The Role of Women in the Early Church

The Role of Women in the Early Church

by Dér Stépanos Dingilian, Ph.D. © 2001

It has been recognized by many for a long time that women played a major role in the Early Church, and the rise of Christianity immediately after the Ascension of Christ. But why did women prefer the Christian Faith as opposed to the pagan religions of the time? Dr. Rodney Stark presents some very interesting findings in his book The Rise of Christianity: How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the Western World in a few centuries. [ISBN 0060677015, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997] Here is a brief overview of the reasons that Professor Stark presents as being important for the conversion of women to Christianity (pages 104-107, ‘Wives, Widows, and Brides’).

Women in the Roman Empire preferred the Christian Faith for a number of reasons. First, “Christianity condemned divorce, incest, marital infidelity, and polygamy.” Even some of the earliest church councils held that those who married twice could not hold office. Furthermore, pagan religions had a double standard where the female chastity was demanded, but the males were given freedom to practice as they pleased. Christianity got rid of this double standard, and demanded that both males and females maintain their virginity prior to marriage. Dr. Stark mentions a quote by a Greek physician by the name of Galen who mentioned the Christian “restraint in cohabitation.”

Second, since Roman men were required to serve in the army for a significant period, it was not uncommon for a husband to die and leave behind a widow. Under Roman law, the woman had to remarry within a short period of time. Dr. Stark quotes another author who mentioned that Caesar Augustus even fined widows who did not marry within two years after losing their husband. However, the issue at stake was not simply the woman, but rather the estate that was left to her by her late husband: After the Roman widow remarried, all her estate was transferred to her new husband. Therefore, the Roman widow lost all her inheritance and always remained dependent on a husband, who as we said earlier, did not have to remain faithful to her. In contrast with this, Christian widows did not have to remarry. The widows who were rich were supported spiritually. The poor widows were actually supported by the Church. A letter of Cornelius, the bishop of Rome is quoted where it is mentioned that over fifteen hundred poor widows and distressed persons were supported by the Church.

Third, Christian women were given into marriage at a substantially older age than pagan women. In fact, it was not uncommon for pagan women to marry by the age of 12 or 13, or even before the onset of puberty. Some of the famous Roman women such as Octavia and Agrippina were married according to a study, at age of 11 and 12, respectively. It is noted that Quintilian’s wife bore him a son at the age of 13. Professor Stark notes that these were not isolated incidents. Rather, these were so commonplace and accepted, that there is very little about the age of the bride when she bore a child. Another author had quoted a Greek historian commenting about the Romans, saying that Roman law considered girls as marriageable when they had reached the age of 12. Contrast this with the Christian women who did not have to face the pressure of marriage and bearing children at a young age. According to statistics quoted by Dr. Stark, whereas two thirds of the pagan women were married by the age of 18, only half the Christian women were married by this age.

Dr. Stark points out that the women in the Early Christian Church had greater opportunities to enjoy their freedom and mature experientially before marriage, and consequently had more time to help others who were in need, which led to the formation of a supportive and tight knit community, which then was able to convert a whole empire to Christianity without ever lifting a sword!



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