Why Paige Patterson broke the rules

Paige Patterson says it’s okay for a devout Muslim to study at Southwestern Theological Seminary. Why is this a big deal? I doubt the seminaries affiliated with American Baptist or Cooperative Baptist congregations would have a problem enrolling Ghassan Nagagreh, a student who believes there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet.

But there are good reasons why even the Washington Post took notice when the president of Southwestern Seminary pulled strings on behalf of of a non-Christian student.

Paige Patterson is committed to Truth with a capital “T”. Scientifically verifiable truth; the kind you can take to the bank. Make no mistake, fundamentalism has its advantages. Start with the a priori assumption that every jot and tittle of the Bible springs directly from the mind of God, and things get real simple.

If the Bible says only orthodox Christians are bound for glory, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims need not apply. No exceptions.

If the Book says women can’t exercise authority over men, there will be no female pastors, simple as that.

And since women can’t teach men in SBC churches, they can’t teach in SBC seminaries either. A quick glance at the faculty page at Southern Seminary in Louisville reveals that there are precisely zero woman on the faculty.

In 2007, Dr. Sheri Klouda was denied tenure at Paige Patterson’s Southwestern Seminary because she was the wrong gender. Nothing personal, of course. Dr. Klouda was just as precious in God’s eyes as Billy Graham himself; but she was a woman, so God couldn’t have her teaching men. There was no beef with Dr. Klouda’s professorial chops, but God has reserved certain jobs for men regardless of native ability or a subjective sense of calling. Call it arbitrary, capricious or illogical if you want. God doesn’t have to make sense because He is God.

So why didn’t this simple biblical calculus apply to Ghassan Nagagreh?

In a brilliant post, Marv Knox argues that Paige Patterson’s willingness to break his own rules proves that, in a country in the throes of culture war realignment, ideology now trumps theology.

Muslims embrace social values that apparently run deeper than theology. They don’t drink or smoke or go with girls who do. They oppose all abortions and gay marriage. They deny full equality to women.

Logical consistency links ideology to ideology, fundamentalism to fundamentalism. Theology must not be so important, after all.

Marv is on to something here. The Southern Baptist leaders of the twenty-first century do have much in common with the men who currently speak for Islam. Both camps worship a God who has authored an inerrant textbook. Conservative Muslims and conservative Baptists are both fighting a rearguard action against the anything-goes relativism of our postmodern world.

But I suspect there is more to it than that.

When I heard that Paige Patterson had allowed a devout Palestinian Muslim to enroll at Southwestern Seminary, Haley Barbour sprang to mind. With just a few days remaining in his tenure as Mississippi governor, Barbour pardoned a handful of men who were serving time for heinous crimes of violence against defenseless women. In the Magnolia State, there is a long tradition of employing prison “trusties” as servants in the governor’s mansion. Over the years, Barbour became good friends with several of these inmates and discovered that, when you got to know them, they could be right nice. Sure, they all used bad judgment in the past; but justice must be tempered with mercy.

So Haley made the tough call. And it felt really good.
I suspect a similar dynamic was at work in the heart of Paige Patterson. While touring an archaeological dig in Israel, the seminary president encountered Ghassan Nagagreh, an earnest Palestinian Muslim with no interest in swapping religions. But Ghassan was fascinated with antiquity, curious about Christianity, and drawn to the devout Baptist scholars from Texas who were his only contact with the West. So he asked if he could enroll in Southwestern Seminary.
Paige looked deep into Ghassan’s imploring eyes and made a snap decision. Just this once, he would tweak his school’s admissions standards. If hundreds of devout Palestinian Muslims were requesting admission, Patterson would draw the line. But there’s just this one guy. And he’s a really good guy. So, the seminary president made the tough call.

And it felt really good.

Paige Patterson believes with all his heart that God is gracious, merciful, compassionate, slow to anger and all the other good stuff; but with fundamentalists there is always a “but” followed by an extensive exception clause. By the time you get to the end of the qualifiers, God bears a distressing resemblance to Chemosh, the abomination of Moab.

Wouldn’t it be great to worship a God who loves the children of every tribe and nation together with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field and everything that moves upon the face of the earth? That God was glorified when Paige Patterson bent the rules. His theology demanded a no; but Paige said yes.
It was the right thing to do. It was a Jesus thing to do. And here’s the really exciting part; if Paige Patterson can break his own rules in the interest of common decency, so can God.

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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  • GMG248

    What a gift for writing you have. I lived and worked in Palestine for 5 years. I know why Patterson was so impressed. Most of the Arab Muslims I have known are warm and lovely people who put many Christians to shame with their open hearts and minds. I came away forever unable to conceive of a God who has no interest or involvement in their lives. Many are much better at being human than I am. The categories of Christian and Muslim are useless to me now. Of course people are the same all over the world and I think the Jesus criteria has little to do with beliefs. The “least of these” principle of Jesus is determinative. I agree with Jesus. Love is the only commandment and love is found to reside in human hearts around the globe. It matters not to whether you are gay or not, a woman or not, a Baptist or not, a Catholic or not, an American or not, a Muslim or not, and the mythical categories we construct are uncountable. What I want to know is who do you really love? I like to think somewhere down in Pattersons’ heart the Jesus principles still reside. People should always be more loved than doctrines or ideas. Jesus gave his life for people and not for doctrines or ideas. He did not give his life for the Bible. He came to show us how much God loves Dr. Louda and Ghassan Nagagreh. If only we were willing to learn from them about who Jesus really is.

  • http://people.ign.com/adamwinters AdamWinters

    “A quick glance at the faculty page at Southern Seminary in Louisville reveals that there are precisely zero woman on the faculty.”

    The author should have checked the Southern Seminary website faculty listings beyond the School of Theology page: