There’s been more ink spilled over the doctrinal interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 than any other passage. It’s a controversial passage that evokes very strong emotional responses and reactions — particularly in this day and age.  And verse 15 is one of the trickiest passages in the Bible to interpret. Because of this, many pastors simply avoid teaching on it. So I give kudos to Tim Challies for preaching on the passage in a recent sermon, and having the guts to take a shot at explaining it in his blog post, “Saved through Childbearing?”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 says,

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 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 2:11–15, ESV)

Now that’s definitely not the passage you want to be teaching on if you’re trying to win a popularity contest! It sounds extremely sexist and abrasive to the modern ear. And the phrase “she will be saved through childbearing” seems non-sensical, if not downright outrageous. But I concur with Challies that “there is truth and freedom here if we are willing to go looking for it.”

An Epiphany

Reading Challies’ attempts to come to grip with verse 15 reminded me of my own attempts to wrestle with this passage over the years. The last time I studied the passage in-depth was a couple of years ago, while working on writing Girls Gone Wise. It’s interesting how we can read a passage a hundred times, and still notice something new when we return to it again. I had been studying Genesis, and was immersed in the concept of the typological symbolism of Adam and Eve. (Adam is type of Christ, Eve is type of the Church), when I turned my attention to 1 Timothy 2.

It was then that I had an epiphany that seemed to resolve many of the interpretive difficulties with the text. It struck me that approaching the passage typologically harmonized many of the issues that arose from approaching it from a merely ontological standpoint – which has been the normative way of viewing this text.  I was so excited about the idea that I called up Wayne Grudem, to pick his brain about the veracity of my thoughts. He encouraged me to write them up and present a paper at ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) or to publish an article in their academic Journal (JETS). I haven’t got around to doing that yet, but since Challies brought up the question, I’m itching to weigh in on the discussion.

So, for all you geeky theological tall foreheads, here’s something for you to chew on. (Remember, you heard it here first!) For those who aren’t familiar with the theological terminology, don’t bail out. Bear with me… and keep reading. Theology is fun!

A Typological Approach to 1 Timothy 2:11-15

To begin, let me explain what the theological term “type” means. A “type” is person, thing, or event that foreshadows or points to something or someone else (the antitype). The type has a layer of intended meaning that is revealed by the antitype.  For example, Jesus told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (the type), “so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (the anti-type) (Jn 3:14; cf. Nm 21:9). The Passover Lamb and the rock from which Israel drank in the wilderness were also types of Christ (Ex 12:1–13, 49; 17:6; 1 Cor 5:7; 10:3, 4) Types most frequently point to Jesus and the story of the gospel.

Paul was a big typological type of thinker. He taught, for instance, that Adam was type of Christ, and that marriage was type of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  He would have agreed with the writer of Hebrews that earthly, physical realities are but shadows—types—of true and heavenly realities (the antitypes) (Heb. 8:5; 9:24-25). The physical and temporal exist to point us to the spiritual and eternal.

Now before we go on, I’m going to teach you another big, daunting word: “ontology” (Just think how your opponent’s eyebrows will rise when you use up three o’s playing it in scrabble!) Ontology means “related to being or existence.” It has to do with the essence of who we are.

Woman is Type of Church

As I said before, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 makes a whole lot more sense when we understand it typologically rather than merely ontologically. That is, from the perspective of what woman represents (typology) rather than just who woman is (ontology). And it may be that this is just what Paul had in mind.

We know for sure that Paul viewed Adam as a type of Christ. We also know for sure that he viewed marriage as type of the relationship between Christ and the church — in which the role of husband is a type of Christ and the role of the wife is a type of the Church. Thus, we can justifiably extrapolate that Paul also viewed Eve as a type of the Church.

Assuming that Paul has typology in mind, let’s have a look at the passage again. First, Paul talks about how women and men are to conduct themselves in church: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  Don’t get caught up in what this means and how we apply it today. That’s a discussion for another time. For now, I just want you to consider how a typological approach helps explain this and the next few verses, and how it solves some interpretive conundrums.

If Paul was indeed thinking typologically (and I believe a good case can be made for it), that puts an entirely different spin on the following verses. Paul isn’t arguing that women are more gullible or that women need to bear children in order to be saved. No. He’s trying to point out that male female roles in the church exist to bear typological witness to the gospel.

For Adam (type of Christ) was formed first, then Eve (type of Church) – and Adam (type of Christ) was not deceived, but the woman (type of Church) was deceived and became a transgressor.

Yet she (the Church) will be saved through childbearing (bearing fruit in Christ)—if they (man and woman) continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Voila. This solves the conundrum of thinking that Paul is saying that women are saved by giving birth to biological children. If Paul is indeed thinking typologically, he’s not saying anything of the sort. Instead, he’s saying that woman’s ontology (her capacity to bear children) relates to her typology (the Church’s ability to be fruitful in Jesus). She (the Church) is saved through childbearing. Paul reinforces the profound mutuality of men and women here. Both are church. Both are saved by the type of union that results in spiritual children—the union with our husband, Christ. Both must continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

It’s not about us

Yes, Paul gives some pretty tough instruction about male and female roles in the Church. But then he elevates the discussion to an entirely different level. In his rationale, he mingles the imagery of Adam and Eve and woman and man together to make the point that in the end, how we conduct ourselves in church has much more to do with what we (typologically) represent than who we (ontologically) are. And that makes his directives on male/female roles in the church much easier to understand and swallow.

Ultimately, this is not about us. It’s not about man. It’s not about woman. It’s about displaying the glory of Christ’s story.

A typological approach to 1 Timothy 2:11-15 makes a lot of sense to me, and I’d like to throw it on the table for my fellow theologians to consider and discuss. We can’t say with absolute certainty what Paul had in mind in verse 15, but we can be absolutely certain that there is indeed truth and freedom here if we are willing to go looking for it.

(c) Mary Kassian

Mary Kassian is an author, speaker and professor of women's studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. This column first appeared on her website, GirlsGoneWISE.com. Born and raised in Canada, she lives with her husband in Edmonton, Alberta.