In its 6,000 years the world has seen many revolutions, but no revolution can compare to what has been accomplished in the world by Christ and his Church. Christianity is the greatest revolution the world has ever seen. In Acts 17, Paul and Silas passed through Thessalonica in Macedonia preaching the gospel of Jesus. As was often the case, the righteous accepted their teachings and the rest rejected them. When the Jews chased them out of the city they chastised them, saying in Acts 17:6: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too…” So how were Christians turning the world upside down? This article considers one important example – how the Church changed the world for women.
Treatment of Women in Ancient Cultures
Most people believe that the women’s right movement is a relatively modern innovation of just the last few centuries, but a good Bible student can see that’s simply not the case. Jesus Christ and his Church revolutionized the world for women more so than any human movement could ever hope to accomplish. What the Church did for woman was radical and life changing, especially given the circumstances in the 1st century.
In the 1st century the world was ruled by Rome, but it was the Greek culture that dominated the lives of Jews and Gentiles alike. So what life like for a woman at the time of Christ? As one source explains, “Most of our written evidence from the ancient world was produced by educated, well-to-do men. They have undoubtedly left us a reasonably accurate picture of their own life, but how much trust can we put in the comments they made on the lives of everyone else. Nowhere is this situation more troubling than in Ancient Greece where women were largely regarded as inferior creatures scarcely more intelligent than children.” Men regarded woman as morally and intellectually inferior to than themselves, and they were very comfortable with that perception. Most women were never taught how to read or write, because Greek men believed this would only stir up their wicked nature. Like one Greek man said, “A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp.” Another modern source explains, “[Greeks] saw women as beguiling creatures capable of causing considerable harm to themselves and others, and weaker in mind and body than men. Many believed that young girls were somewhat wild and difficult to control and that virgins were subject to hallucinations that could encourage them to be self-destructive.” Women were actually regarded as dangerous, foolish, and self-destructive.
Greek men made it no secret that their intention was to dominate women, to demoralize them, and to demean them into subjection. For example, one Greek man who was a play-writer has women in his works say desecrating remarks about their gender. One woman says, “I am only a woman, a thing which the world hates”. Another says, “No cure has been found for a woman’s venom, worse than that of reptiles. We are a curse to man”. The Greek culture believed that woman should lead silent and isolated lives. For instance, one Greek man is quoted as saying, “A woman who travels outside her house should be old enough that people ask whose mother she is, not whose wife she is.” A different man said, “A woman’s reputation is highest when men say little about her, whether it be good or evil.” There’s even some evidence to suggest that men and woman lived in separate quarters so as to keep the wife in her proper place. Her responsibility was to gratify her husband sexually, bear children, raise the children, and at all times stay out of the way.
This perception of women may seem outrageous to the modern American, but in the ancient cultures before Christ this was the norm. Unfortunately, the abuses didn’t end there. In this age where a woman was more of an appliance than a person, it’s no surprise that prostitution was rampant. In ancient Athens brothels were abundant and prostitution was an occupation considered just as respectable as any other. It was legal, and more significantly, it was believed to be morally acceptable. An often quoted caveat from this period warned men not to waste their inheritances with too many visits to a brothel, but the concern was with the squandering of the estate and not so much with the way it was done.
How Christ Changed (Almost) Everything
If we didn’t know better, we might think there was no way that Christianity could have been born in a situation like this, but with Christ at the helm, the plan unfolded perfectly. Throughout the New Testament we can see numerous examples of how God was reshaping social standards and making a place for women in a way that the world had never seen.
Marriage and Sexuality
In the ancient world, marriage really didn’t mean very much. This is especially apparent in light of the prostitution and sexual abuses of women that were common at the time. Christ’s teachings condemned these sins, but more importantly addressed some of the underlying misconceptions about woman that encouraged these sins.
Unlike much of the rest of the world, the Jews knew better than to engage in sexual sins like adultery, fornication, and prostitution. However, in Matthew 5:27-32 Jesus explains that avoiding these sins is not enough. He says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In other words, women should no longer be an object of your sexual fantasies. A man who lusts after a woman in his heart is no better than a fornicator or an adulterer, all are inexcusable. This idea was revolutionary. The teachings of Jesus created a new culture where men would respect the sexual purity of women. Christianity was responsible not only for changing how men treated women but also changing how men thought about women.
