Certainly one of the most puzzling remarks in Paul’s writings is found in 1 Timothy 2:15, “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (TNIV). This verse has spawned a host of widely divergent interpretations.
Is there any hope for recovering what Paul had in view regarding this phrase, “saved through childbearing”? Absolutely! It is safe to say that he did not have female salvation from sin in view, for we know that the forgiveness of sin comes because of Christ’s finished work through grace, not by the labor of mothers giving birth to children!
It is better to see the phrase as referring to temporal deliverance—“women will be kept safe through their pregnancy and labor.” This is likely the case because Paul brings up the topic in a literary unit dealing with prayer (1 Tim. 2:1-15).
The Ephesian culture was saturated with the worship of the goddess Artemis, called Diana by the Romans (cf. Acts 19:17-41). The historical setting of 1 Timothy is the city of Ephesus. Paul wrote to Timothy and asked him to stay in Ephesus to deal with some serious problems (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3-5).
In first century life, the event of childbirth came with many dangers for both mother and child. Obviously, after the fall of Adam and Eve, difficulty in childbirth had been predicted (Gen. 3:16). The non-Jewish women in Ephesus who became followers of Jesus came out of a culture where Artemis was fervently petitioned as a “Protector” when the pangs of labor drew near.
This cultural background, then, provides the key for comprehending Paul’s words about childbirth in 1 Timothy 2:15. Paul’s encouragement in this verse confronted dependence on Artemis and pointed Christian women to seek Jesus Christ during pregnancy.
Paul’s seemingly enigmatic words about childbirth have left most people scratching their heads in confusion. But his comforting words to women begin to make total sense when you see them against the cultural realities in Ephesus where Artemis was viewed as the guardian for those fearing death during the process of childbirth. The prayers of believing women are directed to the Lord Jesus Christ, not to a mythical goddess who was unable to help anyone who called upon her in a time of great need.
Historically, 1 Timothy 2:9-15, along with a few other isolated verses, have been used by church leaders to muzzle the ministry of women. This brief look at "saved through childbearing" should encourage Christian women to realize that the use of proof-texts does not silence them. When the cultural background and local problems are factored in, then such texts are not as contradictory to the general positive flow regarding the ministry of females.
Jon Zens is editor of the quarterly Searching Together, manager of a Christian bookstore,and author of What's With Paul and Women?: Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Timothy 2 and A Church Building Every 1/2 Mile: What Makes American Christianity Tick?