Biblical Christianity Upholds the Sanctity of Life and the Dignity of Women

The latest issue of Affinity's Social Issues Bulletin is out now. It is free to download, as are all previous editions. One of the articles, by Sharon James, looks at how Christianity has had a significant impact on upholding the sanctity of life and the dignity of women...

This article is the third of five papers under the general heading of ‘How Christianity Changed the World’. They are adapted from a series of talks given by the author at Word Alive in April 2019. She has given us permission to publish all five in this and subsequent issues of the Bulletin. Christian Focus are releasing Sharon's book on this theme in March 2021.

This series of articles offers some snapshots from history to demonstrate that the world has been changed immeasurably for the better because of the life and witness of Christ’s followers. In this third article we see that Christians through history and Christians today are in the forefront of fighting to affirm the value of all human life and the dignity of women.

The Sanctity of Life

God the Giver of life

In Spring 2018, Perumalla Pranay, a Christian from the so called ‘Dalit’ caste married his childhood sweetheart, Amrutha in Andra Pradesh, India. This cross-caste marriage meant that Amrutha was rejected by her higher caste family. Six months later she and her husband were delighted to find that she was expecting a baby. But on the way out of a hospital appointment near their home, Perumalla was hacked to death by contract killers hired by his father-in-law. The pavement was stained with the blood of this young husband, who was so looking forward to the birth of his first child.

Perumalla was killed because the caste system views Dalits as of lesser worth, and as possessing no dignity. Some believe that the scale of injustice and abuse caused by the caste system makes it one of the single most serious human rights issues in history.[1]

But today in India, many Christians are in the forefront of offering Dalits hope and dignity, and the knowledge that they, along with all people, are made in the image of God.

Genesis 1:27 explains that human beings are distinct from the rest of creation. We bear the image of God. This wonderful truth lies behind the purpose of redemption, culminating in the Cross. Why would God be so determined to rescue us, at such an immense cost? Would he have given his own Son for something insignificant? Human beings have worth, derived from the intrinsic dignity of the one whose image we bear.[2]

God is the Creator and Giver of life. And the followers of Christ know that we are indeed ‘our brother’s keeper’, called to care for and defend fellow human beings made in God’s image. After the flood, God told Noah:

And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

‘Whoever sheds human blood,
           by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
          has God made mankind…’ (Genesis 9:5-6)

God’s moral law summarised in the Ten Commandments is a perfect expression of his own moral character. The sixth commandment is ‘You shall not murder’ (Exodus 20:13). John Ling writes:

Protection of human life is a recurring theme in Scripture. Uniquely in the created order it is only the lives of human beings that enjoy this special protection. The Sixth Commandment, ‘You shall not murder’ (Exodus 20:13), stands out as a great beacon to protect all innocent human life. ‘Innocent’ here does not mean those ‘without sin’, but those ‘without harm’. Killing is permitted [in the Bible] in the cases of capital punishment, just wars and in self-defence, but killing of the innocent is strictly forbidden.[3]

When King David was brought to deep repentance for the sin of murder, he confessed to God: ‘Against you, you only have I sinned’ (Psalm 51:4). How could he say that? He had wronged Uriah; he had wronged Bathsheba; he had wronged the baby who died. But who gave Uriah life? Who gave Bathsheba life? Who gave the baby life? It was God. David had despised God, the Giver of life.

Supremely, Christians affirm the dignity of all human life because God himself, in Christ, became flesh. Christ was incarnate, made flesh, from the moment of conception. As a single cell. If Jesus Christ was incarnate at conception, we too begin life at conception. God, the Giver of life, demands that human life, made in his image should be protected from conception to natural death.

The sanctity of life defended in the Early Church

Turning to the historical record, Christianity spread rapidly during the first three centuries in the face of opposition and persecution. There were probably no more than a few thousand Christians in 40 AD. By the third century, Christianity was growing at the rate of 40 per cent per decade. Some reckon that by 350 AD there were 33 million Christians in the Roman Empire out of a total population of 60 million.[4]

Sociologist Rodney Stark argues that a significant factor in that extraordinary growth was the Christian ethic of defending the sanctity of life, which (counter-intuitively to today’s feminist thinking) worked for the protection of women as well.

