WOMEN IN MINISTRY, VOLUME THIRTY-ONE

In What Sense are Women Saved Through Childbirth?

Words are important. It should be no surprise that when God created the universe, he used words. Nor should it be a surprise that when Jesus came to earth, he was labled, “The Word.” The entire Gospel message breathes through fragile human words. The greatest theological debates often hang on simple words — words like “authority,” “preaching,” “teaching,” “ordain.” Whoever gets to define the terms usually wins the debate.

women in ministry

 

Paul’s Closing Argument

But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim. 2:15).

 

Paul closes his argument in 1 Timothy 2:12-15 with an interesting comment on the importance of childbirth for the woman’s salvation. His words are enigmatic, confusing, and difficult to understand.

 

#8 – Paul made a strange and mysterious claim that women are “saved” through childbirth.

 

This “salvation” is conditional – she must “continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint”(1 Tim. 2:15).

 

Most scholars admit that they don’t know for certain exactly what Paul is referring to, or how it fits in with his line of argumentation. [400] Therefore, I will outline a number of approaches and highlight the two most reasonable interpretations. [401]

 

One view is that Paul was promising that the woman would be kept physically safe during childbirth.

 

Another interpretation is that Paul referred to the woman who gave birth to “the seed,” (Gen. 3:15) who is Jesus. She was, therefore, saved through childbearing because the savior came into the world through her childbearing activities.

 

Another suggestion is that childbirth is the trial through which women would experience salvation.

 

Yet another possibility takes into consideration the polemics of Paul’s letter.

 

It is possible that the false teachers were claiming that women could experience what God had for them only if they abandoned the home and became actively involved in teaching and leadership roles in the church. Paul corrected this idea by emphasizing the importance of their role in the home through childbearing. [402]

 

Finally, taking Paul’s particular line of argumentation into consideration, along with the strong polemics of his directives, it could be that Paul was offering a mitigating word to his two earlier strong statements against women. [403]

 

Paul had been fighting hard against his opponents who may have been claiming female superiority. In doing so he realized that women, in general, had taken a beating from his words.

 

He may have wanted to mitigate that feeling by recognizing that women do play an important role. After all, every human male (after Adam) was born from a woman, including the savior, Jesus.

 

This was Paul’s way of saying, “just because I’m arguing vehemently that the woman is not superior to the man, doesn’t mean that I think the man is superior to the woman. I don’t. The woman plays a vitally important role in society. Her salvation (from marginalization) is in that she gives birth to all human beings. Human life could not survive without her.”

 

None of these interpretations are completely convincing. However, whatever one makes of this concluding word from Paul, one this is clear – Paul could not possibly have meant that the woman is saved from sin and death through childbearing.

 

This would be in direct conflict with what Paul taught about salvation elsewhere. [403] In addition, what about the woman who cannot have children? What about the single woman? Will they not be saved?

 

The most likely meaning of the word “saved” in this passage is that the woman is “saved” from a position of inferiority and marginalization (because of her secondary place in creation and her primacy in the Fall), through her childbearing activities.

 

In this case, childbearing does not refer to one particular woman giving birth, but rather reflects the critical role of womanhood in general. Paul used Childbearing as an example of the importance of womanhood to the propagation of mankind and the coming of the Messiah.

 

For this reason, the two interpretations that seem most natural to the context and have the least number of problems are the second – that the woman gives birth to the seed, who is Jesus – and the last – that the woman plays an important role in life and therefore, although she is in no way superior to the man, neither is she inferior to him.

 

The woman is “saved” from her negative role in Genesis because of her critical role in the propagation of mankind.

 

Long Live the Goddess Artemis

 

A viable way to view 1 Timothy 2:12-15 in general, and 2:15 in particular, is through the culture war Paul seemed to be fighting in Ephesus.

 

Ephesus was the center of the worship of the Greek Goddess, Artemis (Diana in Latin).

