“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Tim. 2:11–12)
When it comes to understanding biblical teaching about the role of women in the church, there seems to be danger on every side. First, there is the danger of controversy. Few issues have brought more division in recent years than the role of women in the church. Entire denominations have either split or formed over the question of women’s ordination.
Second, there is the danger of letting culture overrule Scripture. No matter how they are understood, God’s instructions for women stand against the prevailing attitudes of contemporary society. To the postmodern ear 1 Timothy 2:11–12 sounds like gender discrimination. The very idea that women would be forbidden to teach men would cause a scandal in the classroom or the marketplace. Why should things be any different in the church? On this issue, perhaps more than any other, there is tremendous pressure to let the tail of culture wag the dog of biblical truth.
Third, there is the danger of allowing church history to dictate how Scripture should be applied. When questions arise about the role of women in ministry, many churches say, “We’ve never done it that way before.” As a result, the spiritual gifts of women often have been marginalized, to the impoverishment of the church.
Fourth, there is the danger of allowing personal opinion to distort our understanding of Scripture. Finally, there are difficulties with the text itself. What do these words mean: “quietly,” “submissiveness,” “teach,” “exercise authority” (1 Tim. 2:11–12)? Each term calls for precise definition. Then there are further questions: What is the precise relevance of Eve’s deception (1 Tim. 2:14)? Or what can it possibly mean to say that “she will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:15)?
The passage defies simple answers. In the face of these dangers and difficulties, the only way to proceed is to recognize that we bring prior assumptions to this passage, asking the Holy Spirit to correct those assumptions as necessary and working through the passage as carefully as possible.
The previous section of Paul’s letter to Timothy (1 Tim. 2:9–10) ended with warnings about being immodest. This section contains warnings about being insubordinate (1 Tim. 2:11–15), beginning with a positive command: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11).
With this statement, Paul shatters conventional stereotypes—not modern stereotypes, but ancient ones. In the Roman world, women were considered to be intellectually second-class. It was widely accepted that females were academically inferior. Thus, the educational system was designed primarily for men, not for women. If possible, the Jewish rabbis were even more chauvinistic. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, “It would be better for the words of Torah to be burned, than that they should be entrusted to a woman.” In other words, educating women was a big waste of time. Not surprisingly, women played a tiny role in the public life of the synagogue. The Babylonian Talmud explains the difference between men and women in worship: “The men came to learn, the women came to hear.”
The Word of God says nearly the opposite of what many Jews and Romans said. Before he makes any prohibition, the Apostle writes words of liberation: “Let a woman learn” (1 Tim. 2:11). Because a woman is a human being made with a mind in his image, God requires her to learn. It is her responsibility before God to become a student of biblical doctrine.
This shows that the Bible is not afraid to confront culture. It is sometimes argued that Paul inherited negative attitudes about women from his rabbinic training, or that the New Testament is held prisoner by ancient, patriarchal attitudes about gender. Here we find exactly the opposite. The same is true throughout the New Testament, which is sprinkled with examples of women engaged in vital ministry, many of them close personal friends of the apostle Paul. It is not too much to say that one burden of his ministry was to ensure that the gifts of women were used to their fullest extent.
Christians ought to take great encouragement from what biblical truth has done to improve the status of women. The church has not always lived up to what the Bible says about gender, but whenever it has, women have been significantly blessed. The church has some reason to be ashamed of the way it has treated women, but no reason to be ashamed of what God has said about women in His Word.
If a woman must learn, how should she do it? “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11). The word “quietly” (hēsychia) is repeated at the end of verse 12. “Quiet” is a much better translation than the one provided in the New International Version: “silent.” The word does not mean that women have to keep their mouths shut. Rather, it refers to a gentle demeanor, as it does earlier in the chapter, where Paul says that Christians should lead “a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:2; cf. 1 Peter 3:4).
