Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Feud With New Legalism is Personal

We are all legalists, which is why we all need Jesus. That being said, it’s no secret that I feel a level of contemptuous amusement at the absurdly blind hypocrisy of the New Legalists that borders on legalism itself. I like to believe that I skate a very thin line. If you believe my detractors, I’m not only imagining that line, but I’m not even wearing skates. Whatever. I’m not here to pick a fight. I’m here to provide some historical context for my antagonistic relationship with New Legalists. Maybe this way, we can both begin to heal. I’ve heard that blogs are a great source for therapy.

My freshman year at Bob Jones University was a “closed rush” year for societies[1]. All the freshman were provided with a form to fill out with their top five(?)[2] choices for society. The main thing I was concerned about was joining a society with one of my best friends – a guy that had gone to my church and school. The catch to the “closed rush” was that the most desirable societies had a limit on the number of new inductees[3]. That meant that if you didn’t want to get stuck in Bryan, you had better make sure that you were at or near the front of the line to turn your form in. Since I had to work, my friend took our forms, filled them both out, and turned them in for the both of us. We got our third choice – Chi Delta Theta.

Chi Delt was considered the rebel society on campus. That meant that they played the bass drum extra loudly and they never wore their ties all the way up. I hated wearing my tie all the way up, and I played that bass drum the first semester of my freshman year. I lied and told the society that I had been a drummer in a garage band. It’s not hard to fool people who know next to nothing about rock music that you are a drummer – emperor’s new clothes and all. Anyway, I played that drum so loudly that I busted up my knuckles and bled all over the drum, a point of pride for me that first semester.

I had some fun times being a part of Chi Delt, especially my freshman year. But it didn’t take me long, parallel with my own growing pains and struggles, to begin to see the hypocrisy of the so called campus “rebel” society. Most of the guys were really good guys. Most of them had their own struggles and growing pains related to becoming adults within a system that didn’t allow them to make many choices for themselves. But, come on, there’s a point when hypocrisy is so blatant that others aren’t solely to blame for making the judgment calls that are invited and wanted. That was Chi Delt.

Fridays were Society Meetings. Sunday mornings were Society Sunday School. On Fridays I would sit in a room with Chi Delt, watching and listening to the leadership of the society demonstrate how much contempt they had for BJU and for authority in general. On Sunday mornings I would listen to the same guys tell me that I was supposed to love Jesus. I didn’t love Jesus, but I had read the Bible enough to know that blatantly disregarding and mocking authority[4] wasn’t cool with Jesus.

By the time I had made peace with my paganism, the concept of a “cool” side and an “uncool” side of Bob Jones' dining common was utter stupidity to me. I walked around campus, sat in my classes[5], and listened in to the conversations around me. There were, to over generalize, three basic groups of students – on one side, those who bought in, who swallowed cultural fundamentalism hook-line-and-sinker. They were tagged with the pejorative “bojes.” On the opposite side, the “rebels” sat on the cool side of the dining common, secretly yet not-so-secretly drank white zinfandel and Long Island Iced Tea while wearing their contraband jeans at the local bars in downtown Greenville hoping that people assumed they were Furman students[6], and continued to swear allegiance to King Jesus. And, then, in the middle were those who were simply trying to graduate without upsetting the cart. Those who were confused about how to best work out their faith. Who didn’t buy into the fundamentalist mantra that rock music is the devil’s music, yet weren’t convinced that it was ok to disobey the authority over them in order to listen to the music they liked. Who struggled with the draconian rules, but recognized that even in disagreement the majority of their professors really did love them and, more importantly, loved Jesus. 

By virtue of my girlfriend and being a member of Chi Delt, my main social interactions the last year and a half as a BJU dorm student were with the self-proclaimed “rebels/cool kids.” Meals in the dining common were often spent with my girlfriend and her circle; which meant that I not only sat on the “cool” side of the dining common but at the “cool” table, too. The kids at that table were very territorial. They took themselves and their table very seriously. As I sat at that table or in Chi Delt society meetings, I liked to imagine myself the BJU version of Jason “J.D.” Dean, but I knew that I wasn’t. To be honest, much of my reputation that last year and a half was undeserved and I knew that being seen as the silent outsider in the “cool” group only added to the myth[7] of “John Ellis.” In reality, we were all Christian school nerds playing out high school stereotypes while in college. So I smugly, yet silently, sat at the cool table on the cool side of the Bob Jones University dining common.

My own weird hypocrisy weighed on me and, to be honest, I took it out on my girlfriend and her friends. I found a level of comfort in telling myself that since I didn’t believe in God, my rebellion wasn’t hypocritical like the hypocrites around me.

Two years later, I stood in the front yard of a house that was the location of a Chi Delt party. I was no longer a BJU student, hadn’t been for over a year. The only reason that I was at that party was because my wife at that time was, as a BJU staff member, chaperoning this party that contained both boys and girls. The party wasn’t really a party by most definitions; it did, however, contain uncheckable music and boys and girls making out in the dark corners. Everyone enjoyed the party, safe in their knowledge that the chaperones were only concerned that they still be allowed to sit at the “cool” table in the dining common if and when they, as staff members, ever ventured to eat with the students in the dining common.

