by John Ellis
This month marks a year since I was hired as a staff writer for PJ Media. For those who are unfamiliar with PJ Media, the website is a medium sized political news and opinion site – from a deeply conservative perspective, to be clear. Over the last couple of years, the site has expanded to include Faith, Lifestyle, and Parenting sections. I was initially hired to write for the Faith and Lifestyle sections, but over the last year, I have been given the opportunity to branch out and write about politics and parenting, too.
But what does my time with PJ Media have to do with Bob Jones University and Abercrombie & Fitch (which is probably the reason the majority of the readers clicked on this article to begin with)? Well, change. Specifically, change in me.
During my first few months writing for PJ Media, I received several text messages from old friends bemoaning how much I’ve changed and how much they resent that change. They would send me long, rambling text messages informing me of their disappointment in the “new John Ellis.” From what I can gather, exposing my conservative Christianity to the world was a betrayal of their memory of me, I guess. Which I find odd, and half amusing/half irritating.
Everyone changes. Or, rather, hopefully, everyone changes. Stasis is not necessarily a good thing when discussing personalities, opinions, and station in life. Regarding sanctification in the life of a Believer, stasis is especially a negative. In 1 Corinthians 13:11, the Apostle Paul explains, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” After pointing out the original reader’s lack of spiritual maturity, the writer of Hebrews urges them to “go on to maturity (Hebrews 6:1).”
In late August of 1994, I stepped onto Bob Jones University as a child. I also stepped onto the campus of what was once billed as “the world’s most unusual university” in full-on rebellion against my Creator God. Three and a half years later, I stepped off the campus of Bob Jones University as still a child and with my rebellion against God flaming into an embrace of atheism.
The Christian college located in Greenville, SC is known for its many odd and seemingly draconian rules. Recognizing that the rules have changed quite a bit since the mid-nineties, the strict rules that I struggled three and a half years under included having to wear a tie until after lunch, not being able to listen to any music deemed “uncheckable”, and being forced to refrain from physical contact with members of the opposite sex.
Having grown up under similar rules as those that I labored under at BJU, I was used to manipulating and conniving my way around my authority figures in order to do whatever was right in my own eyes. But that didn’t mean that I liked the rules.
I don’t remember the rule forbidding Bob Jones University students from shopping at or wearing clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch being in place by the time I left the school in December of 1997, or if the rule was instituted afterwards. My guess is that it was instituted afterwards, because I have zero recollection of it in connection to my time as a dorm student. During my time as a Bob Jones University student, Structure, J.R. Riggins, and American Eagle were my clothing stores of choice, and I never entered an Abercrombie & Fitch until I was no longer a BJU student. In fact, I don’t remember even hearing about Abercrombie & Fitch until after my time as a dorm student at BJU. Regardless, having frequently heard the rule mocked and reviled over the intervening years (by students and faculty alike), I am now quite familiar with the rule.
Bob Jones University’s anti-Abercrombie & Fitch rule isn’t necessarily the most hated, most disobeyed, or most mocked rule in the thick Student Handbook. For many who are attending, have attended, or work at BJU, however, it represents the supposed larger oppression that stifles those who grew up or live within the orbit of Bob Jones University styled Christian fundamentalism. For them, the school’s anti-Abercrombie & Fitch rule represents the legalistic, culturally out-of-step, naivety of Christian fundamentalism’s authority figures, be they parents, teachers, or pastors.
For those who are unfamiliar with Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing store was known for incredibly racy ads featuring nearly nude, young models. The stores were seething with sexually charged hormones, and the piped in EDM music only added to the already pulsating lustiness.
I say “was,” because while researching this article, I went to Abercrombie & Fitch’s Wikipedia page and, to be fair, noticed that they have changed their marketing strategy. The company has moved away from racy ads featuring semi-nude (translation – nude) models. According to the company’s Wikipedia page, the reason for the change is because, “Abercrombie and Fitch is now targeting an older consumer, from ages 18-25.” Which means that the overly-sexualized ads were meant to target underage children. But, hey, Bob Jones University was just being a legalistic prude, right?
I believed exactly that about Bob Jones University, though.
Moving back to Greenville, SC in 2005 as a new Christian, I disdained the rule. I thought it was stifling, treated college students like children, and made a bigger deal out of lust and sex than was necessary.
Having spent years in environments that embraced self-fulfillment as the endgame of sex and that viewed almost all sexual expressions as good and right, my perspective was skewed. Still blinded by the dazzle from the many idols I was still hoarding in my heart, I was unaware that my perspective was skewed, much less how much.
As a new follower of King Jesus, I was still taking my cues from the world of my rebellion, and thought that Christians needed to adopt a more laissez-faire attitude towards sex. I believed that rules and practices that were designed to guard against lust were accomplishing the opposite; that by focusing so much energy on not lusting, fundamentalist Christians had turned sex into such an attractive, Holy Grail of sin that the rules and standards were actually causing people to lust. I mean, as I used to tell people, “No wonder Christians have such a problem with sex, they think about it all the time.”
All this coming from the Christian who had gotten his fiancé pregnant.
What I didn’t understand at the time is that rules and standards aren’t necessarily designed to protect us from committing acts of sin, although rules and standards do help with that at times. In the life of the Christian, mortifying sin often does require stark measures. After all, there is a reason that Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away (Matthew 5:29).” Often, though, rules and standards reflect the righteous desire to honor God and give thanks for the salvation Jesus won for his children. Even if the sight of good-looking, mostly nude models in Abercrombie & Fitch stores and catalogues do not cause a person to lust, the company’s open rebellion against God’s definition of sexual holiness should be enough reason for Christians to at least consider never stepping foot inside of an Abercrombie & Fitch.
