By Dr. John Piper
What did Paul mean when he said in 1 Timothy 2:15, “Yet she [the woman] will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”?
Henry Alford’s interpretation of this verse is not widely known. I find it compelling and would like to commend it for your consideration. Henry Alford was a British Anglican scholar who published commentary on The Greek New Testament in 1863.
The context is that Paul is arguing why men should be the authoritative leaders and teachers in the church rather than women.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:12–15)
What Does Verse 15 Mean?
I have tried to explain elsewhere how Paul is arguing in verse 14. But here the question is: What is the meaning of verse 15? “Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
“She” refers to “the woman” in verse 14 and probably signifies women in general. I say this because of the shift from singular to plural “they” in the next phrase: “Shewill be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith.” “They” is not a pronoun in the Greek but is denoted in the plural form of the verb and therefore may be either feminine or masculine. The context calls for feminine. “Women will be saved through childbearing. . .”
Some have suggested “through childbearing” refers to the birth of Christ. But in the only other place where a form of this word occurs in the Bible (1 Timothy 5:14) it simply refers to bearing children: “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children . . .”
Henry Alford notices that being saved “through” something does not have to mean being saved “by” it, but may mean being saved through it as through a danger. He also notices that Paul does combine the two words (“being saved” and “through”) this way in 1 Corinthians 3:15. “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Could “She will be saved through childbearing,” mean “She will be saved, not by means of, but through (that is, in spite of) the engulfing pains of childbirth”?
The Sense of Despair
Alford draws our attention to the fact that in Genesis 3:16, after the Fall, when God was appointing the devil and woman and man to their distinctive experiences of the curse, “bearing children” was the very point where God’s curse lands on the woman. “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain inchildbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.’”
Pause and feel the weight of this for women in the centuries before modern medicine. No hygiene, no spinal blocks, no episiotomies, no sutures, no caesarians, no antibiotics, no pain killers, and often, no recovery. Untold numbers of women died in childbirth and countless more suffered the rest of their lives from wounds that prevented childbirth, or any kind of normal sexual life.
In other words, even more than today, there were aspects of childbearing that felt like a curse from God — and often that burden lasted a lifetime, not just in the moment of birth. How easy it would have been for women to despair and feel that God was against them. He was their curser, not their savior.
To this sense of despair Paul responds with the hope of the gospel. No to the curse! The pains of childbearing — even if they last a life-time — are not God’s final word to women. God intends to save women. He intends for her to be a “fellow-heir” with man of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7).
Henry Alford sums up his interpretation like this:
The curse on the woman for her [“transgression”] was, [“in pains you will bear children”] (Gen. 3:16). Her [“childbearing”] is that in which the curse finds its operation. What then is here promised her? Not only exemption from that curse in its worst and heaviest effects: not merely that she shall safely bear children: but the Apostle uses the word [“will be saved”] purposely for its higher meaning [eternal salvation], and the construction of the sentence is precisely as [in] 1 Cor. 3:15 — [“he will be saved so as through fire”]. Just as that man should be saved through, as passing through, fire which is his trial, his hindrance in his way, in spite of which he escapes — so she shall be saved, through, as passing through, her child-bearing, which is her trial, her curse, her (not means of salvation, but) hindrance in the way of it. (Alford, H. . Alford’s Greek Testament: an exegetical and critical commentary [Vol. 3, 320]. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)
The Curse Will Be Undone
My summary paraphrase would go like this:
Even though many women today and in history may feel the ongoing effects of the curse in the pains of childbirth and the lifelong wounds that it may leave, I urge all of our Christian sisters not to despair. God’s word to you is hope, not curse. God’s plan for you is salvation not destruction.
Yes, just as the man must work out his salvation through the cursed futilities and miseries of his labor (Genesis 3:18–19), millions of women must find her salvation through the pains and miseries of childbearing. The path of salvation is the same for her as for all the saints: “continuing in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
Jesus Christ is the Savior who became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). The sting of the curse has been removed. It cannot damn us anymore. Faith in him is the link to the Savior. Love, holiness, and self-control are the authenticating fruits of this faith.
At the last day every vestige of the curse will be undone and every wound will be healed. That is part of what it means to be saved through faith in Christ.