Abortion was widely practised in Greco-Roman society; leading philosophers justified the practice. Plato argued that it should be used as a means of population control.[5] As well as destroying the life of the child, it was very dangerous for the mother. Women were often forced into it by their masters (if they were slaves) or by their husbands.

Abortion was condemned by the early church and the church fathers, and by a series of church councils. This ethic of a respect for life saved countless unborn infants and their mothers. Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) mobilised Christians to help women who were facing unwanted pregnancies. He also helped stage public protests against the activities of the guild of abortionists, who sold aborted infant bodies to the manufacturers of beauty creams. He was just one of many Christians trying to save the unborn.[6]

Many pagan philosophers approved of infanticide (the killing of newborns, or their abandonment and exposure). It was commonly practised in Greco-Roman society, particularly if infants were weak, sick, disabled or female.

In the year 1 BC, a travelling worker in Egypt, wrote to his wife at home. She was expecting a baby. He wrote: 

Many greetings. Know that we are still in Alexandria. Don’t be anxious. As soon as I receive my wages I will send them up to you. If – may you have good luck! - you should give birth, if it is a boy keep it. If it is a girl, throw it out. I cannot forget you. I beg you not to be anxious.[7]

If it is a girl, throw it out! That reflected a widespread and nearly universally-accepted practice. During excavations of one Roman villa, archaeologists found numerous tiny bones in the sewer underneath the bathhouse – human bones of nearly a hundred infants who had been murdered and thrown into the sewer.[8]

The early Christians opposed this. They rescued and cared for infants whenever they could.

Benignus of Dijon was a second-century Christian who lived in Southern France. He rescued unwanted babies – those surviving failed abortions as well as abandoned infants. He then cared for and protected them. But for that he was killed.[9]

Eventually, Christian influence prompted the Emperor Valentinian to outlaw infanticide and child abandonment in 374 AD.

It wasn’t just infants who were regarded as expendable in the Roman Empire. Morally depraved emperors had no qualms about taking human life. Emperor Tiberius (ruled 14-37 AD) under whose reign Christ was crucified, loved to watch people being tortured; Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD) on one occasion arbitrarily killed every one who served in his palace. He enjoyed seeing human beings dragged through the streets with their bowels hanging out. He forced parents to witness the execution of their sons.[10]

In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which for the first time gave Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire. Once Constantine was Emperor, he initiated social reforms such as the abolition of crucifixion and the emancipation of slaves as well as the discouragement of infanticide.[11]

The violence and cruelty of gladiatorial shows is still remembered. The Roman Empire, at its height, covered 2.5 million square miles. Many defeated and subjected people were enslaved, and could be killed for the entertainment of citizens. The Colosseum in Rome, dedicated by Emperor Titus in 80 AD could seat 70,000 spectators. This huge venue, and others like it around the Empire, saw the deaths of thousands upon thousands of gladiators. The early Christians were of course sometimes condemned to death in the arena. But even during lulls in persecution they consistently spoke out against this barbarity and were absolutely forbidden to attend. Such games were banned in the Eastern Roman Empire by the Christian Emperor Theodosius by the end of the fourth century. 

The last gladiatorial conquest took place in Rome in 404, after a military victory over the Goths. Gladiators fought furiously. As each one was wounded, the audience would signal whether they should be killed or not. Especially privileged people could descend into the arena to get a closer view of the dying agonies of the victims. But on this occasion, someone else forced his way down into the arena. A Christian called Telemachus from Asia had been moved to the depths of his soul when he saw thousands flocking to view the slaughter. He had entered the event not to enjoy the spectacle but to witness against it. ‘In the name of Christ, stop!’ he shouted, while attempting to separate two of the gladiators. The crowd was enraged at this challenge to their entertainment. Telemachus died amid a hail of stones and other missiles. But his work was accomplished at the moment he was struck down. His death turned the hearts of both the people and the Emperor. From the day Telemachus fell dead, no other fight of gladiators was ever held.[12]

The sanctity of all human life undermined today

Christianity introduced an ethic which regarded every human life as sacred, because we are made in the image of God. For 2000 years, Christianity has been the foundation for good medicine, promoting a culture of life which has protected us all.

But once a society rejects the belief that all human life has been created by God, with unique dignity because we are made in his image, the door is open to a utilitarian system of ethics which easily slips into thinking that the ‘less fit’ should be eliminated.

