Christianity was a religion for “slaves, women, and little children,” according to the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus (25 BC-50 AD). It was a movement primarily spread by convincing those who he calls “the foolish, dishonorable, and stupid.” These are among many of his critiques against Christianity, which frequently involve mocking women’s high involvement within the movement.
Christianity’s Domestic Roots
His arguments stemmed from the fact that the early church was primarily facilitated within domestic spheres, with believers meeting in each other’s houses that were usually run by women. Some argue that this domestic medium was one of the reasons Christianity spread so prominently. To Celsus, however, the church’s operation in traditionally domestic spheres with female influence was a disgrace. He wasn’t the only one who criticized Christianity for being too effeminate. Other early commentators of Christianity, such as Pliny the Younger and Lucian, described the budding movement as one that appealed to those who were weak, some even seeing it as an emasculated religion.
Many Romans saw Christianity as a threat to the societal order because women within the Christian movement were given not only more equality but also had the audacious propensity to value the work of their God over their “domestic duties” to their husbands and children. Christianity was, in many ways, a threat to the Greco-Roman view of masculinity. These critics were, in a sense, correct. Compared to the backdrop of Greco-Roman culture, Christians were gender deviant as women worked alongside men as equals and were leaders within the movement.
Women’s Role in the Early Church
Sociologist Rodney Stark reported that women made up two-thirds of the early church, and they weren’t playing passive roles. Women described in the Pauline letters were being persecuted and imprisoned right alongside men, further indicating women’s extensive influence. They were viewed to be just as threatening as their male counterparts.
The writers of Scripture and many of the leaders in the early church were male, but women were also influential hidden drivers of the Christian movement. Author Beth Barr noted that they hosted and led churches in their homes, funded ministries, spread the gospel, evangelized, instructed others and even preached. A woman’s voice and council, normally suppressed by the surrounding culture, was utilized within the church.
Additionally, women helped spread the movement as mothers by instructing their children in the faith regardless of whether or not their husbands were believers (2 Tim. 1:5, Deut. 6:7, Prov. 22:6). This created a ripple effect as children grew up with their mother’s faith and subsequently influenced others to join the faith. Also, women of wealth and status used their influence and power to support Christianity. They used their network with other women to spread the gospel further, acting as zealous and essential proponents.
Women’s Role in the Bible
Women’s prevalence can also be seen in Jesus’ ministry, as they actively supported Jesus and His mission. They traveled with Jesus, accompanying Him on His assignments and providing financial support (Luke 8:3). Significantly, they were the first witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection and the ones to bring the news to the other disciples (John 20). In the ancient world, a woman’s testimony did not hold any weight in courts of law. This radical approach would later prove to serve as a noteworthy apologetic concerning the validity of the death and resurrection of Christ.
After the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the apostolic age had officially begun. At the beginning of Acts, both women and men were empowered with the Holy Spirit to go out and proclaim the gospel.
Examples can be found in Romans 16, as Paul mentions different women and men working in ministry and contending for the faith. “The women of Romans 16 are identified by their ministries,” remarks Barr in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood. It was not by their husbands or families but by their work within the church. Phoebe is identified by how helpful she has been to Paul and other church members, and earlier translations of the Bible identify her as a deacon. Junia is recognized as an apostle, someone who has seen Jesus risen and now has a special commission to proclaim the gospel. Notably, she has been imprisoned with Paul. Priscilla and her husband are mentioned here and in a few more of Paul’s letters. They were extremely influential in spreading the gospel and establishing a church in their home.
Interestingly, in Romans 16, Priscilla is named before her husband, implying her prominence since that was exceptionally rare. The letter mentions a few other women: Tryphrena, Tryphosa, Mary, and Persis, who are all described as workers in the Lord. There are many more examples of bold women that helped spread Christianity.
Because of the generally male-centric view of church history and dogma, the contribution of two-thirds of the early church is often overlooked. But it is important not to miss one of the major pillars that promoted the growth of the early church—networks of zealous women that were highly involved in the ministry.