Legislating Morality for Women in the Seventh Century

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

As Dana Robert tells the story of the conversion of the Irish, lessons abound for our day. For example, here is a paragraph about the effect of Christianity on the condition of women in the seventh century.

Although little is known of women’s roles in Ireland before the coming of Christianity, its spread launched a new day for women’s rights once a Christian leader gained the public authority to limit warfare. In 697 the Abbot Adomnan (d. 704) issued the “Law of the Innocents” that gave the testimony of women legal force, and gave women limited property rights. Endorsed by ninety-one Irish kings and bishops, Adomnan’s law repudiated the previous situation of women as abused slaves and forced warriors. This attempt to legalize Christian standards toward women and children was unprecedented in Europe in that period. Christianity in medieval Ireland became known for this leadership of royal women as the heads of monasteries, and as political and spiritual advisors to men.1

Three lessons stand out.

One is that, wherever Christianity has spread, the condition of women has been improved. This is often forgotten in a day like ours where discussions often revolve around the refinements of the finer steps in the choreography of manhood and womanhood. The fact is that the Bible is revolutionary in heralding the dignity of woman created in the image of God and recreated as a fellow heir of the grace of life.

Second, the folks that cry foul in our day at the “legislating of morality” would probably have been happy with Adomnan’s legislating of his new Christian morality for the good of women — to protect her from slavery and forced combat.

Which simply reminds us, thirdly, that all laws are the legislating of someone’s morality. Some group gets its way about what they think will be “good” for society. The question is not whether to legislate morality, but which moral convictions to legislate. And what is the process of deciding?

  1. Dana Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 157