It is with great joy that we greet the abandonment of Bob Jones University's most controversial ban: "There is to be no interracial dating." Bob Jones III announced the change March 3 on Larry King Live. But a more wonderful surprise was Jones's rationale. "We have a broader testimony," Jones told King. "This thing is of such insignificance to us; it is so significant to the world at large, the media particularly, why should we have this here as an obstacle? It hurts our graduates … it hurts maybe the church as well. I don't want to hurt the church of Jesus Christ."Jones went a step further. After explaining that the ban originally stood to oppose "a one-world system of blending of all differences," he said, "The principle upon which [the ban] is based is very, very important. But the rule itself is not, so we did away with it." Such a distinction between rules and the principles they attempt to embody is significant for a school and movement known for an uncompromising confounding of the two. Coming from this symbolic center of old-line fundamentalist gravity, could it signal a rethinking of the barriers that have separated mainstream evangelicals and fundamentalists during the last half-century?It now falls to fundamentalists, evangelicals, and even Bob Jones University to answer the question Jones has indirectly raised: What other extrabiblical rules do we have that cause more harm than benefit to the church of Jesus Christ? A recent BJU handbook prohibits students from promoting Calvinism or Arminianism, speaking in tongues, wearing beards, and listening to music recorded after 1960. Such rules are not far off from the legalisms many evangelicals grew up with.Have we sacrificed our witness for the sake of rules that merely represent (rather than embody) Christian principles? This work has always been a crucial and painful duty of the church: for the sake of their witness to Gentiles, the apostles retired circumcision and dietary laws that God had explicitly commanded and their ancestors had died for.Two brief caveats: First, while principles are more fundamental and universal than rules, they must be handled with care. Even biblical principles have been used to rationalize evil behavior. When reconsidering rules, we must prayerfully check our principles against the whole of God's Word—its stories, its parables, its law, its poetry, and its principles.Second, we should be careful to distinguish between true harm to our Christian witness and the manufactured outrage of those who attack the gospel for personal gain. BJU's ban on interracial dating deserved to be thrown out long ago, but it didn't deserve to become a presidential campaign "issue." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee distributed a memo urging candidates to use the controversy to highlight the Republican Party's "alliance with right-wing extremist groups."Even worse, a House Resolution that "condemns practices, such as those prevalent at Bob Jones University, that seek to discriminate against and divide Americans on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion," has 56 cosponsors. The bill probably will not make it out of committee, but such a blatant attack on the school's religious beliefs by the national legislature should send shudders through religious-liberty proponents.Bob Jones may have redefined the obligations of principle for a movement. Those who would use this for political gain need to figure out what principles are.

Related Elsewhere

See our news report, "Bob Jones University Drops Interracial Dating Ban | Fundamentalist school finds itself thrust into Republican presidential debate."The transcript of Bob Jones's appearance on Larry King Live is available at CNN.comSee also Bob Jones III's "Letter to the Nation" complaining about its role in the Republican primaries.

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