by John Ellis
“The current direction is not sustainable. I am walking down a dark road with no light ahead. The future of BJU requires the Chairman and the President to work together. It is not happening now, and I can’t see it happening in the future.” BJU President and CEO Steve Pettit in a letter addressed to BJU’s Board of Trustees dated March 21, 2023.
Yesterday evening, wondering why my article from last November titled “The (Possible) Slow, Strange Suicide of Bob Jones University” was suddenly generating a lot of traffic again, a friend texted me that Steve Pettit had resigned as president of BJU. Considering he soundly beat back an attempted coup by the fundamentalist old guard on the Board last fall, the news stunned me. Why would Steve Pettit hand back so quickly to the fundamentalist old guard what he had won? The episode last fall was stressful and painful for the BJU community, including friends and family members of mine who are still connected to the school. The swift reversal initially made little sense to me. Quickly scanning Pettit’s letter quoted above, though, and it now makes perfect sense. The fundamentalist old guard’s coup ain’t dead yet. I shouldn’t have been surprised. And I should’ve seen this coming.
You can read the letter by clicking here. In it, Pettit emphatically declares that he can no longer remain as BJU’s president as long as John Lewis remains Chairman of the Board. Demanding that Lewis resign by March 29, Pettit lays out a list of grievances, including: John Lewis’ spread of disunity among Board members; “the Chairman … has adopted a posture of secrecy and hostility towards the Board and administration”; “the Chairman has continued to display an uncaring or cavalier disregard for the cause of troubling financial numbers”; and Title IX violations.
The above is not a complete list of Pettit’s concerns and accusations, but for me they speak to what I was communicating in my article last November. The fundamentalist old guard would rather burn the whole thing down then allow what they see as compromise and mission drift to occur at their beloved Bob Jones University. Legacies are on the line. Preventing BJU from becoming another Liberty or Wheaton, even at the expense of the University’s very existence, is a legacy the old guard would be proud to have carved on their tombstones. How do I know this? Well, it’s what I heard proudly trumpeted my entire childhood.
BJU-styled Christian fundamentalism has a strong us-versus-them mentality baked into the system, and they hold to it proudly and defiantly. There are two main pillars supporting this. Their dispensationalist hermeneutic engenders a belief that they are a dwindling remnant battling to stay pure until the Rapture happens. Weaving in and out of that, they believe that anyone not directly connected to them is compromised in some way and must be marked out and avoided. Secondary separation is the prevailing identity marker of BJU-styled fundamentalism. But what happens when that “compromise” happens in your midst and “impurity” is spreading in the community? Well, those who weren’t raised in fundamentalism are getting a vivid enactment of what happens. And those of us who were raised in fundamentalism are getting a painful reminder. This is who they are – if they can’t exercise control and get their way, they either separate or destroy.
For Bob Jones III and his cronies, the direction Pettit has taken the school is an existential threat. A BJU that submits to Title IX regulations is a false BJU. A BJU that allows an electric guitar to make a brief appearance during a Shakespear play is a BJU that has compromised itself out of the will of God. At best, from the perspective of the fundamentalist old guard, BJU is now lukewarm and getting colder by the minute. And if God spits out the lukewarm, it’s their duty before God to do the same.
Something I tried to get those involved in the email writing campaign to save Pettit’s job last fall to see was that their very efforts would be interpreted as proof to the old guard that their concerns are correct and their desired actions justified. They were throwing fuel on the fire. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have written and sent those emails (and their other actions on Pettit’s behalf). But I knew that their well-intentioned appeals would be read as rebellion. I didn’t (and still don’t) understand how people I attended BJU with couldn’t see that defending CCM to the Board, for example, would be received poorly. I mean, *we’ve* been making those arguments since we were middle-schoolers in the 80s. At no point during our childhood, college years, and beyond have those arguments accomplished anything besides getting us in trouble. And those arguments didn’t sway our fundamentalist authority figures in the past, why would expect things to be different now? BJU-styled fundamentalism is shrinking because *we’ve* left. The old guard remains and is still the same hard-core fundies we know and “love.” There is a deep philosophical/theological divide between those who are angry over Pettit’s forced resignation and those who forced his resignation.
So, as I read Pettit’s resignation letter, I recognized the same old fundamentalism of my youth embedded in the accusations. Do any of you who attended BJU have any doubt that those Executive Meetings now improperly (possibly illegally) taking place in Bob Jones III’s house are void of existential handwringing over the evidence garnered last fall detailing how much the removal of the “ancient landmarks” was displayed in the overwhelming and very vocal support of Pettit?
Look, I truly hope that there is a group of wealthy, connected alumni who are actively working behind the scenes to thwart this ongoing coup. Because if not, well, I think the fundamentalist old guard is about to win a total victory that broaches no compromise, meaning my prediction from last fall that BJU is (possibly) about to commit a slow and strange suicide is back on the table (read that article to better understand why I make that claim). To be clear, my only stake here is the well-being of my friends and family who are still connected to BJU, especially those employed by the school. I don’t want them to lose their jobs. Because if the old guard wins, BJU ends.
Knowing them as we do, we should’ve realized that the fundamentalist old guard hadn’t surrendered and isn’t finished. Whatever else that can be said about them, the moniker of fighting fundies is deserved. Ironically and sadly, I think this episode proves they were right all along; you can’t reform Bob Jones University from the inside. Separation is required.
(For some helpful details about what’s going on at BJU, I recommend reading reporter Mark Wingfield’s article in Baptist News Global. You can read that article by clicking here.)
5 thoughts on “The Coup at Bob Jones University Isn’t Over”
Really well said John. Thanks for this.
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Amazing and sad how the “fall of BJU” is paralleling the fall of Northland many years ago. Steve Pettit saw that first-hand as he was so beloved and integral to the camp ministry there. I can’t imagine the sorrow he and his family have over seeing this play out once again.
It’s also not lost on me the influence several of the old guard had in the destruction of that institution.
Modern “fundamentals” are nothing more than a den of vipers, full of Pharisees and Saducees .. white sepulchers full of dead men’s bones.
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Would love to share some thoughts (Pick your brain) on the BJU Suicide/Coup. 1991 Accounting Grad. Clemson MBA. CPA.
I’m in Pettit “Camp”.
Thanks for anytime you could share with this!
Thanks and blessings to you!
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Sure, happy to. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org