 

The Temple of Artemis that stood in Paul’s day had been funded by the Ephesians themselves, and is described in Antipater of Sidon’s list of the world’s Seven Wonders:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand”. [404]

 

The Temple of Artemis was understandably the pride of the Ephesians. In fact, Paul had been chased out of town when his preaching activities started to threaten the substantial economic power of the Artemis cult (Acts 19:23-41).

 

Paul was no stranger to the power of the Artemis cult in Ephesus. He was fighting against a culture that, in the religious cult of Artemis, deified the fertility of women. [405]

 

In Greco-Roman mythology, most often a god would have sex with a goddess to produce divine offspring. The goddess was worshipped just as fervently as the god because of her critical role in giving birth to the gods.

 

In fact, her role was sometimes viewed as primary, over and against the role of the male god. They understood how procreation worked and often saw it as a reflection of how creation originally worked.

 

In this type of religious understanding, all of life started in the divine womb of the goddess. Women, therefore, were often venerated above the men (at least in the cultic practice, if not in real life). [406]

 

In view of this Ephesian cultural background, the women of Ephesus may have been taking control of Christian worship, relegating the men to a secondary status.

 

Part of their rationale would have been that the woman came first and through her sacred womb gave birth to all human creation, including Jesus. This may have been a part of the heresy operating in parts of the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:3-4).

 

Paul was giving Timothy practical advice on how to deal with this pagan ideology when manifested in the worship practices of the church.

 

In doing so, he encouraged Timothy to reprimand the women who were spearheading this movement, instructing Timothy that he should not allow them to dominate (authentein) the men.

 

He appealed to the Hebrew creation account, pointing out that it was the man who was created first, not the woman. And furthermore, Paul reminded them, it was the woman who was first deceived and first sinned. The biblical creation account proved that the woman is not greater than the man.

 

Was Paul then saying that the man is greater than the woman? No, of course not. Male supremacy was not critiqued because it was not the issue in Ephesus.

 

Paul was fighting against a heresy that sought to subordinate the man under the woman. As a corrective, he fought hard against the idea of female supremacy. Paul’s words, therefore, could be interpreted as follows:

 

I do not allow a woman to teach a man in such a way that she dominates him. Listen, those of you who are saying that women are the source of men because the woman gives birth to the man – you are wrong. Let me tell you what the Hebrew Scriptures say – the woman was not created first, the man was. And furthermore, the woman was the one who was first deceived by Satan and was the first to sin. So there you have it. The woman is not greater than the man. Now, I’m not saying that the man is greater than the woman either. After all, the woman redeemed herself through childbearing, in that she is the one who gives birth to all men, even the seed that saves the world. I’m just telling you that you are wrong when you say that the woman is greater than the man. Neither of them is greater than the other!

 

This paraphrased version follows the text and incorporates the polemical nature of Paul’s argument.

 

Conclusion

The three Pauline passages that are used by hierarchists to limit the role of women in the Christian church are rather benign toward the roles women played.

 

The thematic goal of these passages from Paul’s letters is not to establish separate roles for women, but rather to establish orderly, unified, and edifying worship in the household churches.

 

Paul’s directives in 1 Corinthians 11 encouraged women to take part in roles that were traditionally reserved for men; but, to do so with the proper attitude and attire.

 

His remarks in 1 Corinthians 14 called for order and propriety in worship. He asked those speaking in tongues or prophesying, and the wives in the congregation to remain silent when not leading in worship, in order to minimize distractions so that everyone might be edified.

 

Finally, in 1 Timothy 2, Paul instructed Timothy to prohibit the wives in the house churches from teaching their husbands with an insulting and domineering authority. Rather, they were to learn in quiet submissiveness, like all obedient disciples (male and female).

 

Paul was simply giving his church leaders relevant advice on how to maintain order, unity, and harmony in the face of growing diversity and complexity.

 

His goal was always to bring a quick resolution to tertiary issues in order to turn the church’s attention back to their primary focus – sharing Jesus with a lost world.

