Christianity and women's rights

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Georges de La Tour, Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene and other women were the first individuals to Jesus Christ after his resurrection.[1]

Dr. Jeff Myers in his book Understanding the Culture: A Survey of Social Engagement wrote about Christianity and women's rights:

Christianity has done more for women’s rights than any other movement in history. Christianity sprouted in the seedbed of the Roman Empire, whose soil was nourished with the blood of the innocent. To say that Rome was distinctly anti-woman is an understatement. Families typically kept all their healthy boys and their oldest healthy girl. Other daughters were left to die as infants. Surgical abortion was available, and women often died from it or were left maimed. Surviving girls were typically married off at age twelve and were pressured into remarriage when widowed.

Christians opposed these practices. They took in abandoned infants, condemned surgical abortion, allowed girls to remain unmarried until they were ready, and provided support for widows. Welcomed by the church rather than shunned, women converted to Christianity at a far higher rate than men and rose to positions of leadership.Unsurprisingly, this led to a surplus of Christian women who, in marrying pagan men, provided the early church “with a steady flow of secondary converts,” as Rodney Stark drily phrased it. Also, because they accepted rather than rejected all children, Christians gained a distinct population advantage in producing the next generation.

Furthermore, Christianity’s acceptance of women’s dignity led to cultural innovations all over the world. In India, for example, it was only when Parliament forced the British East India Company to allow Christian missionaries into India that the practice of suttee was questioned. It took decades, but these missionaries, together with indigenous Christians like Krishna Mohan Bannerjee, eventually succeeded in having this gruesome practice banned.

In China, traditional culture held that tiny feet were a mark of status and beauty for women. In many parts of China, the feet of little girls were bound tightly to prevent them from growing. This broke the toes and bones in the arches of their feet, leaving many girls nearly crippled. In the 1600s, the Manchu emperors (who were not ethnically Chinese) tried and failed to stop the practice. In the late 1800s, however, Chinese Christian women, such as medical doctor Shi Meiyu, began agitating against this abuse of young girls and women and were eventually successful in making the practice illegal. Meiyu also exerted a transformational influence on China through her work in medicine and public health and the help she provided to opium addicts.

Historically in most cultures, women were often denied educational opportunities. Christian missionaries and indigenous Christian leaders changed that in country after country. In Japan, Nitobe Inazō, a scholar with five doctoral degrees and an innovator in Japan’s agricultural advancement, founded Tokyo Christian Women’s University and became its first president. Tsuda Umeko, a Japanese woman educated in the United States, became the private tutor of prime minister Ito Hirobumi’s children. She had such an influence on securing the right of women to education that Tsuda College, the most prestigious private women’s college in Japan, is named in her honor.[2]

The article The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries published in Christianity Today notes:

In his fifth year of graduate school, Woodberry created a statistical model that could test the connection between missionary work and the health of nations. He and a few research assistants spent two years coding data and refining their methods. They hoped to compute the lasting effect of missionaries, on average, worldwide...

One morning, in a windowless, dusty computer lab lit by fluorescent bulbs, Woodberry ran the first big test. After he finished prepping the statistical program on his computer, he clicked "Enter" and then leaned forward to read the results.

"I was shocked," says Woodberry. "It was like an atomic bomb. The impact of missions on global democracy was huge. I kept adding variables to the model—factors that people had been studying and writing about for the past 40 years—and they all got wiped out. It was amazing. I knew, then, I was on to something really important."

Woodberry already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy. Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren't just part of the picture. They were central to it...

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple—if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary."[3]

Andrea L. Turpin, Associate Professor of History, Baylor University, wrote:

The very first college in world history to offer a bachelor’s degree to women, Oberlin, did so in 1837, with the goal of training more people to spread the evangelical gospel.

In other words, theologically conservative Christians pioneered women’s higher education for theological reasons.

I call these people “evangelical pragmatists” because they were willing to bend cultural norms about appropriate activities for women in order to get more hands on deck for God. For the same reason, they structured Oberlin to be unusually affordable and even admitted African-American students starting in 1835. Prior to this time, only a handful of African-Americans are believed to have graduated from any American college.

Remarkably, the first and longest standing single-sex institution of higher education for American women, Mount Holyoke, was founded in 1837 by evangelical pragmatists for the same reason. Mount Holyoke was only a three-year institution at its founding, and it did not immediately admit African-Americans. But it was the most advanced and affordable single-sex education available to American women at the time.[4]

Early Christianity and women

Mary Magdalene and other women were the first individuals to Jesus Christ after his resurrection.[5]

Jesus Christ healed and performed miracles as readily for women, as for men. He taught both men and women. It didn't matter what their religious credentials were, or their social standing, or their lifestyle.[6]

CRU's website indicates:

He healed and performed miracles as readily for women, as for men. He taught both men and women. It didn’t matter what their religious credentials were, or their social standing, or their lifestyle. He loved people and interacted with them in a very welcoming way, men and women alike. This included thieves, prostitutes, lepers, women of low social class.

