November 15, 2013

The past two decades have brought many changes to Bob Jones University. Begun under the administration of Bob Jones III, these alterations usually leave the impression that they are the result of much conversation and careful consideration. In a large institution, change occurs slowly—but it has been taking place in Greenville, and it has been almost completely positive.

One current instance involves a new student publication called BOJE. The name is loaded: on the campus of Bob Jones University, a “Boje” is a mildly derogatory term for students who gain status by conspicuous conformity to institutional rules. Many students are eager to escape the stereotypical image of a “Boje,” but the people behind the new publication are actually embracing the offense.

Like institutions of all sorts, Christian ministries have rules. Some rules are biblical requirements. Other rules are simply matters of household decorum. In educational institutions, a third set of rules imposes personal disciplines. These disciplines are meant to bring order to the lives of young men and women who have often been reared in a culture that celebrates disorder.

It is possible for these three categories to become confused in the minds of those who are under them. Sometimes the confusion even occurs in the minds of those who enforce them. An infraction of a curfew, for example, might be treated more severely than a violation of an actual biblical precept (as when a student engages in gossip or abusive speech, for example). When this confusion occurs, any list of regulations begins to appear arbitrary. Charges of legalism will soon be heard—often from people who have no idea what legalism really is.

Certain circumstances can make this tendency even worse. Occasionally an institution may have a rule that actually runs contrary to Scripture or natural law. Sometimes rules are grounded in the dysfunctions or idiosyncrasies of a subculture. At times, a rule may be picayune or it may be enforced in ways that are out of proportion to its real importance. These things happen, and when they do, students often begin to express resentment. They may also seek ways to circumvent the offending rule. In fact, their respect for other, more necessary rules may also diminish.

The easiest reaction for the administration is to crack down and rigorously to enforce all rules. Students who question any of the rules are seen as rebels. They are told that they had a choice to enroll and that if they do not like the rules, they should go elsewhere.

If only it were that simple. Young people who grow up in conservative Christian homes may be given little say in where they go to school. As college students, they may not have the power to choose another school and can feel trapped if the enforcement of institutional standards seems oppressive to them. When such students finally graduate, they often turn into haters, opponents, and self-identified “survivors” of the school that (as they see it) oppressed them.

Of course, some students respond with surliness whenever their wills are crossed. They reject even moderate levels of household decorum and imposed discipline. One species of professing Christian actually celebrates the world and the flesh—and some of these partiers end up as students in Christian colleges, seminaries, and universities.

Their response to regulations is to rebel. The opposite response is for students to capitulate, to “go native,” so to speak. They may even come to perceive institutional rules as moral mandates. If these students find their way onto discipline committees, they sometimes present recommendations that are more draconian than the administration’s. When spirituality comes to be defined by performance, these students are the star performers.

Both rebellion and capitulation are immature reactions. A more adult response is what might be called critical collaboration. Those who take this approach are critical in the sense that they think, analyze, and form judgments. They recognize idiosyncrasies and injustices for what they are. Because they believe in collaboration, however, their goal is to work in ways that strengthen their institution rather than either subverting order or perpetuating injustice. They submit to the rules—even the silly ones—because they are willing to endure temporary inconveniences in order to achieve more important goals. Nevertheless, they do not justify the silliness, and they employ legitimate means to work toward necessary changes. They appeal to both the rebels and the sycophants to redefine their perspectives according to the greater good to be accomplished. They see in that good a telos or goal worthy of uniting the various factions.

The unnamed students behind BOJE appear to represent the third alternative at Bob Jones University. They are working toward change, but both their notion of change and their methods for change are being regulated by a larger vision. Indeed, their vision is the vision of the university itself: their motto is “We Are You.” Without approving every policy, they have committed themselves to strengthen and unify the university population around its mission.

One example is their response to required prayer times. BOJE notes that these compulsory prayer meetings are often conducted as gossip-and-conversation sessions with little emphasis upon prayer. BOJE further recognizes that some students silently attempt to subvert the regulation that demands their participation in these sessions. But BOJE also realizes that prayer, conducted in community, is a good thing. BOJE asks, “When did a good thing become a bad thing?” BOJE encourages students to reclaim the prayer times and gain the spiritual benefit of actually praying together.

This is a mature response. The people of BOJE acknowledge the tensions that are implicit in making spiritual activities compulsory. Nevertheless, they insist that the compulsory nature of these activities is no reason to deny one’s self or one’s brethren the benefit of participation. They are trying to provide a common ground upon which both rebels and capitulators can actually welcome each other and work together.

Decades ago, a student initiative like BOJE might have been viewed as a threat by the Bob Jones administration. It might even have been prohibited. Now, however, the administration seems to have taken a welcoming stance. Nothing speaks better of the university’s changing ethos than its responsiveness to the critical collaboration of its students. The present administration can accept critical collaboration because it has already adopted a critically thoughtful attitude toward its own values and methods. Like leaders of other Christian institutions, its administrators try hard to serve the interests of their students in the adoption and implementation of regulations. Even though change occurs slowly in large institutions, the people who are leading Bob Jones University can accept and even celebrate the right kind of changes.

One hopes that the people behind BOJE can keep their sense of balance. If they can, their work will be valuable. For the moment, the many changes at Bob Jones University are worth celebrating. A good Christian university is a rare thing, and BJU is good. In fact, it is better today than it has ever been, and it is getting better. Given the attitude of its leadership, further improvement is definitely to be expected.

The Clouds of Judgment Gather
Bernard of Cluny (12th century); composite translation

The clouds of judgment gather,
The time is growing late;
Be sober and be watchful;
Our Judge is at the gate:
The Judge Who comes in mercy,
The Judge Who comes in might
To put an end to evil
And diadem the right.

Arise, O true disciples,
Let wrong give way to right,
And penitential shadow
To Jesus’ blessèd light:
The light that has no evening,
That knows no moon or sun,
The light so new and golden,
The light that is but one.

The home of fadeless splendor,
Of blooms that bear no thorn,
Where they shall dwell as children
Who here as exiles mourn;
The peace of all the faithful,
The calm of all the blest,
Inviolate, unfading,
Divinest, sweetest, best.

This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.