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First Woman Steps into Leadership of Evangelical Theological Society

Wheaton professor Karen Jobes becomes president a decade after a study found “hostile and unwelcoming” atmosphere.
First Woman Steps into Leadership of Evangelical Theological Society
Image: Zondervan / YouTube screen grab
Karen Jobes

The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) has instated its first female president in 75 years. Karen Jobes, emeritus professor of New Testament and exegesis at Wheaton College, will lead the professional society of evangelical Bible scholars and theologians in 2024.

Her election marks a significant step for an association that has faced criticism over the years for the marginalization of women. A 2014 Christians for Biblical Equality study of women’s experiences at ETS gatherings, authored by Emily Zimbrick-Rogers, who is now an Episcopal priest in Philadelphia, found “an atmosphere that feels hostile and unwelcoming.”

Jobes, who joined in 1989, recalled uncomfortable experiences of her own at ETS.

“My earliest recollections of coming to ETS is that there were very, very few women. And most of the men who attended would ask, ‘Well, whose wife are you?’” Jobes told CT at ETS’s annual gathering, held this year in San Antonio. “A lot has happened in the church and in our world since the 1980s.”

Other women share similar stories.

“In some sessions, I was the only woman attending. Very few women presented papers,” said Carmen Joy Imes, an Old Testament professor at Biola University. “Men would ask me, ‘Where does your husband teach?’ assuming that I was there as a spouse rather than as a scholar.”

This year’s conference, held in San Antonio in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, saw some of the highest levels of women’s participation in the society’s history.

Two of the three plenary speakers were female, which has happened only once before at ETS. University of Notre Dame professor Abigale Favale’s plenary on “Gender Identity Theory and Christian Anthropology” was full, attended by both women and men. A session on Wheaton College New Testament professor Amy Peeler’s new book, Women and the Gender of God, was packed.

Seventy-five women presented papers, including Nancy Reyes Frazier from Dallas Theological Seminary, Holly Mulherin Farrow from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kaitlyn Schiess from Duke University, and Heather Joy Zimmerman from Wheaton.

An additional 22 women served as panelists or moderators during the two-day meeting.

By contrast, in the 2014 study, researcher Emily Zimbrick-Rogers, who is now an Episcopal priest in Philadelphia, , found “an atmosphere that feels hostile and unwelcoming.”

About 100 scholars attended a women’s networking event, which is about six years old.

“I’ve seen many women come to ETS during seminary or graduate school and decide that it’s not worth it to attend because of the repeated subtle and not-so-subtle messages that they don’t belong,” Imes told CT. “I was considering leaving ETS myself … but I realized I’d never turned my full attention to making it a more hospitable place for women.”

The event started as a Facebook group to help women find roommates to cut hotel costs at ETS gatherings and stay connected afterward. But, Imes said, there was also a larger goal: to “give women a reason to stay” and “slow the female exit.”

The group, which is currently run by Carey Baptist College theology professor Christa McKirland and a leadership team, now has nearly 600 members. It has also actively organized to elect people to the presidential nominating committee. This year, the group supported Imes, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School New Testament chair Dana Harris, and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary biblical studies professor Andrew King.

“Whereas at one time we were isolated scholars, today we support each other, share tips, cheer for book deals, give away power to the next generation, and share opportunities. Gone are the days when male scholars ask where my husband teaches,” said Sandra Glahn, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary professor and author of Nobody’s Mother: Artemis of the Ephesians in Antiquity and the New Testament. “And we invite women to the business meeting.”

The effort to include more women in ETS has not only been led by women, those involved are quick to point out. They say many men, including some who are complementarians, have worked to make the association more hospitable for women.

Jobes in particular names two past presidents who paved the way for her election: Asbury Theological Seminary professor Craig Keener and Dallas Theological Seminary professor Daniel B. Wallace.

Wallace, who was president-elect when the study of women’s experiences at ETS annual meetings was published, met with ETS women to address issues of sexism and work toward change. Jobes called him a consistent ally.

“I recognize and appreciate my male colleagues who supported this, to make it happen,” she said. “It’s not as if all this just suddenly happened this year or last year.”

Many women at ETS say they’ve noticed a significant shift in the last five years. But they also say more change is needed.

Women currently make up only 6 percent of ETS members, according to Mimi Haddad, president and CEO of Christians for Biblical Equality. That has not increased in the last decade. And though involvement in this year’s conference was up, women made up less than 10 percent of speakers. Jobes remains the only woman on the executive committee.

“I feel far more hopeful about where ETS is heading. However, it is a cautious hope,” said McKirland, author of God’s Provision, Humanity’s Need. “I am so grateful for the women and men who have spent 75 years investing in those green shoots. My hope is that it doesn't take 75 more for the garden to be in full bloom.”

Jobes, newly instated as president, said she’d been looking at the long list of male names before her. She replaces Timothy George from Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. Other past presidents include Gospel Coalition co-founder D. A. Carson, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, theologians such as Bruce Ware and Norman Geisler, Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood co-founder Wayne Grudem, and past CT editors Kenneth Kantzer, Carl F. H. Henry, and Harold Lindsell.

“I don’t want to be the first, last, and only female president in ETS,” Jobes said. “Ever since God called me to seminary back in 1987, my vision for women in theology and biblical studies is that we would become normalized.”

[ This article is also available in Português. ]

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