But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
—1 Timothy 2:15, NIV
This passage seems to give women an alternate path to salvation, aside by faith. Let’s look at each of the possible interpretations of this passage.
Does it mean that women are saved by the birth of Jesus Christ?
This doesn’t seem to be the sense of the passage. First of all, that’s not what we think of when the topic is childbirth. Second, if that’s what Paul meant, then it would apply equally to men, and he left them out. Paul normally lists all the groups to whom his principles apply—we constantly hear him say, “Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free” so it would be odd for him to leave the men out. Third, it’s very unlikely Paul would mean this, because Paul does not hold that we are saved by Jesus’ birth in any other passage. He says we are saved by His death and resurrection. Paul preached the cross, not the manger. No one in the apostolic or patristic times ever preached that we are saved by Jesus’ birth—in fact, Jesus’ birth was not celebrated by Christians until the fourth century. (You can read about the origins of Christmas.)
So for those reasons, I think we can safely rule out the idea that women are somehow saved by Jesus’ birth.
Does it mean that the mere act of childbirth guarantees a woman a place in heaven?
We can rule this one out for two reasons. First, Paul preaches that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ, but this interpretation would have him preach salvation by works for women in this passage and only in this passage. Second, Paul preaches that the way of salvation is the same for everyone—to put it in his words again, “Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free,” but men cannot give birth. If we interpret something Paul wrote as saying that some people are saved a different way from everyone else, we have misunderstood Paul. So for these two reasons, I think we can safely rule out this interpretation.
Are women kept safe from the dangers of childbirth by their Christian faith?
This interpretation does no violence to the original Greek. The primary meaning of save in Greek is to be kept safe and sound, to save someone from injury, to restore someone to health, and to keep someone from perishing. This interpretation is consistent with Paul’s theology, that if we trust the Lord, He will keep us safe when we go through calamities. Paul’s concept of salvation is much broader than ours—we tend to think of Jesus saving us from hellfire and leaving us alone to fight office politics, natural disasters, health problems, and other difficulties by ourselves. But Paul saw Jesus as saving us through all things, even if they cause our death. In those days childbirth was dangerous for the mother—a Caesarian section resulted in the death of a mother, so a breach birth was almost a guarantee of calamity. They did not have birth control back then, so the average woman bore more children than today, and everyone would have had friends who had died in childbirth. So Paul is instructing Timothy to reassure the women in his congregation who are anxious about the prospect of giving birth. This interpretation is completely consistent with Paul’s theology and his pastoral technique of reassuring people. So I think we have to go with this one. Paul says that a woman who trusts Jesus will be kept safe through the perils of childbirth.
What constitutes coming safely through childbirth?
Does coming safely through childbirth mean that the woman will not die, or does it mean that even if she dies, she is still perfectly safe?
Let me acknowledge flat out what we all know from personal experience. God does not always save us from calamity. I have personally suffered many calamities, though obviously not fatal ones yet, and I know of good Christians who have suffered calamities that resulted in their death. If being saved from calamity is the hallmark of a good Christian, then Jesus Himself is not a good Christian, because He suffered the calamity of dying on the cross. So obviously Paul does not mean that Christian women are exempt from dying in childbirth, or that a woman who dies in childbirth is not a true Christian.
But while I observe that God does not save us from calamity, I would assert that God keeps us safe through calamity. For this we have Jesus as a model. Jesus suffered the calamity of dying on the cross, but He came safely through that calamity, because He rose again on the third day. Therefore, as Christians, we are safe, even if we suffer many calamities and even if we die horrible deaths, because Jesus will raise us up from the dead and will take us into His glory. Paul himself said that he could face any calamity with equanimity, no matter how horrible it was, and even if it involved his death, because there is no calamity, not even death, for which Jesus does not have a remedy.
So Paul does not say that Christian women are exempt from dying during childbirth. He says that even when a Christian woman dies in childbirth, she is not in danger, she is safe in the Lord.