God's Word to Middle Eastern Women

by Kevin Zabihi | October 20, 2021

The wealth of literature lies not only in its beauty, but also in its subtle and unique ability to provide insight into both culture and philosophy, revealing to readers the mind and world of the author.

Scripture, the highest form of literature, provides such a window into generations past with its abundance of authors scattered across history and unified by the mind of God, the ultimate creator of our sacred text. Yet it is not only the authors who reveal their cultural customs and idiosyncrasies to us readers; we as the readers also import our own cultural assumptions and understandings into the text. Presbyterian theologian Kenneth Bailey wrote at length on this phenomenon, as he witnessed firsthand the penetrating insight Middle Eastern laypeople had into Scripture while he taught and preached in Egypt. Their proximity to the ancient cultures of Scripture allowed them to better discern the cultural preconceptions and nuances of the biblical authors.

What Cultural Nuances Can Teach Us

Bailey’s experience has mirrored much of my own. As an Iranian American who has attended and served in both Iranian Christian and US evangelical churches, I also have had the opportunity to observe the divergence in scriptural interpretations between Eastern and Western Christian traditions. These differences are especially glaring regarding the issue of women in the church. In the West, centuries of social and political thought have congealed into theology, with their own formative culture and the biblical texts being inseparable in the minds of Western readers. As a result, Western Christians project their own predispositions and presumptions onto the text. The same, of course, holds true for Eastern readers—no one is impervious to their own biases.

Nevertheless, to foster dialogue on the richness of Scripture and demonstrate the depth and subtleties of these ancient cultures which speak so palpably to modern Middle Eastern readers, I wish to present a defense of women’s ordination and inclusion as leaders within the church by exploring how women participated in Jesus’s ministry before and after his resurrection, with specific attention to Acts 9:1–2:

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

This passage is especially poignant because through it we see how ancient Middle Eastern political and religious movements parallel modern political ones. Bailey noted the wider implications of the passage are apparent to anyone immersed in these cultures. The recent political insurrections of Iran and Lebanon, compared to the early Christian revolution in ancient Rome, help demonstrate the deep significance of this passage.

Lebanese Civil War

Bailey was living in Lebanon at the time of the nation’s civil war and thus often reflected on his experiences in his work, explaining the theological truths he realized during these tumultuous events. At the peak of the chaos and violence, Bailey observed the majority of men had retreated into their homes and hid, leaving their residences with extreme caution and only when absolutely necessary. Since such political revolts and movements were traditionally fought and led by men, men were seen as the primary threats.

Women and children, on the other hand, could freely move about town, conducting their day-to-day activities in public with little harassment. The Lebanese culture at the time did not expect women to be anything more than housewives, so restricting their movement would have done little to hamper the insurgents and provide safety. 

Iranian Revolution

Conversely, the opposite was true during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Women in Iran, under the former king, Shah Reza, had experienced significant reforms and participated substantially in public life. Women began to attend universities in 1937, women’s suffrage was realized in 1963, and by the late 1970s women constituted a large part of the workforce.1 Before the Islamic Republic of Iran was established, the nation possessed a progressive position regarding women’s social roles compared to the surrounding region.

The Shah wanted to appeal to and ingratiate himself within the Western powers that had aided in restoring his monarchial claim. He often sought to imitate the modernity and ideals of the West, especially regarding gender. This meant when the 1979 Revolution began, women occupied leadership roles and held substantial influence and power within the movement.2 Thus, initially, women were involved in the revolution and were leaders and activists in both small cells and larger movements.3

Women’s roles in the political conflicts of Iran and Lebanon differed vastly. Since women were leaders in Iran, they were equally perceived as threats. Any activism or perceived political agitation from women was met with the same harsh penalties as their male counterparts. The SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police in Iran, would routinely torture and imprison women since some were insurgents and commanders in the various revolutionary factions and movements.

Roman Parallels

These attitudes are exactly mirrored in the documentation of the early Christian revolution in the gospel narratives and the book of Acts. When Jesus was first arrested, the political and cultural landscape of ancient Rome more closely resembled modern-day Lebanon. The disciples, all men, quickly fled and sought shelter, retreating into the safety of anonymity, denying any association with Jesus. Roman law would have branded them as fellow insurgents, leaders in this budding religious movement, and they would have been persecuted and imprisoned alongside the man they once proudly called teacher and Lord. In contrast, the women were free to stay and follow Jesus through his passion. They remained with him during his crucifixion, and they were the first to visit his tomb while the men continued to hide.

