On the Passing of Joe Robert Jones

There would likely be no Phillips Theological Seminary in 2022 were it not for the guidance and stewardship of Joe Robert Jones, who died on the 86th anniversary of his birthday, Sept. 18, 2022.

Joe Robert Jones 1936-2022

In 1975, Joe was called to be Dean of Phillips University Graduate Seminary in Enid, Okla., and four years later, he was appointed President of Phillips University where he served until 1989. Joe continued his leadership in theological education with an appointment to be Dean of the Faculty at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN, and returned to his true calling to teach theology to ministry students. He retired from CTS as Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics in 2000 and returned to the family home, Anchor Point, on Fort Gibson Lake, Okla.

There he wrote his prized work, the two-volume A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine, a primer on faith for the church, which his daughter Verity helped to edit. Also in retirement, Joe spent 2005-2006 at his alma mater, Yale Divinity School, as Visiting Professor of Theology.

Throughout his life, Joe devotedly taught Sunday school classes and led study groups for both clergy and laity. In 2012, Joe and Sarah made a health-related decision to move back to their hometown, Oklahoma City, where Sarah passed away on April 2, 2016, three days before their 58th wedding anniversary.

Joe Jones was born to Idabel Augusta (Seitz) Jones and Judge Dick Sterling Jones in 1936 in Oklahoma City. He graduated from Classen High School and attended the University of Oklahoma where he lettered in both basketball and baseball. While in college, he also discovered a passion for philosophy and theology.

Following graduation from OU, he married his high school sweetheart, Sarah Jane Jones, in 1958, and together they set off for New Haven, CT, where Joe attended Yale Divinity School, earning his Bachelors of Divinity degree in 1961 and his Ph.D in philosophical theology in 1970. Joe’s deepening theological commitments led him into Christian ministry as well as the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.

This insistence on the profound connection between faith, intellect and social justice continued throughout his life. While at Yale, Joe and Sarah also started their family, becoming the parents of two daughters. In 1965, he accepted his first teaching position at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Soon their third daughter was born, and the family joined Community Christian Church in Richardson, Texas. His community activism continued in Dallas focusing on fair housing policies and the integration of public schools and school boards. In 1972, Joe was awarded a year-long research fellowship at Oxford University and the family spent the year in the United Kingdom.

It is impossible to capture the intensely present being that was Joe Jones. Loving God meant loving humanity, which for him, included not only family and close friends, but also his students, colleagues, neighbors, community members – all those known to him and those unknown. And that compassion meant devoting his energy to building a better, more just world.

He was a passionate teacher, brilliant theologian, stately church leader, and he loved the students he taught, keeping in touch with many of them for decades. No one who knew Joe escaped the force of his theological arguments nor the way his sharply analytical mind dissected current political situations with alarming acuity. He loved his country even when critical and despairing about its future.

He may have taught Christian doctrines like soteriology and eschatology with insightful theological precision, but he showed us what unconditional love and unearned grace looked like on a daily basis through his own way of life. And he was happiest when he was shooting hoops with his grandchildren and teaching them the fine arts of fishing and cussing.  

Joe spent his final years at Epworth Villa under hospice care and the loving watch of his daughter Kindy and her husband Bill. At the end, he waited for his three daughters to arrive, lifted his beautiful hands, then slipped into a deep sleep and passed quietly into God’s embrace. 

Joe was preceded in death by his parents and his siblings, Charles Redman Jones, Mary Carolyn (Jones) Ford, and Sterling Brown Jones, and by his wife, Sarah Jane Jones. He is survived by three daughters. The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones followed most closely in his footsteps as a theologian. One of the great delights of Joe’s life was participating in her installation as President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York in 2008. Kindy Jones is an attorney who serves as Deputy Attorney General of the Litigation Unit of the Office of Attorney General for the State of Oklahoma, and claims pride of place as the best “debater and defender”—in grand Joe-style—in the Jones family. The Rev. Verity Jones is a program director in religion at Lilly Endowment where she continues Joe’s commitment to strengthening and supporting the vitality of Christian congregations.

He is also survived by Kindy’s husband, Bill Bean, and Verity’s husband, William Wagnon, and four grandchildren, Jess Eddy, Cole Eddy, Charis Jones and Gracie Wagnon, a great granddaughter, Mesa Marie Eddy, and foster daughter, Denise Milano. He is also survived by his beloved niece, Dr. Krista Jones, and her husband, Rev. Craig Stinson, as well as many other nieces, nephews and cousins whom he dearly loved.  

Visitation hours are Friday, September 23, from 4:00 – 6:00 pm at Smith & Kernke Funeral Home, 14624 N. May, Oklahoma City. We will gather for Joe’s funeral on Saturday, September 24, at 11 a.m. at Southern Hills Christian Church, 3207 S. Boulevard, Edmond, with burial immediately following at Rose Hill Cemetery, 6001 NW Grand Blvd, Oklahoma City. All are welcome. 

The family requests that memorial contributions be made to Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, in honor of the Rev. Dr. Joe Jones, 3041 Broadway, NYC, NY 10027.