Christianity is alone responsible eliminating polygamy in much of the world. At the time, a man having many wives was normal. Even in the Mosaic Law polygamy was apparently permissible. In ancient cultures a woman’s main purpose was to give a man offspring and satisfy his sexual needs. They weren’t people; they were just tools for reproduction. Successful reproduction was a measure of his glory. More wives meant more offspring and more offspring meant glory. This practice no doubt encouraged a disparaging attitude towards women. Christianity changed this. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 the Apostle Paul says, “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” Christianity restored marriage to what it was in the beginning – one man and one woman. This idea is further supported by the qualification given for elders and deacons in the Church. He must be the husband of one wife (1 Tim 3:2 and 1 Tim 3:12)
Christianity reshaped the way the world looked at women, but perhaps the most important innovation comes from Ephesians 5. The world was used to a culture where women were considered something similar to slaves. They were an object of a man’s sexuality, but when Paul said that she should first be an object of your affection, this was revolutionary. Ephesians 5:25-29: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, 26 that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, 27 that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. 28 So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.”
“Husbands, love your wives…” To you that may like something that goes without saying, but to Jews and Gentiles living under a predominately Greek culture this was extraordinary. This may have sounded strange. In ancient cultures, wives were to be used, not loved. Christianity restored integrity and equality to marriage. Husbands are to love their wives, as much as he loves himself, even as Christ loved the Church, even to the point of death.
In the world before the Church people believed that women belonged to men. Christianity teaches that both belong to each other. First Corinthians 7:3-4: “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
Even outside of issues related to sexuality and marriage, Christianity revolutionized the world for woman. The culture at the time of Christ encouraged the notion that woman were morally and intellectually inferior creatures. They believed an educated woman was a dangerous woman. The Bible laid a foundation on which the world would come to understand that women are just as intelligent as men. It’s because of the gospel of Christ that people today understand that women make important contributions to the Church and to the family.
Flying in the face of ancient cultures, the Bible is filled with stories of faithful women working to do God’s will. In 2 Timothy 1:5 Paul mentions that the faith of Timothy is attributable to the faith that was first found in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. In Acts 18 Aquila and his wife Priscilla together teach Apollos about baptism in Jesus. In Romans 16 the Apostle Paul begins by commending Phoebe for her faithful labors in the Church as Rome. Many people today try to blame all the bad things in the world on religion, Christianity in particular. I don’t believe that at all. Christianity has done more to change the world than the world could have accomplished without it. This is especially true as it relates to women. All women, even women who aren’t Christians, have benefited from the revolutionary ideas that were born in the 1st century in the Church.
Genders Roles in the Bible
Christianity helped the world to realize that men and women are equals. But to equalize does not mean to neuterize. The feminist movement has created a society that would like to see the idea of gender and gender roles eliminated completely, as though men and women are exactly the same. We live in a culture where differences between the genders are minimized or ignored for the sake of what they believe to be fairness and equality. The Bible teaches that men and women are equal in intelligence, equal in importance, equal in access to God’s Grace, and equal in the significance of contributions to the family and to the Church. However, the Bible does not teach that men and women are equal in role or responsibility. No role or responsibility is more important that the others, but the way that men and women work in the Church is not the same. Our roles and responsibilities are equally important, but they’re not the same.
God has designed us with inherent difference between the genders. Genesis 2:28: “And the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.’” By God’s design, men are made to be leaders and women are appointed to be supporters. Neither is more important than the other, but they are not the same. Ephesians 5:22-25 also explains this arrangement in more detail. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her…”
Role Delineation in the Bible
Men are to be the leaders and women need to be the supporters. This is God’s design. In fact, the Bible is full of examples showing us how this design results in faithful families and faithful churches. In 1 Timothy 3 and in Titus 1 the work of formally leading the Church is given to the men. Men are designed by God to be leaders and as a result men designated as elders, deacons, and evangelist. Public teaching is also delegated to men. Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Just so there’s no confusion, Paul explains in another place, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” This doesn’t mean that women aren’t intelligent. It doesn’t mean that women can’t make useful contribution to a spiritual discussion; it just means that those contributions should be given in settings other than in the assembly of the church.
Women are not to be teachers in the assembly, but they are to be teachers. Titus 2:3: “the older women likewise, [teach them] that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things…” How is it that a woman can make this work? Women from the Old Testament give us good examples. Judges 4 explains how Deborah would sit under a palm tree and the people would come to her for judgment. She taught the people and gave them her wisdom, but she did so privately, in a way that would not undermine the leadership of the men.
Women won’t have a have a predominant presence in the assembly, but their presence is important and their activity in the church is still vital. They should be teachers of good things (Titus 2:3), homemakers (1 Tim 5:14), and mothers (Titus 2:1-5). In fact, the woman’s responsibility in raising faithful children is so important that Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:15, “Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.”
The Thessalonians were right, Christ did turn the world upside down, and we’re all glad he did. Christ started a revolution that will never be matched and never suppressed. Everyone in the world is better off because of the work of Christ and the Church. Because of Christ, women are more respected, they’re more protected from sexual abuses, they have more opportunities, and they serve in the Kingdom side by side with men.
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.