FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – During his seminary report at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, June 11, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson gave a brief report about the work of the seminary over the past year and answered a messenger’s question regarding admission of a Muslim into the school’s archaeology program.
After showing a seminary-produced video about alumni working to translate Scriptures among unreached people groups in China, Patterson praised students and faculty for fulfilling the seminary’s motto to “Preach the Word, Reach the World.” He described an atmosphere of everyday evangelism that has spread among students and professors, as teams regularly go into the community to share Christ in neighborhoods and practice personal evangelism everywhere they go.
“I’m very grateful for the enthusiasm of our faculty and our students for the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Patterson then opened the floor to answer questions from messengers.
Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) and a messenger from First Baptist Church of Keller, Texas, described a partnership between the seminary and SBTC to provide a bachelor’s program to inmates in the Darrington Prison Unit near Houston. Richards then asked Patterson to explain why the seminary admits atheists and other non-Christians into such a program.
Patterson said they patterned the work after a similar program provided by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola Prison in Louisiana. As a requirement of the state, the seminary was not allowed to discriminate against non-Christians in the admissions process, Patterson said. He also noted that the program is privately funded through donors, receiving no funds from the state.
“We have no choice,” Patterson said. “We have to admit them into the class, but the wonderful thing, of course, as you would guess, is that as they study in class, they are coming to know the Lord.
“Even those that couldn’t get into the program, it has broken out in the various cell blocks. We have Bible studies going on where formerly all kinds of things were going on, and we thank God for that. It shows the power of the gospel in any context.”
In a second question, William Blosch, a messenger from First Newark Baptist Church in Thomasville, Ga., asked for “a straightforward explanation as to why, at your direction, the seminary admitted a Muslim student on campus in violation of the seminary’s charter and your admissions guidelines.”
Prior to offering an explanation, Patterson noted that this was the 63rd consecutive Southern Baptist Convention in which he had attended. Patterson said this year’s convention meeting in Baltimore was the “greatest convention that we have ever had,” noting the great things God was doing within the convention.
“Therefore, you can probably understand then, in light of that, why it is today that I come to you with an apology,” Patterson said.
“I owe the convention an apology, particularly to all of you that I have caused sorrow, heartache, disillusionment, or any other kind of sorrow. There is sufficient sorrow in this world; I don’t need to be adding to it. When I added to your sorrow, in some cases, to your difficulty in any way, I deeply and profoundly apologize.
“I apologize to the whole convention that after as great of a convention that we have had, that it would come down to a report like this where I have to make that apology.”
Patterson also apologized to his family, Southwestern’s faculty, and the school’s board of trustees. He took full responsibility for the exception to the admissions policies, noting it was his decision alone.
Patterson then explained the circumstances of the exception. Southwestern leads two archaeological digs, one in Israel and one on the island of Cyprus. Participants at the dig sites include Christians as well as Jews, Muslims, and other faith traditions that are interested in archaeology.
The student who was admitted was a Palestinian from a Muslim background. Having observed Southwestern’s students and faculty, Patterson said, the young man asked to be admitted into the Ph.D. in Archaeology program at Southwestern.
After meeting with him, Patterson said, “I fell in love with him because he was a remarkable young man, very open at this point to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I explained to him that it would be most unusual, but eventually I did make the exception to the rule.”
“I made an exception to a rule that I assumed, probably wrongly, that the president has a right to make if he feels it is important. He was admitted as a special student in the Ph.D. program, and that is not with Cooperative Program assistance.”
Patterson explained that the student has studied on Southwestern’s campus and has not been a problem in any way.
“In fact, we think the odds are pretty good with 2,800 sold-out evangelists and one Muslim student,” Patterson said.
“I have apologized to you in a heartfelt way,” Patterson continued. “I should not have disrupted the convention and did not do it knowingly, but apparently I did, and I am sorry.
“It is a different question what I will say to God when I stand before the judgment seat of the Lord.”
Patterson shared two previous exceptions he made, one admitting an atheist into Criswell College and the other admitting a Syrian Orthodox Priest into seminary, both who came to Christ during their studies. He also shared the story of Southwestern Seminary founder B.H. Carroll, who entered Baylor University as an atheist at the exception of school president Rufus Burleson.
“Well, what will I say to God?” Patterson asked. He then shared a passage from Ezekiel 3:17-18, concluding, “I believe that 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. Dear God, I did the best I knew how.’”
Steven James, chairman of Southwestern’s board of trustees, concluded the report with a statement, assuring messengers that the board’s executive committee will meet in September and the full board will meet in October to address the issue.
“The trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, whom you have selected and elected, have heard you,” James told messengers. “Your concerns are our concerns. We take them to heart, and we take the role and responsibility that you have given to us very seriously.”
“The concerns that you have expressed … will all weigh into those discussions that we have as a board and with our president, whom I believe in. So, what I ask of you is to not so much talk among yourselves but talk to the Lord. Intercede for us, for this president, for the presidents of every seminary, for the students of every seminary, for the challenges in life they face, so that we can rise up and be the denomination, be the people, who don’t act like Christians, we act like Christ.”