A notable episode from the life of Paul helps to show what the apostle means by “quietly.” On his last trip to Jerusalem, Paul was confronted by an angry mob outside the barracks where he was to be imprisoned: “And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: ‘Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.’ And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet” (Acts 21:40–22:2). Two different Greek words are used to describe this crowd: first, the people became “hushed” (sigēs); then they became “quiet” (hēsychia). It is the latter word which Paul uses in 1 Timothy 2:11–12—not the word for keeping silent, but the word for being respectful. Paul is telling women to give their ministers the same undivided attention that he received when he spoke in Jerusalem.
Women are also to learn with all “submissiveness” (hypotagē). To submit is to be obedient, to yield to authority. Here it means to respect the leadership and authority that God has given to the elders of the church. It means to receive their teaching in a spirit of cheerful agreement.
When these two words are put together—“quietly” and “submissiveness”—they do not describe an unusual style of learning that is unique to women. Rather, they describe the only way a person can learn at all. Any teacher knows it is impossible to teach someone who is talking all the time. Good teachers maintain order in their classrooms because real learning requires good listening. Learning also requires a teachable spirit. It is impossible to teach someone who thinks he or she knows all the answers already. To learn is to submit to the knowledge and authority of a teacher. Every good student is quiet and receptive.
An excellent example of this kind of submissive learning is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Jesus had stopped in their home to rest. While he was there, Martha “was distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40). Meanwhile, Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to everything he said (Luke 10:39). It made Martha mad to see Mary loafing around when there was work to be done. In her exasperation, she finally complained to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (Luke 10:40). Notice what Jesus did not do in response. He did not tell Mary to go back to the kitchen where she belonged. He did not relegate her to so-called women’s work. Instead, he said, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
The words of Christ confirm the dignity and necessity of women becoming students of the Bible. They also serve as a rebuke to any man or woman who thinks theology is mainly for men. What Mary was learning from Jesus was the Word of God. She was learning true doctrine and how to apply it in daily life. God wants women to be knowledgeable in the Scriptures and sound in their theology.
Notice the way Mary learned: she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:39). Mary learned in the rabbinic style. She kept her place; she was listening rather than talking; and she was sitting at Jesus’ feet, which was the place of submission to teaching authority. In other words, as Mary sat in the Seminary of Christ, she “learned quietly and with all submissiveness.”
This is the way all God’s people learn. They sit at the feet of their Master, even when He is speaking through the voice of a minister. We must submit, not so much to the minister, but principally to the Lord Himself, who wants you and me to sit at His feet the way Mary did.
Submission is carefully defined here as “all submissiveness.” Elsewhere, the Bible says much the same thing to women about marriage: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.…” Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:22, 24). The Bible does not say partial submission. It does not say grudging submission. It says “full submission” or “entire submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11 NIV, NASB).
The Bible says “all” submissiveness because full submission is the only kind of submission there is. Anything less than full submission is no submission at all. Partial submission reserves the right to rebel; it leaves room to manipulate and to control. Grudging submission reserves the right to grumble; it leaves room for resentment and bitterness. But true submission is total submission. It is a heart surrendered to God.
Submission is a dirty word in contemporary culture, especially to feminists. It goes against everything Americans hold most dear: freedom, power, independence. Submission can also be a threatening word because sometimes it has been taken as an excuse for abuse.
The real and present danger of these sinful patterns of relationship means that Christians have a responsibility never to allow the idea of submission to become a justification for abuse. We also have a responsibility to understand submission in its true biblical sense, which includes resisting the urge to think of submission as something negative. Keep in mind that the men to whom women are called to submit in the church are men who meet the qualifications for elders that Paul will provide in the following chapter—not domineering tyrants, but gentle servant leaders (1 Tim. 3:1–4). Furthermore, wherever the idea of submission appears in the New Testament (Heb. 12:9; James 4:7; Eph. 1:22; 5:21–24), it is always stated in the most positive terms. The Bible insists that it is a beautiful thing to submit to God-given authority. Not an easy thing, mind you, but an excellent thing nonetheless.
