Christ is primarily known as the savior of the world – his sacrifice being for all who want to dwell with God (Jesus’ blood removes our sin so that we are able to be in the presence of sinless God). But a very major thing that Jesus did, which is evidenced throughout the writings of the New Testament (NT), is to raise the status of women to the same level as men. Men and women may have a few different responsibilities in regard to the family and church, but the sexes are equal in God’s sight: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
There is a great deal that can be written on this theme–including the contradictory teachings of, and actions by, some church leaders and many Christian men–so this subject will be the concern of a number of future articles. For today, let’s look at some mores that exhibit the status of women in Jewish and surrounding cultures at the time Jesus walked the earth (many of these status-related norms are still with us today in various parts of the world).
- Female babies are of low worth: In past and present non-Christian cultures, female worthlessness is widespread. Female babies were commonly the victims of infanticide. While that continues today, in places where ultrasound is available many more female fetuses are aborted than male fetuses (especially in China and India). Christians do not value females less than males and do not abort or kill female babies. (See a recent article: A woman cost rs 30,000, a buffalo rs 70,000.)
- Polygyny and divorce: Polygyny was permitted though not very common in ancient Israel; it was relatively common elsewhere. In Greece, a man had one wife but he also had a legal mistress (so, essentially, a 2nd wife). Polygyny was not approved by God, though there are a number of instances of it recorded in the Bible. The NT clearly reiterates God’s will that one man be married to one woman; polygyny is not allowed in Christianity. A man could divorce his wife easily in ancient Israel, but the NT does not allow for this.
- Complete control of wife and children by father or husband: In Rome, fathers had total control over family members and a husband had absolute power over his wife; he could sell a daughter to her future husband. All these powers became illegal some years after Christianity became legal in Rome (374/313). Women also were granted the right to own property and have guardianship of their own children. In Greece, wives had segregated quarters and could not visit with male guests of her husband’s in her own home. As in ancient Israel, women in Greece were not to speak in public. Women simply had a very low status in Greece and ancient Israel, and in Israel at the time of Christ, women’s legal witness was virtually non-existent. This changed with Christ’s work and will get more attention in future articles.
- Clitoridectomy: The removal of the female clitoris, and often other genital parts, is a common practice in many African countries (and is found in countries where Africans have immigrated to). This is condemned and outlawed in Christian-based countries.
- Binding feet, China: In order to be more attractive to men, girls used to have their feet bound so that they remained “small.” The fact is, the foot only became very disfigured and it often became severely infected. Because of Christian missionary pressure in the 19th century, the Chinese government outlawed the practice of female foot binding in 1912.
There are other practices around the world (past and present), such as burning or burying widows alive (in India), arranging marriages of female children (this still occurs in China, India, and parts of Africa), maintaining double standards for adultery, and the forced wearing of veils, that make obvious the widespread low status of women; these are condemned by Christianity. As Alvin Schmidt, author of How Christianity Changed the World, said in an interview, “Geroge Sarton, a historian of science, once said, ‘The birth of Christianity changed forever the face of the Western world.’ As far as I know, Sarton had no love for Christianity. He merely said what history revealed to him. Another historian, for instance, has said, ‘The birth of Jesus Christ was the turning point in the history of women.’”
The second essay in the series is here. This article was slightly edited on June 21, 2011.
Sources and recommended reading: Interview with Alvin J. Schmidt; How Christianity Changed the World (Alvin J. Schmidt). Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1171414.