1 Timothy 2:15 is one of those texts that has fallen upon hard times. (1) It doesn’t really sound right in the ears of a Protestant interpreter - sounds too much like salvation by works. (2) It doesn’t sound at all appealing in an age of feminists, who are not interested in defining themselves in the way the text suggests. (3) And of course, the Pastoral Epistles do not fare well in the hands of critical scholars, who tend to see them as later watering-down of Paul’s revolutionary law-free gospel, in favour of some sort of “Catholic nomism” that reintroduces rules and pushes down the spiritual freedom that the real Paul fought so hard to win for the Gentile churches.
With regard to these concerns, I would respond this way: (1) Rightly understood, 1 Timothy 2:15 poses no difficulty to a Protestantism adequately grounded in God’s gracious covenant. (2) Our interest should not be how we feel Paul should fit into our modern egalitarian ethics, but to ask whether there is any canon at all outside of ourselves to which we will submit. Moreover, we need not suppose that 1 Timothy 2 intends to say everything that could be said about the role of women - or men, for that matter. (2) It is altogether too convenient to paint an extreme Paul, and then set up the Pastorals as an opposing viewpoint. The extreme Paul can only be constructed, to begin with, by marginalizing factors that are clearly present even in the epistles which critical scholars recognize as unquestionably Pauline. It is objected that the man who wrote that in Christ there is no longer male and female (Gal. 3:28) could not possibly have written “I do not permit a woman to teach” (1 Tim. 2:12). But if the latter is supposedly impossible from the lips of the man who wrote the former, what will we say about 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them be in submission, as the law also says”)?
Adam and Eve
My concern here, however, is not so much to dwell upon Paul’s supposed egalitarianism or chauvinism, but to examine his employment of biblical themes in 1 Timothy 2, particularly in verses 13–15. The NASB translates this passage thus:
For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.
The translation above reflects the common difficulties that have arisen with this passage. As indicated in my own translation at the beginning of this article, Paul switches from singular to plural in mid-stream in verse 15. He does not say “women” shall be saved in childbearing, but simply “she” (i.e. the singular is imbedded in the Greek verb). The NASB translation smooths this out, but in so doing, moves verse 15 into isolation from the preceding. Paul has been speaking of Eve in the previous two verses, not “women,” and he has chosen to shift back to the present, not between verses, but in mid-thought. We need to explore why.
In context, Paul is dealing with the roles of men and women in relation to the gathered assembly. He has called upon men (Greek andras) to pray in every place. I do not take this “every place” to mean “wherever they may happen to be,” but rather wherever God has gathered His Church. This makes sense of the overarching context: Paul is giving instructions regarding procedure in the Church (3:15). It also seems to be the best manner in which to understand the preceding context, which urges entreaties, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men. Although these are worthy objects of private prayer too, given Timothy’s role, it seems most natural that Paul is instructing him regarding the public prayers and intercessions of the Church.
Paul moves from men to women in verse 9, and says they are to “adorn themselves with appropriate clothing, with modesty and moderation.”
The structure of verses 8-9 are parallel:
Therefore I want:
(a) the men to pray
(i.) in every place
(ii.) raising holy hands
(iii.) without wrath and doubting;
(b) the women to adorn themselves
(i.) with appropriate clothing
(ii.) with modesty and moderation
(iii.) not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments
Here Paul goes beyond the parallelism and adds, “but rather, as befits women promising godliness, through good works.”
As can be seen from the above structure, Paul describes the task of men here in terms of prayer, the women in terms of adornment. With regard to the latter, it is often supposed that “modesty and moderation” refer to clothing, which is eminently possible, since Paul speaks of clothing in the preceding clause, and immediately goes on to speak of hair and various accoutrements in the succeeding one.
However, comparison of the parallelism suggests this thought may not be accurate. The phrases modifying the clause requiring the men to pray provide: i. where; ii. accompanying action; iii. prohibited action or way of carrying out the prayer. These three things all modify the main requirement to pray, not necessarily each other (e.g. the point of raising holy hands has relevance as the action accompanying prayer, not simply as an action that occurs in “every place”).
Something similar is likely the case with regard to verse 9. That there is a fair amount of structural parallelism is reflected in the fact that the third phrase modifying the respective clauses is negative in each case: “without wrath and doubting;” “not with braided hair....”
My suggestion is that the phrase, (b.ii.) “with modesty and moderation” probably has more to do with the self-adornment than with appropriate (literal) apparel. The New Testament writers are able to speak of such adornment as twofold elsewhere, having to do with both the matter of clothing and with matters of demeanour, attitude, and actions (see 1 Pet. 3:3–5). That this is probably the case here is reflected in Paul's additional explanation: in place of ostentatious clothing, he counterbalances that, not, as we might have expected, with “simple clothing,” but “through good works.” It is my suggestion that functionally speaking, “modesty and moderation” is parallel to “through good works,” while “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments” is parallel to “with appropriate clothing.”