The best place to understand the beauty of submission is in the example of Jesus Christ. Between God the Father and God the Son there is a perfect equality. The Son has every attribute the Father has; they are equal in power and glory. Nevertheless, the Son submitted to the will of the Father, even unto his death on the cross (Matt. 26:42; 1 Cor. 15:28). In the cross of Christ, we see that submission does not entail coercion. Rather, it is willing, voluntary obedience to God’s will for God’s glory.
The relationship of the Son to the Father is a helpful analogy for understanding the relationship of women to men in God’s house. Like the Son in his relationship to the Father, men and women are equal in their essence. Both the male and the female are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Both men and women are redeemed by the blood of Christ (Gal. 3:28). They are equal in creation and equal in redemption.
At the same time, and without denying their fundamental equality, God commands wives to submit to their husbands and women to submit to their elders in the church. To submit in this way is to be like Jesus Christ. This is why the women of the church must never let go of God’s command to learn in all submissiveness. Whenever they put this command into practice, they display the character of Jesus Christ.
But Not to Preach
At the same time the Bible rules learning in, it rules teaching out—or at least a particular kind of teaching. The command is followed by a prohibition: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12). Verse 11 and verse 12 are joined together by the conjunction “but” (de): women are to learn but not to teach.
Some Christians have taken this verse to mean that no woman should ever teach any man anything (which is sometimes hard to do anyway!). In some churches, women are forbidden not only to preach, but also to teach Sunday school, participate in home Bible studies, or give any other kind of instruction. The problem with this view is that it flies in the face of what the Bible teaches about the prophethood of all believers. When Peter preached at Pentecost, he quoted the prophet Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18).
According to the prophecy of Joel and the preaching of Peter, all God’s sons and daughters exercise a prophetic ministry. This does not mean that they are all called to serve the church in a teaching office, but they all bear witness to the gospel. In keeping with this principle, the apostle Paul gave the following instructions to women as well as to men: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). It is clear that at least certain kinds of teaching are to be carried out universally within the church.
Prohibiting women from teaching men not only goes against biblical command, but it also goes against biblical example. One thinks especially of Priscilla, who, with her husband, invited Apollos into her home “and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). She did this despite the fact that Apollos “was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). There are times and places when it is necessary for Christian men to learn from Christian women.
There is at least one place where it is not appropriate for women to teach, however: in the authoritative proclamation of God’s Word in the context of the public worship of the church. Here it is important to remember the context of Paul’s command. Since the beginning of the chapter, he has been giving Timothy instructions about corporate worship services. What he writes is not intended to govern men and women in every situation, but applies especially to those occasions when the church gathers for the preaching of the Word of God (1 Cor. 14:34–35).
The word “teach” (didaskein), which means to instruct, has a specific meaning in the Pastoral Letters, where it refers to the exposition of Scripture in the official teaching of sound doctrine—the fundamentals of the faith (1 Tim. 4:11; 2 Tim. 2:2). Teaching is what Paul did in his official role as an apostle (1 Tim. 2:7). It is also what the elders of the church are ordained to do (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17), which may explain why eldership is the next subject that Paul will address. What the Holy Spirit does not permit women to do is to transmit apostolic doctrine publicly and officially. To put it more simply, the main thing that God forbids women to do is to preach (or to exercise the doctrinal and disciplinary authority that is tied to the preaching ministry).
Incidentally, most men are forbidden to do the same thing. This verse does not mean that all men are to teach all women. Nor does the Scripture say that all women are to submit to all men. Rather, these verses teach that all women are to submit to the teaching and discipline of the pastors of the church. In this respect, they are no different from Christian laymen who are not ordained, elders.
One sign that Paul and the Holy Spirit have preaching in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12 is the way that teaching is coordinated with having authority. “Teach” and “exercise authority” are closely related terms. The activity they most clearly suggest is preaching, or any other form of doctrinally authoritative teaching in the Church. In short, “women should not teach the gospel fundamentals in the church assembly.”
