Christianity: The True Champion of Women

16 May 2023

8.9 MINS

Over the years I’ve been involved in thousands of online conversations with atheists, many of whom identify with the label “rational sceptic”. But when you examine their position, in most cases reason is the last quality to be found in their ideas.

And this is largely due to the nature of their scepticism, which is negative. By this, I mean that it is the opposite of the kind of positive scepticism we see, for example, in science. There researchers are required to do their best to disprove their own theories before they can be regarded as the best inference.

The same can be said for the scepticism of investigative journalists, who cover all sides of a story before determining who is telling the truth.

And it was an Australian newspaper proprietor from the middle of the last century, Sir Warwick Fairfax, who for me summed up the negative scepticism of the atheist, who only uses it as a means of shielding themselves from any worldview claim which might be a threat to their own.

He wrote,

“In the nature of things there can never be proof that will satisfy the sceptic since he must cease being a sceptic before he can find it”.

One of the worst traits of the “rational sceptic” is to read and interpret Scripture as though they’re reading their daily newspaper. By doing so they ignore the fact that it’s written in a foreign language from a distant time in history, relevant to a vastly different cultural, legal and political environment.

And one of the most misinterpreted issues among sceptics is Paul’s pronouncements on the role of women in the church and the family, where Paul is so often accused of being a misogynist, and the primary justification in Christianity for “male patriarchy”.

In relation to this area of contention, a recent article here by theologian and teacher Trinity Westlake dug deeply into both the original Greek as well as the culture of the time and the locations of those particular churches. By doing so she paints a completely different picture to the one favoured by these sceptical critics. In my half-century as a Christian, and widely read on such contentious issues, her analysis is some of the best I’ve come across.

And it’s the history of the early church which lived out the true meaning of Paul’s letters in that respect. By doing so they offered a transformative lifestyle to the women of the truly misogynistic Roman Empire. It is also one of the primary reasons for the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the second and third centuries.

On that subject, I’ve been reading two books recently which explain this. The first is The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Professor Alan Kreider, and the second is Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality by Nancy Pearcey.

Kreider takes up several pages on the fact that women most likely constituted the largest number of people in churches across the Empire in that period, and that “except in exceptional circumstances”, were not elevated to leadership positions:

“Women were almost never bishops; only in exceptional cases were they “apostles” and presbyters; and only occasionally – at a few times and in a few areas – did they serve as deacons or “deaconesses”. No, the significance of women in the early centuries was not in their institutional leadership but in their sheer number. It may be hard to prove this, but I am convinced that from an early date the majority of Christians were women.”

But it’s Pearcey who goes further, by drawing numerous parallels between the culture of the Roman world and ours in the West today. In doing so she points to the fact that it is the Christian message which today, as then, is revolutionary and countercultural. We stand in opposition to what is now the “tradition” of our secular culture, which openly opposes our message:

“We should never defend Christianity by saying it is traditional. From the beginning, it has stood against the traditions of its day.”

She identifies the practices which identify both the ancient and contemporary cultures as disrespectful to women. They are abortion and infanticide, infidelity in marriage and sexual licence.

In relation to abortion and infanticide, she writes:

“The historical record of Christianity is impressive for its uniform opposition to abortion. The early Christians were not being “conservative” in the sense of following the lead of their culture. Instead, they were radical, even countercultural… Because of Christianity’s opposition to abortion, modern critics portray it as hostile to women’s rights. But surprisingly, in the early church, it was the church’s opposition to abortion and infanticide that made it especially attractive to women.

Here’s why: A culture that practices abortion and infanticide is a culture that demeans women and disrespects their unique contribution to the task of reproduction. It does not treat women’s ability to gestate and bear children as a wondrous and awesome capacity but as a liability, a disadvantage, a disability.”

The cause of this, as she cites sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, in his book, The Rise of Christianity, is:

“The Greco-Roman world was a male culture that held marriage in low esteem.”

Marriage held in low esteem? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.

She then notes how both women and children were also held in low esteem through the high rate of abortion and infanticide. Drawing a comparison with our own culture, she cites a number of bioethicists who are now subscribing to the notion that any child born is disposable, from the moment of birth, even to what Australian bioethicist Peter Singer believes, that “a three year-old is a gray case”!

Or, as author Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote in an article titled, “So What If Abortion Ends Life?”, “The fetus is a… life worth sacrificing”.

Another reason abortion and infanticide are demeaning to women is sex selection.

Pearcey notes that

“During Roman times, it was not uncommon for infants to be killed as a form of birth control… Most of those babies were girls. In fact, it was rare for a Roman family to have more than one daughter. Historians have uncovered a letter written in the first century BC by a Roman soldier to his pregnant wife back home, saying, ‘If it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it.’ In this context the Christian church stood out for its high view of women.”

She then shows how that parallels practices in our own culture.

“Today, as in ancient times, abortion and infanticide are practiced primarily against baby girls. Sex-selection abortion has created a surplus of men in several nations, from China to India. Girls are also more likely to die from malnutrition and neglect. Adult women are subject to violence and death at the hands of husbands and other family members. The United Nations estimates that 200 million women are demographically missing.

Some have labeled it ‘gendercide’.

A documentary on the issue says, ‘The three deadliest words in the world are, “It’s a girl”.’”

Pearcey then identifies the principle driving force of abortion: infidelity in marriage, and what she describes as “sexual hedonism”.

