Must women have children in order to be “redeemed” or “absolved from reproach”?

Q. Must women have children in order to be “redeemed” or “absolved from reproach”?

In some of my recent readings in the Bible, some of the women mention childbirth as a way to be saved from disgrace. For example, in Genesis 30:23, Rachel gives birth to a son and  says God has taken away her disgrace. Similarly in Luke 1:25, Elizabeth becomes pregnant and declares that God has taken away her reproach among people.

I had originally viewed these passages from a more cultural lens. Women were generally expected to have children, and having a child, particularly a male one, was a sort of insurance. If the husband died, a son could potentially care for his widowed mother.

However, in 1 Timothy 2:15, Paul writes that women are saved through childbearing. Now recently I’ve been considering committing to the advice in 1 Corinthians 7:8, which is to stay single and remain devoted to God. However, this advice appears to conflict with what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy. Is this a case where Paul, as a human, fell short of the mark and made a mistake? Does the advice in 1 Corinthians only apply to men, and women should marry and bear children for some sort of repentance for Eve’s transgression, as referenced in 1 Timothy 2:14? Or is there some other passage I’m missing with crucial information that can reconcile the two opposing ideas?

A. Thank you for your thoughtful question. It does not seem to me that Paul would be saying in the statement you cite that a woman needs to have children (presumably if possible—not all women are able to have children) in order to be saved. This would be contrary to Paul’s entire message of salvation by grace. Paul taught everywhere else that there is nothing we can do in order to be saved and that we do not need to add anything ourselves to what Christ has done for us on the cross. It is unlikely that he is saying differently here. So interpreters of the Bible tend to understand Paul to be saying something else than that women need to have children to be saved.

One possibility is that Paul is saying that women “will be kept safe through the process of childbirth,” as the NTE translation puts it. Other translations say  similar things. There is archaeological evidence from this time of the cult of a goddess whom women worshiped in the hopes of being preserved through childbirth. Paul could be saying that even if they abandoned the worship of this goddess—as they may have feared to do—they could trust God to protect them.

Another possibility is that Paul is saying that a role as wives and mothers can be a divine calling from God and that women do not need to forsake that role in order to live truly spiritual lives. We can see in Paul’s other epistles that some followers of Jesus at this time were so influenced by the Greek idea that matter was bad and spirit was good that they believed they should not get married. (This lies behind Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians, for example.) Note that there is a qualification on what Paul says in 1 Timothy: “Women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” This is similar to what Paul says later in 1 Timothy about younger widows. Apparently they could have been “enrolled” as part of a special guild committed to singleness and devoted to service in the church. But Paul knew that many of them might change their minds and break that commitment, so he wrote, “I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes, and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” One way of life was not superior to another, in other words; both were spiritual callings.

While these are possibilities, 1 Timothy 2:15 remains a puzzling statement, and so I would apply the principle of trying to understand what is obscure in light of what is clear. I think that whatever Paul might mean, based on the rest of his writings, we can be very confident that he is not saying that bearing children is necessary for salvation. We should also apply the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture in order to understand the whole counsel of God. While there are places where the Bible commends celibacy, for example, in 1 Corinthians as you mention, in other places the Bible praises marriage. For example, Proverbs says, “Whoever finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” God himself said at creation, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a helper suitable for him.” (The word translated “helper” actually means “strong ally”!)

Given this balanced teaching in the Bible, I think your inclination to understand the passages about Rachel and Elizabeth (and similar passages) through a cultural lens was correct.

In the end, I think each person needs to discern how God is leading, whether towards marriage or whether towards singleness. According to the Bible, each situation in life offers opportunities to serve God in distinct ways. The Bible does not say that situation is better than the other. So this is a matter of individual discernment.

However, people often do not see it that way. They may simply assume that God wants them to get married, or, on the other hand, they may not want to get married and so not seek God’s guidance about that. I commend you for recognizing this to be a matter of discernment and for being willing to commit to singleness if that is God’s will for you. I trust that you are also willing to be married if that is God’s will. May you hear clearly from God as you continue to seek direction!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

One thought on “Must women have children in order to be “redeemed” or “absolved from reproach”?”

  1. This is about culture, nothing spiritual. All over the world, women have been put down in most cultures, tribes and countries for not being able to have children. The shame is because society would look down on them being seen as unproductive and useless. Having children especially in other cultures other than recent European history is survival of the human race. In Europe in upper society an heir was very important. Women were seen as the producers of the human race. So many women felt shame and societies looked down on them. In older days many women would have felt abandoned by God, felt they were not under God’s blessing, especially prior to the knowledge of science. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with spiritual redemption whatsoever, (only redemption in the eyes of society) but being useful in having children was seen as being blessed and fulfilling the role of womanhood and a place in society. Of course today, if women are unable to have children and that might not be due to her fault but the man, it is mainly the sorrow of not being able to have children, but not because it makes her a better person or acceptable in society, although there is still a little stigma, but not much at all in today’s Western Society and certainly not spiritually. In other societies it’s much more serious and troubling as whether the woman is not at fault, she is still considered a failure by men and other cultures. God certainly does not hold anything against a woman who is unable to have children or says she is of less value.

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