Campus News

Scientific discussion raises questions about Bethel’s denominational affiliation

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Students have speculated recently about Bethel's stance on the topic of evolution and its affiliation with the Missionary Church denomination. Some have said this speculation comes as a result of evolution being taught in the classroom. th98VS4UBT“For the most part, I think they are (staying close to Missionary Church beliefs),” said chemistry major Brad Comden. “But the science department encourages students to open our eyes more and explore other ideas. They let students think for themselves.” Some students and faculty have said that Bethel may be in the process of moving away from its denominational ties, while others don't believe that is the case. “I would say it’s almost the opposite,” said Vice President of Academic Services Dr. Barb Bellefeuille. “There’s been quite a bit of movement back. We never left, but (this is) a movement that’s almost more aggressively embracing the Missionary Church.” Bellefeuille explained that Dr. Gregg Chenoweth, who is currently in his second year serving as Bethel’s president, did not come from a Missionary Church background and, as such, has been making strong effort to build connections with the Missionary Church. Bellefeuille said she has been involved in much dialogue between Bethel and the Missionary Church over the past couple of years and that such dialogue has included not only the topic of evolution but also attempts to develop a policy addressing the college’s interactions with LGBT groups or individuals who identify themselves with those groups. Nursing major Chantel Phenis said she doesn’t believe Bethel is moving away from its original roots. “I haven’t heard evolution mentioned in any of my classes,” said Phenis. “In fact, I’ve heard the opposite. The professors that I have mention God and thank Him for His creativeness occasionally in my classes.” Comden specifically mentioned the Science and Faith seminar, which was taught by Dr. Bryan Isaac, associate professor of chemistry, during the first seven weeks of the fall semester. Isaac said, “We’re all committed to the Scriptures, and we’re committed to the evidence in the sciences as both being made by God, or given by God. To pretend that one fights the other is like saying (there are) two different gods, so we’re not going there.” According to the college’s statement of beliefs, Bethel seeks to “challenge the mind, enlarge the vision and equip the whole person for lifelong service.” The statement also says that “God is the creator and sustainer of all things.” Isaac said Bethel is exploring the connections between theology and science. “One thing that gives us here is a faculty committed to creation,” he said. “It gives us the ability to question how God accomplished that creation.” In an email to The Bethel Beacon Managing Editor Katherine Cooper, Dr. Gregg Chenoweth, president of Bethel College, said the Missionary Church denomination supports the college’s studies on this topic. “The denomination has historically supported Bethel faculty in extending beyond investigation to also teach theories of how God created the world,” said Chenoweth. According to Chenoweth, 0.2 percent of sessions in general education courses and 1.5 percent of sessions in both science and theology majors address the theory of evolution. Isaac said that some people are uncomfortable with the concept of evolution because it is currently defined as a theory and has not yet been named as a law. “The more closely a theory is connected with the data it comes from, the better the theory—the more confidence we have,” he said. “So for people who say, well, it’s just a theory, it’s not a law yet … that’s just a misunderstanding.” Isaac said there are misunderstandings on both sides, science and faith, and that law and theory are essentially the same. “A law is basically a theory put into equation form,” he said. Many people at Bethel believe that evolution and Christianity cannot be reconciled, according to Isaac. “I think most of us are trained that it’s a fight,” he said. “And that’s the only answer we know cannot be right because it’s one god versus another god, and in heaven, it’s got to be a fit. And so, how do we fit those together?” Comden said he enjoyed the Science and Faith seminar, which he described as a neutral approach to learning about a variety of beliefs. “People should be open-minded,” said Comden. “I feel like a lot of Christians are closed off to opinions or views that are different from their own. And I don’t think we should.” The Missionary Church denomination’s statement of faith specifically addresses the issue of evolution, stating, “We believe that the first man, Adam, was created by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution. Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God, possessing personality and holiness.” Chenoweth affirmed the college’s relationship with the Missionary Church denomination. “Bethel is not pulling away from the Denomination structurally, relationally, nor theologically,” he wrote. “I think it fair to say there is as much adherence to the Missionary Church articles of faith at Bethel as there is in the parish ministry across various districts of the denomination, there is as much ministerial fruit at Bethel as you would find in the denomination’s healthiest churches and Bethel demonstrates robust initiative with the denomination and her local churches in recent months and years.” The denomination does not donate money to Bethel College, but Chenoweth said that some churches within the denomination choose to contribute funds to Bethel. All money Bethel receives from churches in the denomination is used to fund student scholarships. Chenoweth said the college’s bylaws maintain a strong connection to the denomination, requiring that at least half of all board members be from the Missionary Church and that the president be approved by the denomination and attend a Missionary Church. The denomination also has the power to remove trustees if necessary. The college’s by-laws are located in the Bowen Library archives. “Some outside the college ask that we develop a position statement on creation,” Chenoweth said. “We are deeply engaged with Missionary Church pastors, district superintendents and denomination officials in jointly reviewing what such a position statement would say.” Chenoweth stated that he is a member of the Missionary Church denomination’s governing board, and Steven Jones, Missionary Church president, serves on the college’s governing board. Isaac said that new evidence has been discovered in the past 15 years in support of evolution. “That changes understanding of evolution,” he said. “And to pretend we anticipated that, well … we didn’t.” Isaac said that he and other scientists have been involved in discussion with board members and denomination leaders in an effort to reach an agreement on just what connections should be made between science and faith. “There are other denominations where the two can go together,” he said. “So I guess I see Bethel going to a place where we’re studying how creation and the Scriptures can go together.” Chenoweth said that Christians commonly hold at least three different views of creation and that each of those views is represented among both Bethel’s faculty and members of the denomination. “We hire people who are wrestling with science and Scripture and how they go together,” said Isaac. “We let them wrestle, but we need to see that they continue to be committed to Scripture and they continue to be committed to the evidence as witness-bearing.” Chenoweth and Isaac both said that faculty members are not required to support the theory of evolution. “Most of us, I think, look at the universe as ancient, as old,” said Isaac. “But I do think we have those who think it’s not so old, so we do have different views there. So that means our students can ask questions of different faculty members, and they may be more confused, but I hope it helps them figure things out by seeing different perspectives.” Bellefeuille agreed. “Being an educational institution, we have to teach our students to think,” she said. “We have all of Scripture … and science is ever-changing and ever-growing based on more learning and more exploration. And we shouldn’t be afraid of that.” Bellefeuille said that such an approach would include, but not be limited to, the study of evolution. “Our biology even has to teach the godless process that people believe, but they’re not teaching it as truth,” she said. “They’re saying, when you go to graduate school, this is what you’ve got to understand. This is what they’re going to say. It’s kind of like teaching about Satan and teaching about things that we don’t want people to be part of, but you have to teach about it … but what we believe is something different.”
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