Author Philip Yancey comments, "For women and other oppressed people, Jesus turned upside down the accepted wisdom of his day. According to biblical scholar Walter Wink, Jesus violated the mores of his time in every single encounter with women recorded in the four Gospels."[7]

Michael Kruger, President and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary, declared about early Christianity and women:

I want to ask whether these claims about early Christianity–particularly in the second century–are, in fact, true. 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.

This means that women intentionally left the religious systems of the Greco-Roman world with which they were familiar and consciously decided to join the burgeoning Christian movement. No one forced them to do so. No one made them become Christians.

On the contrary, 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).

All of this presents serious problems for those who claim early Christianity was oppressive to women. I suppose those who hold such a view could argue that all these women in the Greco-Roman world were so gullible and easily duped that they thought Christianity was great when (as all sophisticated people now know) it really wasn’t.[8]

Women in the Bible

See also: Women in the Bible


The Bible says that women, like men, were created by God on the 6th day of Creation, as told in The Book of Genesis:

So God created man in his [own] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. Genesis 1:27 (KJV)

But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. Mark 10:6 (KJV)

Genesis further elaborates that God took a rib from Adam, the first man, and from it created Eve, the first woman, as a helper for Adam when the animals, which had been created for that purpose, proved unsuitable:

And the LORD God said, [It is] not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought [them] unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that [was] the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. Genesis 2:18-22 (KJV)

According to some biblical literalists, Eve caused sin and suffering to come into the world when she convinced Adam to eat from The Tree of Knowledge, an act directly forbidden by God Himself. As punishment for this, God declared that women shall experience great pain in childbirth.[9]

New Testament statements on the role of women

Jan Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.

Saint Paul also has much to say on the status of women in society, most memorably that women should submit to their husbands just as the church submits to Christ. [10] [11] [12] [13] Most of these things are not believed by even the strictest Christians, and such views are considered extreme by even the most conservative Christians.

The New Testament contains several instructions regarding the role of women:

  1. Women are to dress modestly and not wear "broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array."[14][15]
  2. Women may learn in silence, but may not be permitted to teach men.[16] Some interpretations limit this rule to the teaching of doctrine.
  3. Women are not permitted to speak in church.[17]
  4. Women are to be subservient to and follow the instructions of their husbands.[18][19][20][21]
  5. Women "shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety."[22]

These viewpoints are not widely accepted in secular, first-world nations, although some believers still adhere to them. However, Christians do not always agree on how literal or universal these directives are intended to be. For example, dressing modestly is interpreted by some Anabaptists to mean that women should only wear black or dull colors and that dresses should cover the entire arms and legs, whereas most non-Anabaptist Christians consider the directive to modesty as simply meaning that garments should not be wrongly provocative. The directive that women should not speak in church is regarded by some as being literal for all situations, but due to other New Testament passages which indicate that women were allowed to publicly testify in the early church,[23] the most common Christian interpretation[Citation Needed] of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is that women in the Corinthian church were in the habit of conversing casually and gossiping during the church service, and that the apostle Paul was telling them not to do that. However, that interpretation is at odds with the following Scripture passage:

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. 1Timothy 2:11-15 (KJV)

Another interpretation sees the silence of women being limited to the immediate context of the passage, namely the authoritative judgment of prophecy.

Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. 1Corinthians 14:29 (KJV)

Some Protestants[Who says?] believe these verses can be taken out of context and applied too legalistically. They believe that the church can conform legitimately to modern egalitarian ideals without sacrificing the literal meaning of these passages.

Strong and important women in the Bible

Among the Bible's several strong and empowered women are Deborah, the only female judge and ruler of Israel; Judith; and Queen Esther, heroine of the Book of Esther. In the New Testemant, Mary Magdalene and other women are disciples of Christ with whom He seems to have close friendships. The Virgin Mary is heavily revered in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Old Testament statements on women

The Old Testament law states that if a man sells his daughter into slavery there are specific conditions protecting her status.[24]

Atheism and women's rights

See also: Atheism and women's rights and Atheism and women and Atheism and sexism and Irreligion and domestic violence and Atheism and rape

Concerning atheism and women's rights, atheism offers no basis for women's rights because atheism provides no basis for human rights (see: Atheism and human rights).

Atheists have a poor track record when it comes to women's rights (see: Atheism and women's rights).

See also


  1. Women's rights,
  2. Women’s Rights: Advanced by a Christian Worldview for 2,000 Years
  3. Christianity Today, The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries, January 8, 2014
  4. Women’s higher education was pioneered by evangelical Christian leaders by Andrea L. Turpin
  5. Women's rights,
  6. Women's rights,
  7. Women's rights,
  8. Was Early Christianity Hostile to Women? by Michael J. Kruger
  9. Genesis 3:16
  10. Ephesians 5:22-24
  11. I Corinthians 11:8-9
  12. I Corinthians 11:4-7
  13. I Corinthians 14:34-35
  14. 1 Timothy 2:9
  15. Peter 3:2-6
  16. 1 Timothy 2:11-12
  17. 1 Corinthians 14:34-37
  18. Ephesians 5:22-24
  19. Colossians 3:18
  20. Titus 2:4-5
  21. 1 Peter 3:1-7
  22. I Timothy 2:15
  23. 1 Corinthians 11:5
  24. Exodus 21:7-11

See also