I had arrived to the party late, having come straight from my rehearsal. At the time, my ex-wife and I were sharing an apartment with a friend and current BJU student who was also a Chi Delt member. After I arrived, Matt and I cautiously mocked the going’s-ons. If I remember correctly, he wasn’t really into society and was less impressed with the “cool” rebels that populated Chi Delt than even I was, and in a much more honest manner. Anyway, and I don’t remember who came up with the idea, at some point in our conversation it was decided that it would be funny if I pretended to be the guest speaker for the party. – (Excursion: Ok, a little bit of context for those of you who never attended BJU or its daughter school Pensacola Christian College. Almost every gathering of students, be it society, work related, or impromptu meetings at Wal-Mart, included a brief devotional. It was usually led by the most senior Wild’s counselor that the leaders/organizers of the group had contact with. Chi Delt had little or no good contact with Wild’s counselors, but no student at that party would’ve been shocked at a devotional cutting short their make-out session. … I understand that this “excursion” may have confused you more than it helped. If I ever rewrite this post for a book, I’ll explain it in more detail. Excursion over.)

I’m not claiming that Matt and I had conceived a good joke, but we did, or so we thought, conceive a joke. Several of the guys at the party knew me. They had known me during my last balls-to-the-wall rebellious semester, which had ended a mere fourteen months earlier. On top of that, I smelled like the beer I had been drinking at rehearsal. Assuming that some of the BJU students didn’t know what beer smelled like[8], my long hair and earring was a dead give-away that there was no way in hell that I was the guest speaker. Matt and I assumed that as soon as I introduced myself as the guest speaker that one of two things would happen – 1. Everyone would laugh, and I would be the hit of the party. 2. Everyone would boo the dumb joke, and I might get to go home early. We had no way of anticipating the actual response.

I don’t know if it was the beer from rehearsal or my desire for Matt to think I was daring and cool, but I agreed to the plan. Matt procured me a Bible from his car, and I made my way around the back of the house to the campfire. There were about six or so couples sitting around the campfire, but by that time most of the Chi Delt members and their dates were lurking in the shadows around the campfire. As I walked up, I thought to myself, “I hope that whichever way they react, they do it soon, cause I don’t know what I’m supposed to do after I introduce myself.” I’ll be honest, as much as I like being the center of attention, when I stepped up to that campfire and yelled “I’d like everyone’s attention, please,” I was wishing that all those eyes on me were on someone or something else.

I introduced myself as the guest speaker for the evening’s devotional, and then paused for the laughter or boos. Nothing. Silence. I looked at the attentive crowd and saw expectant faces gazing at me while those who had previously been lurking in the shadows were searching for seats. I should’ve cut my losses and said “just kidding,” but I didn’t. Instead I asked one of the guys to open us in prayer, which he did, and then I opened the Bible, read the verse[9], and then began expounding on that verse to the quiet and listening audience.

I don’t remember what I said, but I don’t think that I said anything too heretical. I do remember the plastic bottle cap hitting me in the face about two minutes into my devotional[10]. I also remember a couple of the girls crying and the look of horror on the faces of the others. I also remember being shouted at by a couple of the guys. Words like “blasphemy” were used. I quickly turned and walked, even though I wanted to run, back around to the front of the house where I was met by the Chi Delt member who was hosting the party. He was predictably upset, as was my ex-wife and her best friend who was also chaperoning the party and who was the sister of the host. They decided that it would be best if I left the party, and I happily complied. I think Matt stayed.

Back during the early days of Facebook, there was a Chi Delt Facebook group. In one of the forum threads (remember when Facebook groups had those?) the story about the crazy guy at the campfire was brought up. I know I was the “crazy guy” because the time and specific place were referenced. One of the respondents commented about how the “crazy guy” was rebuked and was forced to leave by one of the guys sitting at the campfire. I’m sure that their perception of what happened was mostly a product of the desire to further the Chi Delt mythology, but most of what was written about the event was blatantly untrue. “Crazy,” in the sense they were using the word, was an absurd claim. “Crazy” in the stupid sense would have been appropriate, but, for one thing, most of them knew who I was. I didn’t care enough to jump in and correct anyone, but that brings me to the point of this long post.

After the party, the thing that offended me the most, as a pagan, was the hypocrisy of these so-called “cool” kids. The whole party was a sham; an excuse to make-out in the woods with their girlfriends. I knew these guys; I knew Chi Delt’s m.o. The leaders of the society were guilty of things far worse and possibly more blasphemous than what I had done. Call me out for my stupid joke, fine. But please don’t take some sort of spiritual high-road and pretend that you’re all of a sudden concerned with defending the honor of Jesus. I left confused and a little hurt, and it wasn’t until years later that I began to understand what happened.