The reason I have devoted so much attention to this point is to rescue that word moderation (Greek sophrosunes) from marginalization. It reappears in verse 15, and it is very doubtful that it refers to clothing there. Given the fact that it appears only one other time in the entire New Testament (Acts 26:25), it is surely not mere coincidence when it appears here twice within a span of seven verses. It probably means the same thing in both appearances.
Paul continues in verses 11–12, “Let the women in silence learn in all subjection. But to teach, I do not permit a woman, nor to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence.”
This construction here is chiastic:
a Let the women in silence learn in all subjection.
b But to teach
c I do not permit a woman
b' nor to exercise authority over a man
a' but to be in silence.
This elaboration, apparently, is related to Paul’s instruction that the woman is to adorn herself with good works. Even as “appropriate attire” has as its correlate “not with” ostentatious clothing and accoutrements, so too good works has its correlate in a “not.”
Here is where the Paul of the Pastorals comes into head-on collision with the supposed law-free Paul of the undisputed epistles. This Paul is imaginary, a construct of those for whom a religion devoid of rules appears attractive. The law-free Paul does not exist; he is only made possible by a process of equivocation: Paul argues vigorously regarding the nomos (law) finding its telos (end, goal) in Christ (Rom. 10:4). This is a point made in many different ways in Paul’s epistles. But it is clear enough that Paul's use of nomos has a specific referent: the Torah, the law of Israel given through Moses. Paul saw Torah as a temporary measure given between Moses and Christ (see especially Gal. 3:15-24). To leapfrog from that and draw a global conclusion that Paul discarded norms and prohibitions altogether is a non sequitur. Precisely because Christ is the telos of Torah, the norms of the law find their real meaning in Him. Those who live in the Spirit whom Christ has sent put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13); it is only those who are led by the Spirit of God who are God’s sons (Rom. 8:14).
In the undisputed epistles, Paul repeatedly makes clear that there is an order of things which, far from overthrowing, his gospel establishes. Galatians 3:28 is radical in its own way, but the undisputed epistles are by no means egalitarian in the sense that the present day is egalitarian. This fact is reflected even in 1 Corinthians 11 - a passage that gives evidence of women who prophesied (see below for further reference to that chapter): “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). This text, in a universally acknowledged Pauline epistle, makes clear that the apostle has no intention of discarding the headship principle which was so deeply embedded in the old covenant. (This does not mean, of course, that there is no difference whatsoever in male-female roles under the new covenant in comparison with the old.)
Creation and Fall
Verses 13-14 read: “For [Greek gar] Adam first was formed, afterward Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, came to be in transgression.”
The “for” suggests that Paul is grounding his prohibition against women teaching or exercising authority over men in what follows. The prohibition is not simply a time-bound instruction due to specific local problems, as is often suggested for this passage. A popular current view is that there were women teaching strange theological views in Ephesus, and thus Paul has made this special prohibition to guard against this. This, however, would be unjust. If women normally had the right to teach, why should all women in Ephesus be penalized for the errors of some? In any case, the scenario simply does not fit the form of Paul's argument, which is grounded in creation order.
It is often unwarrantedly assumed that Paul is resorting to a theory of gender-retribution: naughty Eve led the human race into sin, and the result is that women are no longer eligible to be leaders. This reading, however, overlooks the fact that the “for” (gar) primarily modifies verse 13, rather than verse 14. The ground for Paul’s prohibition is not the fall, but the order of creation. He is arguing here along the lines of his argument in 1 Corinthians 11 (again we see the continuity with the undisputed epistles): the man was not created for the woman, but rather the woman for the man (cf. 1 Cor. 11:8–9).
Nor is it correct to suppose that verse 14, contrary to what Paul says elsewhere (as e.g. Romans 5:12ff.), blames the fall upon Eve rather than Adam. Paul is concerned in this passage, not with the source of original sin, but with the responsibilities given to the woman. His point is not to discharge Adam of blame; the fact that Adam was not deceived, so far from excusing him, makes him all the more blameworthy. That fact that Adam knew well what he was doing is a damning indictment; his disobedience is revealed to be without excuse.
Why then does Paul appeal to the fall? It appears that he is explaining Eve’s action as the foundational example of the departure of the woman from her God-given role. Her conferral with the serpent constituted an independent investigation of the authority of both her God and her husband. It is not that Paul is implying that women are naturally stupid, and thus more likely to be deceived than men. (That sort of idea would not correlate well with the experience of very many people!) Rather, underneath Paul’s argument seems to be the thought that when Eve left her God-given sphere of authority and took leadership, she was deceived and came into transgression. (Adam’s sin of complicity is not thereby minimized; rather than exercising his God-given responsibility to guard the Garden and thus his wife, he allowed her to act as a guinea pig. He sinned, not only with regard to himself, but with regard to her. Precisely because Adam was the head, the fall of the race is credited to him in Scripture, rather than to Eve.)
