A few weekends ago, I spoke at a conference titled “Renewing Gender Relations.” It was an honor to be speaking alongside other plenary speakers such as Dr. Mimi Haddad, the president of Christians for Biblical Equality, and Rev. Dr. Grace May, president of Women of Wonder.
I spoke on the synergy of men and women in partnership, and was led to offer a history lesson.
My main question came from the subtitle of Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: how does the obscure, marginal Jesus movement become the dominant religious force in the Western world?
In his book, he takes a sociologist’s lens on Christian history, and says that without mass conversions or events, Christianity could achieve 5 to 7.5 million adherents by 300 AD just by having 40% growth each decade through relational evangelism.
Then, with each chapter, he unpacks a counter-intuitive reason why the Christian faith was growing. Christianity reached the middle and upper classes, and not just the poor. Their mission to Jewish people was rather successful, instead of unsuccessful. Christians offered basic care to the sick during plagues when their own pagan relatives left them for dead, increasing the chance of survival nine-fold instead of just relying on miracles. Christians were concentrated in urban areas where they could welcome the steady inflow from surrounding areas, and they could minister to the urban chaos and grind, due to the strength of their community. And during persecution, the way martyrs would face their death greatly impressed the Greco-Roman world.
But there was one more factor: women had an elevated standing within the Christian community.
“Christianity was unusually appealing,” writes Rodney Stark, “because within Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.”
His reasons from a sociological perspective are interesting. In a Greco-Roman world where men vastly outnumbered the women, the women outnumbered the men in Christian circles. They were usually the primary converts, who would later lead their husbands to faith. And the Christian faith gave them incredible advantages: in a world where men were expected to be promiscuous, Christianity demanded fidelity for both men and women. In that way, women enjoyed higher security and equality in their marriages. In a time when women were often given over in marriage by age 12, Christian women married later and had more choice. And where the Greco-Roman world didn’t want many children, Christians were encouraged to be fruitful and multiply, and with their prohibitions against infanticide (which often targeted girls) and abortion, more female babies were allowed to live.
But in all of this, women were also leaders of the church. Many women were martyred, and those who were killed for their faith often held positions of authority in the church. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, they specified that deaconesses needed to be single and over 40. The very fact that they had qualifications for deaconesses must mean that, obviously, they existed.
“Nevertheless,” writes Stark, “there is a virtual consensus among historians of the early church as well as biblical scholars that women held positions of honor and authority within early Christianity.”
It seemed that Christian women enjoyed far more privileges and status than other women in the Greco-Roman world, which leads to a question:
Do Christian women today enjoy more privilege and status than women outside of our communities?
For if the answer isn’t in the positive, I wonder what that means for the health of the church. Because when women did, it helped a marginal sect become the dominant religious force in the Western world.
My question is: what happens when they don’t?