The Greek word for “exercise authority” (authentein) causes some difficulty because this is the only place it appears in the New Testament. Some egalitarians argue that the word refers to violent behavior, but this argument is based on a confusion between authentein and authentēs, which comes from a different root altogether. Others say that authentein means “to domineer” or to “usurp authority” (KJV). On this reading, women are not forbidden to have authority, but only to abuse it. Also, it is suggested that the worship of Artemis had made Ephesus a hotbed for feminism, with many pagan women believing in the inherent superiority of their sex.
There are several problems with this interpretation. One is that the abuse of power is as objectionable in men as it is in women, and thus it would be surprising for Paul to limit this instruction to women. Furthermore, there is little evidence for strident feminism in Ephesus, and no evidence at all that such attitudes gained any influence in the church. Moreover, the grammatical link between verses 11 and 12 strongly suggests that the verb for authority (authentein) is being used in a positive sense (“exercise authority”) rather than a negative sense (“usurp authority”). Just as “Let a woman learn quietly” in verse 11 is set over against “I do not permit a woman to teach” in verse 12, so also “with all submissiveness” in verse 11 stands in opposition to “I do not permit a woman to exercise authority over a man” in verse 12. Learning is contrasted with teaching; submitting to authority is contrasted with exercising authority. But if “exercise authority” (authentein) means “usurp authority,” then the balance of the grammatical structure is upset, and the meaning of the passage is lost.
There is also an important link between “teaching” and “exercising authority” within verse 12. For the grammatical structure that is used in this verse, the Greek language insists on having either two words with positive connotations or two words with negative connotations, but not one of each. Therefore, “exercise authority” must be as positive as “teach” is, and should be taken in its standard sense. George Knight summarizes by saying that “the use of the word shows no inherent negative sense of grasping or usurping authority or of exercising it in a harsh or authoritative way, but simply means ‘to have or exercise authority.’ Paul is not speaking about the abuse of authority here, but about its rightful use by the elders of the church.
Where is such authority exercised in the church? Certainly in the writing of creeds and confessions that summarize Christian doctrine, and also in the formulation of church policy on theological issues. The word authentein hints that church discipline also may be in view. These things are the exclusive work of the elders of the church. So is preaching, which is the authoritative proclamation of Scripture. Not that preaching is infallible. In fact, the Bereans were commended for searching the Scriptures to make sure Paul had his theology straight (Acts 17:11). To preach is to exercise teaching authority.
Depending on the discretion of the elders in a church, some other teaching situations may fall under the category of teaching with authority. The training of elders, for example, or classes on fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. But elders are by no means required to teach every Bible study and Sunday school class in the church. Women and men who are not ordained may teach on a wide variety of biblical, historical, and practical subjects. The elders are responsible before God for what is taught in the classes and Bible studies of the church, but they can exercise spiritual oversight without doing all of the teaching themselves.
It is also good for church members to make sure their pastors know what they are teaching. For example, a student who leads a campus Bible study might ask his pastor to recommend a commentary or clarify a point of interpretation. Or a woman who is preparing to teach a woman’s study might let her elder see a copy of the study guide she is planning to use, and so forth. Pastors and elders should do the same thing among themselves. Sound theology is best preserved by the collective wisdom of the men God has ordained to exercise teaching authority within the church.
Perhaps this is the best place to emphasize that beyond this one biblical restriction, women are at liberty to use their spiritual gifts to their fullest extent in the church under the direction of the pastoral staff and elders of their local church.
The above explanation of 1 Timothy 2:11–12 (or something close to it) has been the nearly universal understanding of the Christian church. Only in the late twentieth century did it come under relentless attack.
