Hardly a day goes by in which the news neglects to mention the turmoil of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Advocating biblical equality at a time like this might sound to outsiders like an exercise in futility. However, contrary to many stereotypes held by Westerners, this part of the world is most assuredly not hopeless. Here in Lebanon and throughout the region, women face challenges, just like women around the world, but this is no reason for Westerners to adopt an attitude of superiority. I once heard a Lebanese women’s rights activist say,
Don’t believe Westerners when they express concern for the women of the Middle East. They are only trying to make our culture and religion look bad so that theirs seem better by comparison. If they genuinely cared, they would be helping Arab women and their families who are poor or refugees. They would be listening to us and acting on our behalf rather than just talking about us.
Biblical equality reflects God’s concern for all people, and the church’s stance toward biblical equality will impact the MENA region for generations to come. Here’s how.
One: Maximizing the Church’s Human Resources
A few years ago, I asked a room full of youth group leaders from Lebanese and Syrian churches how many of them would emigrate if they were able. Before I had finished asking the question, every hand in the room shot up. Christians in the MENA region comprise less than four percent of the population, and their numbers and percentage are shrinking rapidly because of emigration and a relatively low birthrate. The educated and the initiative-takers are usually the first to leave, creating a leadership crisis. Yet there are millions in the region who have not heard the gospel. And the conflict, instability, and violence in the region can only be resolved by the peace of Christ. How can a tiny church with a leadership crisis meet such an enormous challenge?
In some churches and mission organizations, women are welcome to take on a wide variety of roles, short of full ordination. In others, women are being told directly and indirectly that their gifts are not needed, and that they had best leave ministry leadership to the men. For example, a denominational leader hosted an event for seminary students and asked each male student what ministry God had called him to. He skipped over all the female students as if they were of no significance. Biblical equality is strategic in making use of all of the spiritual gifts of the MENA church to meet the overwhelming challenge.
Two: Laying the Foundations of the Muslim-Background Church
Until recently, nearly all the Christians in the Middle East came from families that were Christian before the rise of Islam. Today, God is doing a new thing. An unprecedented number of Muslims are choosing to follow Jesus. If the current trends continue, it will not be long before the Muslim-background churches outnumber those from Christian backgrounds (this is already true of Algeria).
As these new congregations are forming, their choices about faith and practice will determine the direction of the church in the region for years to come. Some are being influenced by patriarchal views imported from the West, and some are unthinkingly adopting the patterns of their cultures. I know of one group in which the men gather to worship, but their wives and daughters stay at home; the only connection the women have with the church is via their husbands. There is a great need for solid biblical teaching about equality, as the marginalization of women now could establish a pattern that lasts for centuries. Biblical equality is strategic for long-term practices and patterns in the MENA church of the future.
Three: Providing freedom in Christ as an alternative for women
Both headscarves (among Muslims) and breast implants are becoming more common in Lebanon. While some women and men are content with traditional roles and restrictions for women, others (both Muslim and Christian) reject what they perceive as the religious degradation and restriction of women. Yet the only alternative seems to be secularism with its shameless lack of moral basis. Muslim women wrestle with seemingly unfair principles of their religion, and some are seeking to reinterpret the Qur’an and Islamic traditions to make Islam compatible with gender equality. Biblical equality is strategic in presenting Christ as a viable, godly model of freedom for women.
Four: Credibility of the religious courts
The Lebanese people do not have much confidence in the judicial process in their country. The state-run criminal courts have a reputation for corruption. The “status law” courts (for marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance) are run by religious denominations, and are notoriously biased against women. Normally, “men of religion” determine the laws and judge the cases, and there are virtually no female judges in these courts. An increasing number of couples are traveling to Cyprus to get married or are advocating Lebanese civil marriage as an alternative. Among the reasons for this is an unwillingness to be judged in what couples see as an archaic and biased system. As the courts lose credibility in the eyes of the youth, so does religion. Biblical equality could be strategic in improving the reputation of the church courts and removing a blot from the reputation of the church’s faith.
Five: Credibility in advocating justice in society
The Lebanese are waking up to a plethora of gender justice issues. Lebanese men can pass their citizenship on to their children, but women cannot. It is not a crime for a man to rape his wife, and most human rights organizations consider both the law and its enforcement utterly inadequate to provide real protection against domestic violence. Thousands of migrant domestic workers are being exploited, abused, and subjected to contract slavery. So-called “murders of honor,” in which a man kills a family member for a perceived act of dishonor, are rare in Lebanon, but the law still allows reduced sentences for those who commit them.
Some Muslim, Christian, and secular organizations are battling these injustices. In 2012, as a result of pressure from human rights groups and women’s shelters, a series of billboards appeared featuring pictures of prominent male religious leaders, each with a quotation condemning domestic violence. This is an encouraging first, but it is uncommon. It’s difficult for denominations to speak for gender justice, because some of their own esteemed members are the culprits and discrimination is prescribed and practiced within many churches. Justice for women isn’t a priority for most churches. Biblical Equality is strategic for making the church aware of the issues, motivating it to take a stand, and giving it a credible voice for justice in society.
Six: Hearing the Word of God
A speaker at a Christian conference asked a mixed audience, “If you could be any woman in history, who would you choose to be?” An aspiring male leader in that audience later admitted to me that he was repulsed by the question. He would not want to be any woman—ever! Most pastors in the MENA region save Bible passages featuring women for women’s meetings and Mother’s Day sermons. As a result, men are not used to learning from the women of the Bible or seeing the story of God’s redemption from their perspective. Men understand loud and clear that women have nothing to teach them and that women’s role in salvation history is peripheral.
Women and men in most churches learn to sex-stereotype their interpretation of the Bible. When, at the beginning of a course, I named female Bible characters and asked students to describe the characteristics of each woman, the first answer for the godly women was always “submissive,” and for the ungodly women, “not submissive.” I enjoyed watching the students discover the three-dimensional character of the Bible’s women and the variety of ways God encounters, teaches, blesses, and uses women. It was exciting to see the male students realize that the women of the Bible had important lessons to teach them, and the female students realize that God could use them as they truly are. Biblical equality is strategic in enabling the church to encounter and be transformed by the Living God through his Word.
Gender Equality in a Spirit of Equality
This article has been doubly hard for me to write. In Arab society, one expresses love by ignoring or covering faults, and here I have exposed some faults of my beloved Lebanon to people of other nations. To make matters worse, I fear my words could be used to reinforce the widespread prejudices and negative stereotypes about Arabs promoted by the media, particularly regarding the status of women. I hope this article will inspire genuine empathy rather than an attitude of cultural superiority. When it comes to gender equality, no nation has a flawless record. We all need to be reminded of Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee praying in the temple (Luke 18:9–14). All nations need the healing power of Jesus and the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. Together we confess the failings of our countries to bring about the justice God requires. Together we hope for the day of Christ’s return, when, in the words of Amos 5:24, justice will “roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”