Childbearing as Liminal Space
March 24, 2020

Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. (1 Timothy 2:15)

Years ago, the wife of a prominent American theologian recognized that even in Christian circles mothers were under a kind of social pressure to justify the worthwhileness of their vocation. When asked what it was she did, instead of saying that she was a mother, she said, “I am socializing two homo sapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition in order that they might be instruments for the transformation of the social order into the kind of eschatological utopia that God willed from the beginning of creation." Despite any surface-level cleverness, one of the most important ingredients baked into this response is the reality that dressing up motherhood in semantic camouflage doesn’t necessarily showcase motherhood; in fact, it may obfuscate it.

Imagine, for a moment, if, instead of saying that I was married, I said, “I’m choosing to stay in a committed monogamous association with one human being in order to further the social fabric by forming an additional relationship unit.” What’s wrong with this? It suggests that the simplest terms are insufficient because they lack a kind of social capital. In our day, justice isn’t worthy of pursuit unless it is qualified by the adjective “social.” It’s ok to be married allowing you only refer to your spouse as a “partner.” And some might tolerate a woman being a mother as long as she emphasizes that, for her, it is something drastically distinct from the demiurgic act of breeding.

But far from being demiurgic, motherhood is described in the Scriptures as being salvific. Traditionally, this 1Timothy passage has been interpreted to be referencing motherhood as the medium by which the Messiah was brought into the world, and thus, childbearing was the instrument of salvation for those who believe. I would like to offer that while this may be the ultimate interpretation, there may, however, be a simpler and worthwhile reading that should be considered in our journey from 1Timothy to Bethlehem.

In order to briefly set up the furniture, it should be noted that we are dealing with only a few parts here with which we are to construct our salvation mechanism: She will/shall be saved (σωθήσεται/sōthēsetai) is future/indicative/passive; through (διὰ/dia) is the preposition; childbearing (τεκνογονίας/teknogonias) is genitive/feminine/singular and it is accompanied by the article the (τῆς/tēs) which is why so many people think the act of childbearing is referencing the birth of Christ. Why else use the definite article if not specifying a unique space/time event? The last section of the verse is the dependent clause about the necessity of them (and it is a plural pronoun) needing to continue in the faith and charity and holiness with the soundness of mind in order for the independent clause about salvation to be true for/of them.

Simply put, this verse seems to require a reading that is not disconnected from the context of the previous verse which pertains to Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit as a result of her being deceived.

And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. (1 Timothy 2:14)

Adam is directly contrasted with Eve in the fact that his disobedience was a willful one and his transgression a knowing one. While it is, of course, most certainly true that the greatest salvific childbearing was the childbearing of the Messiah, it need not necessarily be true that the simplest and first round of gleaning in 1Timothy 2:15 is a reference to the first advent of Christ. What if the salvation being referenced is a kind of liminal event, or a sacred rite of passage that, when accompanied by the wisdom of holiness, changes the daughter into a daughter/mother creature. In the course of the event, a gift is given: salvation from deception. A mother is wise in ways daughters cannot be. A mother will slam the door in the face of a snake wanting to take her daughter out for dinner, while the daughter cries over the loss of what might have been. Knowledge to judge is now truly given, via this rite, in order that she might not be deceived into turning her back on the Word of God again. In the movement from daughter to daughter/mother, the woman gains the role of defender/protector and sheds the skin of the one who is easily deceived . . . if she wears the armor. She can now out-snake the snake.

Remember, salvation is qualified here by abiding in holiness and sobriety. Why? Because that is where salvation is found. The fact that it is given to women via childbirth is a triumphant answer which the Gospel proclaims in the face of the prior verse’s shameful past. A daughter doesn’t inherit wisdom by becoming a mother, willy-nilly. We need only one example of a mother who, in her rebellion against the Lord, shows the Biblical marks of a fool rather than lady wisdom. She will not only continue to be deceived but will continue to damage the ability of her children to discern properly.

But, in the same way that water running down a man’s forehead may have salvific qualities when is the water of baptism and not any salvific qualities whatsoever when he is standing beneath a broken rain gutter, so childbearing can have a kind of common sacramental quality to it when that very creature called daughter is translated into another material creature called daughter/mother and she is accompanied by sound-minded godliness.

“But,” some may still ask, “What exactly is meant by ‘she shall be saved’”? Clearly, this is something of a problematic verse. The first and major problem is that it seems entirely out of bounds to think that Christian doctrine would allow for salvation from anything other than faith in Christ. At this point, we rapidly get deeper and deeper into the woods if we are not careful of the boundaries. It is of great importance to keep coming back to the fact that the salvation in question is coupled with the conditional terms in 1Timothy 2:15, “She shall be saved in childbearing if. . . .” Taken together, we see that the salvation being referenced is conditional salvation. The conditions are clearly stated, but the nature of the salvation is not as obvious.

There is a tendency amongst evangelicals to conflate the concept of salvation with the concept of justification. For many people, the way around this has been to say something like, “So, you see . . . when the Bible says saved here it doesn’t mean saved.

The reason this quandary exists in the first place is because there are a number of times in Scripture that things which are not explicitly faith in Christ are said to be salvific in some way: motherhood (1Timothy 2:15), baptism (1 Peter 3:21), calling on God’s Name (Acts 2:21), blowing trumpets (Numbers 10:9), prayer for healing (James 5:15), doing right (Ezekiel 18:27), etc.. Sometimes, things like “calling on the Name of the Lord” stand in the place of “trusting in Christ” and so, in some instances, justification is being alluded to if not pointed at directly. But, clearly, there are times when salvation means a kind of saving that does not necessarily equate to ultimate justification. This 1Timothy passage appears to be one of these.

