The anti-sexism of Christianity

There are a lot of historical arguments made to support the proposition that Christianity is bad.  Many of them are sheer, unmitigated tripe.  For instance, there’s the myth of the so-called “Dark Ages” in which, supposedly, the Church suppressed science and rational inquiry.  The truth is that the roots of modern science were firmly laid in the true Renaissance of the twelfth century—and that what’s commonly called “the Renaissance” was a reactionary movement that worked hard to unlearn all that medieval scientists had learned about the errors in Greco-Roman natural philosophy.  That doesn’t suit the agenda of anti-Christian polemicists, though, or the general chronological snobbery of our time.  It also doesn’t suit the triumphalist narrative of scientific history in which the work of science always advances, which has no room for the times when science regresses.

Another is the myth of the Crusades.  Yes, the Crusades happened (that much is no myth), but it’s a widespread myth that they were “brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world.”  In reality, they were a counteroffensive against Islamic expansionism.  Islamic armies invaded the Byzantine Empire in 634, southern Italy in 652, and the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 711, plus they sacked Rome in 846.  The First Crusade wasn’t until 1095.  There’s a lot more to be said here, and maybe I’ll write a full post on this at some point, but the Islamic world only remembered the Crusades for the victories of Saladin until Westerners brought the myth to them in the 19th century.

Yet another canard is the idea that Christianity is intrinsically sexist.  To support this idea and buttress their claim that contemporary Christianity is anti-woman, some argue that early Christianity was particularly oppressive to women.  This is perhaps the most indefensible myth of all, resting on nothing but chronological snobbery.  Michael Kruger, the president of Reformed Theological Seminary’s Charlotte campus, neatly dispatches this claim:

Is it really the case that second-century Christianity was a hostile environment for women?

Well, if it was, apparently no one bothered to tell the women in the second century because they flocked to Christianity in droves.

It is well established that Christianity was extremely popular with women during this time period.  Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that perhaps 2/3 of the Christianity community during this time period were made up of women.  This is the exact opposite of the ratio in the broader Greco-Roman world where women only made up about 1/3 of the population. . . .

Christianity was a cultural pariah during this time period.  It was an outsider movement in all sorts of ways–legal, social, religious, and political.  Christians were widely despised, viewed with suspicion and scorn, and regarded as a threat to a stable society.

And yet, women, in great numbers, decided to join the early Christian movement anyway.

Women pop up all over the place in our earliest Christian sources.  They are persecuted by the Roman government, they are hosting churches in their homes, they are caring for the poor and those in prison, they are traveling missionaries, they are wealthy patrons who support the church financially, and much much more.

Indeed, so popular was Christianity with women, that pagan critics of Christianity (Celsus, Lucian) mocked Christianity for being a religion of women.

Let that sink in for a moment.  In the ancient world, Christianity was mocked for being too pro-women!  That is a far cry from what one hears in cultural conversations today.

The reasons that Christianity provided such a favorable environment for women are not hard to discover.  Early Christianity would have included opportunities for real ministry involvement (with honor and dignity), it condemned female infanticide (a practice which had greatly reduced female numbers in the pagan population), it spoke out against child brides (which was harmful to young girls), and it advocated for healthier marriages where divorce was condemned and use of prostitutes/concubines forbidden (which resulted in greater fertility in Christian couples).

It’s rather ironic, I think, that some of the things that attracted women to the early church are now used to argue that Christianity is anti-woman.  It suggests, I believe, that those who insist that to be pro-woman is to be pro-abortion and support no-fault divorce might want to reconsider their position.


“A Christian Dirce,” 1896, Henryk Siemiradzki.  Public domain.

Posted in History, Religion and theology.

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