As I’ve already written, by God’s grace, I’ve changed.
The thing is, I didn’t change suddenly, and, by God’s grace, I’m not done changing; or, rather, the Holy Spirit isn’t finished changing me. This means that the cries of disappointment in me and the accusations that I’ve changed because I want to impress my new friends will keep being lobbed in my direction, assuming, that is, that those old friends are still paying attention to me and are still interested in bringing me back to their straight and narrow.
Even beyond the condescending tone and flat-out insulting lectures about how I don’t know what I’m doing/saying, the thing that has bothered me the most this past year regarding the text messages and emails is the realization that I have apparently been slack over the years in expressing what God has been doing in my life and heart. It seems that I have unwittingly allowed many people to hold on to incorrect perceptions of me.
I don’t believe that I have changed in many of the ways and as quickly as many of my old friends seem to believe. That may be a product of when they first met me. Like many, even after having been given the gift of saving faith in Jesus, I stubbornly clung to much of the baggage I had collected during my season of overt rebellion against God. For example, during my first few years as a Christian, I despised other Believers’ attempts to pursue holiness, while struggling with my own sin issues (see the Abercrombie & Fitch anecdote above). During that season in my life, I had conversations with people who were beginning to chafe at the restraints found in the world of Christian fundamentalism that they believed were unjust. Most of those conversations were simply nothing more than mutually reinforced rebellion.
Over time, though, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the patience of my church family, a new giant of a friend, and the ordinary means of grace, my sanctification began to noticeably change me. Noticeable to me, at least. During rebellious conversations that I had previously helped rhetorically fuel, I began to find myself inwardly cringing but unsure of how to articulate my discomfort. Other times, I’d try to speak but would ultimately bungle it in my pride and immaturity. Through it all, however, God was working on and in me, even if I didn’t always invite others into what God was teaching me.
I can’t help but think that my tendency towards silence during those years, my lack of outwardly rejoicing in my growing knowledge of and faith in God is what helped sow the seeds that eventually sprouted into the feelings of betrayal felt by some of the people from my past. By God’s grace, I pray that those friends, and the ones who feel the same but have remained silent, will be affected by my Holy Spirit wrought change and by my continued expressions of God’s grace in my life.
To that end, however, the increased expressions of disappointment also serve to bring me joy in the fact that God has not only given me platforms to speak truth, but He has also given me the boldness to speak the truth.
By God’s grace, I will continue to use the platforms He has given me to praise Him and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, I will continue to use the platforms He has given me to speak truth into a society that rejects God’s rule. And by God’s grace, I will continue to change and be more and more conformed to the image of Christ, and, Lord willing, my writing will continue to reflect my sanctification. I don’t know how long God is going to ask me to serve Him as a writer, but I have faith that His grace is sufficient for me to keep my hands on the plow He has currently given me and His grace is sufficient to trust Him when and if (but probably when) He calls me to a new plow in a new field for His glory.
Soli Deo Gloria
 If you’re unfamiliar with fundamentalist Christianity’s opinion about music, this is it in a nutshell – any music that even remotely reminds the strictest, least nuanced person of rock and roll is verboten. That includes, but is not limited to, and referencing my age, the A Capello Christian group GLAD, Steve Green, and, of course, Petra. In other words, listening to U2 required much subterfuge and great risk of reprisal if busted listening to U2.
 Confession – a lot of things have changed at BJU over the last few years. Living in DC, I am mostly unfamiliar with the changes. For all I know, the anti-Abercrombie & Fitch rule may no longer be on the books at BJU. Even if it isn’t, my larger point in this article still stands.
 I wasn’t about to go to their actual website.
 A few years ago, an individual who had graduated from BJU told me that strictures against watching movies with nudity was silly and self-righteous because all nude bodies looked the same, whether a beautiful person or an ugly person. He claimed that those who lust do so solely because of a fault in their own makeup and that nudity doesn’t have anything to do with lust in most cases. Up to that point in the conversation, I had been tracking with him. When he said that, though, I went from shaking my head in agreement to “huh?!?” That was a conversation that the Holy Spirit used in my heart to confront my perspective on nudity in movies. Assuming that he’s not asexual, which I have reason to believe that he’s not, his obvious self-deluded perspective on lust and nudity stuck in my brain. Of course, lust is an internal sin. Of course, we can lust over fully clothed people. However, pretending that attractive, nude people don’t play a role at all in lust is ridiculously wrong. I knew that as soon as he said it, and from that point on, I found it harder and harder to ignore the fact that nudity in movies affects people, including myself.
 For the record, the rule about Abercrombie & Fitch is just an example. While I now happen to think the rule wise and good, I also don’t think that a person is sinning if they wear Abercrombie & Fitch clothes. For me, what’s important is that brothers and sisters in Christ (as well as myself) are actively engaged in pursuing holiness for the glory of God. Not despising believers attempts at that is one of the evidences that we are humbly submitting ourselves to God and seeking to joyfully obey Him in all things. Mocking and/or reviling Christians for pursuing holiness may be a sure sign that you’re not pursuing holiness like God commanded. Worse, it may signal that you have yet to repent of your sins and bow the knee in faith before Jesus.
 To be honest, this actually began happening a couple of years ago. Writing for PJ Media merely served to light a torch under some people. In the name of my previous blog and my Twitter bio, I referred to myself as a fundamentalist. A couple of old friends gently chided me that I was not a fundamentalist. Even after explaining my definition and that I am, indeed, a fundamentalist, they would rhetorically pat me on the head and tsk, tsk over me. Few things are more frustrating than having people lecture you about how you are wrong about yourself, and that they know better who you are than you do.