The growth of Christianity in the early centuries, as was written about the other day, is quite staggering. This is especially so in light of the Roman Empire and its religion.
For a small Jewish group, of whom Rome thought nothing about, to grow into something that in 300 AD would estimate to over 6 million people is an incredible story. And it’s one we can learn much from.
So how did it happen?
Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, gives us some answers. “It is obvious,” writes Stark, “that people do not embrace a new faith if they are content with the older one.” In order for a new religion to break into a culture therefore, they must always “make their way in the market opening left them by weaknesses in the conventional religion (s) of a society.”
This is especially true in a pluralistic market where there are many options. For a new religion “to make headway—Hindu groups in the United States, for example—is extremely rare and depends on something’s having gone wrong in the process by which pluralism maintains market equilibrium.”
So why did Christianity grow in the Roman Empire? In a world full of religious options and a plurality of gods, what was the attraction to Christianity?
One attraction to Christianity was it’s treatment of women. Many have said that Jesus’ “attitude toward women was revolutionary as for him the sexes were equal.” So the early church, as it modeled Jesus, viewed men and women as equal as well.
Stark writes that increased female status can be found “within the family and within the religious community.” This happened as a result of several things. First, Christians did not condone female infanticide (actually, they didn’t condone infanticide at all). Second, Christians condemned “divorce, incest, marital infidelity, and polygamy.” And third, should women be widowed, they were not pressured to remarry and were allowed to keep their husband’s estate.
There has been objective evidence that leaves no doubt that the early Christian women did enjoy greater equality with men than did Jewish and pagan women. A study of Christian burial in the catacombs under Rome, based on 3,733 cases, found that Christian women were nearly as likely as Christian men to be commemorated with lengthy inscriptions. This “near equality in the commemoration of males and females is something that is peculiar to Christians, and sets them apart from the non-Christian populations of the city” (see the Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark).
To summarize, “women were drawn to Christianity because it offered them a life that was greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led” (see Chapter 7 in The Triumph of Christianity).
So what can we learn from this? What does this say about the power of the gospel to change lives and the cultures we live in? What does the early church say to us about the power of “loving your neighbor as yourself” and treating those around you as equals, not inferiors?
There is something powerful about the gospel when we treat others as Paul commands in Philippians 2:3-4: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.