The one exception was John. That John stayed may have been indicative of his age, showing us his youth in comparison to the other disciples. As in Lebanon, children in ancient Rome were given latitude since they were perceived to not constitute any public danger. Many scholars, by dating John’s works and various historical records of his ministry, have reached a consensus on his youth, noting the late emergence of his gospel in comparison to the synoptics, and his survival seemingly into the late first century.4 It is possible John was an older child or teenager at the time, and thus he was given liberties denied to the other male disciples.

Following the resurrection, the burgeoning church implemented considerable social reforms within their community in rapid succession; the small circle of Christians expanded and transformed in its explosive growth. Women and Gentiles were called apostles alongside Jewish men. With the commencement of the restoration of the cosmos, which Christ’s resurrection had initiated, the former restrictions and curses of the fall began to fade. The original order and goodness of creation was reflected in the new messianic religion, in the church, an order where male and female reigned as equals, as the lordship, love, and glory of God was given to all the earth, through Christ.

The Roman political authorities and officials responded in kind. Whereas they initially permitted the women to move freely during Jesus’s ministry, letting them follow and tend to the Messiah undisturbed, they now began persecuting both women and men. We know this because Saul himself requested in Acts 9:1–2 to put to death any woman or man belonging to the Way. Saul’s request appears fantastically ruthless within the ancient Roman cultural context, unless women were equally perceived as threats and leaders of the Way, capable of inciting their followers to further insurrection.

In modern Iran, this mentality and culture is still reflected in the persecution of Christians. Iran’s subversive house church movement is currently experiencing rapid expansion, and its growth is largely led by women. These women have attracted international attention for their bravery and leadership in spreading Christianity throughout the strictly Islamic nation, where apostasy remains a capital crime. Thus, just as it was during the days of Saul, women in Iran are jailed and persecuted alongside the men, in recognition of their power as leaders, preachers, and evangelists.

Despite the Iranian government’s attempts to silence these women, they continue to preach from inside their jail cells, converting people to Christianity and proving inspirational in their evangelistic zeal. My former church, an Iranian Christian Church, had a female pastor, a fact which was never particularly controversial. In fact, as I entered the Western Christian tradition, I was completely shocked to discover this was a hotly debated topic. For Iranians, one of the greatest aspects of Christianity is the dignity given to women, a primary reason why Christianity attracts so many. There is freedom in Christ that can be found nowhere else. It has been incredibly sad for me to witness, in the West, that this freedom is not available to many women in some denominations and traditions.5

For Afsaneh, my mother, and Faith, my true friend, who have been my spiritual lodestars

Notes

  1. John Lorentz, Historical Dictionary of Iran (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2007), 355.
  2. It is crucial to remember the original purpose of the revolution was to depose the monarchy—most never dreamed an Islamic regime would seize momentum in the political chaos and ascend to power. To quote my mother, a former participant in the revolution, Khomenei “came out of nowhere” and “grabbed power very quickly.” Though the myriad of revolutionary splinter groups were united in their goal to oust the Shah, their ideals differed radically. The factions ranged from conservative reactionaries who denounced the Shah’s policy as an overly westernized betrayal to the values and culture of the nation, to Marxist progressives displeased with the Shah’s perceived bourgeois political agenda.
  3. For example, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a liberal Islamic political-militant organization, included a woman deputy commander, Maryam Rajavi (this observation does not constitute in any way an endorsement of the Mujahedin, or any political-religious movement of the Iranian revolution, but is simply intended to demonstrate the high-ranking roles women occupied in the various factions). See Elizabeth Sleeman, ed., The International Who's Who of Women 2002. (London: Europa Publications, 2002), 464.
  4. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 421–423.
  5. If this exegesis is of interest, please reference this article from Dr. Ken Bailey for further theological reading on women in the New Testament from the Middle Eastern perspective.

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash.


Related Reading

The Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church
Book Review: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth Bailey
A New Kind of Household