Today in a culture where ‘absolute’ morals are rejected, bioethics flails around in a morass of situation ethics: ‘what do you feel about it?’ Serious ethical issues such as embryo wastage, embryo experimentation, use of donor gametes in assisted reproduction, abortion, assisted suicide or euthanasia are seen as simply matters of personal choice. It is estimated that over the past forty years in the world there have been around 1.42 billion abortions.[13] That’s the equivalent of the entire population of India.

As Christians we are called to bear witness in our day to the foundational biblical truth of the sanctity of all human life made in God’s image.

 

Women afforded equal dignity

The Early Church

What about Christianity’s record with regard to women? Radical feminists accuse Christianity of oppressive patriarchy, and blame it for oppressing women through the centuries. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

At the time the New Testament was written, fathers routinely gave away their daughters as child-brides. Men could force their wives to have abortions. Or they forced their wives to abandon sick, disabled or female new-born babies, to leave them to die. There was no expectation that husbands should be faithful to their wives. It was commonplace for free men to use slaves for sexual gratification, whether male or female. In addition, they would expect to have mistresses.

In this context, Paul’s insistence on a single standard of morality for men and women (1 Corinthians 7:1-6), and his call for husbands to love and care for their wives (Ephesians 5:25-33) was revolutionary. The strict demands for chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage were just as outrageous and countercultural in the first century AD as they are today. These demands were liberating and life-giving compared with the exploitation and abuse suffered by so many at that time. 

The early Christians lived in a culture where a small, privileged elite of males had sexual access to the rest of the population. This ubiquitous culture of abuse created a vast ocean of exploitation and suffering. When God’s norms for sexual morality and family life break down, it is often women and children who suffer most. Roman sexual culture rested on a bedrock of coercion; the poorest men who didn’t have free access to their own slaves could hire prostitutes for almost nothing. Vile abuse surrounded the ‘sex trade’, where the sexual services of youths and women were sold for pathetically low sums:

The commodification of sex was carried out with all the ruthless efficiency of an industrial operation, the unfree body bearing the pressures of insatiable market demand. In the brothel the prostitute’s body became, little by little, ‘like a corpse’.[14]

The Christian sexual ethic forbade the buying and selling of sex. It held men and women to an equal standard. It gave equal dignity to husband and wife. This was revolutionary.

By contrast to Christian behaviour, the second-century orator Juvenal portrayed a society in which large numbers of people were dangerously addicted to ever more extreme sexual behaviour. Nothing was shameful or out of bounds.[15] Stage plays celebrated incest, physical torture for gratification, paedophilia and bestiality. The early Christians were counter-cultural in opposing such decadence. Why did they do so? Because of the insistence that God the Giver of life calls for the protection of life. Because of the conviction that the faithful God calls for a respect for the promises of marriage to be honoured.

The Christian insistence on marital fidelity increasingly served to protect women, as did the prohibition of arbitrary divorce. Christians opposed the practice of marrying off young girls. When Constantine became Emperor, he initiated legal protections for women and marriage.[16]

Women began to secure property rights, and received the right of guardianship over their children (who before had been seen as the possession of their men).[17] Because of Christian influence, in 374 the Emperor Valentinian repealed the 1000-year-old patria potestas: Husbands lost the right of life and death over their family, including their wives.[18] This meant that the accompanying cultural practices which placed married woman under the husband’s absolute rule and gave a father the right to sell his daughter to her husband, also declined.

Sexual immorality was condemned, but radically, the one exploiting the prostitute was counted as guilty. Where a slave was coerced against their will, Basil of Caesarea assured them that they would be shown mercy by God, as humans lacking volition could not be held responsible for the acts to which they were subjected.[19] Basil’s passionate concern for the victims of prostitution eventually resulted in imperial legislation to eliminate the practice. In 428 AD the Eastern Emperor (Theodosius II) proclaimed that those who had been trapped in prostitution should be helped out, given alternative means of living, and not penalised for what they were coerced into doing. But meanwhile – those who had coerced them whether slave owners, fathers or pimps, should be punished:

Pimps… will be proscribed by exile to the public mines, which is less of a punishment than that of a woman who is seized by a pimp and compelled to endure the filth of an intercourse that she did not will.[20]

