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Bob Jones University Alumni Rally Around Embattled President

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Christian institutions face a never-ending challenge: Which cultural changes should we embrace as we prepare for the future? The challenge is starker at Bob Jones University, the bastion of American fundamentalism for nearly a century.

Disagreements over changes made at the school during the eight-year tenure of Steve Pettit, the school’s fifth president and first from outside the Jones family, broke out following an October 4 board meeting in which some board members said they would let Pettit go rather than renew his current contract.

That decision has now been delayed until Nov. 17. Pettit’s current contract ends at the end of the 2022-23 academic year, on May 5, 2023.

The opposition to Pettit has nothing to do with morality or doctrine, but with “preferences of Christian practice,” according to one alumnus.

The alumnus, who talked to board members, said Pettit had been criticized for the style of worship music played at student chapel services, “immodest clothing” worn by female athletes, questionable performances and musical selections from the fine arts program, and even Pettit’s participation in a bluegrass music band.

Some board members have also blamed Pettit for firing some of the school’s most conservative professors during a time of budget cuts. But defenders say that decisions about which professors to release were made by college deans and leaders, not Pettit.

Jones III, who served as the school’s president from 1971 to 2005, wrote an open letter defending Pettit’s critics. “Your concerns for the future of the University are not unwarranted,” he wrote:

Over the last year some embarrassing, antithetical things, historically uncharacteristic things, which would have never happened in the past have occurred. From all over the country the Board received pleas from graduates, and others, to look into these matters fearing that the University had veered in its direction, and unique distinctives without which it would become irrelevant. Naturally, the Board was obligated, by reason of its existence, to step in.

Jones called the board “the protector of the institution’s character” and said it would work to seek “the root cause from which the declensions of the last year have emanated and firmness to do whatever is necessary, however painful, to stop the hemorrhage.”

Chris Anderson, a ministry leader who runs Church Works Media, is among Pettit’s supporters, writing a Nov. 4. “Open Letter from Ministry Leaders” that expressed “a collective voice of support for the leadership of Dr. Pettit.”

“Like you, we are separatists who are unwilling to tolerate or cooperate with unorthodoxy,” wrote Anderson, who reaffirmed the school’s commitment to “The Fundamentals,” a movement-defining series of books launched in 1910. He wrote:

Has BJU abandoned its commitment to six-day creationism or its opposition to evolution?

Has BJU softened in its opposition to immorality, homosexuality, or transgenderism?

Has BJU altered its biblical stance on male headship in the home and church?

Has BJU eroded its emphasis on the substitutionary, penal atonement of Christ?

Has BJU shifted its stance on the inerrancy of Scripture, the existence of a literal hell, and the exclusivity of the Christian gospel?

The clear answer to each of these questions is a resounding no.

Pettit helped orchestrate two historic and consequential changes in 2017 that have caused significant division:

  • BJU regained its federal tax-exempt status decades after the school’s ban on interracial dating led to the loss of that status. The school admitted its first Black student in 1971 during the administration of Bob Jones, Jr., the founder’s son and BJU’s second president. The school has since disavowed racism.
  • The school also earned accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, a regional body, after opposing accreditation throughout its history. This change makes BJU more attractive to prospective students while making it easier for alumni to pursue graduate degrees.

The people wanting to cut Pettit loose see these changes as heresies against both fundamentalism and BJU’s historic DNA.

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But thousands of people have signed on to a petition defending Pettit, and hundreds have offered comments explaining their support. Many are second- or third-generation alumni who say they want to send their kids to BJU, but might not do so if Pettit is let go.

David Freeman is a third-generation BJU alum who recently completed a law degree from the School of Law at Loyola University in Chicago.

“The Pettit years and the changes he brought offer a new lease on life for the university and its future, if they would have it,” said Freeman, who alerted MinistryWatch to the current conflict at BJU.

Today’s battles over fundamentalist orthodoxy are far from the first for BJU. In 1974, alumni Arlin and Beka Horton founded Pensacola Christian College to provide an alternative to BJU’s alleged slide into liberalism.

But even fundamentalists must be open to some change, said Bob Jones, Jr., who served as president from 1947-1971, and then chancellor until his death in 1997.

“If the culture of the school or the church stays fixed and the culture of the world changes, then we become odd, we become weird in the world’s eyes,” Jones said. “I don’t think that is good.”

Main photo: Steve Pettit, President of Bob Jones University

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.