Reflections on ETS, Representation and the Face of Evangelicalism

ETS bigcrowdI just came back from the 2013 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). If you are not familiar with this organization, ETS is a professional, academic society of Biblical scholars, teachers, pastors, students, and others involved in evangelical scholarship. In short, it is representative of the conservative arm of Christianity affirmed by members acceptance of the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy as criteria for membership.

The meetings are centered on a particular theme, which changes from year to year and hundreds of papers are presented mainly from professors, PhD students and some who serve in as pastors or in a professional capacity. I was specifically interested in gleaning information that would be useful for my thesis but I’m also interested in research on a variety of topics that are relevant to the church and Christian commitment. I also enjoyed the camaraderie with fellow students, professors, and new friends. Good conversations were well worth the trip.

In all fairness, this was my first annual meeting. I’ve been a member for a few years and have attended the regional meetings, which pale in comparison to this behemoth of a meeting. But it didn’t take long to observe that the overwhelmingly, the majority of the 2,000+ members in attendance are white, male. To be sure, the main panel was homogeneous in this regard.  Best of my knowledge, that is how its always been. Now, I don’t say that to make this an issue of race but of representation.  I don’t know exactly what the percentage of minorities was and certainly there was but in comparison to the whole gathering, its pretty small.

Women made up an even smaller percentage of those represented. According to one session I attended on the future of women in ETS, the presenter noted that women comprise 7% of membership and 1% of papers presented. The percentage is even smaller for women of color. Yikes! That’s pretty low considering that over half of the church comprises women.

I suspect there are various factors in play here that account for such low representation. In the case of minorities, that cultural comfort might supersede interests in this type of organization or even with conservative evangelicalism.  I think it would be fair to say that perhaps the percentage of women is low because of the lack of interest among women to engage in the kind of scholarship that is reflected in this kind of gathering. I think that these are easy answers but perhaps not the only ones. I wonder if it is also the case that women are taken serious enough. The lack of representation can be a catch 22 of sorts, that depends on the efforts of the under-represented and acceptance of the power holders. Conformity to the prevailing image maybe be an unstated expectation and some hoops are just not worth jumping through.

Jonathan Merritt wrote Are Christian Conferences Sexist?, in the aftermath of a twitter exchange over the Nines Conference and the lack of women presenters in conferences. Reading the post and interacting with others over this issue, it seems like there is a conflation of egalitarianism with representation in making the issue about women in ministry. In other words, the quest to be represented means one is adopting or warm to an egalitarian position. But I don’t think that needs to be the case. A conference is not a church nor do I believe that complementarianism means one cannot be scholastic. Although, I’m pretty sure that a complemantarian position plays into these dynamics, where women’s contributions might be deemed to be unnecessary other than to organizations like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

But that leaves me with some questions and concerns. In 2013 multi-ethnic Evangelicalism where women comprise more than half the evangelical population, I’m not sure the face of evangelical scholarship should be as imbalanced as it is, especially considering that scholarship makes its way down to the pews.  I’m also not suggesting that women write on women’s issues or minorities on minority issues but that the lack of contribution to the evangelical scholastic enterprise will leave a skewed perspective on how scholarship is applied in those specific contexts.

I can’t help but think that the outcome of this imbalance would be a cultural imperialism where only what white evangelical males do is significant. I think that is telling in this piece by Anthony Bradley, Evangelicalism, Large Cities and the ‘Other’ Christians.  He notes how the churches that have been engaged in minority communities in NYC are overlooked in favor of the contributions of white evangelicals, as if they are the only ones doing something. Again, this is not an issue of race but of representation. Why is it that these contributions are underrepresented and marginalized? That’s a question that is worth exploring.

My goal here was to note some observations and quick thoughts. I certainly don’t have the answers but I do think there are some questions that we need to wrestle with.


One thought on “Reflections on ETS, Representation and the Face of Evangelicalism

  1. Min Donald Lee Johnson November 24, 2013 / 7:04 pm

    Yes, I agree. The questions need to be asked and any necessary remedies resolved.

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