This was radical. It was the first time that everyone, whatever their social status or lack of it, could claim protection from sexual predators.  Then, during the next century, the Emperor Justinian (Eastern Roman Emperor 527-565) commissioned a special task force to investigate the use of coercion in the sex industry in Constantinople. He actively sought to repress sexual exploitation in his empire. He and his wife Theodosia financed a refuge for reformed prostitutes.[21]

The spread of Christianity

When significant numbers of people in any community live according to Christian ethics, it has a positive impact on the lives of women. Over the centuries, as Christian missionaries travelled to proclaim the gospel, many challenged the oppression and lack of opportunity suffered by women and girls. One of the first indicators of Christian influence was the provision of education for girls as well as boys.

The first female missionary to the Far East from America was Ann Judson, who left all she knew in America to sail for Burma in 1813. With her husband she pioneered Christian mission in Burma, but she especially focussed on educating girls. Ann believed that Christian education for women was the means by which Asian females could be liberated from what was all too often a degraded and miserable life. In 1822 she published a powerful and widely-read address to the women of America, in which she challenged them to give sacrificially to support female education in the East. Her appeal had huge impact in terms of funds and volunteers. When Ann died prematurely in Burma, her death inspired many other women to volunteer in the cause.[22]

Another Christian who devoted her life to female education was Fidelia Fiske. In 1843 she travelled from America to Persia (now Iran) to pioneer female education. She saw the provision of good schools for girls as the only way out of the terribly oppressed life women were trapped in. She wrote: 

The women were regarded by the men as drudges and slaves, and were compelled to spend most of the time in outdoor labour, among the vineyards and wheat-fields, often going out to work carrying not only their heavy implements, but also their babies. When, at evening, they returned from the fields, however weary, they had to milk the cows, prepare their husband’s meal, and wait till he had finished before having any food themselves. It was commonplace for husbands to beat their wives brutally… [23]

After sixteen years she had established a successful school for girls, and the lives of many women had been transformed. Fidelia’s health was broken and she returned to America, where she continued to promote female education.

William Carey is often regarded as the ‘father of modern missions’. Although the British government specifically forbade the entry of missionaries to India, he and his fellow missionaries ministered in the early 19th century in the Danish territory of Serampore in Southern India. Among many other social reforms, they set up the first schools for girls. By means of female education they hoped to break the practice of marrying off little girls from infancy onwards. Also, if women were educated and able to earn a living, that would break the practice of widow burning, which was practised partly because widows were regarded as an economic liability (they were forbidden to earn a living, and forbidden to remarry). William Carey campaigned ceaselessly against the practice of widow burning. Many of the widows who died in this way were themselves no more than children. Carey conducted rigorous research, and publicised what was going on. One of his great allies in England was William Wilberforce. It took twenty-five years before the campaign against widow burning was successful. Often during that period Wilberforce would insist on reading out the names of widows who had been killed in this way during family breakfast before family prayers. The practice was finally made a criminal offence in 1829.

Christians also led the way in opposing foot binding in China, which was only banned in 1912.[24] Christian missionaries in various countries tried to protect girls from genital cutting. Sadly, that is still widely practised.[25]

As Christianity spread rapidly in Latin America, Asia and Africa during the twentieth century, this had a positive impact on women. Research in those areas where Christianity is growing fastest, shows that, as with the early church, the worth afforded to women is a significant factor. For example, when poor women are converted and join the new evangelical churches, they join communities with a high view of the family, and an emphasis on male responsibility and fidelity. Their husbands are far less likely to squander family resources on drinking, gambling or prostitutes.[26]

Christianity today

Women today worldwide do still suffer oppression. But which are the countries where women are held back, forbidden an education, married off as children, and subjected to systematic abuses such as honour killings and genital cutting? These are the countries where Christianity is disallowed. Although most are Muslim-majority nations, the country in the world named as most dangerous for women is India, a Hindu-majority nation, with maybe one billion Hindus.[27] But there is a strong Christian minority there, estimated around 71 million. And Christians are often taking the lead in changing things for the better for women.