The liberal strategy has been to deny the authority of these verses. Some say that verse 12, in particular, is only Paul’s private opinion. He is not speaking for God, but only for himself, as if to say, “I personally do not allow a woman to teach or claim inordinate authority.” Against this, it must be stated that the biblical word for permission (boulomai) is a word for a command (1 Cor. 14:37). Furthermore, Paul is speaking with apostolic authority. Verse 12 should thus be understood as follows: “I”—that is to say, I Paul, who have been appointed by God to be a herald, apostle, and teacher of the true faith (1 Tim. 2:7)—“do not permit a woman to teach.” This is not a private opinion but an apostolic command with ongoing authority in the church.
Others say that Paul was mistaken. He barred women from the pulpit because he was a chauvinist, or because he was limited by Jewish and Greek attitudes about the value of women. Given his background and training, his position was as unavoidable as it was unfortunate.
By way of response, it must be remembered that Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul did not allow women to preach because God does not allow it. Here it is good to heed the words of the Apostle Peter, who said that Paul’s letters contain some things “that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Since they are Holy Scripture, Paul’s letters are ignored at the church’s peril. At the same time, it must also be denied that either the Apostle or God Himself is a chauvinist. The better these verses are understood, the clearer it becomes that they do not demean women in any way.
While the liberal approach is to deny the authority of these verses, the strategy of evangelical feminists is to limit their application by saying that Paul was addressing circumstances that were unique to Ephesus. Some point to the poor quality of education there for women. Others argue that Hellenistic culture simply wasn’t ready for women in ministry. Often, Galatians 3:28 is used as a manifesto for the ordination of women: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” By such arguments, many churches have felt free to set the strictures of 1 Timothy aside and proceed with the ordination of women to pastoral ministry.
The evangelical feminist argument ought to arouse immediate suspicion, for it is good to be suspicious whenever anyone suddenly decides a particular Scripture no longer applies. Furthermore, these instructions were not just for Ephesus. The Holy Spirit gave them to all Christians everywhere, and for all women everywhere, regardless of their educational background (note that one of the women in Ephesus was Priscilla, who was probably as theologically well informed as anyone in the church; 2 Tim. 4:19): “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (1 Cor. 14:33–34). These explicit instructions about submission help to keep Galatians 3:28 in perspective. The oneness of men and women there refers to their unity in Jesus Christ. That principle of spiritual unity is in no way contradicted by recognizing that God has given men and women differing spiritual responsibilities in the home and the church. It is thus a mistake to use the general principle of Galatians 3:28 to overrule specific commands about the role of women in 1 Timothy 2 and elsewhere.
The Created Order
There is yet another problem with saying that Paul’s instructions apply only to Ephesians. The Bible’s rationale is not based on Hellenistic culture, or on the school system in Asia Minor, or on the particulars of the Ephesian church. Instead, it goes all the way back to the creation of the world: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13–14).
As I’ve studied this issue a lot what’s persuaded me of this position is how the Bible bases its instructions for men and women on the way God created them (cf. 1 Cor. 11:8–9). The roles of men and women are founded upon God-given distinctions between the male and the female.
We see this mode of argumentation here in 1 Timothy 2, where Paul’s first reason for telling women to learn but not to preach comes from the order of creation: “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13). Some commentators take this to be a statement of superiority, but nothing is said about the superiority of men, either in this verse or anywhere else in Scripture. Instead, what Paul says is similar to the ancient and biblical law of primogeniture, in which the firstborn son held a place of spiritual responsibility within the family. He may or may not have been more talented or more beloved than his siblings. Yet the eldest son “inherited command of resources and the responsibility of leadership in the home and in worship. He became ‘head’ of the household.” So, too, Adam was God’s first-formed son. The fact that he was made first was not an accident of chronology; it was part of God’s best plan for humanity: “The proscription on women teaching men, then, does not stem from the fall and cannot be ascribed to the curse. Paul appeals to the created order, the good and perfect world God has made, to justify the ban on women teaching men.” The effect of this appeal is to look beyond culture to creation.
