First Baptist Church, Jackson, TN

Going from a wide gulf to real cultural change.

Jennifer Gruenke has experienced the extremes of both sides of the origins debate, and she knows how wide the gulf can be.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology at Bryan College in Tennessee, the school founded by William Jennings Bryan of Scopes Trial fame. Among her professors were noted young earth creationists Todd Wood and his mentor, Kurt Wise, who has held that position since having a crisis of faith as an adolescent where he decided that if the Bible was not 100 percent true in a straightforward way, the world was meaningless and he should commit suicide.

On the other hand, she has seen scientists recoil when faced with a creationist “because that person is rejecting their understanding of what they’ve dedicated their whole life to,” she said.

“If you’ve spent your whole life being a scientist, then the nature of science is a personal issue. If someone attacks science, they’re attacking you personally.”

But Jennifer herself, now a professor at Union University, falls somewhere in between. As she furthered her studies, she found it hard to subscribe to the theology that committed her professors to a young earth position … but she also has doubts about theistic evolution. And she believes a lot of people share her middle-of-the-road viewpoint, although the extremes get most of the attention.

“When you get faculty in a room, it usually splits 20/20 to extremes, with 60 percent in the middle,” she said. “People in the middle make less noise, but in some ways that’s the predominant position by the numbers.”

So when she learned about The Colossian Forum, she saw an opportunity for people like herself to engage in fruitful debate, while helping to bridge the gulf between the two extremes. “I was interested in leading a group because I’m passionate about both the topic and about The Colossian Forum,” she said.

“I think what they’re doing is so important because the country is becoming more polarized about everything, and it creates an antagonistic environment where Christians need to be charitable.”

Jennifer approached her fellow biology professor, Bill Thierfelder, about co-leading a Colossian Way workshop with her at First Baptist Church, where he attends. Bill anticipates that the group they assemble will generally be open to robust debate. The teaching at the church, he said, is “very deep and substantive and exegetical,” the congregation has good age diversity, and many congregants are current or former academics who value critical thinking. A few months ago, the youth minister asked Bill to speak to the high school group about origins, and it went very well.

On the other hand, he said, “depending on who’s in the group, I think there will be a lot that’s new to them, too. We’re still in the Bible Belt, and the traditional six-day view is the reigning one here.”

Much of the language and ideas that TCF uses will be new to congregants as well, as they have been to Bill. For example, as he and Jennifer attended the TCW training, it became clear to him that there’s a potential tension between the relational values that TCF emphasizes, such as peace, and the moral and ethical virtues that he’s used to focusing on, such as holiness.

First Baptist is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, and in that tradition, peace and unity are rarely talked about. In fact, in the “Basic Beliefs” section of the Southern Baptist Convention’s website, the words “peace” or “unity” don’t appear at all.

“The whole function of The Colossian Forum is church unity, and that’s definitely a biblical virtue,” Bill said. “But I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘OK, what about holiness and honesty?’ If the Christian virtues also include holiness, that means someone must be right and someone must be wrong, and if they’re both in Christ, then they both should be drawn to whatever position of holiness is in Christ. Does unity in Christ mean Christ will bring the wrong person around to the right point of view? I need to explore that more.”

Both Bill and Jennifer describe themselves as conflict-avoidant, so the idea at the heart of the TCW curriculum – leaning into conflict as a means of drawing closer to one another in Christian love – is a bit nerve-wracking.

“These things can get stressful,” Jennifer said. “Trying to keep myself calm and calm other people to the point where we can have a good conversation – that will be a challenge for me.”

If conflict is an opportunity for worship, as TCF’s leadership said during the training, Bill wonders what that worship looks like. “I guess worship coming out of conflict would include two people who otherwise would be angry at one another ending up really loving one another,” he said. “Even if one of them was convinced that they were right and the other person was wrong – and presumably both would be convinced of that if they didn’t change – if the real motive was to care about the other person in Christ, that would be the basis for worship. I guess just the fact that Christ unifies people who will not come to final resolution in this life is a basis for worship.”

Mostly, Jennifer is excited about an opportunity for robust debate about a tough topic, and to see put into practice the ideas of an organization she has watched grow and develop. “It’s very exciting to see what The Colossian Forum has done in the short amount of time since it was founded,” she said.

“I hope this can become a positive feedback loop, that they can train this group of people to go out and do this, and we’ll get other people excited, who will hopefully spread the news to other people. This is the way cultural change happens, to have an idea spread from person to person.”

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