SWBTS’ Muslim Student: Scandal, or Tempest in a Teapot?

I’ve been in Des Moines the last couple of days at our state’s Executive Board meeting. Our hotel provides free internet, which is good because it is so close to no internet at all that if I paid for it, I’d be fairly upset. I read of the newest SBC scandal that has arisen, that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has at least one Muslim student in its archaeology PhD program. The news shocked me and I’ve wanted to opine on the topic for a couple of days. However, with the meetings I was a part of and the lack of internet access, plus travel time and other ministry responsibilities, I have been prevented until now.

When I first heard this story, I did a little fact checking. Frankly, some pretty fanciful stories about the evils of Dr. Patterson have circulated through the years, as well as some harsh personal attacks against him and even his wife. So, it was necessary to check out the accusations and insinuations.

I am satisfied that the story as circulated is essentially true. It was confirmed to me and then the seminary released a statement by Dr. Patterson about the incident. From what I know, Southwestern has at least one student in the PhD program in archaeology who is a practicing Muslim. There were, evidently, some relationships built through archaeological work done through Southwestern and the young man wanted to be educated there.

Those are the facts. What I don’t know is what to make of them. Is this a typical blogging scandal – much ado about nothing, tempest in a teapot? Or is it a real issue, one with legs?  How big a deal is the fact that SWBTS admitted a practicing Muslim into its doctoral studies program? Here are my thoughts on the topic. Ultimately, whether this is a big issue or not will likely be decided by the messengers in Baltimore, where I’m sure that questions will be asked and resolutions offered to address the the situation.

1) The sky is not falling!

Wade Burleson’s title to the article that broke the news was somewhat hysterical and overwrought. “Southwestern Baptist Islamic Theological Seminary….” As they say on the Monday Night Football Countdown show, “C’mon man!” Unfortunately, the lack of civility and the hyperbole displayed in that title alone has marked Baptist blogging all too often. Wild accusations such as this do not foster healthy and reasoned discussion.

One can disagree with the admission of a Muslim student to the PhD program at SWBTS without insinuating that SWBTS is becoming Islamic. That is patently absurd. Admitting a student who is Muslim is not exactly the institution of Sharia law at SWBTS. As is evident from the article, there are a lot of other issues from the past that provide a background for the charges that Burleson raises and provide some background color for the article.

This is a real issue. Should an SBC Seminary admit a non-Christian student to learn there? And the issue of whether Dr. Patterson, by presidential fiat, violated established policy is troublesome and worth discussing. But when you engage in the kind of hyperbole Burleson does, some credibility is lost. He insinuates in the first post that Dr. Patterson may be guilty of some form of modalism, doubles down on that in a follow-up post and puts on a full-court press against Patterson’s commitment to the gospel (or, perhaps, its perversion into moralism).

None of that is necessary, or even helpful. Once in a while, a guy like Glenn Beck says some good things. But we are so used to the hyperbole and extreme rhetoric that we tend to discount it. A real issue can be lost in the recitation of old grievances and the piling on off wild accusations. There is a danger of becoming like the boy who cried wolf – the credibility of the real issue can be lost in the hyperbole. This man is not a pedophile, nor is he (from all accounts) Al-Qaeda or any other type of radicalized Muslim. We need to be careful about inflated rhetoric on the topic.

Better to focus on the issue at hand, which we will try to do here.

2) This is a problem.

This is a real issue, one which Southern Baptists have a right to wonder about and discuss and which our seminaries should answer. I would say that there are problems at several levels.

a) SBC Seminaries exist to train leaders for churches. Obviously, if he remains a Muslim, this man is not going to serve churches anywhere. I’ve not read the governing documents of the school or seen whether non-Christian students are restricted by policy. The application asks about one’s relationship with Christ, but I’ve not seen exactly what the established policy is. Clearly, this is unusual and an anomaly. SWBTS’ statement says that the president has granted exceptions in the past.

b) That leads to my second issue. Ought the president to be granting exceptions to established policy (assuming that policy to be established)? It is a dangerous thing when entity heads do not view themselves as subject to the lines of authority established by the SBC or by the Board of Trustees. This is always troubling.

c) Did the Board of Trustees approve this or was it kept from them?

d) Was Cooperative Program money expended to provide this young man’s education? As I understand it, CP money is not used to help students with costs at the doctoral level as it does with masters level programs. I do not know all the ins and outs, but CP money should support the ministries of the SBC.

