Women and Christianity

Critics of Christianity consider it a patriarchal religion that relegates women to "second class citizens" at best. This isn't the case at all. Christianity values all humans equally, and the behavior and practices of the early church demonstrate that women were valued just as highly as men. And this was in stark contrast to the treatment of women in literally any other culture and religion at that time. Though the Bible teaches complementary roles in marriage, it elevated the status of women in marriage, placing equal value on each spouse. Christianity placed new obligations on husbands for the treatment of their wives and daughters. And this played out quite clearly in the early church.

Rodney Stark offers the evidence in his book The Triumph of Christianity (p. 144-154).

Because Jesus, the twelve apostles, Paul, and the prominent leaders in the early church in Jerusalem were all men, the impression prevails that early Christianity was primarily a male affair. Not so. From earliest days women predominated.

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul begins with personal greetings to fifteen women and eighteen men who were prominent members of the Roman congregation. If we may assume that sufficient sex bias existed so that men were more likely than women to hold positions of leadership, then this very close sex ratio suggests a Roman congregation that was very disproportionately female. Indeed, the converts of Paul “we hear most about are women,” and many of them “leading women.” Thus, the brilliant Cambridge church historian Henry Chadwick (1920-2008) noted, “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women. It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance.”…

The question persists, Why? The answer consists of two parts. First,…religious movements always attract more women than men…. Far more important is the second part of the answer, which suggests that Christianity was attractive to women far beyond the usual level of gender differences. Women were especially drawn to Christianity because it offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led….

Christian writers have long stressed that Jesus’s “attitude toward women was revolutionary…. For him the sexes were equal.”….[R]ecent objective evidence leaves no doubt that early Christian women did enjoy far greater equality with men than did their pagan and Jewish counterparts. A study of Christian burials in the catacombs under Rome, based on 3,733 cases, found that Christian women were nearly as likely as Christian men to be commemorated with lengthy inscriptions. This “near equality in the commemoration of males and females is something that is peculiar to Christians, and sets them apart from the non-Christian populations of the city.” This was true not only of adults, but also of children, as Christians lamented the loss of a daughter as much as that of a son, which was especially unusual compared with other religious groups in Rome. 

Of course, there is overwhelming evidence that from earliest days, Christian women often held leadership roles in the church and enjoyed far greater security and equality in marriage….

In Romans 16:1-2 Paul introduces and commends to the Roman congregation “our sister Phoebe” who is a deaconess “of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.” Deacons were important leaders in the early church, with special responsibilities for raising and dispersing funds. Clearly, Paul saw nothing unusual in a woman filling that role. Nor was this an isolated case or limited to the first generation of Christians….

Prominent historians now agree that woman held positions of honor and authority in the early Christianity….

The superior situation of Christian women vis-à-vis their pagan sisters began at birth. The exposure of unwanted infants was “widespread” in the Roman Empire, and girls were far more likely than boys to be exposed….Even in large families, “more than one daughter was hardly ever reared.” A study based on inscriptions was able to reconstruct six hundred families and found that of these, only six had raised more than one daughter.

In keeping with their Jewish origins, Christians condemned the exposure of infants as murder. As Justin Martyr (100-165) put it, “we have been taught that it is wicked to expose even new-born children… [ for] we would then be murderers.” So, substantially more Christian (and Jewish) female infants lived….

The Christian position on divorce was defined by Jesus….This was a radical break with past customs. A survey of marriage contracts going all the way back to ancient Babylon found that they always contained a divorce clause specifying payments and divisions of property and the cause of divorce need be nothing more than a husband’s whim…. But the early church was unswerving in its commitment to the standard set by Jesus, and this soon evolved into the position that there were no grounds for remarriage following divorce. In addition, although like everyone else early Christians prized female chastity, unlike anyone else they rejected the double standard that gave men sexual license. As Henry Chadwick explained, Christians "regarded unchastity in a husband as no less serious a breach of loyalty and trust than unfaithfulness in a wife.” 


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Melinda Penner