How Johnson Bible College Became a University

Gary Weedman undermines the stereotype of the Tennessee Bible-school evangelist. In a bow tie and a herringbone tweed suit, the current president of the school now known as Johnson University speaks in the middle-America accent of his Illinois home and comes across more as professor than proselytizer. Former dean of Milligan College, the Christian liberal-arts college in Johnson City, Weedman, now in his late 60s, is a Johnson Bible College grad who once taught here. He takes some pains to explain the complexity of the school's name change.

"We spent quite a bit of time, probably two and a half or three years, discussing it," he says. "For many of us, it is still a hallowed term: I still slip and say Johnson Bible College. That's my diploma, you know, on my wall."

Weedman says it was, ironically, the popular "Bible College" movement of the 1930s and '40s that sowed the first seeds of discontent with the name. "It was reactionary," he says, "a reaction to what was perceived as liberal theology in traditional seminaries and church-related colleges." In contrast, he says, Johnson's founders "weren't reacting to other educational models. Ashley and Emma Johnson were simply supplying what they saw as a great need."

Johnson University exists in a border territory between old mainline churches, which require ministers to acquire graduate degrees from seminaries, and some modern evangelical churches that don't require much formal education at all. Some churches, like independent Christian churches, look for leaders with a degree in Biblical scholarship, but not necessarily a graduate degree.

Even within that band there's further complexity. Weedman says Johnson is different from "Christian liberal arts colleges," which might offer many other vocational options. Johnson students all study Bible intensively, as if for Christian ministry, and data suggests that about 70 percent of Johnson alumni do find themselves working as preachers or missionaries or other specifically religious vocations. But Johnson's also very different from the model suggested by some modern megachurches, who train their own preachers. "Young people today are really globally minded," says Vice President Philip Eubanks. "They really want to make a difference." Many Johnson grads go into teaching, he says, "but they don't want to go to the cushy schools, where everything's rosy. They want challenging situations." Johnson grads often end up in inner-city schools, or in Third World countries. Eubanks has an African shield hanging on his wall, the gift of a graduate. He himself has stayed close to home. Son of former president David Eubanks, he grew up on Johnson Bible College's campus.

In a series of seminars and retreats to discuss Johnson Bible College's future beginning a couple of years ago, Weedman submitted "a sort of white paper for our discussion about clarifying to ourselves the kind of institution we are." He proposed that Johnson represented a "Third Way" to meet the needs of churches. "We didn't start about to change our name," he says. "That became a result, not a purpose."

Much of the theology concerning mid-20th-century reactionaries might sound esoteric to those outside the loop, but it sounds like the term "Bible College" had some problems on its own, especially for Johnson grads bound for foreign mission work. The situation is worse in "closed countries," or, in more optimistic Johnson phraseology, "creative access countries": totalitarian nations that don't allow Christian mission work. "More and more of our graduates were going into closed countries to work, not in a traditional church setting, but in an NGO [non-governmental organization], or maybe to teach at a university, or work in some sort of social agency. Often having ‘Bible College' on a transcript was a barrier to them being accepted."

Even the word "college" can be problematic for students, like many of Johnson's, who are bound for other countries, Weedman says. The word colegio in Spanish usually translates as "high school."

Even in America, some graduates had complained that their JBC credit wasn't instantly taken seriously in secular circles as a bona fide bachelor's degree. An article in CNNMoney last week mentioned Johnson's name change as part of a national trend, presumably in light of the fact that only 76 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, down 10 percent from 20 years ago.

"One of the biggest issues facing these schools is their value proposition," went the unsigned story. "Some incoming students fear their job and/or earning prospects will be limited should they graduate from a religiously-affiliated school. In order to appeal to a wider group of students, many of these institutions are removing the ‘Christian' or ‘Bible' from their names." In the article, which quotes a vague website statement from Weedman, the rechristened "Johnson University" is Exhibit A. But a closer examination would have pointed out that Johnson's an exception to the article's assumptions. During the period of reported decline of Americans identifying themselves as Christian, Johnson Bible College—under that name—doubled in size.