3) Is the evangelistic rationale sufficient?

The common refrain from the seminary and its supporters has been that Dr. Patterson made this exception to policy out of a desire to see this young man saved and serving Christ. That is unquestionably a noble goal, but is it either sufficient to ignore policy and is it effective? Will this man either a) become a Christian as a result of his time at SWBTS (hallelujah) or might he b) serve as a bridge builder for SWBTS work in Middle Eastern countries? And regardless of the answers to a) or b), is the exception justified? . This is a legitimate and fair topic for Baptist debate.

4) What’s done is done.

I hope that whatever discussions we have will not cause hurt to this young man or leave a bad taste in his mouth. If what I read is accurate, this young man is 2/3 of the way through his studies and has created no problems. He should be allowed to finish, should be treated with respect and kindness and not embarrassed in any way.

The discussion about whether this is acceptable in the future should be held by Boards of Trustees. Have other schools granted such exceptions? Have such exceptions, which SWBTS admitted to granting in the past, demonstrated the value of the evangelistic purpose.

Any discussion should focus on setting policy for the future, not hurting people for the past.

5) Argue the issue, not the people. 

There are a lot of people who love Dr. Patterson and some…well, not so much. He is a polarizing figure. We must make sure our views are based on biblical truth and solid facts, not on the person involved. If you would excuse Al Mohler or Danny Akin for such a thing, you ought not prosecute Paige Patterson. If you would freak out about another seminary doing this, you ought not excuse SWBTS. All too often, our personal feelings toward particular individuals color our positions on issues.

6) We have a forum for this discussion.

On blogs, we can throw ideas around, but there are ways to register your opinion. I’m sure that Dr. Patterson will be questioned during his presentation time in Baltimore, or perhaps he will address it directly. Any of us can write opinion letters to the Board of Trustees. Entities vary in their openness to outside opinion, but a well-worded, collegial, genial letter to the Board of Trustees can often have some effect. At the convention, I’m sure motions will be offered and resolutions will be presented to address the situation.

And, of course, we can blog about it. As long as our discussion is reasoned and civil, it can have some effect in shaping opinions.

This is a genuine and troubling issue. Should our doctoral programs (or masters, for that matter) admit non-Christian students? Would we care if this was a Jewish student, not a Muslim? What is the policy and what should it be? This is now a forum for you to state your views and discuss things.

A Warning about the Discussion

Now, a moment of painful honesty. I have not been a huge fan of a lot of Dr. Patterson’s actions in recent years – I’ve disagreed with several. I have a tremendous gratitude for his leadership in the CR, but I am not an apologist for Dr. Patterson; there are aspects of his leadership I find troubling. But this is not a forum for people to blast the man. Keep the focus on the policy, please. Also, Wade was once a prominent figure in Baptist blogging, and perhaps even more polarizing than Dr. Patterson. I have no interest in providing a forum for blasting him either. His opinions and words are fair game, as are Dr. Patterson’s actions. But let’s focus on the topic, not the personalities.

Program # 3305 David Perryman

3305 David Perryman: (Dystonia, Rejection) At age eight David is unable to walk. His older sister and he have dystonia, cannot sit or even feed themselves. During five brain operations, surgeons remove white brain cells until he's able to walk at 13. He goes to vocational school and becomes a janitor. A friend invites him to church and he is saved. He meets Pam and they marry. Now in a wheelchair, he's a bell-ringer.

Program # 3305 David Perryman

3305 David Perryman: (Dystonia, Rejection) At age eight David is unable to walk. His older sister and he have dystonia, cannot sit or even feed themselves. During five brain operations, surgeons remove white brain cells until he's able to walk at 13. He goes to vocational school and becomes a janitor. A friend invites him to church and he is saved. He meets Pam and they marry. Now in a wheelchair, he's a bell-ringer.