All humans have conflicting desires for autonomy and the desire to exist in community. Within Christian fundamentalism, the community is often forced on those who are born into it. The roles within the community are pre-defined, often without consideration for personalities and changing constructs. To be clear, this often, though, reflects genuine desire to serve the King that they do in fact love. Fundamentalism has its failings, to be sure, and often with good motives, individuals are ridden roughshod over. Students who are attending strict fundamentalist colleges are often caught between the desires to be a “good” Christian while beginning to assert themselves as adult individuals. Conflict is bound to arise. Most of my friends who attended BJU, though, came out the other side well-adjusted Believers who love Jesus. They left BJU with an understanding of the school’s failings, but also an appreciation for the fact that much of what happened was because of an honest desire on the part of their parents, professors, and other authority figures to help them love Jesus more. The most important thing that they took away from their experience at BJU was that loving Jesus in community with other believers is paramount, even if how they work that out would get them banned from campus.

Not so for many of the New Legalists. Like the members of Chi Delt, they desperately long for the autonomy offered by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, yet still wanting to cling to a God that demands the surrender of autonomy. The rules become the enemy, not their deceitful heart (Jeremiah 17:9[11]). Many of them construct their own anti-rules over against that of the rules that they decry as legalistic, not aware of the sad irony of condemning alter calls in the very breath that they condemn man made rules. And, so, anything that smacks of constraint to them (be it the belief that God defines the parameters for sexuality or the belief that it is vital to be under the authority of a local church) is legalistic and is the enemy. The thing that they often don’t understand is that the true “cool” kids sitting at the true “cool” table will continue to pull the chair out from under them until all vestiges of Orthodoxy are erased from them. (Check out this article.) In their ever increasing desire to impress the “cool” kids, they focus on externals, often more so than the fundies that they despise. Carry a KJV Bible under your arm while you wear a suit – fundy! Don’t listen to rock music because you believe that it dishonors your King – fundy! And fundies deserve scorn whether they name the name of Christ or not; John 13: 35 be damned!   

Years ago, as a thoroughgoing pagan, I saw the hypocrisy inherent in the “cool” kids as they blatantly defied and rebelled against their authority (no matter how misguided the authority[12]) and with their very next breath attempted to pass themselves off as defenders of King Jesus. Whenever I encounter a New Legalist, I think about that Chi Delt party and am bemusedly annoyed all over again.  I told you it was personal.

[1] If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably don’t know any “new legalists.” Don’t let that keep you from finishing reading this post, though. There is a GREAT anecdote coming up.
[2] Five, six, seven, … whatever. I don’ remember.
[3] I originally typed “pledges.”
[4] Not to mention the dishonest measures taken to ensure that the authority figures wouldn’t figure out what was going on during Friday society meetings.
[5] When I went to class.
[6] Years later I bartended in downtown Greenville. Those BJU students were the joke of the downtown service industry.
[7] My junior year, I taped cut-out pictures from surfing magazines onto my dorm room wall and door, and told my hall leader roommate that I was a surfer. As odd as this might sound, that lie added to my “cred.” The whole thing almost blew up in my face, though, when the few actual surfers on campus tried to befriend me.
[8] Probably more than you non-BJU folks would guess. If it had been a PCC party, guessing “none of them” would probably be correct.
[9] The Bible opened to Isaiah, if I remember correctly.
[10] The fact that it took them that long could probably be a gold-mine supplying content for its own post.
[11] I even looked up the context to make sure that I couldn’t be accused of proof-texting.
[12] Not allowing kids to listen to rock music or make-out is not spiritual abuse.


  1. I appreciate the identification of the 3 groups on campus -- I really feel like most of the people in school with me at BJU fell into that center group. For crying out loud, we were 18-22. Babes in arms, practically. You hardly even know what end is up at that age, when it comes to sorting out the really big questions.

    At the same time - and this is the tension I live with as a BJU grad - tweaking the Gospel so that it says something God didn't say, whether as a "new legalist" or a Fundamentalist, is a terrifying, dangerous action with significant consequences. I find myself wanting to clarify and explicate some of your points, to throw up hedges so they aren't misunderstood or make sure you aren't taking some of these ideas too far. See that? the impulse to hedge? It's built-in I think.

    Very hard to say what God says - no more and no less. Very hard.

    Thanks for this post, John. I may have more comments later but I need to design a magazine right now. ;-)

  2. Wowzers! I landed here via LoriRamey's blog. Really appreciate your perspectives on the New Legalism and your ability to distinguish between groups at BJU ('01 grad). Looking forward to reading more!

  3. I realize I'm a little late here, but I identified so much with your post! I attended BJU from the fall of 90 till I got shipped 2 and a half semesters later. I was even a Chi Delt member, but I played a red Tom-Drum at the soccer games and society meetings. You are SPOT ON about the 3 groups in the cafeteria, man! Did you know that it appears they finally disbanded Chi Delt altogether? They are no longer listed under the society page on BJU's website. Guess the new legalists had to take on new Greek letters. I bet they still sit at the same table in the cafeteria though! πŸ˜„ -Victor a Gray