The acceptance of a Muslim student into the Ph.D. archeology program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is drawing both praise and criticism across the vast Southern Baptist Convention.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said the Rev. Bob Roberts, pastor of NorthWood Church in Keller, which has been aggressive in its outreach to Muslims. “I also believe it’s what missions in the 21st century looks like.”
Others were far from accepting of the bold decision made by seminary President Paige Patterson.
“The school is meant to honor the glory of Jesus Christ, and I don’t need seminary students from our churches hearing prayers to Allah several times a day,” said the Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington and a former trustee of the seminary.
Though the student was admitted in 2012, the issue has recently emerged as a topic of heated debate through social media. Patterson even went as far to respond to the criticism through an article on the seminary’s website.
Most criticism suggests that Patterson wrongfully bypassed admission policies in permitting Ghassan Nagagreh, a Muslim, into the school, saying it is a breach of the seminary’s purpose of training Baptist Christians to spread the Gospel.
Others applaud Patterson for making a bold move toward building bridges between Muslims and Christians.
“I know it was unusual thing to do,” Patterson said in a recent interview.
He acknowledges that he made an exception to admission policies in permitting the Muslim student to enroll. Admission standards say prospective seminarians must show a record of church involvement, proof of Christian character and a statement about their profession of faith in Christianity.
“The student has done splendidly,” Patterson said. “He came to us through the Tel Gezer archaeological dig in Israel. “We have about 80 people working there of all faiths. We have Israelis. We have Muslims. We have people of various Christian faiths and no faith at all.”
Patterson said Nagagreh, who has earned a master’s degree in archeology, asked whether he might enroll in the seminary’s doctoral program.
“My heart went out to the young man,” Patterson said. “I appreciated his spirit and very peaceful attitude to the people on the dig he worked with.”
Patterson said he did not consult with trustees about his decision.
“Through the years periodically various presidents have made exceptions,” he said. “Generally speaking, that has been understood. When policy becomes so hard and fast that it is never to be violated, that comes pretty close to legalism.”
Nagagreh did not return phone calls to the Star-Telegram.
Claims of secrecy
The Rev. Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church of Enid, Okla., who has a blog that has been critical of Patterson’s actions in the past, first brought the controversy to light, charging that the seminary president went too far in skirting seminary rules.
One of his blog posts has the headline Southwestern Islamic Theological Seminary and the Center for Cultural Engagment and Firing.
“The issue is not this Muslim man,” Burleson said in an interview. “The issue is the autocratic powerful dictatorship of Paige Patterson who thinks he can determine what is right or wrong by fiat.”
Burleson said he’s not upset about a Muslim attending a Baptist seminary. His criticism is about ignoring admission guidelines.
“My thing is if the Southern Baptist Convention wishes a Muslim to attend the seminary, it will not get any opposition from me,” Burleson said. “Just don’t do it behind closed doors in secret.”
“As you know, in Baptist work, everybody has a right to their opinion and I affirm his right to express it however he wishes it,” Patterson said. “I had not attempted to be secretive about this.”
The Rev. Steven B. James, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, La., and president of the seminary’s board, told the Star-Telegram in a statement that the seminary’s executive committee of about 12 trustees, would discuss the matter with Patterson at a Sept. 24 meeting and that the issue would be brought to the full board in October if necessary.
In an article in the Southern Baptist Texan news journal, James said: “I have a concern, obviously, about the spiritual condition of the young man in question.”
Patterson, a leader in the conservative rise to leadership in the nearly 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s, said he had made similar exceptions to admission rules during his 40 years as a seminary president, first at Criswell College in Dallas, then at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and at Southwestern since 2003.
“It’s not unprecedented,” he said.
Several years ago a Jewish rabbi graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Patterson said.
Patterson declined to discuss Nagagreh’s tuition costs.
“We do have close to 500 international students who receive funds from outside, Patterson said.
According to the seminary’s website, 2013-14 tuition for non-Southern Baptist students was $470 a semester hour compared with $235 a semester hour for Southern Baptist students.
‘Made a good decision’
Praise for Patterson’s actions has come from a diverse group of Baptists.
Robert Parham, a moderate Baptist and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, commended Patterson in a recent editorial..
“As one who has disagreed sharply with Patterson on numerous occasions over the past two decades, I think he has made a good decision, one that counters a negative narrative about conservative Baptists,” Parham wrote. “Hopefully, his action will foster goodwill among Baptists and Muslims as news of this decision spreads globally. Patterson has rung a bell about religious liberty, one that I hope rings loudly.”
Roberts, the pastor of NorthWood, is known for his local and international efforts to promote friendships among evangelical Christians, Jews and Muslims.
``I am stunned. I am shocked,” Robert said. “I am excited that Paige Patterson and Southwestern Seminary have opened their arms to this Muslim student.
Roberts, a 1983 master of divinity degree graduate from Southwestern, encourages Christians to befriend Muslims and those of other faiths, saying it’s the best way to influence people toward Christian beliefs.
“We’ve totally isolated ourselves from people in the rest of the world and then expected them to be overjoyed when we show up telling them about Jesus and we have no relationship with them,” Roberts said.
Robert Sloan Jr., president of Houston Baptist University and former president of Baylor University who taught at Southwestern Seminary from 1980-1983, also believes Patterson did the right thing.
“From what I read, the young man isn’t wanting to be a pastor. He’s an archeology student. So what a wonderful opportunity for the seminary to practice a form of missions, not just lecture about it, but to actually practice it.”
Houston Baptist has about 65 Muslim students, but Sloan said students don’t have to provide a written testimony of their Christian conversion.
The Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, also agreed with Patterson’s decision.
“I support Dr. Patterson’s decision completely,” Jeffress said. “Perhaps by being associated with other Christian students this young man will come to know Christ as savior. And I will remind people that it was the Pharisees who were more interested in keeping man-made law that they were in leading people to God.”
Understanding the criticism
Not all accept that argument.
McKissic, Cornerstone Baptist’s pastor, said he understands that Patterson’s motivation is to give a Christian witness to the Muslim student, but said the ends do not justify the means.
“Yes, evangelize the Muslims by all means, but allow them as a seminary student? It’s like you can build a shrine to Buddha at a Baptist seminary,” McKissic said.
The Rev Doug Hibbard, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Almyra, Ark., also sees problems with making exceptions to seminary rules to allow a Muslim student.
“At this point we’ve told him he can come to Southwestern and get a Ph.D. so we need to let him do that,” Hibbard said. “We have given our word. But we need to discuss how we made that promise in the first place.”
Burleson said he’s concerned that many who have contacted him through his blog are up in arms for the wrong reason — the fact that a Muslim is on a Baptist campus.
He said he’s tried to convince Baptists, without much response, that the real problem is “power broker” styles of Patterson and some other leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Now it takes a Muslim to get everybody stirred up,” Burleson said.
Burleson says he has a “glimmer of hope” that trustees of the Fort Worth seminary will effectively deal with issue.
He also said he’s considering taking up the Muslim student matter at the Southern Baptist Convention next month in Baltimore.
Patterson said seminary trustees have the duty to look out for the best interests of the seminary as it involves the issue of the acceptance of the Muslim student.
“They will meet and discuss it,” Patterson said. “I will not be at all surprised if they issue a statement telling me I should abide strictly by the policy in the future. That’s a real possibility. If they do, I will do as I’m told. By the same token, I would be shocked if they had anything other than commendation for my motivation.”