Chapter 5: The Role Of Women in Christian Growth

The early church seemed especially attractive to Pagan women, in part because Christianity accorded higher status to women than did the Greco-Roman world in general. In part this was because of a major shift in sex ratios. This shift initially resulted from a Christian prohibition of infanticide and abortion; it was amplified by a subsequent tendency to overrecruit women. There were also relatively high rates of intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men, which generated many “secondary” conversions to Christianity. Finally, Christian and pagan subcultures differed greatly in fertility, and a higher birthrate led to greater growth for the early church.

Sex Ratios

Men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world (one estimate is 131 males for every 100 females!). This occurred because infanticide was socially acceptable. Women also had high death rates associated with childbirth (including abortion).

Sex ratios in the Christian subculture were different. Christians prohibited abortion and infanticide. Women were also more likely to convert.

In a primary conversion, the convert takes an active role in the conversion, becoming a committed adherent based on positive evaluations of the faith (though attachments to members play a major role in the formation of these positive evaluations). Secondary conversion is more passive and involves somewhat reluctant acceptance of a faith on the basis of attachments to a primary convert.

Women were often primary converts, who brought in their husbands as secondary converts. Often when the master of a house became Christian, all his servants and members of his family were expected to convert, too. More recent new religious movements (e.g. Shakers, Christian Scientists, Theosophists, Swedenborgians, Spiritualists) are disproportionately female, as well. The same is true of the immense wave of Protestant conversions taking place in Latin America. Stark does not consider here why women may be more responsive than men to religion. (Damn! I wanted to know.) Apparently there is no consensus.

Sex Ratios and the Status of Women

Recent theory has explained that when men outnumber females, women will be enclosed in repressive sex roles as men treat them as “scarce goods.” When females outnumber males, the theory predicts that women will enjoy relatively greater power and freedom. This theory apparently explains the differences in the relative status and power of Athenian versus Spartan women. Women were in short supply in Athens due to infanticide and abortion, and their status was low. Girls usually received no education. They were married at puberty or before. Under law, an Athenian woman was a child. Spartans also practiced infanticide, but without gender bias – only healthy, well-formed babies were allowed to live. Males are more subject to birth defects and are more likely to be sickly infants, so there was a slight excess of females from infancy, a trend which accelerated with age since many males died from military life. Spartan women controlled their own property, controlled that of their male relatives when the latter were away in the army, and were probably the sole owners of at least 40% of all land and property in Sparta. Women were as educated as men, and were subject to the same divorce laws.

Women’s Status in Christianity

Women’s increased status was manifested in the Christian prohibition of infanticide, most of which was female. It is also manifested in the condemnation of divorce, incest, marital infidelity, and polygamy. Christian men, like women, were urged to stay virgins until marriage.

Women had positions of leadership (they were deaconesses, for example) within the early church.

Note that once Christianity became dominant in society, it would no longer have a disproportionately female sex ratio. After the 5th century, women’s roles decreased because of this.

Christian Wives and Pagan Husbands

Among pagans, wives were in short supply. The opposite was true of Christians. Intermarriage was apparently common. There was apparently little or no fear that Christian wives would convert or revert to the pagan religions of their husbands. In fact, Christians showed great obstinacy in their faith. Their strength in their faith unsettled many pagans; their martyrs impressed Roman rulers by refusing to recant under threat of death. This observation holds true in high-tension religious movements today. Female Jehovah’s Witnesses frequently marry outside the group, which usually results in the conversion of the husband, and only rarely in the defection of the wife.

Remember – since religious movements grow through interpersonal connections, to continue to grow they need to keep an open network: one with continued creation of bonds to outsiders. Marriage to pagans is one mechanism for keeping an open network.

Population Growth

People in the Roman Empire did not have very many kids, despite attempts by emperors to encourage childbirth through subsidies and other benefits. The population noticeably declined even before the first great plague. Christians, however, apparently took the Biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” seriously. While the population of the Roman empire was decreasing, the Christians were increasing even without conversions.

In the Greco-Roman world, marriage held low esteem. Many men in the upper class preferred to stay single. Existing marriages produced few children. Infanticide was quite common and was justified by law and philosophers. Abortion also killed many babies, and many mothers as well. Many women who were not killed were rendered infertile. Women who became pregnant in their husbands’ absence often sought abortion. Also, women who were poor and couldn’t raise a child often aborted, and sometimes rich women had abortions to avoid splitting up their estates. In many cases, men made the decision to abort. (Roman law gave men this right.)

There were other ways of reducing fertility. There were different forms of contraceptives, for example. One of the most important causes of infertility was the shortage of females.

Christians had much higher fertility. In part this was because in early Christianity, women had higher status and thus marriage was held in higher esteem. Male as well as female fidelity was important. Christians, like Jews, held that the primary purpose of sex was procreation. They prohibited abortion and infanticide. They also, like Jews, objected to sexual practices that diverted sperm from the vagina. There were many more women (proportionally) than in the rest of the Greco-Roman world.


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