What positive difference has Christianity made in history? Well, there are many answers. Today we'll look at one: the influence of Christianity has changed our valuation of female children.
In the early years of Christianity, when it was a fledgling group spreading around the Roman Empire, people made an effort to follow Christ by showing love. Loving neighbors was not an emotion, but an appropriate response to the love God had revealed in Jesus.
An appropriate response could be practical, and costly. One big example is showing compassion to orphans.
In ancient Roman society, a father had authority to determine whether a newborn baby was accepted or rejected. If the baby was rejected, he or she could be killed or abandoned. Babies could be exposed, which means set outside to die of hunger, cold, heat or from wild dogs.
There is written evidence that a majority of babies exposed were girls. There was a bias against girls, because women were devalued in Greek and Roman culture to a degree that would shock us. A woman in Greek society could not sit at meal with her husband if he had other male guests present, nor could she speak in public. Roman women were under the absolute control of their husbands, who legally owned their wives, and all her possessions.
If a Roman woman gave birth to a child and her husband refused to welcome it, he could kill it or expose it. She had no legal right to stop him. Sometimes, a baby boy would be abandoned because the father detected a physical flaw. Far too many times, a baby girl was abandoned simply because she was a girl.
Archaeological studies at Delphi, a Greek city, show that of 600 families in the second-century of our era, only one percent had two daughters, while the other 99 percent had plenty of sons, but only one daughter, or none. This evidence means boys were welcome; girls far less welcome.
But the Christians soon showed they had a different, and higher, respect for human life. Christian concern for orphans resulted from the biblical teaching that every human being is precious in God's sight. The prophets in ancient Israel constantly proclaimed that God would not tolerate mistreatment of widows or orphans. Jews did not practice infanticide and did not expose their children. Yet many children were orphans because their parents had died before they grew up, and these had to be provided for by extended family and neighbors.
Jesus' disciples taught that when people are "in Christ," they belong to a community in which God does not favor rich over poor, nor male over female. James, the brother of Jesus, and leader of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem, wrote, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows ..." (James 1:27).
Christians throughout the Roman Empire began going to the places where people abandoned their babies, and collected them, bringing them to safety, providing medical care and wet nurses. But they did more for the long-term. They raised them in their own homes. They assumed the task of providing food and clothing, and whatever education they could afford, at their own expense. The churches collected money to help families with the expenses.
People noticed that the Christians took in the girl babies as well as the boys.
After the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313, Christians still raised orphans in their homes, but they also set up small places for people to bring foundlings, and these were the beginnings of orphanages. In some cases, exceptionally poor children were taken in and cared for as well.
At each infant baptism, the early church required godparents to be present. These were people who would step in and raise the child if his or her parents died. This showed a high concern for potential orphans.
As sociologist Alvin Schmidt reviews the historical record, he notes the attitude of the early Christians: "Since human life expectancy was only about thirty years during the early centuries of Christianity, it was not uncommon for small children to have one or both parents die. Thus, should the child lose his or her parents, the baptismal rite required the godparents to promise that they would provide for the child, both spiritually and materially. Orphans, like the poor, were seen as redeemed creatures of God and therefore worthy of human love and attention."
These compassionate actions were costly and time-consuming, but they instilled in what became European society a greater valuation of children, and especially girls, than anything known in the ancient world. This is one of the gifts Christianity gave to the world.
No, not everyone was truly converted to Christianity, and not everyone lived up to the high valuation Christians put on orphans, girls or boys. Girls were not always as welcome as boys in every home. But the ideal was introduced and remains with us. It is a gift that needs to endure and prosper.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. You may e-mail him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.