Paul concludes, “But she will be saved through the childbearing, if they remain in faith and love and holiness with moderation” (2:15).
This verse has been understood in a number of different ways:
(1) Some have suggested, given the Eden-context here, that Paul is pronouncing a reversal of the curse upon the woman, that in pain she would bear children (Gen. 3:16). This surely is difficult to credit. Was Paul so naive that he thought Christian women did not suffer labour pains?
(2) Some, noting the article (the childbearing) have suggested that Paul is referring to the birth of Christ. This would maintain continuity in Paul's argument; he would still be referring to Eden (i.e. with Christ as the seed of the woman who will conquer the serpent). Moreover, this reading would take full account of the salvation terminology. Against this, however: i. Nowhere in Paul (or anywhere else in the New Testament, for that matter) do we find salvation attributed to Christ's birth. ii. Paul uses the cognate verb in 5:14 with clear reference to the responsibility of contemporary Christian women to bear/raise children. Both the noun here and the verb there are hapax - the only appearances in the New Testament. It seems highly unlikely that Paul is speaking of Christ's birth in 2:15 (particularly when the reader has had absolutely no preparation for the thought) and general childbearing in 5:14.
(3) Calvin suggests, quite generally, that the verse is speaking of the overall route which salvation takes. He does not, of course, mean that childbearing is itself redemptive or justifying, but that the pathway of saving faith is the pathway of good works — good works, in this instance, made manifest in the faithful living out of the role God has assigned to the woman.
I believe that Calvin is getting closer to Paul’s intended meaning, but that his exposition is too general and does not account for some of the specific features of the text. For example, why does Paul employ the article (the childbearing)? And why does Paul carry forward Eve as the implicit antecedent into verse 15 (she will be saved), when he is speaking of Christian women generally (if they remain....)?
An examination of the soter- (salvation) terminology of the LXX (Greek version of the OT) shows that frequent usage includes ideas such as deliverance and victory (e.g. Ex. 14:13; Jdg 15:18; 1 Sam. 11:9, 13), and escape (Gen. 32:9 [32:8 Eng.]; 1 Sam. 19:12; 1 Kg. 19:17; 21:20 [20:20 Eng.]; throughout Ezekiel; cf. Joel 3:5).
I suggest that the movement in Paul’s argument entails a resolution of the problem of the previous verse, meaning now not the fall in general, but the specific transgression involved. The route of escape he prescribes is the “moderation” he has argued for, in particular through the bearing of children.
Paul’s point, however, cannot be limited to mere escape. This is where the unusual features of the text come into their own. The movement from singular to plural (she will be saved, if they remain...) and the unexpected article (the childbearing) are both involved here.
Clearly, Paul wants to do more than generalize about female roles; he takes us back to Genesis 3, particularly verses 15–16. Verse 15 is addressed to the serpent; verse 16 to Eve:
“And I will place enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed, and he will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.” And to the woman, He said, “I will surely multiply your pain and your conception, and in pain you will bear sons, and toward your husband your longing will be, but he will rule over you.”
Here is not the place to offer a full exposition of Genesis 3, but a few comments are necessary in order to understand Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 2.
(1) The reciprocal bruising in 3:15 is somewhat difficult to translate; the LXX translators, somewhat mysteriously, used tereo (to observe, watch, guard), but this is clearly too weak to carry the sense of the Hebrew. The import of the verse is to guarantee a victory for the woman in her encounter with the serpent.
(2) The curse in verse 16 is obvious enough, with the advent of pain or sorrow. The construction “pain and conception” is a Hebrew idiomatic construction that must be understood in English as “the pain of your conception.” Neither conception itself nor its multiplication could be considered a curse; precisely the opposite is the case, particularly in light of Genesis 1:28. Multiplication in fruitfulness was the result of divine blessing rather than cursing.
(3) “Conception” (Heb. hrn) is broad enough to include birth itself and indeed everything involved with regard to pregnancy and childrearing. This is obvious enough, since the pain is not involved in the conception per se; and the point in any case is explained by the following clause, which says that in pain she will bear children.
(4) Unlike the address to the serpent, however, the address to the woman is not intended as an unmitigated curse. In the curse against the serpent, God gives a sideways promise to the woman: the woman will have seed, and that seed will do battle for her in her contention with the serpent. Consequently, when God says in verse 16 that she will bear children in pain, we must not focus so much attention upon the pain that we forget about the promise contained in the very fact that she will bear children.
