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Leadership Tensions Continue at Bob Jones University

Bob Jones University survived a 2022 controversy over renewing the contract of Steve Pettit, its fifth president—and its first without the surname Jones. It now faces calls for board chairman John Lewis to resign over unethical behavior and at least one potential crime he committed in his campaign against Pettit.

A newly released letter forwarded to MinistryWatch and signed by friends and alumni of the 96-year-old flagship fundamentalist institution accuses Lewis of numerous ungodly behaviors, including:

  • stealing documents from Pettit;
  • writing a letter that criticized Pettit on behalf of the board without board members’ permission or awareness;
  • threatening to remove board members who disagreed with him;
  • seeking to change the board’s voting procedures to win a vote eliminating Pettit;
  • trying to keep Miles Coleman, BJU’s attorney, out of meetings where voting procedures were discussed, and later firing Coleman.

“Dr. John Lewis chose to create a private campaign to replace Dr. Steve Pettit as BJU President,” claimed the letter to “Positive BJU Grads & Friends.”

“Due to the enthusiastic support of students, faculty/staff, alumni, and some loyal board members who supported Dr. Pettit, his campaign failed,” it said.

Pettit, who has led BJU since 2014, says Christians can be fundamentalist without being legalistic. He has been condemned by some for the style of worship music played at student chapel services, “immodest clothing” worn by female athletes, and clothing created for BJU’s first student fashion show in 2021. “This is what happens when Christians ‘model’ their college programs after those of sodomites,” wrote one critic.

Alumni claim the board actually held two November votes on Pettit’s contract renewal. After the board first voted 9-8 to renew, it immediately held a second vote, which went 14-3 for Pettit. The board press release reported only the 14-3 vote and claimed the renewal received “overwhelming support.” The Collegian, the BJU student paper, reported that Pettit had the “widespread support” of the student body. More than 1,000 alumni showed up to show support for Pettit before the vote.

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Last spring, tension between Lewis and Pettit led to the cancellation of a major event that had been in the planning stages for two years: “Bruins Athletic Club 10 Year Anniversary Gala: An Evening with Trevor Lawrence,” which was to feature the acclaimed Christian NFL quarterback.

Lewis and members of the board’s executive committee pressed Pettit to cancel the previously approved event, saying Lawrence was not sufficiently fundamentalist. The letter to “Positive BJU Grads & Friends” claims the sudden cancellation cost the school $100,000 in expenses and erased $1,000,000 in potential donations to the Bruins Athletic Club. Dr. Neal Ring, who launched BJU’s athletic program in 2012, has since left BJU to work at a Christian school in Guam.

Alumni say Lewis’s campaign against Pettit created “a debilitating, life-dominating, emotionally overwhelming crisis” for faculty and employees who feared Lewis was willing to put “their college, jobs, ministries, departmental projects and goals, and their livelihoods at risk.” Some faculty have resigned, and alumni claim Lewis “continues to badger Dr. Pettit and his administration.”

“While BJU is a grand story of God’s goodness and grace, the 2022 leadership failure is a dark chapter of human pride (and) arrogance,” said the letter. The controversy is the main topic of discussion at the Positive BJU Grads & Friends private Facebook group, which has 6,000 members.

But Lewis retains the support of at least one powerful board member—Bob Jones III, who served as the school’s president from 1971 to 2005 and has issued regular critiques of Pettit. “Over the last year some embarrassing, antithetical things, historically uncharacteristic things, which would have never happened in the past have occurred,” said Jones.

Main photo: Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. / RNS photo by David Gibson

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.