Baglur slum in the great city of Bangalore contains more than 150 churches, 120 of them Pentecostal/ charismatic, all within 1.5 square kilometres. When in-depth interviews were conducted with women of all religions living in Baglur, it was obvious that becoming a Christian leads to liberation from fatalism and hopelessness. The women of other faiths acknowledged that the Christian husbands are noticeably less abusive, more loving and more likely to take earnings home than squander them on drink or other women. The Christian women are transformed in terms of attitude towards themselves, they have a new concept of value and dignity, they are confident to speak out against and resist abuse. They are motivated to work more, earn more, give more, save more, and many are enabled to significantly improve the lives of their families.[28]

In 2010 the feminist publishing house Virago published a book called Half The Sky: How To Change The World. It documents female oppression worldwide and calls for action. The authors are liberal feminists, but they admit that Bible-believing Christians are at the forefront of the fight against female oppression in the hardest places on earth. They accept that in terms of being willing to devote a whole lifetime to ministry in those hard places, it is Bible-believing Christians who are motivated to do that. Others may volunteer short term. But to sacrifice a whole life? That needs an eternal perspective.[29] The spread of evangelical Christianity has had a hugely positive impact on the lives of women.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) depicts a dystopian nightmare of sexual slavery as the product of religious fundamentalism. It portrays the enemy as ‘patriarchy’, and seems to confirm the radical feminist notion that Christianity is bad news for women.

The reality is that the sexual slavery endemic in the ancient world was dispelled by the advance of Christianity. Sexual slavery is advancing again today. Exact figures are impossible, and disputed, but the International Labour Organisation estimates that there are around 21 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, and that human trafficking is a $150 billion industry.[30]  That is not because of Christianity. It is fuelled by the global pornography industry, which Christians oppose.

And, worldwide, it is often Christians who are at the forefront of opposing trafficking and slavery. For example, in India, Christians in The Dignity Freedom Network are working to liberate and raise the dignity of those trapped in injustice and slavery, and the sex trade, many of whom are part of the so called ‘Dalit’ caste.[31]

Is Christianity really bad news for women? The evidence proves the opposite.[32]

Sharon James

Sharon James is Social Policy Analyst for the Christian Institute.

[1] M Woods, ‘Telling a Better Story: how India’s Christians are fighting for dignity for Dalits’, All India Christian Council network, 4 September, 2018.
[2] John Ling, When does Human Life Begin, The Christian Institute, 8.
[3] When does Human Life Begin? 14.
[4] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity.
[5] Plato, Republic, 5.461.
[6] AJ Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 59.
[7] JJ Johnstone, Unimaginable: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity, Bethany House, 2017, 25-6.
[8] Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made your World, 302.  
[9] How Christianity Changed the World, 153.
[10] Ibid., 57.
[11] DL Severance, Feminine Threads, Christian Focus, 2011, 66.
[12] J Foxe, Book of Martyrs. Honorius (Emperor 395-423) outlawed gladiatorial conquests in the east (390s) and west (404).
[13] Human Life International.
[14] K Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Harvard Univ. Press, 2013, 49.
[15] How Christianity Changed the World, 82.
[16] Feminine Threads, 66.
[17] Ibid., 67.
[18] How Christianity Changed the World, 111.
[19] K Harper, in Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1, 137-8.
[20] Ibid., 138.
[21] Ibid., 139.
[22] Sharon James, Ann Judson, Evangelical Press, 2015.
[23] DT Fiske, The Cross and the Crown; or, Faith Working by Love: The Life of Fidelia Fiske, missionary to Persia 1843-1858, reprinted by Tentmaker Publications, 2005, 91-2.
[24] How Christianity Changed the World, 118-9.
[25] Ibid., 119-21.
[26] P Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2011, 96-97.
[27] ‘India’s Shame’, The Times, 27 June 2018, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/india-s-shame-5b7lzdg60 (accessed 14 September, 2018).
[28] RS Shah, in Christianity and Freedom, Volume 2, 113-131.
[29] ND Kristof and S WuDunn, Half the Sky, Virago, 2010, 157-160.
[30] Quoted in D Darling, The Dignity Revolution, The Good Book Company, 2018, 112.
[31] https://www.om.org/en/news/freeing-dalits (accessed 11 December, 2019).
[32] Sharon James, God’s Design for Women in an Age of Gender Confusion, Evangelical Press, 2019. 


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