Southwestern president criticized for admitting Muslim archaeology student

Trustee chairman says committee will address the issue at September meeting

FORT WORTH—A Palestinian Muslim who has been of “great help” to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Gezer archaeological project in Israel was admitted to the school’s Ph.D. in archaeology program, in an apparent exception to the seminary’s admissions policy.

Seminary President Paige Patterson told the Southern Baptist Texan on May 16 that the student enrolled at Southwestern last year because “he had no other options for Ph.D. work in his field” and because Patterson hoped to win him to saving faith.

In fact, Patterson told the Texan he admitted three other non-Christian students to schools he led over nearly four decades; all came to Christ during their tenure as students, Patterson said in a phone interview. One, a former Syrian Orthodox priest, was saved during his second semester at Southwestern, after chapel, and has since married and become a professor at Baylor University.

Patterson said he granted the exception after taking counsel from other seminary administrators but that “the final decision was mine alone.”

“We required that the student would agree with our moral standards while a student at Southwestern. It was no problem for him,” Patterson added. 

Seminary trustees were not advised prior to the exception being granted but were briefed on the situation in a letter sent from Patterson on May 16.

Steven James, Southwestern trustee chairman and pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, La., told the Texan on Monday that the trustee executive committee has a scheduled meeting in September and will “discuss this issue and will deal with it accordingly at that time.”

“That is the role and responsibility of the trustees,” James said. “I have a concern, obviously, about the spiritual condition of the young man in question; we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. And then from the executive committee meeting in September we will make any adjustments that need to be made.”

“If it needs to come to the full board, it will come to the full board,” James added.

He said he has not received any other information about the student’s enrollment except what was contained in Patterson’s letter and had not spoken with Patterson about it.

In the letter to trustees, Patterson wrote of the student: “[He] is a peace loving man who worked several years with us at Tel Gezer. Finishing his M.A. in Archeology at a Jordanian university, he had few options if any in Israel or Jordan. He asked about our program. He agreed to abide by all our moral standards, which he has done. He is also open to professors and students. 

“Unfortunately, the story released is not really about [the student], about whom the author cares little as is indicated by placing him at risk. The author is constantly on my case along with his following and much frustrated that he has enjoyed so little success,” Patterson wrote. 

Patterson also expressed concern for the student’s perception of Christians because of the incident and also that trustees would be unfairly blamed for something “of which you are not guilty.”

“… I have made it clear to all that this was my decision. No one else should be blamed. I am answerable to the faculty, to the Board and to you for all that I do including this.”

Patterson closed by asking the trustees to pray for the student, “that this will not turn him away from the Way.”

An Oklahoma blogger who had disagreed with Southwestern’s leadership on other occasions brought the matter to light in a post dated May 16 and titled “Southwestern Baptist Islamic Theological Seminary and the Center for Cultural Engagement and Firing.” Pastor Wade Burleson of Enid, Okla., went on in the post to mention a recent and unrelated faculty dismissal, though without any details. Burleson later removed the last name of the Muslim student from his blog.

On the admission section of its website, the school says it “assumes the student has been identified as a prospective minister by announced intent, proven conduct in accordance with Christian standards set forth in the Bible, active church involvement, and unqualified approval from the church where they are currently members. Among the required credentials for graduate-level courses are “a mature Christian character,” “evidence a desire for Christian ministry (shown through the application process),” “a record of active church service,” and “promise of continued intellectual and spiritual growth.”

Also, “Applicants must demonstrate church membership and active church involvement to apply for admission to the seminary. Active membership and involvement in a local church is also required of all students for continued enrollment,” the website says.

Rabbi Herbert Waller of Louisville, Ky., earned a degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the years of moderate leadership, and the wife of Waller’s successor “at one time had considered enrolling in Southern’s doctoral program before the seminary’s change in theological direction,” according to an Oct. 26, 1999 story in Baptist Press.

Prior to becoming Southwestern’s eighth president in 2003, Patterson served as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. from 1992-2003, and before that was president of Criswell College in Dallas for 17 years.

—Texan editor Jerry Pierce contributed to this report.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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