 

Jesus could return at any moment. The time was short. People were dying every day without Jesus. Paul had a calling. Paul had new horizons to conquer. The feet that carried the gospel to new lands were beautiful – whether those feet were male or female was of little concern to the Apostle to the Gentiles. [407]

 

A Word of Caution

It is possible to interpret 1 Timothy 2:12-15 as prohibiting women from preaching the gospel message. Although this interpretation has sporadic popularity in the history of biblical interpretation, it has been the prominent view of western Christianity over the last two centuries.

 

Most recently, the wealth of diverse scholarly opinions on this passage reveals the multiple difficulties in the interpretive task.

 

If I were honest, I would have to say, “I’m not quite sure what Paul meant by his strange choice of words.”

 

For instance, I’m not sure why he used an extremely rare word for “authority,” when he had a perfectly good and common word at his disposal.

 

I’m not sure who exactly he was addressing when he used the word gune (woman or wife). I’m dumbstruck at what he might have meant when he said that women would be saved through childbearing.

 

And if I’m not sure about those questions, then surely I can’t be 100% sure of what point he was trying to make.

 

Was he prohibiting women from ever preaching the gospel? Perhaps. Although he didn’t use the word “preach,” I can see how some might connect the dots to that conclusion.

 

Was he correcting a heresy by forbidding the women from dominating the men?  Perhaps. There is strong evidence for it.

 

In the end, I come to this conclusion: 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is very difficult to understand. It is not nearly as clear a directive as some would contend.

 

Based on that conclusion I offer this caution: If you are going to prohibit half the world’s population from preaching the gospel, you’d better be 100% sure it’s the biblical thing to do.

 

I have come to the place where I cannot, in good conscience, continue to prohibit half the world’s population from preaching the gospel based solely on one enigmatic verse. I believe my stance is biblical.

 

However, I recognize that in so doing I am going against my Baptist tradition and much of the Evangelical world. I also recognize that I could be in error.

 

I’m willing to take that chance. If I’m going to err, it will be on the side of grace.

 

 

VOLUME ONE    VOLUME THIRTY

 

FOOTNOTES

400. Philip H. Towner, “The Letters to Timothy and Titus,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), p. 233-34. Towner outlines the disputable issues surrounding this verse. Also, Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority over Men?” RBMW, edited by Piper and Grudem, (Crossway, 2006), p. 192.

401. Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority over Men?” RBMW, edited by Piper and Grudem, (Crossway, 2006), p. 192. Douglas Moo lists the best attempts at an explanation.

402. Bruce W. Winter, “Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities,” (William B. Eerdmann Publishing, 2003), p. 78-80; See also, Robert C. Nash, “1 Corinthians,” Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smith & Helwys Publishing, 2009), p.321-322.

403. See Romans 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:4-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; for a more robust understanding of Paul’s soteriology see, N.T. Wright, “Justification: God’s Plan Paul’s Vision,” (IVP Academic, 2016). Also, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology,” (P&R Publishing, 1987).

404. Greek Anthology, Volume III. Perseus Project, Tufts University. Book 9, chapter 58.

405. The many breasts and eggs of Artemis reveal the importance of goddesses in the ancient pagan notions of creation.

406. Interestingly, Ephesus may have been instrumental in the earliest veneration of Mary. The third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD was held in Ephesus and is the council during which the title for Mary of Theotokos (“Mother of God”) was declared orthodox. See Stefan Karweise, “The Church of Mary and the Temple of Hadrian Olympios,” Helmut Koester, ed., Ephesos: Metropolis of Asia (Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 311-20.

407. Paul is sometimes unfairly labeled a misogynist. His record of including women in his ministry may be unparalleled in antiquity, second only to Jesus. His gratitude for and recognition of women in his letters was certainly countercultural in the first-century Mediterranean world. For a more detailed analysis of the indispensable role of women in Paul’s ministry see WIM, VOLUME 21.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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