A Sociologist Talks about How the Appearance of Christianity Improved the Lives of Women

One of the claims of the critics of Christianity is that the religion is denigrating to women, especially in the aspect that some Christian churches do not recognize the capacity of women to lead. Moreover, women are assigned a completely subservient role in many churches, and in marriage, making the religion sexist. In his book, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History,  Rodney Stark dedicates a whole chapter to women, entitled The Role Of Women In Christian Growth.[1] Stark’s conclusion is that in early Christian times Christian women enjoyed greater status and power than their pagan counterparts.

“Amidst contemporary denunciations of Christianity as patriarchal and sexist, it is easily forgotten that the early church was so especially attractive to women that in 370 the Emperor Valentinian issued in written order to Pope Damascus 1 requiring that Christian missionaries cease calling at the homes of pagan women.  Although some classical writers claim that women were easy prey for any “foreign superstition,” most recognized that Christianity was unusually appealing because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large…”[2]

Stark goes on to explain his rationale.  In the ancient world, men were more valued. (Authors note: men were more valued because, for one reason, men went to war.  While still not totally untrue to some degree in modern cultures, in ancient times it was common for one kingdom to conquer another.  The spoils of conquered land were given to the conquerors, i.e., and often this is how soldiers acquired property.  And, of course, once acquired, property was passed on to heirs.  In Sparta, for example, men lived most of their lives as soldiers for the King.  A soldier’s reward included the benefits of citizenship as a Spartan, an education, a family, and a piece of land farmed for him by helots, conquered peoples made into serfs.)

This high valuing of men over women led to a far greater proportion of men in the general population.  Men outnumbered women by a ratios of 1.3 or 1.4 to 1.  This was accomplished despite the losses of men in war by the practice of the infanticide.  Female infanticide happened much more than male infanticide because most families would only raise one daughter.”  “More than one daughter was practically never reared” even in large families.  [3]

Christianity was especially attractive to women, and more women than men converted.  Ancient sources:

“simply swarm with tales of how women of all ranks were converted in Rome and in the provinces; although the details of these stories are untrustworthy, they expressed correctly enough the general truth that Christianity was laid hold of by women in particular, and also that the percentage of Christian women, especially among the upper classes, was larger than that of men.”

Next, Stark examines why this is so.  Stark says that one reason is that Christianity removed to the gender imbalance because it prohibited all forms of infanticide and abortion.  But also, women were much more likely than men to become Christians.

Gender imbalance is an important concept because throughout history it has been shown that the higher the proportion of women in the population the greater their power and status. [4] Stark gives the example that the women in Sparta, who had a relatively high proportion of women to men, enjoyed much more power and status then their Athenian counterparts, who were less numerous proportionally than men in Athens.

Stark cites some factors that women found attractive in Christianity that helped them be more powerful than their pagan counterparts.  Christianity banned divorce, polygamy, concubines, incest, and marital infidelity.  “Christianity rejected the double standard that gave pagan men so much sexual license.”[5] Widowed Christian women were not pressured to remarry like pagans, rather, Widows were given assistance when necessary.  Moreover, Christian girls were not rushed into marriage.  All in all, Christian women married older, and enjoyed far more family stability.

Stark also addresses the issue of the role of women in the early Christian church:

“close examination of Roman persecutions also suggests that women held positions of power and status within the Christian churches.  The actual number of Christians martyred by the Romans was quite small, and the majority of men who were executed were officials, including bishops.  That a very significant proportion of martyrs were women led Bonnie Bowman Thurston to suggest that they must also been regarded by the Romans as holding some sort of official standing.  This is consistent with the fact that the women tortured and then promptly executed by Pliny were deaconesses.

Thus, just as the Gutenberg and second theory predicts, the very favorable sex ratio enjoyed by Christian women was soon translated into substantially more status and power, both within the family and within the religious subculture, then was enjoyed by pagan women.”[6]

Stark cites another interesting factor that helped Christian women as far as power and status.  Fertility was sometimes a problem in Greco-Roman culture.  Julius Caesar, his successor Augustus, and following emperors had legislation enacted that awarded land to fathers of three or more children in an effort to combat the problem of declining population in the Roman Empire.  Also childless couples and unmarried men and women were sanctioned!  Numerous reasons are cited for the low fertility rates including plagues, abortion, infanticide, primitive birth control methods, and too few women.  Part of the problem was that pagans did not value marriage and family.  All of these reasons contributed to a state of declining Roman citizenship in the years of early Christianity.

Contrasting this were the successful marriages and families of Christians.  Stark quotes First Corinthians 7:2-7 and how it runs counter to the Greco — Roman culture of the time.  Stark notes how it is not only counter to pagan influences but to Jewish tradition as well.

“But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  For the wife does not rule over own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not refuse one other except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.  I say this by way of concession, not of command.  I wish that all were as I myself am.  But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” [1 Cor 7:2-7]

In these verses Stark notes the symmetrical responsibility that men have to their wives and vice versa as far as sex is concerned.  Marriage is designed so that each person is to have their sexual needs met totally within the marriage.  This is a radical concept compared to all other cultures, including pagan ones and Judaism.

Stark also notes the section on Ephesians chapter 5.  He addresses the fact that while women are told to submit to their husbands in verse 22 the next 10 verses are to the man charging him to love his wife.

As we have said above Christians did not practice abortion or infanticide, and, were in fact vocal to others in their rejection of it.  Stark notes that all of these factors; better marriages, better families, the ban on abortion, the ban on infanticide, all contributed somehow to greater fertility in the Christian community.  Greater fertility helped with status in the community as this helped a known issue of the state.


Stark, in his book on the rise of Christianity, challenges the attack by critics of Christianity that Christianity perpetuated sexism and patriarchalism.  Stark shows that Christianity was revolutionary, and the better alternative for women in ancient times.  Stark analyzes his hypothesis from a number of factors including the treatment of women in general; practices of abortion, infanticide, divorce, polygamy, incest, and the general dislike of the pagan population of the institutions of marriage and family.  His conclusion is that women were actually better served by Christianity in terms of power and status.  Female babies stopped being killed.  Women were no longer forced into early marriages, but they married older. Women were honored in marriage.  Women played more vital roles in Christianity than they did in the pagan religions and Greco-Roman soceity in general, including participation in leadership roles.

Stark comes to his conclusions not by reading ancient Christian literature proclaiming its benefits over other lifestyles but, rather, by looking at ancient secular documents as well as applying social science.  How fascinating!

[1] The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996, p. 95 – 128
[2] ibid., p. 95
[3] ibid., p. 97
[4] ibid., p101
[5] ibid., p104
[6] ibid., p. 110

©copyright 2010 Mark W. Smith, all rights reserved.

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