The word liminal comes from the Latin limen which means “threshold.” A liminal event is a part of a rite of passage, an event in which the initiate is changed from one thing into another or has moved from one space into another. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why this simple reading doesn’t work. Childbearing is a liminal space in which, when accompanied by the holy wisdom of God which is the gift of the believer, daughters become mothers and transgression through ignorance is reverse engineered. There is no doubt that the Cross of Christ singularly accomplishes this undoing of sin’s guilt and shame, but the application points are legion and childbearing seems to be set up as one of those sacred spaces.

Eve, remember, was motherless. This was not a deficiency nor was it problematic, prior to the fall. The enemy, however, grabbed ahold of this unique trait and twisted it in his successful deception. Eve was made from that which was removed from Adam and Adam was formed by God and was given the breath of life from Him. After the fall, however, the claim to humanity’s origins would be constantly contested. Adam, even more so than Eve, must have persistently wrestled with a kind of orphan complex. We can imagine the first Adam, unbearably plagued by the typological question of whether or not he was the son of God.  The Christian is not motherless, in that he is born into the Church. This is important because fruitlessness and shame are connected throughout Scripture. What God has given to women in childbearing, when accompanied by faith, is not only salvation from those things, but from the very trap of deception.

This connection between a creature’s movement from daughter to mother being a sacred rite is seen in the event of everything that opens the matrix needing to be committed to the Lord. The fruit of this migration from daughter to mother is deemed Holy to the Lord.

Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine. (Exodus 13:2)

The firstborn is a herald and an embodiment of new creation. It is her firstborn that “tears” the daughter apart and brings about a new life. The two are then immediately reattached and in the act reattaching them, we see an image of a new creation. A daughter does not cease to be a daughter, but, for the first time, she is now called mother. She views the world, for the first time with this perspective, as a protector, as a nurturer, and as someone upon whom creation is dependent for survival. It is Eden, Act 1, Scene 2, all over again. But now, because of the Gospel, she stomps on the head of the serpent by wielding and walking in wisdom. Childbearing becomes the liminal space within which she acquires wisdom . . . anti-naivete. She is now a wise protector and nurturer. Here, she is likened unto Adam.

At this point, some would champion this thought as a defense for why women should now be allowed to teach/wield authority in the Church. After all, if she is saved from repeating the past by her acquisition of wisdom and perspective, why shouldn’t she? Despite this accomplishment being true, she is still not permitted to teach/wield authority in the way Paul means because that is Adam’s job and wisdom would not undo the creation order; rather, she upholds it. To forget that spheres of sovereignty exist with distinct kinds of headship is to disregard the carefulness of the Lord’s design. Undoing God’s designations of leadership is rebellion and is how we got into this mess in the first place. This is not to say that the spheres have nothing to do with one another. The home, the state, and the Church are all under the authority of God and His Word, but shared territory does not necessitate interchangeable parts.  The state should not be allowed to tell my wife what dress she will wear to the restaurant on Friday. The church should not be allowed to execute criminals. And women should not be pastors.

It goes without saying that it is for this reason of salvation that wisdom is feminine in the Scriptures . . .  because it is maternal. It is maternal in the fact that wisdom, as well as woman, is the mother of all the living. Childbearing pushes this issue with profound literalness. Lady Folly, no doubt, is feminine, but she is fruitless. We see her in Proverbs 9 brooding over a nest of corpses. By contrast, Lady Wisdom has children and they rise up and call her blessed. The way of wisdom is life, as is attested to by all of the Scriptures. But it is specifically feminine, which means that it is the way of life, literally. Why? Because women give birth and men do not. In this, we see that childbearing is salvific on all sides. There is a multi-faceted salvation that is taking place: she is saved by the acquiring of wisdom and thusly the undoing of ignorance; she is saved by the by maturing from childhood to adulthood if she does not spurn holy wisdom; she is saved by the fact that childbearing continues her line.

She is saved from the shame of barrenness, like Sarah, Hannah, and Tamar. Abraham, Elkanah, and Judah are saved from shame as well because of the childbearing. She no longer faces the threat of extinction if her line continues. But, ultimately, she is saved because childbearing is the event ordained by God to bring the Messiah into the world. Sarah and Tamar are used directly to this end. It is the threshold over which the Creator stepped into creation. And in doing this, the Creator established the line with divine certainty between the creation’s possibility of extinction and the Creator, who is the ground of all being. In the advent of the Messiah, salvation was given to creation in the existence of Jesus Christ on earth . . . for the life of the world.

It is not simply one reading, however, that explains how childbearing is salvific; it is a multiplicity of readings that is required. In being deceived, the woman was cut off from her Maker and cut off from her man. Childbearing is salvific, for the believer, in that it is used by God to restore her to her Maker (Christ). Childbearing is used to restore her to her man in that she is torn for the both of them in order that they might become one in a new creation. The two become one in covenantal sexual union, but the woman bears the fruit of this oneness in childbearing. The two then experience a physical representation of eternity in the existence of their progeny because in the new creation (child) the man and woman will continue on in defiance to the threat of extinction. And while it should never be doubted that all these salvific aspects of childbearing run into Bethlehem's ocean, there is an essential aspect of being saved from deception, combined with the persistence in holy wisdom, which renders the mother as cunning as a serpent but as harmless as a dove. In a crude sense, this is the best of both worlds. She stomps on the serpent’s head with a snakeskin boot.

Garrett Soucy lives in Maine with his wife and nine children where he is the pastor of Christ the King Church in Belfast. He is also a writer and musician.

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