Several months ago, I wrote a post called “Where is the Voice of the Evangelical Academic Woman?” As of today, this post has generated more comments than anything I’ve ever written.
What I found was that while there were lots of different reasons why women who love thinking about theology didn’t spend their time writing and commenting about it, there were also a substantial number of women who simply felt unwelcome at the men’s-only theology club.
After reading through the comments, I began to wonder what I could do for these women, most of whom are probably smarter than I am, but may not be as unselfconsciously comfortable being the only woman in a room full of white men in suits.
What, besides continuing to tell these women that they’re not alone, could I do for them?
I found the answer in a post I had written back in November 2011 called “How Yentl, Tolkien, and Tom Petty Influenced my Decision to go to ETS.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the world of evangelical academics, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) is the primary professional organization for “Biblical scholars, teachers, pastors, students, and others involved in evangelical scholarship.” Unlike the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), which has no doctrinal statement and includes scholars from every point on the theological continuum, the ETS requires its members to agree with the divine inspiration of Scripture and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Last fall, after I had decided to attend the national meeting, bought my plane ticket to San Francisco and booked my hotel, articles like this one from Michael Bird started to appear on the blogosphere. Apparently, the situation of women at ETS was dire, so I wrote a post expressing my angst:
According to Michael, women are such a rarity at ETS that many people will assume that any woman they meet is the spouse of an attendee and they will ask her where her husband teaches. And from the comments on other blogs, I’ve learned that there’s a small contingent of complementarians who think women shouldn’t even be allowed to present academic papers at the conference. At the time of the writing of this post, statistics and charts illustrating how severely the ETS lags behind almost every other religious/academic organization regarding female representation had been posted on several popular websites.
Finally, after much prayer and soul-searching, I decided that I was not going to let fear get the better of me and I ended the post on a positive note:
I am not tortured or persecuted for my faith. I have not been threatened with bodily harm for trying to join a segregated club. I think I can handle a few men pursing their lips at me in disapproval. I’m going to ETS. I’m going to take copious notes and listen to some of the most brilliant evangelical thinkers in the country. If you see me, I’ll be the woman that no one is talking to, but who just doesn’t care.
After re-reading this post, it dawned on me. Here was something I could do! I knew my friend Amanda MacInnis from Cheese-Wearing Theology was going to the national meeting in Milwaukee this year, so together we hatched a plan to blog about why more women should attend ETS.
At the same time, though, I also knew that the leadership of the ETS had, like several other organizations over the last ten years, begun to tilt more and more towards an overt complementarianism. If I was going to encourage other women to join me in entering what could possibly turn out to be the lion’s den, I wanted to do some research first.
So I contacted a few “insiders” who have been involved with ETS a lot longer than I have. What I found was that, yes, there are challenges for anyone within ETS who doesn’t sit on the complementarian side of the seesaw, but I also came away convinced that egalitarians cannot afford to walk away from the one of the most influential evangelical organizations in the country.
During the course of my research, I was asked by several people why I would choose to remain in ETS—and encourage other women to attend—when SBL was so much more supportive of women. Why remain in an organization that requires me to fight for a voice rather than simply go somewhere that welcomes me without reservation?
I thought long and hard about this question before I decided that, yes, I am not only still committed to the ETS, but I am also convinced that more female seminary students, scholars, and pastors need to join.
The FIRST reason I am still committed to ETS is that I want to be in an organization that holds me accountable for what I believe. I also know myself well-enough to know that I need an organization that keeps me grounded in the Bible. Yes, I’m an egalitarian, but I’m a follower of Jesus first. The complementarian sitting across the table may not agree with me, but he shares my respect for Scripture and love for Jesus. And he keeps me on my toes.
The SECOND reason I think it’s critical for women to remain committed to ETS is the oft-repeated accusation that egalitarians don’t take the Bible seriously, allow society’s values to inform their interpretation, and just plain pick and choose what they want to believe. I’ve heard this same accusation about issues like predestination as well. And frankly, it’s insulting. Most egalitarians have spent long hours in study and prayer working through everything the Bible has to say about the issue. (As, I’m sure, have most complementarians)
If and when the topic comes up in an environment like ETS (and believe me, I don’t go around the conference looking to engage in these types of conversations), the goal is not to change a person’s mind about the issue, but to demonstrate that egalitarianism is a viable, orthodox interpretation of Scripture. If egalitarians walk away from ETS, no one will be left to defend it as a respectable theological option.
The FINAL reason why it’s essential that women remain engaged with the ETS is that what happens within the ETS influences not only evangelical academics, but churches as well. The consequence of not maintaining a female presence in one of the most influential Christian organizations in the country may be having to watch as complementarianism becomes the default position for evangelicals everywhere. And while this is happening to some extent already, getting up and leaving the table altogether will make it inevitable.
So here’s the plan. Over the next few months, Amanda and I will continue to blog about why more women should be involved with the ETS. We’ll talk honestly about the possibility of seeing a few disapproving looks and pursed lips when we stride through the door of a session on the sacrificial imagery in Hebrews. But we’ll also be telling tales about how much fun we’ve had at meetings over the years, how many amazing people we’ve met, and how our lives have been changed by being part of this unique group.
If we generate enough interest, we might even start a Facebook page…
The goal of all this, of course, is to get more women to the annual ETS meeting in Milwaukee in November.
Here’s a link to the first post in this series by Amanda MacInnis, “My experience with ETS.”
DISCLAIMER: For the purpose of keeping this post from being longer than 1500 words, it sounds like I am assuming that all female scholars and seminary students are egalitarians. I know this is not the case and that there is much diversity among women on this issue. The goal of the ETS Women’s Project is to get as many women as possible to ETS regardless of their views on gender, predestination, open theism, or the sacrificial imagery in Hebrews.