In relation to these, Westlake’s article, by focusing on the true meaning of the Greek, reveals the equal honour afforded both men and women within the Christian community. Pearcey shows us how radically counter cultural it was, a complete contrast to the accepted practices within the surrounding culture:

“In ancient Greek and Roman culture, it was widely accepted that husbands would have sex with mistresses, concubines, slaves, and prostitutes (both male and female). An ancient Athenian saying was, ‘Wives are for legal heirs, prostitutes are for pleasure”… In sharp contrast, the New Testament taught men to “love their wives as their own bodies”. The husband’s ‘headship’ was re-defined as self-sacrifice, modelled on Christ’s sacrificial love (Eph 5:25–33).

To the shock of the ancient world, the New Testament taught that men (not just women) were to be faithful to their spouse. Christianity stood out as radically different because it taught that a husband actually wrongs his wife by his adultery… Such even-handed treatment was revolutionary.”

She then describes the ‘symmetry’ of the marriage relationship at its most intimate level, as expressed by Paul in 1 Cor 7:3–4:

“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”

“Nothing like this had ever been seen before.

To stress that he was describing an obligation, not an option, in this passage Paul borrows legal language. The word used for marital “duty” normally refers to a debt of money. The word used for “authority” included state authority. The word for “deprive” normally meant to “defraud” or “refuse payment”. Paul did not care that in the ancient world men’s sexual freedom was considered completely acceptable. In the church there was a new law: Men were called to sexual fidelity and exclusivity just as much as women were. Note that a woman was even given “authority” over her husband’s body, an ideal so radical that even today there are probably few who fully practice it.”

Tying all of these themes back together Pearcey concludes:

“…Paul’s writings were radical. By elevating the status of women, they delivered a severe blow to the double standard that was the pre-Christian norm. And by keeping sex within marriage, the biblical ethic drove down the demand for abortion and infanticide. Children were born into families committed to loving and caring for them.

A second-century document called “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus” sums up the surprising behaviors that set Christians apart from the pagan world: ‘They beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed.’”

Radical indeed.

No wonder women flocked to Christianity. As Stark writes:

“The Christian woman enjoyed far greater marital security and equality than did her pagan neighbor”.

He adds,

“Christianity was unusually appealing because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large”.

Then, as now, what Christians do with their sexuality is one of the most important testimonies they give to the surrounding world. They are called to build a community of families that respects women and cares for the young and vulnerable.”

I could have spent more time quoting Pearcey on this from the perspective of the negative effect in our age of women placing career before family, but only last week Cindy McGarvie, the National Director of Youth for Christ Australia, did such a splendid job of that in her uplifting article published here. However, I cannot recommend Pearcey’s book highly enough.

From all of that we can see the similarities between the pagan culture which the early church inhabited and our neo-pagan culture now. There are differences, for sure. For example, we could be said to have exchanged online pornography for temple prostitution. But the similarities far outweigh the incidental differences. And culture does not change the fact that we, like they, are human beings. We have identical moral impulses and imperatives indelibly imprinted on our souls.

So with this in mind, we can work out ways to present these truths to our culture, truths which promote women instead of demeaning their highest purpose. And Pearcey’s “Love Thy Body” gives us a comprehensive overview of the direction our culture is taking, and how the Christian response, now as in the early days of the church, restores dignity and honour to the roles of both men and women.

And one of those ways I actually covered in a recent article on Joshua Butler’s new book, Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort Of) Explains Everything:

“I believe he is pointing in the right direction in the process of being able to express a theology of sexuality which can act as a corrective to the secular free-for-all. This can only be achieved by an expression of the true purpose of sex… This then needs to be a component part of the whole theology expressed by our Christian worldview, to a world which, by settling for worldly solutions, settles for the inferior, not just in relation to sex, but in every aspect of life.

This, for me, is in line with what the apostle Peter teaches us in his first letter. He informs us of our own elevation, that we are “…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…”. By the authority of this office our calling is to “… proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9 NASB).

So, when an issue arises where we are questioned about our faith, because we are encouraged to always be “ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15 NASB), we have the opportunity to shine that “marvellous light” on whatever issue is raised. This applies as much to a defence of the Biblical perspective on sex and sexuality as it does to any other issue.”

So, to sum up, all of these sources together provide us with the means to respond positively to our culture in relation to possibly the most contentious issue of our times, and possibly the most damaging at an individual level. As I wrote in that article, this is a “hyper-sexualised age where nothing is hidden and all shock value has been wrung from every expression of sex and sexuality.”

It’s time to shock the world back to the infinitely superior beauty and truth of the complementary union Paul described, and to silence those false claims of Paul’s misogyny by sceptics in doing so.


Photo by Brynna Spencer.

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  1. Jim Twelves 16 May 2023 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Kim, thank you so much for your sensitive and comprehensive argument. For me, to understand that the church was predominately female, way back in Gecko-Roman times, was a most helpful understanding. Secondly, how helpful it is to consider our stand today as ‘radical’ rather than ‘traditional’!

    • Kim Beazley 16 May 2023 at 4:38 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Jim. I was so taken by Pearcey’s use of terms like “radical” and “counter cultural”, and it really makes sense when you think how opposed to our ethos and our principles the culture is becoming on all fronts. For this reason alone I find her book is invaluable, and I really can’t recommend it too highly. In fact, every book of hers that I’ve read is “top shelf”. Heck, get them all! You won’t regret it. Thank me later.

      Kreider’s book was also an eye opener, especially in relation to the way in which the church grew, which we Evangelical Western Christians would find counter intuitive. But I’ll keep that under my hat for now, because I feel there’s a good article to be had from that.

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