Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, gives a report to attendees at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting on June 11, 2014.

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, gives a report to attendees at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting on June 11, 2014. RNS photo courtesy Matt Miller via Baptist Press


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BALTIMORE (RNS) The head of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary offered an emotional apology to Southern Baptists for accepting a Muslim student into his school’s Ph.D. program — an unusual step for an evangelical seminary but one other schools have taken for years.

“I made an exception to a rule that I assumed, probably wrongly, the president has the right to make if he feels that it is that important,” Paige Patterson told Southern Baptist delegates on Wednesday (June 11). “He was admitted as a special student in the Ph.D. program.”

Patterson, an architect of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention a generation ago and one of the church’s most revered figures, faced heavy criticism from some Baptists who accused him of violating the standards of his school in Fort Worth, Texas.

Some were worried that the student, Ghassan Nagagreh, was receiving money from the denomination’s funding program. Patterson insisted that Nagagreh, a Palestinian Muslim student who initially worked as a volunteer on a Southwestern archaeological dig in Israel, received no financial support.

While the move to admit a Muslim student at a leading evangelical seminary shocked some Southern Baptists, observers say students from other faiths at other Christian seminaries typically don’t get much notice.

“It’s not unusual in the broader world of theological education,” said the Rev. Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. “It’s somewhat more unusual in the world of evangelical education, but it’s not absent there completely.”

Hartford Seminary in Connecticut has an Islamic chaplaincy program that offers a Master of Arts degree and a graduate certificate in Islamic chaplaincy. The school’s description of the program says it “complements the strengths already in existence at Hartford Seminary,” a nondenominational school that dates to 1833.

At some prominent seminaries — Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and others — it’s not unusual to have students of various faiths studying side by side; students at the nonsectarian Harvard Divinity School represent more than 30 religious traditions. But among evangelical schools, students are almost all Christian.

Some Southern Baptist seminaries — including Southwestern — have offered courses to people of all faiths, but they have been specifically for prisoners. Southwestern’s program with the maximum-security Darrington Unit in Texas is modeled after one offered by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where Patterson’s brother-in-law, Chuck Kelley, is the president.

Patterson found himself Wednesday answering not only questions about admitting Nagagreh but also about the range of students in the Darrington program, which he said includes Muslim and atheist inmates.

“Unfortunately, it is the case that you cannot discriminate and have a program in prison,” said Patterson. “We have no choice. We have to admit them to class but the wonderful thing, of course, as you would guess, is that as they are studying in class they are coming to know the Lord.”

That’s why Patterson supported admitting the Sunni Muslim student, who he described as “very open, at this point, to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., who spoke to delegates right after Patterson, said, “Dr. Patterson did not have to apologize to me for his love for lost people.”

In an interview, Akin said his school has not admitted any Muslim students but is considering a prison program that could.

All six Southern Baptist seminaries require students to meet strict standards that demonstrate their evangelical belief: a profession of faith, a testimony that gives evidence of that faith, a church endorsement and three references that affirm their Christian character.

“We will not be changing ours,” Akin said of the policy on faith requirements. “I suspect the others won’t, either.”

Southwestern is not the only school that has faced controversy when it made overtures outside its faith.

In April, the United Methodist-related Claremont School of Theology announced that it was ending a two-year joint venture with Claremont Lincoln University. Good News, a conservative Methodist caucus, welcomed the decision, saying, “The partnership was highly controversial because of its vision of jointly training clergy of different non-Christian religions alongside future United Methodist pastors.”

Steven James, chairman of Southwestern Seminary’s trustee board, said the board has heard the concerns of Southern Baptists and will weigh them at a fall meeting “with our president, whom I believe in.”

Patterson, a veteran of 63 consecutive SBC annual meetings, apologized profusely to the convention, his family, his faculty and his board of trustees, which he noted was not responsible for his decision about the student.

“It was my decision and my decision alone,” he said.

But he added that he already had an answer prepared for God.

“I believe when I stand before the Lord God, I’m going to say, ‘Dear God, I violated a policy but I didn’t want to stand before you with blood on my hands,’” a choked-up Patterson said. “’Dear God, I did the best I knew how.’”

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17 Comments

  1. “All six Southern Baptist seminaries require students to meet strict standards…a profession of faith, a testimony that gives evidence of that faith, a church endorsement and three references that affirm their Christian character.”

