In that important realm of human life which embraces the relations between the sexes, the status of women and children, marriage, and the family, Christianity wrought significant modifications.
Women were prominently and favourably mentioned in the cherished records of the life of Christ. While Paul would not allow them to speak in the meetings of the churches, he declared that in Christ Jesus there could be neither male nor female, and in the churches of the first generation women were honoured as prophetesses. Women seem also to have served as deaconesses, although this is not certain. As we have seen, from the very early days of the Church widows and virgins were held in high respect.
We have noted that at least from the time of Paul virginity was esteemed above the married state. Yet, except in some of the minority groups, such as the Marcionites, marriage was not proscribed. In the case of the death of one partner, a second marriage was forbidden by the stricter elements in the Church, but was eventually permitted by the more lenient. A third marriage was regarded as evil. Sexual intercourse outside of marriage was sternly interdicted and within marriage was permitted only for the procreation of children. Divorce was not allowed, except after the violation of the marriage bond by one of its partners. Sexual offenses were by no means unknown among Christians, but they were long held to exclude the offender from the Church. Later, as we have noted, restoration was permitted after due repentance and discipline. Civil law forbade a woman of high degree to marry a man of lower social rank, a freedman, or a slave, and decreed that if she disobeyed she would sink to the status of her spouse. Yet society in general winked at such unions. Early in the third century, although he was sharply criticized for it, Pope Callistus (Calixtus I), who relaxed the rule for sexual offenses, also pronounced such marriages legal from the standpoint of the Church.
Children were to be held in tender regard. Jesus himself had set the example and Paul, while enjoining them to obey their parents, commanded that the fathers should not provoke them to wrath but rear them in the "nurture and admonition of the Lord." The destruction of young life, either by abortion or infanticide, was forbidden.
In its first few centuries, within the Church which it had called into being Christianity had not only largely drawn the sting of slavery, given dignity to labour, and abolished beggary. It had also elevated the status of women and given new worth to childhood.
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