Taking research onto the streets

Langham Graduate Dr Myrto Theocharous is interviewed about her research into Deuteronomy, and how it ignited a passion to help refugees and women trafficked into the sex trade. She spoke to Kay Carter, Vice Principal for Communications at Tyndale House, earlier this year.

Dr Myrto Theocharous asks me to imagine if God had a business card, what it would say. “When I introduce myself I say, ‘I’m Myrto Theocharous and I’m a Professor of Old Testament.’ When God introduces himself to Israel he says, ‘I am the anti-slavery God.’

“This theme comes up constantly in the Old Testament — I am the God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt. It is one of the main ways God defines himself, like his business card — that he is the God who will not tolerate oppression.”

For Theocharous, who is on the faculty of the Greek Bible College in Athens, this makes it impossible to study the Old Testament without embracing its rallying cry of justice for the oppressed. “I want to combine social action with a theological understanding about what it means to be human,” she says. “This is what drives my research.”

Myrto Theocharous gained her PhD at Cambridge University and now teaches Old Testament at The Greek Bible College. [Photographer: Sophia Papoutsis Moul]

The Greek Bible College is the only evangelical college in the country, with up to 50 students enrolled at any one time. That’s because the evangelical community in Greece is so tiny — just 0.03% of the population according to Theocharous. “Although the college is very small, many evangelical churches and ministries in Greece recruit graduates from us. So most evangelical churches here are pastored by our graduates, and tonnes and tonnes of Christian ministries are run by people that we trained as students.

“I teach everything related to the Old Testament — I teach Hebrew, ancient Near Eastern background, Prophets, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, you name it. I also handle student applications, I make sure students are enrolled in their programmes and check that they have the right number of credit hours. We have to wear many hats at the college.”

Alongside her role at the college, however, Theocharous puts her research into action by working with a number of women’s ministries in Athens. “I am on the board of an organisation for women who have been trafficked into the sex industry. Our volunteers visit the red-light district, going inside the brothels to offer their help. They take cookies, coffee and books and just ask the women if they’d like to take a break to talk. We can set up visits to the doctor if the women need healthcare or psychological counselling, and we offer them Christian literature. But we also make it clear that we can help them if they want to get out of the brothel. We work with the police, if necessary, to arrange rescue operations.

Volunteering for women’s ministries

“I started working with women who had been sex-trafficked when I was a student and because of that was inspired to search Deuteronomy for a vision for freedom from slavery. Being exposed to groups of people who are suffering and who are longing for liberation caused me to adopt their questions and take their questions to the Bible to see what answers God provides for them. Trafficking is a form of modern slavery, and Israel is born in the act of a God who is anti-slavery, so I realised that this is exactly where God’s heart is.

Myrto Theocharous volunteers for women’s ministries on the streets of Greece in her spare time.

“In the Bible, when God emancipates the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt, he brings them into a relationship with him and from that we can start to understand the very purposes of creation. All the other doctrines flow from this — from the liberation and identity that is found in a relationship with God. And that’s where I found the key to the social action that we were doing. I realised that social action has to begin with the liberation of people, both physical and spiritual. If the Church wants to imitate its God, it must become a Church that seeks liberation for the oppressed. You can’t be the Church without adopting this identity.

“Of course it’s not as though it’s only Christians who take this challenge seriously, there are many secular groups fighting against these evils. But I wasn’t interested in work that leaves people in the place where they were before they became slaves, I wanted to support people to take a step beyond that, to offer them the opportunity to interpret themselves in a totally different way.

“If a woman escapes from sex-trafficking but continues to see herself as trash, as the property of someone, then it’s only a matter of time before she ends up in slavery again. For that woman to be truly liberated would mean that she no longer thinks of herself as she did before, as a slave. This is what Deuteronomy does, it gives people a new vision of themselves. The Israelites who came out of Egypt still thought of themselves as dependent on Egypt, and when life after emancipation was hard they became nostalgic for their captivity. God not only freed them from slavery, but he also described the kind of community he wanted them to be, and in doing so showed them a new way to think about themselves.”

Bible studies with Syrian refugees

Theocharous has also had the opportunity to minister at a centre that serves homeless women, many of whom are refugees. “The women who visit are mostly Syrian. They come to get diapers, food and milk for their babies. I was invited to spend an evening there sharing the Gospel but the women wanted to know more and asked if I would go back to do a Bible study. They are all Muslim women, so I was interested to know what questions they would bring to the text. It has been fascinating to talk with them about how the Bible speaks to them, how it provides comfort.

Syrian Flag
Most of the refugee women who visit the centre where Theocharous volunteers are from Syria.

“For the refugee women at the centre, abuse and oppression have often been a very prominent part of their lives. I am continually surprised by the fact that they rarely ask me questions about why they have lost their homes or have had to abandon their homeland. Much more often they want to talk about why they are being oppressed at home, why their freedom is being denied by their husband. Some are being beaten and degraded and feel as though they are sleeping with the enemy. When we talk about God they don’t ask why God allows war, they ask why he allows them to suffer at the hands of men.

“What we see in Deuteronomy is the elevation of women. If you read other texts and other law codes from the ancient world, Deuteronomy is very different. It makes no distinction between men and women when it comes to the penalties for harming another human. If you are a woman you are just as much a person in the image of God as a man is, and if you’re oppressed then your oppressor needs to be brought before justice. You also see it in the Ten Commandments, which decrees that children should honour their mother as well as their father. Both parents are involved in teaching their children the Torah, as is also seen in the book of Proverbs. This was revolutionary instruction in its day.

“Deuteronomy, unusually in the ancient world, opens up the legal system to women. It gives women the right to go to court and bring their case. It gives rights to widows who have no defender, who were right at the bottom of the pile socially. They had to be fed but didn’t really make an economic contribution, so they were considered a nuisance. But God leaves nobody who reads Deuteronomy in any doubt that he cares for the widow and he expects the widow to be cared for. In fact, Deuteronomy is just the beginning, this is repeated consistently in other books and texts.”

Effects of Lockdown

Studying these themes in the Old Testament is work that Theocharous has been able to continue during the recent Coronavirus lockdown in Greece, but there has inevitably been some disruption to her teaching. “We managed to continue online but we couldn’t help but be affected. However we did manage to finish all the courses, and will be opening up the college again in September in full compliance with the requirements of the Greek government.”

Courses at the Greek Bible College are back in person.

As life resumes at the college so, of course, Theocharous is also keen to return to her voluntary work. “The good news was that with the lockdown the brothels were locked down too, but then the women had no food, so we did keep our ministry going to provide groceries for them. Lockdown is lifting now so we will begin our outreach programme again.”

Presented with Theocharous’ example, and with teaching that emphasises the Church’s responsibilities to those in need, it is no surprise that so many graduates of the Greek Bible College go on to run their own social ministries. “We are very proud of that, that’s the whole point of the college,” she says. “There is a very intimate connection between biblical studies and social action, one cannot live without the other. So it’s not ivory-tower work that we’re doing at the college, it is something that has a real impact on human lives.”

By Kay Carter, Vice Principal for Communications at Tyndale House

This is an edited version of an article that was previously published by Tyndale House in Ink magazine.

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