(5) The difficult closing of verse 16 is best understood in the light of the similar vocabulary and grammatical construction found in God's address to Cain in Genesis 4:7: “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” It is a mistake to think that Eve has a curse in 3:16 that she will desire her husband sexually or in some other fashion. The parallel with Cain shows that the desire of which God warns is a desire to master; even as sin desires to master Cain, so too the temptation of the woman is to desire to be master of her husband. Likewise, the end of 3:16, then, is neither a calling for the husband to squash his wife like a bug, to trample her, nor yet a threat that in actual fact he will do so, as a result of the curse. Rather, again in parallel with 4:7, the husband’s responsibility is to retain leadership rather than being mastered. God is reminding Eve that the original authority structure of creation will be maintained.
We can now consider the full force of Paul’s argument. He is not concerned with self-redemption, nor even punishment upon the woman. He is concerned with dealing with the specific transgression of Eve in the light of God’s speech to the serpent and to Eve herself in Genesis 3:15-16.
Paul wishes to place Christian women into a relationship with Eve, not in order to condemn them for the fall, but rather to help them see the remedies which God provided to Eve as applicable to themselves. Hence the use of the singular at the outset of verse 15: “But she (i.e. Eve) will be saved through the childbearing....” The article (the childbearing) intends to affirm that Paul does not see this activity as merely general role-playing, but as tied in specifically with the issue of the woman’s seed crushing the head of the serpent. And alongside all of this is an accent upon “moderation” (1 Tim. 2:9, 15), which I think at least includes the idea of self-restraint with regard to her desire to usurp her husband’s role. The childbearing and mutual role issues are closely related in Gen. 3:16, and probably are so here as well.
What then can we say about 1 Timothy 2:15? Paul is summarizing the Christian woman’s response to the specific transgression of Eve. Rather than encroaching upon the husband’s role of authority, the woman is to escape that transgression by way of childbearing. Given the close connection with the promises of Gen. 3:15, this childbearing will involve not only her own sanctification in walking in a divinely-mandated role; it also involves her in the promise of seed that was given to Eve. The “seed for the woman” in Genesis 3:15, of course, was simultaneously seed for God Himself in His own opposition to the serpent; the woman and her seed were His allies.
There is thus in 1 Timothy 2:15, both a route of sanctification for the woman, as well as a vindication over the serpent. As the Christian woman walks in faith and holiness and self-restraint, she finds that her childbearing partakes of the promises made to Eve: she bears seed for God. Thus, rather than capitulation to the serpent and falling into Eve’s transgression, the opposite results: she rises to Eve’s promises and tramples the serpent.
Once again, there is no need to claim that Paul envisions absolutely no other role for a Christian woman. Some women are barren, and that is no longer treated as a curse, because they too have entered into Christ’s victory. Moreover, not all men and women are called into the married state (in Paul’s own writings, notice especially 1 Cor. 7:7-8, 25ff.); by the nature of the case, the roles of the unmarried will differ from the roles of the married. We also know that Christian women of Paul’s day did do things which served the Church at large, not just their own families (e.g. Rom. 16:1, as well as the distinct possibility, to say the least, of female deacons in the very next chapter here, 1 Tim. 3:11).
Nonetheless, upon the basis of 1 Timothy 2, we may say the following about female roles: (1) The exercise of authority over men in the church and in the home is not the place assigned to them. (2) Paul considers motherhood as a high calling and very normal as a role for a Christian woman. (3) This role assigns something special to the woman that is never explicitly given to the man in Scripture. The woman who enters into Eve’s bearing of seed is vindicated with her. It is wrong to suppose that because the woman does not bear authority over the man, while he bears authority over her, her glory must be less and that she has become marginalized. To the contrary, Paul, following Genesis, reserves a special glory to the childbearing of faithful women that he never attributes to men. The raising up of godly seed, while certainly not beyond the husband’s responsibility, is particularly the woman’s victory.
Paul’s support for his position is fundamentally founded upon the biblical narrative of creation, fall and promise. He demonstrates again in this passage that his ethics are neither merely situational (although they are very much embodied into real-life situations) nor arbitrary. His ethics are integrated into his view of God's faithfulness to His promises. Here, Paul takes the very oldest gospel promises of the Scriptures and applies them to the women of the Christian Church. He sees the Christian woman, not merely as an accidental appendage in a male community, but as the recipient of glorious promises of vindication over the evil one. He looks to the Scriptures of Israel, not merely as a rule book to impose limitations upon freedom, but as a book of hope, a book of promise, a story into which man and woman in Christ have entered and become participants in the victory of God.
For a brief outline regarding the biblical position on women in church leadership, see my little piece, “Preliminary Theses Regarding Women in Church Office.”