International Women’s Day

Simon Smart reflects on how the rise of Christianity - with its vision of what it means to be human - has helped women to flourish.

Today is International Women’s Day. That’s where millions of people unite to celebrate the role of Christianity in helping females to flourish across the centuries, right? Not quite. The reality is that these days many people associate the church with the repression and subjugation of women. If PR departments exist within the walls of Church administration buildings they have some way to go in overcoming a general sense that the female cause has prospered despite the Christian faith and not because of it. At various times and places that reputation has been deserved.

But it’s worth going back to the beginning of the story to get to the heart of what Christianity should mean for women (and men). Jesus was the only rabbi of his day that we know of who had women disciples. He had women supporters and women who travelled with him. The Gospels record women as the ones who stayed close to Jesus as he endured crucifixion and as the first witnesses to the resurrection. It is difficult to overstate the significance of all this in a world where females were regarded as property with limited legal rights.

Christianity’s view of the full equality of men and women before God was revolutionary.

The dawning of the Christian age meant a radical shift in the way women were perceived. Sociologist Rodney Stark, who looks at a range of factors to account for the incredible growth in Christianity in the two centuries after Christ, believes its popularity among women was vital. Christianity’s view of the full equality of men and women before God was revolutionary and the implications profound.

For women, the new religion provided opportunities for them to play significant roles in the church that were especially taken up by those from the upper classes. The earliest church building yet found (Megiddo early 3rd Century) honours no fewer than six women on the mosaic floor, but only two men! No wonder so many critics from antiquity heaped scorn on Christianity for the way it drew in so many women (and slaves).

In Christian communities girls married later and enjoyed a better quality and longer life than their pagan counterparts. Largely this was due to the high rates of abortion in the Roman world—a decision made by the men.

Sexual chastity was extended to males as well as females under Christian teaching, another major shift, meaning family life was generally more secure. Infanticide was practiced widely on girls in the Greco-Roman world, and Christianity ruled this out. For these and other reasons, the early centuries of Christianity mark a great leap forward for females.

On International Woman’s Day, as we consider the plight of millions of women and girls around the globe who still suffer indignities, deprivations, and the worst kinds of oppression because of their gender, it is worth recalling the Christian conception of what it is to be human, and urging all, whether believers or non-believers, to continue to be a part of the struggle to see that vision fully realised.