During a panel discussion at my Christian college years ago, one scholar explained that bearing children is God's plan for womanhood, referencing 1 Timothy 2:15—"Women will be saved through childbearing." A graduate student stood up and addressed him tearfully, "I have just learned that I can never have children. Where is there room in your gospel for me?" The panelist paused for a long time. Then he said, in a broken voice, "I don't have a theology for that." There was no resolution, just pain.
What I witnessed that day was one of the rare moments when such pain is acknowledged out loud; the rest of the time, much of the Christian community can seem oblivious to the agony of women who do not want to be childless but find themselves aching as they read Bible passages celebrating motherhood and watch moms get their Mother's Day carnations at church each year. If we consider stats on infertility from the Centers for Disease Control, at least 1 in 10 women in our pews won't receive a carnation, no matter how desperate they are to become mothers.
During the anguished time when a woman from my church was trying to conceive, she asked for prayer from a Christian coworker. "She flat out told me that I wasn't getting pregnant because I didn't have enough faith. I wanted to hit her," my friend said. Another friend was repeatedly told, after each miscarriage, "It must be that God has a reason." She was sitting next to me in our small group when an older woman, herself childless, beamed at my pregnant belly and said, "What a blessing, so many babies in our church!" The older woman then looked around and said, "Isn't it wonderful, how God is blessing us?"—all the while benevolently unaware that my friend was not only grieving her lost children, but would most likely never have more. If I was uncomfortable, wanting to hide my belly and change the subject, my friend was shattered.
The panelist was right. We in the Christian community do not have a theology for childlessness, at least not one that's made its way to me and my circle of friends. Christians lift up stories of barren women in scripture who eventually conceive. We gloss over difficult passages like 1 Timothy 2:15, attributing them to an unenlightened age; or, like the panelist, embrace them at face value, not bothering to explore all the possible interpretations of such an assertion.
We owe it to women, and to the truth, to explore the complexities of such a verse and be sensitive to teachings and practices that relegate or ignore the women in our midst who struggle to bear children, no matter how much they desire and pray to.
Some scholars studying this 1 Timothy verse suggest that the presence of the definite article—which in English is "the"—means that the sentence should read "women shall be saved through the childbearing (or the Child-bearer)," a reference, perhaps, to Mary the mother of Jesus. Not that Mary saves us, but her willingness to reverse Eve's choice by submitting to the will of God played a significant role in everyone's salvation. Others say that the phrase could read "women will be saved by the birth of the Child"—a reference to Jesus himself, but that's not what ends up in many English translations, so that interpretation gives me pause.
There's also the possibility for the translation to read, "she shall be saved," as in woman, singular. This option presents a larger narrative with woman as an archetype, one who represents all of us. The broader passage in 1 Timothy makes reference to the fall, with "childbearing" an echo of the original curse. We get the sense that fertility itself—both the struggle to conceive and pain to give birth—is bound up the larger issue of suffering as a result of sin. But built into the curse is the possibility that suffering is part of redemption—perhaps not only the suffering of those who bear children but the suffering of those who do not.
In any case, following the phrase "saved through childbearing," the verse reads, "assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty." In other words, there's a caveat. Whatever else childbearing does for me as a mother and Christian, it's an opportunity for spiritual growth…if I'm willing. Salvation is a process, a continued quest to become more and more like Jesus. Any discipline that can make us holier—including fasting or celibacy or marriage or raising children—can be part of the process. But it doesn't matter how many children I bear if I don't continue to live in faith, love, and all the rest. If it's not about Jesus, then I'm no holier than anyone else.
I confess I have not always been sensitive to these complexities. Child-free by choice during the first 13 years of marriage, I felt bewildered by the intense drive of others to become mommies. When my first baby was conceived effortlessly, I was more freaked out than ready. I glibly announced it to my small group, clueless about my friend's pain. But then in month four I had a scare—some signs that things may not be well—and the bottom fell out of my world. I suddenly experienced what so many Christian women have known in painful isolation: the carnations on Mother's Day could easily represent all the babies the world will never meet.
I didn't lose that pregnancy, but I began to lose my obliviousness. It made me aware that the church must have a theology of infertility and pregnancy loss. We cannot gloss or ignore difficult biblical passages. We must be wary of a cultural celebration that commercializes and sentimentalizes a harrowing and complicated journey. And through creating safe spaces—such as my friendship with the woman in my small group who has graciously, even after my blundering, invited me to share her sorrow—we must somehow affirm that there is a place in God's story for the brokenhearted.
Sarah Arthur is the author of eight books, including the devotional memoir Mommy Time: 90 Devotions for New Moms (Tyndale House Publishers, April 2013), from which parts of this article have been adapted. She lives in Lansing, Michigan, with her small son Micah and her husband Tom, pastor of Sycamore Creek Church. When she isn't writing and speaking, she can be found blogging at www.saraharthur.com.
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