Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) messengers pressed Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson to explain his decision to admit a Muslim doctoral student in violation of the seminary’s admissions policies at the annual SBC meeting being held in Baltimore, Maryland.
Although Patterson apologized on Wednesday for the controversy he created by breaking an admissions policy, he then defended the decision by suggesting God would approve of the move.
Before directly addressing the question about the admission of a Muslim student into Southwestern’s doctoral archaeology program, Patterson first talked about the seminary’s undergraduate program in a prison that includes Muslims and atheists.
On Monday, EthicsDaily.com reported that New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley, a brother-in-law of Patterson, told EthicsDaily.com that New Orleans had a similar program in prisons that include Muslims students.
“I owe the convention an apology, particularly to all of those of you that I have caused sorrow, heartache, disillusionment or any other kind of sorrow,” Patterson stated during Southwestern’s report.
“When I added to your sorrow in some cases, to your difficulty in any way, I deeply and profoundly apologize,” he added.
“I should not have disrupted the convention,” he added. “I am sorry.”
“I apologize to the whole convention,” Patterson continued, as he expressed regret that the controversy distracted from the rest of the meeting. “I also apologize to my family for what this has put them through. I apologize to my faculty and my board of trustees, neither of which are guilty in this for one single moment.”
“It was my decision and my decision alone,” Patterson stated. “I made an exception to a rule that I assumed, probably wrongly, the president has a right to make if he feels that it is that important.”
Patterson insisted the student does not receive Cooperative Program money. He also said the student, whom he called “a cultural Muslim,” had not caused any problems on campus.
After offering what he called “a heart-filled” apology, Patterson shifted his tone to defend his admissions decision.
Imagining himself “before the judgment seat of the Lord,” Patterson created a scene with God asking him about various non-Christian students he admitted to Southern Baptist schools in the past.
In the account, Patterson includes details about a couple of them who converted.
“Well, what will I say to God?” Patterson added with emotional fervor. “I believe when I stand before 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. Dear God, I did the best I knew how.'”
After applause from messengers, Patterson turned the podium over to Steven James, Southwestern trustee chairman and pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
James said the trustees would discuss the issue at the September meeting of the board’s executive committee and the October meeting of the full board.
Before his apology and defense regarding the doctoral student, Patterson first addressed a prison program that includes Muslims.
He spoke about the issue after being asked an affirming question about the program by messenger Jim Richards, the executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC). The SBTC helps fund Southwestern’s prison program.
Noting that New Orleans initiated a prison degree program first, Patterson noted that Kelley kept pushing him to start a similar program.
Patterson therefore joked, “It was my brother-in-law’s fault” that Southwestern started the bachelor of science in biblical studies in a Texas prison.
“Unfortunately, it is the case that you cannot discriminate and have a program in prison,” Patterson noted to admission of non-Christian students. “So in our program are atheists, and in our program are Muslims, and in our program probably are some other things that we’re not fully aware of yet.”
“We have no choice, we have to admit them to class,” he added before saying that some convert through the studies.
As Kelley had noted in comments to EthicsDaily.com, Patterson stressed that “these prisoners will never be out on the streets” because of their “heinous crimes.”
Prior to Patterson’s report and the question time, a messenger made a motion instructing Southwestern to report on why they admitted “a person of another faith into their seminary.” However, the motion was ruled out of order.
News first erupted last month that Patterson previously admitted Ghassan Nagagreh, a Palestinian Muslim.
Nagagreh, a doctoral student in archaeology, had assisted the seminary since 2008 as an archaeology volunteer at a site in Israel.
After Oklahoma Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson used his blog to help bring the news about Nagagreh to the public spotlight, Patterson initially defended the decision without apology.
Patterson insisted he had made similar exceptions that led to the students converting.
During Patterson’s remarks on Wednesday, he noted that former Baylor University President Rufus Burleson, a relative of Wade, had similarly made an admissions exception.
Although Patterson did not mention Wade, he knew the pastor and blogger had sparked the controversy.
After Patterson’s apology on Wednesday, Burleson tweeted his response that alluded to other items about which Burleson has criticized Patterson and for which Patterson had not apologized.
“Apology accepted,” Burleson wrote a few minutes after Patterson spoke. “I’m for grace, mercy and compassion. I will pass on what I’ve heard to SWBTS faculty terminated. New day?”
Many other Southern Baptists tweeting during the annual meeting also praised Patterson for his apology, including many who noted they still disagreed with the admissions decision. What remains to be seen is how trustees react this fall.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.