Articles

The Early Church’s Protection of Women and Children

Learning from our Christian ancestors how to order sex, marriage, and family for a better society.

05/6/24

John Stonestreet

Glenn Sunshine

Imagine a world simultaneously obsessed with sex and opposed to having children, in which girls are forced to marry before puberty and abortion is an acceptable means of ending embarrassing pregnancies, but often results in the sterilization or death of the mother. In this world, infanticide, especially of babies born female or disabled, is both legal and common, and those lucky enough to be rescued are forced into prostitution. And due to this legalized “gendercide,” there are about 131 and 140 men for every 100 women 

Imagine how brutal that world would be for women and children. This was the Roman Empire. 

Now imagine that an unpopular minority religious group emerges. Its adherents see women as spiritual and moral equals and treat them with respect and honor. Young girls are cared for, not forced to marry, and only do so when of age. This group not only rescues victims of attempted infanticide but adopts them, raising them in their own homes. In this group, extra-marital sex is prohibited, for husbands and not just wives, as is divorce, abortion, and infanticide. Widows with nowhere else to go are also taken in and cared for.  

Imagine how popular this group would be, especially with women and children. This was the early Christian Church. 

Rodney Stark documented these historical details in his masterful The Rise of Christianity. The book was published in 1996, before Stark became a Christian. Recently, by studying Roman funerary inscriptions, demographer Lyman Stone confirmed Stark’s conclusions and, in fact, expanded on them. 

Though many funerary inscriptions have survived, drawing conclusions from them is difficult because not all are representative of the Roman population. Despite this limit, Stone reached several interesting conclusions. For example, based only on the raw numbers, Christians were more likely to commemorate their dead children than pagans were. Christians also commemorated women at a significantly higher rate than the pagans did, especially mothers. Lyman also was able to conclude, based on the number of women who were commemorated, that women made up about two-thirds of the Christian community. Across the broader Roman culture, women were in the minority. 

The funerary inscriptions also support data cited by Rodney Stark that Christians had far more children than pagans. In large measure, this was because Christians didn’t kill their babies. Christians even had more children than Jews, who also rejected abortion and infanticide. 

According to Stone, the difference between Christian and pagan fertility resulted in an important shift in the Roman population. Fertility declined in the Western half of the Empire for the first 200 years AD. However, in the East, which had the densest population of Christians, fertility rose during that period. Although Stone doesn’t talk about this, the political and economic center of the Roman Empire began to shift east during that same period. 

One conclusion of this data is, contrary to how the story is often told by contemporary voices, Christianity was the best thing that happened to women and children in that culture. In fact, from its beginning, Christianity was a pro-natalist religion in an anti-natalist world.  

Our culture is not unlike that of the Roman Empire, an era obsessed with sex but indifferent or opposed to children, who are increasingly seen as optional lifestyle accessories to suit the desires of adults. Like the early Christians, our faithfulness requires being counter-cultural in our attitudes about sex and children, an insistence that sex be confined within its God-given scope of monogamous marriage, honoring its God-given purpose, and welcoming all children who result into our families and into the community of faith, including those discarded by pagan parents.  

We should do these things because they are right and good, true to who we are. Even so, through this kind of faithfulness, the early Christians ultimately won over a Roman Empire that was hostile to the Gospel. As we face a world that looks more and more like that one, we have much to learn from their example. 

This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Glenn Sunshine. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org. 

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