Misreading St Paul on women…

‘women will be saved through child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness and self-control.’ 1 Timothy 2:15 

photo credit: duane_j

I remember studying that passage in my theology undergraduate class at university and prickling with anger. So, I thought to myself, men are saved by the cross and women are saved by having babies?!  I remarked wisely to my lecturer after the class that it was clear that the misogynistic attitudes of the age in which St Paul’s lived had not been purged away by his new faith. This was surely biological determinism painted onto the canvas of Christianity? She heartily agreed, however as soon as I had made the remarks I felt a voice somewhere in my heart protest. I knew I was missing something that would flip the whole passage around.

The truth is I was reading the passage with secular eyes. I was seeing child-bearing and motherhood, because of its obvious challenges and sacrifices, as something to be despised. Being a mother is hard because it demands the totality of the person, body and soul. The sacrifice a mother makes for a child goes beyond that of the father as she literally gives her body for the life of the child. She says to her unborn child ‘this is my body given for you’. After the child is born she says to the baby ‘take eat, this is my body’.

Motherhood is a radical way in which woman can imitate the total gift of self that Christ made of Himself. Through child-bearing women’s bodies become eucharistic. Is it any wonder then that St Paul says that motherhood, lived in union with Christ, can be redemptive? For St Paul imitating Christ is key to being His faithful disciples. He writes in Philippians “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself.” (Phil. 2:5-7)

Self-emptying in order to serve others is what we are all called to in our various situations and walks of life. Women, by virtue of their amazing capacity to bear another human person within their bodies, are able to live this in a very radical way through their parenthood. Of course St Paul was by no means saying that women can only live this self-giving love through motherhood. If he believed that would he write a paean of praise to men and women who devote themselves to the celibate life? ‘Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do… An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit.’ (1 Cor.  8 , 1 Cor 32)

Saint Paul is not, as I thought, restricting women to their biology. He is in fact doing the opposite by showing how the female body can be the means by which women claim the salvation Christ has won for them. We must never forget that Christianity is a religion of the flesh. The great Church Father Tertullian wrote, “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”.  We are redeemed through the flesh of Christ and one day hope to be resurrected in our flesh. Saint Paul knew this profound truth and he meditated upon what this meant for women. This is not biological determinism, this is theological destiny.