Rodney Stark on the Status of Women in Early Christianity

From Rodney Stark’s book Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, pp. 320-321:

In a Greco-Roman world where women were severely disadvantaged and many upper-class women even were relegated to nearly complete seclusion, Christianity (like the other “oriental” faiths) accorded women considerable status and an opportunity to lead. Beyond that, Christianity made life far more attractive for all female members. 

The advantages of Christian females began at birth. Infanticide was widely practiced by Greco-Romans, and it was especially female infants who were dispatched. A study of inscriptions at Delphi made it possible to reconstruct 600 families. Of these, only six had raised more than one daughter. As would be expected, the bias against female infants showed up dramatically in the sex ratios of the imperial population. It is estimated that there were 131 males per 100 females in the city of Rome, and 140 males per 100 females elsewhere in the Empire.  

The advantages of Christian women continued into the teens. Roman law suggested that girls not marry until age twelve, but there were no restrictions on earlier marriage (always to a far older man). A study based on inscriptions determined that about 20 percent of pagan girls married before the age of thirteen, compared with 7 percent of Christian girls. Only a third of pagan girls married at eighteen or older, compared with half of Christian girls. Once married, pagan girls had a substantially lower life expectancy, much of the difference being due to the great prevalence of abortion, which involved barbaric methods in an age without soap, let alone antibiotics.  Given the very significant threat to life and the agony of the procedure, one might wonder why pagan women took such risks. They didn’t do so voluntarily. It was men–husbands, lovers, and fathers–who made the decision to abort. It isn’t surprising that a world that gave husbands the right to demand that infant girls be done away with would also give men the right to order their wives, mistresses, or daughters to abort. Indeed, both Plato and Aristotle advocated mandatory abortions to limit family size and for various other reasons. 

Christian wives did not have abortions (nor did Jewish wives). According to the Didache, a first-century manual of Church teachings, “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”

Christian women also enjoyed very important advantages in terms of a secure marriage and family life. Although rules prohibiting divorce and remarriage evolved slowly, the earliest Church councils ruled that “twice-married” Christians could not hold church offices. Like pagans, early Christians prized female chastity, but unlike pagans they rejected the double standard that gave men sexual license. Christian men were urged to remain virgins until marriage, and extramarital sex was denounced as adultery. Henry Chadwick noted that Christianity “regarded unchastity in a husband as no less serious a breach of loyalty and trust than unfaithfulness in a wife.” However, this was not paired with opposition to marital sexual expression….