Being a child in the ancient world was a blessing. But it was only a blessing if your parents wanted you, and that was probably only if you were a healthy boy. If you were a girl, or weak or unhealthy in any way, then you were a burden that needed to be eliminated. Children in the ancient world were disposable.  One writer puts it this way, “The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to wake.”  It was into this brutal world that Christianity was born. And the early Christians, as did the early Jews, objected to the ubiquitous violence that was practised against children.

We take for granted the fruits and implications of early Christianity’s views and practices towards children. As ethics writer, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry reminds us: 

"We have forgotten just how deep a cultural revolution Christianity wrought. We forget about it precisely because of how deep it was: There are many ideas that we simply take for granted as natural and obvious, when in fact they did not exist until the arrival of Christianity changed things completely. Take, for instance, the idea of children". 

Children in the ancient world were disposed of in three ways. They were either aborted, killed or abandoned. The details around the techniques of disposing of children are horrific, and I won’t outline those here. Rather, I wish to show how the early Christians responded to this crisis. To appreciate the early Christian response to this dreadful evil, we have to understand why children were disposable in the ancient world. 

Firstly, the major factor for disposing of children was economic. In a culture where there was no “middle class” and where most people lived at or below a subsistence level, unable to maintain financial security, the burden of another mouth to feed was unbearable. It was easier and culturally appropriate to just eliminate a child. In such a culture, the early Christians responded by creating communities of commitment, care and concern for the well-being and benefit of each-other. They also looked after each other financially (1 Jn 3:16-18; Acts 2:44-45; 1 Tim 6:17-19). 

A second reason for disposing of a child is that there was something wrong with the child. The philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC) states: “Deformed infants shall be killed” (On the Laws 3.8). The “deformity” could be a child with some mental or physical disability or a sickly child.

In contrast to this, the early Christians, along with the people of God in the Old Testament, believed that all “Children are a gift from the Lord” (Ps 127:3). In his discussion of people with abnormalities, Augustine writes:

“Even in cases of greater variations, God knows what He is doing and no one may rightly blame His work” (City of God 16.8). Every child born of human parents, no matter what variations or differences they may have is considered valuable as a gift from God.
Another reason, following from the one before, is that a child could have been born the wrong sex. By wrong sex, they meant that they desired a boy, and the child was a girl. In the ancient world, there was a clear preference for a boy over a girl. Such preferences were common in the Graeco-Roman world. For example, one writing states: “I urge and entreat you to be careful of the child, and if I receive payment soon, I will send it up to you. If she bears an offspring, if it is a male let it be, if a female expose it”. The word “expose” here means to expose the child to the elements of nature, i.e., find a place to abandon it. That could be down by the river or rubbish dump. Among early Christians, women were honoured as “co-heirs of the gracious gift of life” (1 Pet 3:7).

Women and men were both created equally (Gen 1:26-27). Women were honoured as exemplars in the Christian faith (2 Tim 1:5). Women were ministers and leaders in early Christian churches (Rom 16:1-2; 7). Women played a vital and important role in life, the church and most importantly, in the eyes of God. And thus, there was nothing wrong with having a child that was a girl.

A fourth reason children were disposed of in the ancient world was simply one of desire. The children could simply be unwanted. Perhaps the family had enough children and they just didn’t want another. That was reason enough to dispose of a child. Several early Christian instructions take it for granted that both exposure and infanticide are unacceptable options for those who follow Jesus. An early Christian discipleship manual, The Didache, states emphatically, “do not abort a foetus or kill a child that is born” (2:2).

Another early Christian writing notes one of the distinctive characteristic of early Christian practice is that “They marry like everyone else and have children, but they do not expose their offspring” (Diognetus 5:6). Justin Martyr (1 Apology 29:1) suggests that if an exposed child were to die, the most probable outcome, that would make the one who exposed the child a murderer. Furthermore, if children are understood to be a gift from God (Ps 127:3), then children are to be honoured and valued.
Jesus modelled a counter-cultural attitude to children. He welcomed them (Mk 9:35-37), he blessed them (Mk 10:13-16) and warned of severe judgement to anyone who would harm or mistreat children (Matt 18:1-7). The early Christians took this example seriously and began to treat children differently. This began with the revolution of understanding that children were not disposable, but rather gifts from God that were to be cherished and valued.