The admission of a Muslim student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will likely impact the agenda of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting this week in Baltimore, Maryland.
The admissions decision by Southwestern’s president, Paige Patterson, has sparked criticism from many Baptists, even though EthicsDaily.com learned it is not entirely without precedent.
News broke last month that Ghassan Nagagreh, a Palestinian Muslim, recently completed his first year at Southwestern.
Nagagreh, a doctoral student in archaeology, had assisted the seminary since 2008 as an archaeology volunteer at a site in Israel.
“This young man asked about the Ph.D. program, and I told him we don’t normally admit non-born-again believers to the seminary, but there is no reason we can’t,” Patterson said to explain his decision to override the normal admissions policies.
Patterson claimed he had previously made similar exceptions while president at Southwestern as well as when he was president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of Criswell College.
He insisted such exceptions only occurred three other times during his 40 years as a president of a Baptist school and that each of those students converted.
“[Nagagreh] accepted the necessity of abiding by our moral code of conduct,” Patterson added. “He is a man of peace, and we agreed to admit him into the archeology program.”
Although news of Nagagreh’s admission quickly spread through various Baptist and even mainstream news outlets last month, EthicsDaily.com learned Southwestern was not the first SBC school to admit a Muslim student.
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, admitted in an email to EthicsDaily.com that Leavell College, the seminary’s undergraduate program, previously made some exceptions to admissions policies and admitted Muslim students in a specialized program.
“For nearly 20 years we have been offering the Bachelor of Christian Ministry degree inside the maximum security prisons of some of the states we serve,” Kelley explained. “Every student in these prison programs is an exception to our admission policies because they are felons convicted of serious crimes.”
“At the request of some of the prison wardens, in light of their legal environment, we do admit from time to time a Muslim student to the prison program,” he added. “As you would expect with a degree whose sole purpose is training students to be Baptist ministers, those requests are rare.”
Kelley, a brother-in-law of Patterson, stressed that the SBC “has never given us a dime of Cooperative Program funding for any of our prison programs.”
“Personally, I have never witnessed a greater miracle than the impact of the gospel on human lives in the midst of these extremely difficult and complex environments,” he added. “Most of our inmate students are unlikely to be released.”
Whether similar exceptions have been made at the other Southern Baptist seminaries remains unknown as most officials did not answer questions on the matter.
A Midwestern official told EthicsDaily.com, “We have no comment.” Officials at Southern and Southeastern did not respond to EthicsDaily.com requests for comment.
A Golden Gate vice president told EthicsDaily.com that the seminary only admits “Christians with a credible statement of Christian conversation and a supporting church recommendation.” He declined to comment on the recent news regarding Southwestern.
Southwestern trustees did not learn of the admissions exception until after the news became public.
Steven James, Southwestern trustee chairman and pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, said the trustees will “discuss this issue and will deal with it accordingly” at their September meeting. He added that they “will make any adjustments that need to be made.”
However, Southern Baptists might deal with the issue before the trustees meet.
With several thousand Southern Baptists arriving in Baltimore for the SBC annual meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday, the news of Patterson’s admissions exception could spark action.
Wade Burleson, a Southern Baptist pastor in Oklahoma and frequent Patterson critic, used his blog to help bring the news about Nagagreh to the public spotlight.
Other conservative Southern Baptist pastors also criticized Patterson’s admissions decision, including Dwight McKissic, former Southwestern trustee and pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
While some SBC pastors have defended Patterson, the response from the heads of other SBC institutions has been silence.
Although Patterson’s admissions move sparked quick criticism from many Baptists, EthicsDaily.com executive editor Robert Parham praised the interfaith move.
“As one who has disagreed sharply with Patterson on numerous occasions over 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.”
The EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” explores the potential and importance of interfaith dialogue between Baptists and Muslims.
The film, which was praised by Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, aired on more than 130 ABC-TV stations.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.