The Effects of Christianity (Part 2)

April 16, 2019

by Peter Amsterdam

(Points from this article were taken from How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt1)

In this Easter season, we continue to look at the profound effects that Christianity has had on the course of human history since the death and resurrection of Jesus. This article will focus on the fundamental change that Christianity wrought regarding the dignity and status of women.

Throughout the reign of the Roman Empire, women lived under the law of patria potestas, which declared that the paterfamilias (male head of the family) had absolute authority over his children, even adult ones. Married women remained under the authority of their father unless the marriage was a manus marriage, which meant that the woman ceased to be under the authority of her father and came under the control of her husband. As such, a husband could legally physically chastise his wife. If she committed adultery, he could kill her; if she committed some other serious offense, the husband was generally required to get the consent of his extended family before killing her. A manus marriage gave the man complete authority over his wife, so that she only had the legal status of an adopted daughter.

Women were not allowed to speak in public settings. All places of authority, such as city councils, the senate, and legal courts were only accessible to men. If women had any legal questions or complaints, they had to convey them to their husbands or fathers, who would take the matter to the proper authorities on the woman’s behalf, as women were required to remain silent on such matters. In general, women were held in very low regard.

In the Jewish culture throughout the rabbinic era (400 BC to 300 AD), there also existed a strong bias against women. They weren’t allowed to testify in court, as they were considered unreliable witnesses. They were likewise barred from all public speaking. They weren’t allowed to read the Torah out loud in the synagogues. One rabbinic teaching proclaimed that it was “shameful” to hear a woman’s voice in public among men.2 Synagogue worship was conducted by men. Women in attendance were separated from the men by a partition.

Some Jewish women were confined to their homes, and didn’t even approach the outer door of their homes. Young women remained in parts of the house specified as the women’s quarters to avoid being seen by men, and when they had (women) visitors, they would host them only in these parts of the home. Married women in rural areas had a bit more freedom of movement, as they helped their husbands do the farming. However, it was considered inappropriate for them to work or travel alone. Any income a married woman may have received, including inheritances, belonged to her husband.

Throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus had a very different attitude toward women than was customary at that time, one which raised their status. Through both His teachings and actions, He rebuffed the common beliefs and practices which espoused that women were inferior to men. One example is His interaction with the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John. At that time, Jews didn’t interact with the Samaritans at all, yet Jesus requested that she give Him a drink from the well. She was surprised and wondered why He would ask her to give Him a drink, as the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.3 Jesus not only ignored the fact that she was a Samaritan, but He also spoke with a woman in public, which contravened the oral law (Jewish religious laws which were not included in the original Laws of Moses but were added over the centuries): He who talks with a woman [in public] brings evil upon himself.4 A similar rabbinic teaching stated that a man may not converse with a woman in the marketplace.5

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that women followed Jesus, which was very unusual at that time, as other Jewish teachers and rabbis did not have women disciples.

The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.6

There were also women [at His crucifixion] looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.7

After His resurrection, Jesus appeared first to women, and instructed them to tell the rest of His disciples that He had risen.

After the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. … But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” … And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”8

The early church followed Jesus’ precedent, ignoring cultural norms regarding women. Women played an important role in the church, as seen in the Epistles of Paul stating that they had churches in their homes. In the letter to Philemon, he addresses Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.9 Nympha was a woman who had a church in her home in Laodicea.10 He referred to Prisca and her husband Aquila, who had a church in their house, as my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.11

In the book of Romans, Paul wrote: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.12 The Greek word translated as servant is diakonos, which is sometimes translated in the Epistles as deacon and other times as minister. Paul refers to himself as diakonos numerous times in the Epistles. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace.13 Paul used the same Greek word diakonos when referring to his co-workers and co-leaders. He referred to Tychicus as a faithful minister in the Lord14 and Epaphras as a faithful minister of Christ.15 So when he commended Phoebe as a diakonos of the church, it appears that Paul was acknowledging that she was a deacon or minister within the church.

Paul made the point that within Christianity, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.16 Jesus, Paul, and the early church worked against the concept of keeping women secluded, silent, subservient, and segregated in worship.

Jesus’ message of salvation resonated with women in the early church, so much so that early church historians maintain that generally women were more active in the church than men were. St. Chrysostom, in the fourth century, said:

The women of those days [early apostolic church] were more spirited than men.

The historian W. E. H. Lecky stated:

In the ages of persecution female figures occupy many of the foremost places and ranks of martyrdom.17

German church historian and theologian Leopold Zscharnack wrote:

Christendom dare not forget that it was primarily the female sex that for the greater part brought about its rapid growth. It was the evangelistic zeal of women in the early years of the church, and later, which won the weak and the mighty.18

In the early centuries, women outnumbered men in the church, and thus some of them married unbelieving men. When they did, the overwhelming majority of children from these “mixed marriages” were raised within the church.19

For the first 150 years of Christianity, women were highly regarded within and very important to the church. Sadly, after that time, some of the church leaders began to revert to the practices and attitudes of the Romans relating to women, and women were slowly excluded from leadership roles within the church. Over the next three centuries, church leaders incorporated views of the inferiority of women into general Christian understanding.

Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) taught that every woman should blush because she is a woman.20 Tertullian (d. 220) said:

You [Eve] are the devil’s gateway … You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert, that is death, even the Son of God had to die.21

Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) argued that women were to pray in church by only moving their lips. He wrote:

Let her pray, and her lips move, but let not her voice be heard.22

These attitudes were both misguided and wrong.

Even with these distorted attitudes toward women, there were still many ways in which women were on equal footing with men within the church throughout that time. For example, women received the same instruction as men when becoming members of the church, they were baptized in the same fashion as men, they participated equally with men in receiving communion, and they prayed and stood with men in the same worship setting.23

While there was some divergence from what the New Testament taught across the centuries, there were also major legal changes for the better concerning women throughout the territory of the Roman Empire. Within a half-century of Christianity being legalized, Emperor Valentinian l repealed the one-thousand-year-old patria potestas in 374 AD so that the paterfamilias no longer had absolute authority over his wife or children.

Women were granted substantially the same rights as men in control of their property … They also received the right of guardianship over their children, who previously were the sole possession of men.24

This also meant that women had a choice in who they married, instead of having their husband chosen by their father, which had been the case in ancient times. This also allowed them to marry later. Because of Paul’s teachings, husbands started seeing their wives as partners, both spiritually and practically. Today, women in the Western world are no longer compelled to marry someone they don’t want to, neither can they be legally compelled to marry as a child bride—as still happens in some places in our world.

During Jesus’ lifetime, and before, many ancient societies, especially in the Middle East, allowed polygyny (a man being married to more than one woman at the same time). Many of the Jewish patriarchs and kings such as Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and others had multiple wives. While Jesus entered a world that accepted polygyny, when He spoke of marriage, it was invariably in the context of monogamy.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.25

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents…26

St. Paul seems to add support to the concept of monogamy when he writes that bishops/overseers should be the husband of one wife.

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.27

The literal translation from the Greek of “the husband of one wife” is “one-woman man.” While there are other possible ways of interpreting what Paul wrote, historically the understanding leans toward monogamy in marriage. A number of the early Church Fathers in the second and third centuries wrote against polygamous marriage. When marriage is mentioned in the New Testament, it is understood to refer to monogamous marriage. The Christian view of marriage as comprising a monogamous relationship has permeated the laws of Western society.

In the Gospels, we see that Jesus had compassion for women who were widows. He raised a widow’s son from the dead,28 denounced the Pharisees for taking financial advantage of widows,29 and commended the poor widow who sacrificially gave two mites as an offering to the temple.30 The apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, instructed the Ephesian church to honor widowed mothers, and in the Epistle of James we read,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.31

In the early second century Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, wrote:

Let not the widows be neglected. Be thou, after the Lord, their protector and friend.32

Later, widows were often chosen to be deaconesses in the church.

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and the salvation it brought to those who believe in Him has made a monumental difference in countless lives over the centuries. His example and teaching caused His disciples and the early church to accord a higher level of dignity, freedom, and rights to women. Therefore, women today in countries which have been influenced by Christianity for the most part have more freedom, opportunity, and human worth than in countries without that influence.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

2 Berakhoth 24a.

3 John 4:7–9.

4 Aboth 1.5.

5 Berakhoth 43b.

6 Luke 8:1–3.

7 Mark 15:40–41.

8 Matthew 28:1, 5–6, 9–10.

9 Philemon 1:1–2.

10 Colossians 4:15.

11 Romans 16:3. See also 1 Corinthians 16:19.

12 Romans 16:1.

13 Ephesians 3:7.

14 Ephesians 6:21.

15 Colossians 1:7.

16 Galatians 3:28.

17 W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals: From Augustus to Charlemagne (New York: D. Appleton, 1927), 73.

18 Leopold Zscharnack, Der Dienst der Frau in den ersten Jabrhunderten der christlich Kirche (Gottingen: n.p., 1902), 19.

19 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 127.

20 Instructor 3.11.

21 On the Apparel of Women 1.1.

22 Procatechesis 14.

23 Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 110.

24 William C. Morey, Outlines of Roman Law (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), 150–151.

25 Matthew 19:5.

26 Luke 18:29.

27 1 Timothy 3:2.

28 Luke 7:11–15.

29 Mark 12:40.

30 Luke 21:2–3.

31 1 Timothy 5:3–4, James 1:27.

32 Ignatius, “The Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1:94.