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Care for the marginalised and the growth of the early church

Christianity appeared attractive in the eyes of many pagan women – regardless of social class. A large number of ‘secondary’ conversions took place, as the husbands of converted women often chose the same path as their wives.

FEATURES AUTOR 241/Olof_Edsinger 30 DE ENERO DE 2024 17:00 h
A ruin in Rome, Italy. / Photo: [link]Cezar Sampaio[/link], Unsplash, CC0.

One of the authors who has taught me the most about the interaction of the Christian church with its contemporaries is the sociologist Rodney Stark. Stark has an impressive production on his CV, and one of his most interesting books is in my opinion The Rise of Christianity from 1996.



The aim of this book is to explain how Christianity could go from a marginal movement of 120 people to state religion of the powerful Roman Empire in just a few hundred years. Stark explores several possible explanations for this, one of which stands out in particular: the attitude of the early church towards the marginalised – and especially towards women and the sick.



[destacate]It was the rule rather than the exception that Roman households kept only one girl. Any other daughters were simply thrown on the rubbish heap[/destacate]Contrary to what is often claimed, Rodney Stark argues that the Christian faith was not primarily a religion of the economic lower class. If the rulers of Rome had perceived Christianity as ‘the religion of the proletariat’, he says, they would hardly have been as tolerant of the new doctrines as they were. It is true that the early church was periodically persecuted, and even saw a number of its practitioners martyred. But if Rome had really wanted to crush the Christian ‘sect’, it would have been much more zealous in its persecution, according to Stark. After all, the Romans knew how to crush a rebellion, and the reason they didn’t do this with the church was probably because the Jesus faith had a strong hold even among the Roman upper and middle classes.


 


This was particularly true for a large number of Roman women. Stark describes the Roman Empire as a society where two-thirds of all women were under 18 on their wedding day, and where a striking number were married off at the age of 11 or 12. In general, the value of women was considered low, and it was the rule rather than the exception that Roman households kept only one girl. Any other daughters were simply thrown on the rubbish heap. Abortions were also common, but of course they could not be gender selective; however, they often jeopardised the mother’s life, resulting in further loss women. Historians have calculated that in 20th century Rome there were 131 men for every 100 women; the figures for Italy, Asia Minor and North Africa as a whole were as high as 140 to 100.


 


[destacate]The Christian community advocated a significantly higher marriage age, expected sexual fidelity from both women and men, and gave freedom of choice to both parties whether or not to marry at all[/destacate]This can be compared with the Christian church. The church actively worked against both abortion and the abandonment of children. In fact, both phenomena are explicitly condemned, along with paedophilia, as early as the Didache from around 100 AD.


 


The Christian community also advocated a significantly higher marriage age, expected sexual fidelity from both women and men, and gave significant freedom of choice to both parties whether or not to marry at all. To this can be added an extensive social programme to care for the widows of the community, a group that was severely disadvantaged in Roman society.


Stark points out that these factors had dramatic consequences for the growth of the church. Firstly, it meant that Christianity appeared attractive in the eyes of many pagan women – regardless of social class. Secondly, it meant that a large number of ‘secondary’ conversions took place, as the husbands of converted women often (though not always) chose the same path as their wives. Thirdly, it led to significantly more children being born within the Christian community than outside. Not least in our context, where the Christian faith is often presented as misogynistic, these facts are well worth highlighting.



The second area I want to highlight is the attitude of the early church towards those who were sick. This was particularly noticeable during the epidemics that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries, where historians estimate that up to a third (!) of the population perished.



[destacate]May we followers of Jesus today be good stewards of the treasures of our Christian faith[/destacate]It is no wonder that an outbreak of a disease of this magnitude leads to fear and chaos. The economic elite quickly packed up their belongings and fled, and contemporary witnesses tell how people turned their backs on their loved ones as soon as the symptoms of the disease appeared. But in contrast, the church was known to provide care and attention to the sick.


 


And not only to those in the Christian community, but also to the pagans. Rodney Stark cites both the Golden Rule and the Christian hope of eternity as crucial to this. Believers were simply able to find meaning and hope even in situations that most others experienced as dense darkness. ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus ...’ (cf. Romans 8:39).


That this was a testimony to all who witnessed it is obvious. But it also had a mathematical significance. Stark points out that even a basic form of care for the sick – such as continued access to food and water – could reduce their death rate from around 30 to 10 per cent of the population. This meant in practice that many more Christians than pagans survived these epidemics, which in turn contributed to the growth of the Christian church.



There is much to learn from the history of the early church, and these are just two examples. But they are examples that speak volumes about what the Gospel can accomplish in a specific historical situation. May we who today have been given the grace to live as followers of Jesus be good stewards of these and other treasures of our Christian faith!



Olof Edsinger, secretary general of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance.


 

 


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