Paul’s second line of reasoning is more complex: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:14; cf. 2 Cor. 11:3). This verse, too, is often misunderstood. On a first reading, it sounds as if Paul blames Eve for the fall. Thus some Christians have wrongly concluded that men should preach because women cannot be trusted. Guthrie speaks of “the greater aptitude of the weaker sex to be led astray.” Kelly says that “since Eve was so gullible a victim of the serpent’s wiles, she clearly cannot be trusted to teach.” Even Martin Luther fell into this way of thinking: “It was not Adam who went astray. Therefore there was greater wisdom in Adam than in the woman.”
The problem with this interpretation is obvious: men cannot be trusted, either. In fact, most of the problems in the Ephesian church were caused by men who were teaching false doctrine. Indeed, the vast majority of heretical doctrines in church history have been disseminated by men. Paul can hardly mean that men should teach because they are less vulnerable to false theology!
The true meaning of this verse lies in its emphasis on the word “deceived” (apataō), which Paul is taking from Genesis 3:13: “The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’ ” The point is that Adam was not deceived. Unlike Eve, he knew full well what he was doing when he ate the forbidden fruit. The woman fell partly because Satan blinded her to the true nature of sin, but the man sinned with his eyes wide open. James Hurley thus concludes that “Eve was not at fault; she was deceived. Adam, on the other hand, was not deceived but, deliberately and with understanding, chose to sin.”
Adam’s willful disobedience hardly recommends him for pastoral ministry! But it does indicate something significant about God’s plan for humanity: God held Adam principally responsible for the fall into sin. This explains why he asked Adam, rather than Eve, to explain what had happened in the garden (see Gen. 3:9). Adam tried to pin the whole thing on Eve, of course, but God came looking for the man. The same principle of spiritual responsibility shows up in Romans, where Paul explains that “death reigned from Adam to Moses” and that “many died through one man’s trespass” (Rom. 5:14–15). Eve seems to be entirely forgotten, even though she was the first to sin. This is because Adam was the one chosen as our representative in the covenant, the man responsible for the spiritual welfare of the whole household of humanity.
Now an analogous spiritual responsibility has been given to men ordained to have teaching authority in the church. The Bible does not teach that men should preach because they will do a better job. The argument is sometimes made that women need to enter pastoral ministry because men are failing in their pastoral duties, or it is pointed out that some women are as gifted at speaking as many ministers. These objections fail because the Bible does not base its prohibition against women preaching on merit. It is based rather on the order, God established at creation.
The fall of Adam and Eve itself shows what can happen when that created order is reversed. Men and women who seek to overthrow God’s order for the church are sons and daughters of Eve. Like their mother, they become transgressors.
Saved through the Childbirth
There is hope for sinners, however, and it comes in the most difficult verse in a difficult passage: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Tim. 2:15).
It is not hard to guess why Paul introduces childbirth into the discussion. It is one distinction between men and women that no one can deny is fundamental. A culture may do everything it can to obliterate the differences between males and females, but there is one thing it can never do: make men give birth. Labor and delivery are unique to women, a divinely ordained fact which indicates that the differences between men and women are rooted in creation. This much is certain, yet the question remains: what does it mean to be “saved through childbearing”?
Obviously, the verse does not mean that a woman must give birth to be saved, for not all women give birth. One possibility, though, is that women who do give birth will make it safely through childbirth. Here it should be kept in mind that in most places in the world throughout most of the human history childbirth has been regarded as a matter of life and death both for the mother and her child. This interpretation refers back to the curse of Genesis 3:16: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain, you shall bring forth children.” Salvation, then, is understood in a physical sense to mean the preservation of life. Childbirth is dangerous, but Christian women will survive.
The first problem with this interpretation is that it is not always true. Some godly women—Rachel, for example (Gen. 35:16–20)—have died in labor. But a bigger problem is that Paul typically uses this word for salvation (sōzō) in its spiritual sense of deliverance from sin. In the Pastoral Epistles, “salvation” usually refers to redemption from sin through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; 4:18; Titus 3:5). When Paul wishes to speak about physical safety he uses a different word entirely (rhuomai; 2 Tim. 3:11; 4:18).
