The Origins of Family Law
The Christian faith had a profound impact on the beginnings of legal protection for women, children, and the family.
Secular Views about the Family
For over a century and a half, various forms of evolutionism have taught six generations of Westerners that the family is merely a primitive stage in the evolutionary process, something that needs to be transcended and then abandoned for other more developed forms of societal organisation, making space for much greater sexual “liberty”. The evolutionary eugenics movement of the last century, led by some leading feminists in North America, often advocated for the total abolition of the family. This line of thinking has led us on a slippery road toward self-destruction. The well-known reality of demographic decline in Western nations spelling economic disaster is just one illustration of impending ruin – the product of our humanistic hostility to God’s basic institution.
As another example, radical feminism considers the biblical family a form of slavery – slavery for women. But the fact is the biblical family came onto the Western scene as a liberating force. The pagan family was “past bound” in ancestor worship. In the ancestral religions of the Roman Empire a father had the power of life and death over the child and could disinherit his wife at will. Ancestor worship did not honour the living family, but created fear concerning the ancestors’ impact on the present, producing stagnation and finally degradation – there was no emphasis upon the future. We easily forget in our time how deeply indebted we are in the West to Christianity and the biblical model of the family for our social stability, our family laws and what is left of our liberty.
Christian Revolution in the Family
The story of how we came to the Christian revolution in the life of the family and the force of power it became for transforming the West and providing such prosperity is a largely neglected one.
For me, the story of the Christian family revolution, ever since I read about it, has become one of my favourite accounts in the history of the church. Many have never heard the account of the Empress Theodora. Born in the early 6th century, her father was an animal trainer for the Roman arena. He died when his daughters were still very young, six, eight and ten respectively. Theodora was eight. There was no provision made for the children and so after their father’s death, they were sold at this tender age into prostitution; a cruel, ugly and bitter life. By her teens Theodora was a high price prostitute and accompanied a businessman into North Africa on a business trip. He became angry with her and abandoned her. She soon became seriously ill. A Christian presbyter and his family took her in and took responsibility for nursing care and began to daily teach her the scriptures. Although not converted straight away, within one year she was back in the capital of the Empire and thinking seriously about the faith. The Holy Spirit was working within her. During that time she became acquainted with a young lawyer who was the nephew of a powerful general of the Roman armies. Subsequently, they fell in love and got married.
In a remarkable turn of events, the Roman emperor died childless. To prevent civil war over succession, before his death, he made the old general, Justin, the emperor, and when shortly after, the old general Justin died, his nephew and heir Justinian (the young lawyer) became emperor! Consequently, Theodora, the girl sold into sexual slavery at about eight years old became, in her twenties, the empress and a devout Christian.
When Justinian (another devout Christian) then called for the re-codification of all Roman Law, Theodora took the leading role in directing the lawyers to ensure that that law was in conformity to the Law of God. Her primary concern was with family law. She wanted to ensure that all that the Bible had to say about the family, be written into the law of the empire. Prior to this, the family had no real status in Roman law. If a man died, it was common for the family to be tossed out into the street the next day. He might have made a contract with a friend or mistress (concubine) in which all his possessions were alienated and thereby left to them or illegitimate children. Empress Theodora ensured as a matter of law that sexual activity outside of marriage be prohibited by law (and punished by law) – that the only heirs to and owners of property and inheritance would be legitimate heirs to stop countless families being dispossessed. This was according to the law given to Moses. This produced one of the greatest legal revolutions in the history of the World.[i]
Reversal of the Christian Legal Revolution
In light of this we can see that what is going on in Western society via education, our courts and social engineering is a revolutionary effort to undo what the empress Theodora did. Hence it is nearly impossible to find reference to her in most school or college texts, and where something is written it is often slanderous – there is a desire to degrade the woman who helped write Scripture into the law of the Western world.
What was the nature of this legal revolution? First, sexual activity, unlike pagan practices, was restricted to marriage. Marriage and sex were identified and made the standard of men and nations – to this day. Now we are trying to undermine the biblical view of the family, even though it was basic to our law structure. A legal marriage in the West became, through Theodora, the monogamous marriage. Thus, the success, in Canada, of the controversial Bill C-38, legalising and thereby endorsing and celebrating homosexual marriages represents a legal and social revolution the like of which we have not seen for 1,500 years and is symptomatic of the decay of our culture into death and ruin.
At EICC we believe that the word of God is relevant to every area of life and that when Christ redeems us through his atoning death, he calls us to life in all its fullness (Jn 10:10). Salvation in the Latin root means wholeness, so that Christ calls us from our brokenness and the way of death, into the wholeness of the way of life; he remakes our thinking and living in terms of his word. He has not come simply to redeem our souls, but the totality of our person, to reconcile all things to himself and thus his covenant promises extend to our children and children’s children.
For a complete treatment Jubilee Winter 2010
[i] Mark Galli, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2010), 312-314.