the tendency toward excessive outward adornment is far more common among women. Ironically, such outward displays of beauty may conceal a heart of darkness.
Therefore, Paul asks Christian women to set a countercultural example by rejecting the world’s approach to beauty. Instead of favoring outward adornment over inward godliness, Christian women should dress modestly (though not necessarily in unflattering ways), while displaying inward godliness.
Furthermore, Christian women should receive instruction from church authorities with submissiveness. Here again, this is a countercultural behavior. Women generally do not view submission to male authority (in any context) to be necessary or desirable, and certainly the Bible does not require women to submit to men in all situations. In fact, Christians should champion the fair and equal treatment of women in every circumstance, including in the home, church and society. Nevertheless, God’s word specifically directs that men shall exercise authority over the family and over the body of Christ.
Therefore, Christian women are called to respect the authority of fathers and husbands in the home and of the male leaders in the church. Paul says women may not exercise authority over a man nor teach a man in the church, but rather they must receive instruction with “entire” submissiveness. Again, this behavior is the proper (i.e., fitting) countercultural way for Christian women to witness before the world.
When a woman submits willingly to a husband and to leaders in the church, she will draw the interest of unbelieving female friends and neighbors, who generally reject male headship in any context believing submission to be offensive. Certainly, we can understand why this particular type of witness is "fitting" for Christian women, since it clearly goes against cultural expectations.
Furthermore, when a Christian woman lives in this way, Paul says she witnesses to the truth of Genesis 3. In Genesis 3, Woman was deceived by Satan because she was vulnerable without the support and leadership of her husband. As a result, the Lord instituted male headship in the home and church as a defense against the enemy and as a memorial of the Fall. Christian women now witness to this truth in a countercultural way when they act in obedience to the word of God by submitting to male headship in the home and church.
Some women in the church may feel that forgoing leadership and teaching opportunities in the church leaves them with no opportunities to contribute to the work of the kingdom. Of course, this is not true as women have many ways to contribute apart from leading or teaching men. Nevertheless, to address these concerns Paul ends in v.15 by reminding women of a particularly unique way in which they contribute to the work of the Kingdom.
Paul says that women may be be “preserved” by child bearing. The word for preserved in Greek is sozo, which has a wide variety of meanings. The word can be used in the soteriological sense of salvation, but clearly in this context Paul is not talking about how a Christian woman can be saved from eternal punishment. So how is a woman preserved or saved by bearing children?
Given the context of this passage, preserved must refer to preserving her testimony of godliness. Once again, Paul is emphasizing a countercultural way a Christian woman can testify to the world through her Christian lifestyle. Rather than challenging her husband's authority or the authority of men in the church (which would damage her testimony of godliness), a Christian woman may preserve her testimony before the world by raising children who exhibit faith, love, sanctity (i.e., holiness) and self-restraint. These adjectives refer to the children's behavior, not to the woman's behavior, and therefore it's easy to see how bearing children with such qualities would preserve a Christian woman's testimony.
Simply put, there is no more powerful testimony of godliness for a Christian woman than the legacy of children who exhibit godliness themselves. In fact, raising godly children for the body of Christ is the single most important (and unique) contribution any woman can make for the Kingdom, since women alone bear children. Not only are godly children a powerful testimony to a world raising ungodly children, but they hold tremendous potential for impacting the kingdom.
A Christian woman will only achieve so much for the kingdom in her own lifetime, yet imagine how much more she can accomplish through the godly lives of her children? A legacy of godly children can be a significant part of any Christian woman's testimony, while it also serves as a countercultural witness to the fallen world. Therefore, the Christian woman who accepts her God-given place in the home and church living a quiet life, obeying and submitting to her husband and to the leadership of the church, while raising a family of faithful, loving, self-restrained and godly children is preserving a great testimony of Christ to the world.