Online Bible College
Carelinks Home
FREE Literature
'Bible Lives' Home
Bible Books Home
Buy this Book!
Bible Lives  

16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century

The first century society was built around the concept of oikonomia, household fellowship. The head of the house was the leader, and all the extended family and slaves had to follow his religion and be obedient to him. For slaves, this was on pain of death. However, the call of Christ was to individuals; and yet individual conversion to a religion was unheard of at the time. And yet further, it was usual for the head of the household to automatically be the leader of the religion which his household practised. But for the true Christians, this was not necessarily so to be; for the Lord had taught that it was the servant who was to lead, and the least esteemed in the ecclesia were to judge matters (1 Cor. 6:4). Elders of the household ecclesias had to be chosen on the basis of their spiritual qualification, Paul taught. The radical nature of these teachings is so easily lost on us. Even if not all these poor converts were slaves, they were all subservient to their employers / sources of income. Craftsmen would have had to belong to a pagan trade guild, normally  involving idol worship which a Christian had to refuse, and slaves of course had no ‘right’ to their own religion if it differed from that of their household. Everything was against the spread of the Truth amongst the poor women and slaves of the first century. And yet, the Gospel grew and prospered, as it marched through town after town across the Roman empire. The Romans allowed the existence of the autonomous politaea, the city-state, so long as within its religion it featured the worship of the Emperor. And yet the NT writers speak of the ecclesia as a city which is independent, defiantly devoted to the worship of the one and only true God (Eph. 2:19; 3:20; Heb. 12:22; 13:14; Rev. 21). The writers must have nervously penned those inspired words, knowing the problems it would create. The Spirit of God could have chosen not to so directly challenge this world; and yet there is a chasmic difference between the community of God and the surrounding world, which the New Testament unashamedly triumphs in. And let us do so too, not being conformed to this word, but being transformed unto the things of God. 

Slaves in the first century were seen as mere bodies owned by their masters or mistresses. Hence Rev. 18:13 describes slaves as somata, bodies. They were seen as both the economic and sexual property of those who owned them (1). It seems Paul had this in mind when he spoke of how we have one master, Christ, and our bodies are indeed not our own- but they are His, to be used according to His wishes. For many slaves, this would’ve meant running the risk of death or flogging. And yet despite this radical demand, Christianity spread rapidly amongst the huge slave population of the first century world. The insistence to marry “only in the Lord” was very hard to obey in the first century. The Acts Of Thecla record how Thecla’s refusal to marry a non-Christian was judged as a criminal act, and as a threat to the whole fabric of society. The pressures and related issues facing Christians in many areas today is just as radical. Likewise female slaves- amongst whom the Gospel spread so powerfully- were the sexual property of their owners, who could sub-let them as he wished. This was all part and parcel of being a female slave. There are many extra-Biblical records of female Christian slaves being martyred for their faith, running away and being cared for by other Christian women, or committing suicide. The moral demands of the New Testament were even harder to follow then they are now.

It is clear that although women weren’t to teach brethren in ecclesial settings, they did teach- either unbelievers, or other sisters, we assume. The references to women teaching would have been anathema to many of the surrounding cultures in which the Gospel spread in the first century: “Not only the arm, but the voice of a modest woman ought to be kept from the public, and she should feel shame at being heard…she should speak to or through her husband” (Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 31-32). Likewise the encouragement for a woman to “learn in silence” was a frontal attack on the position that a woman’s duty was to follow the religion of her husband and concern herself with domestic duties rather than religious learning. The way the Lord commended Mary rather than Martha for her choice to learn and her rejection of domesticity similarly challenged the prevailing gender perception. There is no doubt that a 1st century Christian woman was far more liberated than in any other contemporary religion. 

According to Plato, no artisan could be a citizen of the ideal state. Aristotle tells us that in Thebes no man could become a citizen until ten years after he had stopped working at a trade. Cicero believed that " No workshop can have any culture about it" . And then, into this culture, walks Jesus. A working man, who in practice learnt His matchless spirituality in the worskhop. And whose religion had for its founding fathers a band of working men from Galilee. Truly did Christianity with its women and slave converts turn the first century world upside down. It could only have been on the basis of their transformed personalities and that 'something' about them, which converted the masses, and also the educated white collar converts whom we know were made.


(1) Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery In Early Christianity (Oxford: O.U.P., 2002).