Some time ago I received a question by a reader, which I apologize for taking so long to get to. This reader asked:
Boniface, I have a scriptural difficulty that I hope you'll address: what exactly does St. Paul mean when he says: "But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety" (1 Tim. 2:15, NIV). How does the Church understand this verse?
Great question. I confess that one of the reasons it took me so long to post on this was that, though I started reading on it right away, so much has been written on this obtuse passage that it is difficult to give a clear interpretation. First, let's look at the entire verse in context:
Rather than me give my own exegesis of this passage, I thought I might rather just state what many other authorities have said on the matter, for as far as I know the exact nature of this passages has never been defined and there is still disagreement on what St. Paul means. That being the case, it is also true that there has been some consensus on the matter, even among Protestants and Catholics.
First, let's state what this verse obviously cannot mean - that the act of bearing children guarantees a woman a place in heaven. This would be so far out of keeping with everything else taught in Scripture that I'm not going to waste time refuting it (though of course, I have met Protestants who assert this).
Some Protestants put a more "faith healing" spin on the verse that I think is equally inadmissible from a Catholic viewpoint. Here's one I found randomly online:
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.... 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.
This, too, is inadmissible from a Catholic viewpoint and many Protestants would also disagree - we all know mothers who had faith and virtue but still had painful or very complicated labors. Our faith must always be in God, not in how we think God will or will not act in any given circumstance; faith healers tend to misplace their faith and put it on faith itself - their faith is in their faith.
Let us turn to some Catholic commentaries. The NAB commentary on the verse (for what it's worth) says, "As long as women perform their role as wives and mothers in faith and love, their salvation is assured." This seems to be too broad a statement to be very helpful, however.
Going to something a little more reliable, the 1859 Haydock Commentary states:
She shall be saved by bearing children, &c. and performing other duties of a wife, with a due submission to her husband, taking care to serve God, and bring up her children in the faith of Christ, in piety, &c. --- This would perhaps be more properly rendered, from the Greek, by the bringing up of her children in faith, charity, and holiness. This is the duty of the woman; upon the faithful discharge or neglect of which she must expect her salvation, or reprobation, to hang. Thus repairing the evil which the first of all women brought upon man, by seducing him to evil.
This is what I believe to be the most generally accepted view on the verse - that a woman attains holiness by charitably and faithfully fulfilling the obligations proper to her state in life as a mother. We find this opinion in some ancient commentaries as well. For example, St. John Chrysostom:
As all died through one, because that one sinned, so the whole female race transgressed, because the woman was in the transgression. Let her not however grieve. God has given her no small consolation, that of childbearing. And if it be said that this is of , so is that also of nature; for not only that which is of nature has been granted, but also the bringing up of children.
If they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety; that is, if after childbearing, they keep them in charity and purity. By these means they will have no small reward on their account, because they have trained up wrestlers for the service of Christ. By holiness he means good life, modesty, and sobriety (Homilies on First Timothy, 9).
Even Origen interprets this verse to refer to the faithful Christian mother bringing up godly sons as a meritorious service to the Lord:
"Such sons, therefore, the Church produces, and such it brings forth. For "he who sows in the flesh of the flesh also shall reap corruption." (Gal. 6:8) Now the sons of the Spirit are those about whom the apostle also says "The woman shall be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith and purity." (Homilies in Genesis, 6:3)
Basically, the consensus of most commentators (including many Protestants) is as follows: This verse of St. Paul to Timothy has reference to the original Fall of mankind, especially since pain in childbearing was cited by God as one of curses incurred by sin, just as labor "by the sweat of the brow" was the curse for the man (Gen. 3:16,19). Shall man and woman despair of their salvation then? By no means, for just as in the case of men, manual labor is transformed in Christ from a punishment into a means by which we can attain sanctification, so too with woman. For as the rigors of childbirth was originally a punishment for sin, now in Christ those very same rigors can be an occasion of holiness - not in the physical act of bringing forth children alone, but in the raising up of those children as "trained wrestlers for the service of Christ," which a mother does by providing an example in her perseverance in virtue and holiness.
There other other Catholic interpretations, however. Another fascinating opinion, though one in the minority, is put forward by the editors of the Navarre Bible who speculate that Paul may here be giving an answer to certain Gnostic heretics. It is certainly the case that Paul warns against Gnostic doctrines in many other places, even within First Timothy, where he warns about some heretics who "Forbidding to marry, to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving by the faithful and by them that have known the truth" (1 Tim 4:3). Because of their disdain for the flesh, Gnostics treated marriage with contempt, especially the bringing forth of children, which was seen as simply the imprisonment of new souls.
According to Gnostic doctrine, to bring forth children would have actually been sinful, and therefore a woman who had children would be seen as "carnal" and her motherhood as evidence that she had not yet attained perfection. Perhaps St. Paul wrote to reaffirm Christian doctrine to mothers against the teaching of the Gnostics - the Gnostics say, "If you bring forth children, you are not following the secret teaching and will not be saved," to which St. Paul replies in 1 Timothy, "On the contrary, you can be saved and bear children, and this salvation is rendered more secure if you continue in holiness and raise these children up in virtue." According to this theory, 1 Timothy 2:15 should be see as an answer St. Paul gave to an question we do not know.
At any rate, there is no single agreed upon interpretation as far as I can see. Whenever I have come across a Father who commented on this verse they were usually in agreement with Chrysostom and Haydock, although I think the thesis put forward by the Navarre editors has merit as well.
I hope this helps!