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


16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century

Men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius blamed the declining population of the Roman empire on the shortage of females(1) . J.C. Russell(2) claims that there were 131 males / 100 females in Rome itself, and 140 / 100 in most of the rest of the empire. A study of inscriptions at Delphi enabled the reconstruction of 600 families; and of these only six had raised more than one daughter(3) . This was partly due to female infanticide, and also partly due to the awful methods of contraception and abortion employed, which often resulted in the death of the woman.  

And yet there is every reason to think that Christianity attracted women to it disproportionately. It held a  liberating message for women, allowing and encouraging them to study Scripture and be independent from their male society when it came to personal faith and relationship with Jesus, even enabling them to formally teach each other and those in the world. Christian women enjoyed far greater marital security than pagans; abortion was outlawed for the early Christian; and they were to be respected for their own personhood by their brethren. Through being able to work with the likes of Paul in his preaching work, they broke through the surrounding low expectations of female roles. The competing religions offered no such respect of women. Some like Mithraism were limited solely to males. The Christian stress on the need to marry only within the faith must have lead to many sisters being single for the Lord’s sake; and there were doubtless many others who were divorced by unbelieving husbands. Such women were usually condemned to a life as prostitutes (hence the Lord said that if a man divorced his wife, he made her commit adultery). Yet the sisters’ problem with finding partners doubtless led them to go out into the world and convert men; as well as providing the basis for a unique society of females which would have drawn to it other hurting and neglected women within Roman society. Another outcome of the unusual situation would have been that women married brethren of different social rank to their own- there are records of higher rank women marrying brethren of far inferior status socially. The social world of the first century was turned upside down by those sisters and their preaching, in the same way as Northern Kazakhstan and other parts of the world have likewise been by the witness of large groups of sisters. Childless, single women would have been looked down on even more in those days than they are in ours. Time and again, the sisters would have asked themselves: ‘What am I doing this for?’. And every time, ultimately, the answer was that they were committed to this invisible man, the Lord Jesus, who had loved them to the end and was surely coming to claim them as His own.  

An inventory of property removed from a Christian house church in North Africa listed 16 men’s tunics and 82 women’s tunics, along with 47 pairs of specifically female shoes and no men’s(4) . Adolf Harnack notes that the early source documents “simply swarm with tales of how women of all ranks were converted in Rome and in the provinces…the general truth that Christianity was laid hold of by women in particular" (5). Henry Chadwick likewise: “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women. It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance”(6) .

The use of women as witnesses was a significant factor in the rapid spread of Christianity. Confining them to purely 'support roles' not only halves the workforce in our enterprise; we are ignoring the simple fact that it was specifically female networking which produced such huge results in the first century. The Torah required "two or three witnesses" (Dt. 19:15); yet Roman law disallowed women as witnesses. Significantly, the Torah didn't. The fact it doesn't, and therefore accepted women as witnesses, was actually quite a radical thing. The records of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus are carefully framed to show that there were always two or three witnesses present- and they are all women:






Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joseph, Mother of the sons of Zebedee

Mary Magdalene, "the other Mary"

Mary Magdalene, "the other Mary"


Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joses, Salome

Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of Joses

Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, Salome




Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary mother of James

The emphasis is surely deliberate- women, the ones who were not witnesses according to the world, were the very witnesses chosen by God to testify the key truths concerning His Son. And His same approach is seen today in His choices of and amongst us.


(1) Dio Cassius, The Roman History (London: Penguin Classics, 1987 ed.).

(2) J.C. Russell, Late Anicent And Medieval Population, published as vol. 48 pt. 3 of the Transactions Of The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1958.

(3) Jack Lindsay, The Ancient World: Manners and Morals (New York: Putnams, 1968).

(4) See R.L. Fox, Pagans And Christians (New York: Knopf, 1987).

(5) Adolf Harnack, The Mission And Expansion Of Christianity In The First Three Centuries (New York: Putnam’s, 1908) Vol. 2 p. 73.

(6) Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967) p. 56.