Up Next at Bob Jones University: Casting Crowns Playing the FMA Stage?

by John Ellis

It seems that Bob Jones University is likely going to make it to its 100th anniversary after all. After weeks of very real angst on the part of current students, faculty, staff, and concerned alumni, the university’s Board of Trustees has awarded current President and CEO Steve Pettit another three-year contract. Yesterday evening, the Board released this statement:

“The Bob Jones University Board of Trustees is pleased to announce the re-election of Steve Pettit to a three-year term as President by an overwhelming majority on Thursday, November 17, 2022. The Board strongly supports the President and is committed and enthusiastic about working together with the President and the administration to fulfill the mission of the University for God’s glory.”

While at dinner with friends, I began receiving text messages telling me the news. My first question was, and remains, “What changes, if any, did Pettit have to agree to?” A question freighted with much existential baggage for the BJU community.

In the weeks since I wrote my previous article about BJU’s BoT’s looming decision, I’ve watched with interest the unfolding and contradictory, at times, information filling the wait. Of particular interest to me has been the Facebook group “positive bju grads & friends”[1]. A faculty friend added me to the group, and I’m thankful he did. Although I don’t think I really belong there, it has been interesting and informative (at times). Of noted interest for me have been the many letters members of the group have written to BJU’s BoT and then shared with the group.

Not long into the group’s existence, which blew up (in a good way) rather quickly, I texted a couple of friends of mine with the concern that I was afraid the letter writers, while well-intentioned, were likely to undermine their cause. Many of the letters read like things that the writer wished that he or she could’ve said to BJU’s administration during their time as a student but were too afraid to do so at the time knowing that heaps of demerits would’ve been poured over them if they did. Arguments for why secondary separation is unbiblical, the reasonableness of allowing females to wear pants to class, and the pharisaical nature of the university’s past standards concerning music and church attendance are arguments that the old guard fundamentalists have been swatting away for decades. And those arguments feed the worst instincts of Christian fundamentalism. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I’ve been on the wrong end of it. The arguments against fundamentalism’s unhealthy quirks and unbiblical devotion to man-made rules are read by fundamentalists as proof that they’re right. A little leaven leavens the whole, to use some of their favorite eisegesis.  

With that in mind, in the texts to my friends, I added the observation that it appears that many members of the Facebook group have forgotten how fundamentalists respond. Writing a Board under the verge of being hijacked by old-guard fundamentalists to tell them how thankful you are for the loosening of the music and dress restrictions runs the risk of pushing undecided Board members over to the old guard’s side. The letters would allow the old guard to say, “See what we mean! The cultural drift and the compromising of Bob Jones University’s standards of holiness are real. We have to remove Steve Pettit unless we want Casting Crown performing on the FMA stage in the near future.”

About a week ago, I considered writing a follow-up article to my previous one (an article that kind of blew up because John Fea shared it with his readers) explaining my concern about the letter writing campaign. I decided against it for two main reasons, well three main reasons: 1. As much as I like to play one on this blog, I ain’t a prophet. I like to think that in certain areas in which I have an epistemological edge over others, I can skillfully read the tea leaves. However, when it comes to humans and their decisions, the confounders are vast and my ability to see them all is nil. This is why I included the qualifier “(Possible)” in the title of my original article about all this. While I believed my concern was warranted (and I still do, which I’ll explain in short order), I concluded that without certainty on my part, my voice in this area was more than unneeded because … 2. I’m an outsider to all this. But I have dear friends for whom this situation was and remains incredibly important; their jobs were (are?) at stake. Me coming in and raining gloom on a letter writing campaign that was galvanizing and encouraging people seemed uncharitable and kinda pointless. Lastly, 3. I had other things to do and write.

But here we are. The Board of Trustees has renewed Steve Pettit’s contract. What does it mean?

Many of my friends are rejoicing, and while I’m happy for them, I believe a little temperance is in order for the time being. Until the details of the meeting and decision are released, if they ever are, it’s hard to say what the Board is thinking. I’ve been told that the overall makeup of the Board skews to the conservative fundamentalist side and less to the “compromising” evangelical side. If that’s true, I can’t help but wonder what assurances the Board received from Pettit before voting to renew his contract (also, it needs to be pointed out that the statement says, “overwhelming majority” and not unanimous). A faculty friend of mine insisted to me that Pettit wouldn’t do that and would stand firm and refuse to compromise and offer concessions. This friend knows Pettit, and I do not. From the outside, though, I must say that I’m afraid my friend may be wearing rose color glasses at this moment.

Steve Pettit is still closer to Bob Jones III than he is Mike Cosper, this I know. Where he is on that scale, I don’t know. But I don’t believe it’s outside the realm of possibility that the Board has been assured that some of the changes will be scaled back and that the university will no longer move in a “leftward” direction.[2] If this is the case, then I think my concerns for the school’s continued existence that I articulated in my previous article remain. While it may take a little longer, from what I know of the current student body, if it moves back towards the right, the school will begin to lose current students to North Greenville University, Liberty, Wheaton, et al. And this has been the crux of the whole matter for me.

Bob Jones III, the FBFI, and other concerned old guard fundamentalists are correct. Bob Jones University is no longer the BJU of the past, so much so that it really shouldn’t be named Bob Jones University anymore. Many of the letter writers from the Facebook group don’t seem to understand how big this gap is nor how ontological it feels for the old guard men and women (but mostly men) who fought (and may still be fighting) for the soul of what they believe should remain a staunchly fundamentalist institution. In their minds, it’s appalling that BJU’s direct competitors are schools like North Greenville, Liberty, and Wheaton. That’s evidence that their concerns are correct. What they – the old guard – fail to see, or see and don’t care about, is that unless BJU adopts a hardcore KJV-only stance and moves farther to the cultural right than it’s ever been, it’s not going to have any competitors because BJU won’t have a large enough base to draw students from that are needed to remain operating as is. If BJU begins to move even a little bit back towards the right, its days are likely numbered.

However, maybe my friend is right. Maybe Pettit told the Board to take their concerns and to stuff ‘em. Or maybe some of my other friends are wrong and the Board isn’t as conservative as Triple Stix and the FBFI believed/hoped. Maybe the “overwhelming majority” of the Board told the old guard to stuff it. If this is the case, as I texted another friend, “maybe the old guard is finally dead”, as in, maybe Bob Jones III and his buddies no longer have any sway over the direction of the university. If so, good. And if so, I predict that Casting Crowns will play the FMA stage in the very near future.

I guess we’ll see.  


[1] I can probably guess why the name of the group isn’t capitalized, but you’ll have to text me to get my answer.

[2] To be honest, writing that last bit – “no longer move in a leftward direction” – is kind of comical to me. Even now, even with female students wearing *gasp* pants to class, pairing the words “leftward direction” and BJU together is such an ill-fit as to render it somewhat comical.

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