    This is ‘education’?
    PATHETIC.

    Class starts with a VOW that you will reject all incoming information.
    And that you will grow old without ever challenging any of your ideas.

    It is a promise to remain ignorant!
    Shame on these ‘schools’

    • The six SBC seminaries hold the same accreditation as schools such as Harvard, Yale, UCLA, etc. The education offered there is theological in nature and of the highest quality. That you have a completely closed mind about schools whose values and mission you disagree says much more about you Max than it does about these fine institutions of higher education.

    • dr. james willingham

      Dear Atheist Max: As a former atheist, I find your assault full of phony baloney. If you really want to attack, you should be able to do a much better job than that. After all, Atheism is just as closed minded as any religious approach, and, with their record for doing people in during the past century, they have little room to talk. Ever hear of Solzhenitsyn? An commie professor at Columbia introduced me to the pleasures of reading Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich. I moved on from there to some of his other works like the Gulag Archipelago as well as some others. Even now I have two of his novels on my reading list. While I don’t agree with the particular approach of SWBTS and only somewhat with the other seminaries, I find much more freedom among Baptists (the folks who gave us religious liberty in precept and practice – ever hear of Rhode Island?) than among the Atheists these days. After all, Bella Dodd found she did not like being ordered by Moscow to take orders from one of two capitalists in the Waldorf Astoria. No wonder, she gave up her chairmanship of the American Communist Party.

  2. samuel Johnston

    Orthodoxy is just another idea that cannot be traced to the historical Jesus. The parable of the Good Samaritan refutes any such idea. Of course, that too might be a forgery…..but I digress.

  3. samuel Johnston

    I am just in my Seventh year, but I still do not know why we have so many graceless old authoritarian men who yearn to run the world in their own image until their last gasp. Paige Patterson refers to exactly the same image in his mind of standing before God that I do (heck it was preached in the South from time out of mind), yet seems to have not considered it much before now, (and of course he thinks that it is literally true). In my version it would be question time, and some guy would ask God why he made all those Muslims anyway. At this point I generally wake up from my dream.

  4. HIs final statement about blood on his hands is quite peculiar, and ambiguous as well.

    Did he mean, “Dear God, I violated a policy but I didn’t want to stand before you with blood on my hands [because my conscience would have accused me if I had not violated that policy].”

    Or, “Dear God, I violated a policy but I didn’t want to stand before you with blood on my hands [so I reversed myself].”

    I think he probably meant the former.

  5. Penny Hammack

    As a Christian and former Baptist, I’d like to apologize for his apology. Ministry means you accept people as they are and work from there. You don’t bludgeon or stone them for their beliefs and if they come to you with genuine interest you accept them and don’t apologize for accepting them. This country was built on the policy of religious freedom. Let it re-commence with the SBC.

    • It happens all the time. Free-thinking people find a set a commonly held beliefs/values and decide to associate with each other – becoming a group. That group somehow becomes “biased, prejudiced, close-minded, ignorant” (all words used in this blog to describe evangelicals) when they attempt to explain the reasons for their association. Must they always be required to admit anyone who would disagree in order to escape these criticisms?

  6. Ms. Bank’s bias description of the Conservative Resurgence as a “takeover” of the denomination notwithstanding, this is one of the more balanced views of the current situation at SWBTS. Dr. Patterson has always been known for bold leadership and this is yet another instance of that boldness.

  7. As a University president, Dr. Patterson has a right to make a decision like he did. An open apology to the SBC convention was uncalled for. The current wavering theology of the SBC is far more important than a muslim student in one of our seminaries. The SBC needs to get its Theological act together.

    • I am curious about the specific “theological wavering” you might have in mind.
      There is a bunch of it, or has been over time. Is it the rise of the new/ reformist views, our social views on race, divorce, women? (Not exactly theological but certainly akin/ perhaps rooted in some theological precepts.) Again, I am just curious about the specific issues.

      Cordially,
      bruce grubbs,

  1. […] The head of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary offered an emotional apology to Southern Baptists for accepting a Muslim student into his school’s Ph.D. program — an unusual step for an evangelical seminary but one other schools have taken for years. “I made an exception to a rule that I assumed, probably wrongly, the president has the right to make if he feels that it is that important,” Paige Patterson told Southern Baptist delegates on Wednesday (June 11). “He was admitted as a special student in the Ph.D. program.” [Read more] […]

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