Another way to interpret this verse is expressed in the New English Bible: “women will be saved through motherhood.” Childbearing is thus taken to represent a woman’s calling. It is “the feminine role par excellence,” and therefore it serves as a kind of shorthand for a woman’s home life. The place where a woman will find her true sanctification is not in the authoritative teaching office of the church but in the domestic sphere. Her vocation, says Barrett, “is not to public life but to the task of bearing and bringing up children.” Not that all women are called to be mothers, of course, but all women should embrace their feminine identity as life-givers, which is biologically signified in the capacity to bear children. This capacity had particular importance in the Ephesian context, where some people were forbidding marriage altogether (1 Tim. 4:3), and presumably saw childbearing as a second-rate calling for women. While the Bible does not limit women to staying at home, it does seem to center a woman’s calling in the life of the home, especially if she is married (Prov. 31:10–31; 1 Tim. 5:14; Titus 2:4–5).
On this interpretation, the woman will be “saved” (in the sense of “kept safe” or “preserved,” as the word sōzō was often used in everyday conversation) from seizing masculine roles by resting content in the quiet duties of her feminine calling. A woman is not saved by becoming a man, but by embracing her God-given calling as a woman. Indeed, this is one of the ways that she works out her salvation.
Although this interpretation seems to relate well to the rest of the passage, it does have some limitations. In addition to failing to take the verb for salvation (sōzō) in its typical Pauline sense, it requires us to make two inferences that are not altogether certain: that “childbearing” encapsulates every woman’s calling (a form of speech that fails to include the circumstances of many women explicitly, and that women who are not mothers may find difficult to embrace) and that “saved” means preserved from usurping a calling that God has given to men only (since Paul does not specify what women are saved from, this meaning is not stated, but at most implied).
One more possible interpretation is worthy of mention. It emphasizes that in the Greek original, childbearing has a definite article: it is referred to as the childbirth, which is at least suggestive. So the verse reads, “Women will be saved through the bearing of a child.” To be more specific, the Scripture may refer to the birth of Jesus Christ, even if this is a somewhat unconventional way of referring to that miraculous event. Walter Lock put the verse into a poetic couplet that draws out its meaning on this interpretation: “A child from woman’s seed to spring; / Shall saving to all women bring.” This interpretation makes good sense in connection with Genesis 3:15, which first promises that the offspring of the woman will defeat the devil. Jesus accomplished this chiefly by dying on the cross, of course, but he had to be born before he could die, and in this sense, salvation comes through (not by) his birth.
This interpretation also makes good sense out of the immediate context. Verse 14 ends with the reality of sin. What could be more natural than for verse 15, to begin with, the hope of salvation, in its usual sense of deliverance from sin, and to connect that salvation with the submission of a woman to the plan of God? Such considerations lead John Stott to conclude that “even if certain roles are not open to women, and even if they are tempted to resent their position, they and we must never forget what we owe to a woman. If Mary had not given birth to the Christ-child, there would have been no salvation for anybody. No greater honor has ever been given to woman than in the calling of Mary to be the mother of the Savior of the world.” Thus 1 Timothy 2 ends with the best consolation of all. It is not meant simply to cheer women up because they do not get to preach. Rather, it is meant to give hope to us all because God offers salvation from sin in Jesus Christ.
The Faith to Submit
If the first part of verse 15 does refer to the coming of Christ, then the rest of the verse falls into place. How is salvation received? It is received by faith, of course. Then Paul mentions some of the virtues which always accompany saving faith: love, holiness, and self-control. These character traits are the proof of genuine faith, and women must continue in these graces to persevere in the faith.
“Self-control,” or “propriety” as the New International Version has it, is the perfect word to end this chapter. It describes a woman of prudence and discretion. Back in verse 9, it referred to modesty in attire; here in verse 15, it suggests self-restraint in seeking authority within the church.