Why Paige Patterson broke the rules

Paige PattersonBy Alan Bean

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.

Haley Barbour
Haley Barbour

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.

26 thoughts on “Why Paige Patterson broke the rules

  1. Great, Paige. You looked into the eyes of a Muslim and saw a person. Now, please look into the eyes of a woman who wants to exercise her spiritual gifts. Look into the eyes of LGBT people. Look into the eyes of . . .

  2. This post has a snarky tone that is unbecoming to a Friend of Justice who seeks to build a common peace community. Can’t you celebrate this action, which you seem to approve of, without immersing the piece in backhanded criticism?

  3. Galen, I’m sorry you thought my post snarky; I thought I had done a good job of restraining myself. I suspect the key difference between us is that you are comfortable with Dr. Patterson’s role in the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and the exclusion of women from positions of ministry. I attend a church that was once closely affiliated with Southwestern. Now, Patterson has decreed that no one associated with Southwestern, faculty or student, can attend my church. I will try harder in the future to keep my snark under control.

  4. Alan, maybe you can get snark control on your next computer program. Actually, I thought you were very generous to Dr. Patterson.

  5. Yep, snarky, unbecoming, condescending and therefore disappointing is how I read it, too. And, I’m not from an SBC church, my wife preaches to men, and my church has female elders. But thanks for coming clean on why you might have a bone to pick with Dr. Patterson in your response to Galen Carey. Anyway, a very interesting story, nonetheless. Thanks for posting this. I have no idea why he said “yes” but I suspect he reckons that someone studying the Bible might come to faith in Jesus as Messiah.

  6. I am also not a member of a conservative fundamentalist church. I support women in leadership rokles whole heatedly and I believe that the church needs to do a much better job of loving the LGBT community. And I think that your article was very snarky. It’s a great story and I’m glad you covered it. I just didn’t feel much thanksgiving coming through your words.

  7. Thanks for a great article, I appreciate your thoughts and insights on these topics. However, with all due respect it seems like you have an axe to grind with Patterson about his stance on women in ministry and are using the Muslim student argument to make your point. I don’t think it does for 2 reasons: 1) hypocrisy in one area never justifies hypocrisy in another; 2) the role of women in leadership is an ‘in-house’ issue among Christians, akin to church government, liturgical practices, charismatic issues, etc. It’s not a primary doctrinal issue and has no bearing on one’s salvation.

    Admission of a Muslim to a confessional seminary raises the question of the nature of faith in studying Scriptures. Does one have to be a believer to study the Bible? Of course not, many academic institutions offer courses in religious studies and teach the Bible as a textbook. But the seminary I went to requires assent to the basic core doctrines of the Christian faith to attend and in order to be prepared for ministry. How can someone fully understand and pastor others through the difficult texts of the Bible as well as the vagaries of life without the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

    I respect your opinion on the role of women in ministry, but if our ideology ever starts to trump our theology, then all we are left with is a social Gospel and a Jesus who is a great moral teacher, but certainly not Lord over all.

  8. I attended Southern Baptist Seminary 1973-75, contemporary with Alan Bean. At the time, Southern, which had no tuition, only a $125/semester fee) had students from a wide variety of denominations. I had a Catholic nun in some of my classes. At the time, I remember thinking how excellent it was – in addition to the broad exposure and dialogue with Christian brothers and sisters – to know that Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian leaders were studying Theology, Preaching, Old Testament, New Testament, Greek, Church History from Clyde Francisco, Dale Moody, Glenn Hinson, etc.

  9. I tried to follow the logic of the writer of this blog article all the way to the bottom of the page. There were a few points that I could take umbrage with, but what he said in that last sentence really stuck in my crawl. So you are telling me that God has not put in place everything necessary for human decency? That he needs to break his own rules? If he can change his mind on those things, and he can change his mind on whether or not salvation is forever. Be careful what you say because you just said God is not immutable.

  10. Think of the story about Peter and the sheet full of unclean creatures. God was telling Peter that the rules had changed. God changes the rules all the time. In fact, every time we gain a deeper understanding of grace the rules change. The immutability of God is not a biblical concept, it is rooted in the assumptions of Platonic thought.

  11. Thanks for sharing, Chris. Every issue is theological, and this is especially true of issues with implications for the character of God. When you say that God has separate rules for men and women, by implication you are denying Galatians 3:28 and this goes to the heart of God. Do we worship a Creator who plays favorites? No, we do not.

  12. I hesitate to reply because I don’t want to sit here and argue. I do a have a couple of concerns. This is my first time reading your work, so I am willing to concede that I am assuming things that may not have been your intention. First, I have a concern with the following sentence: “Both camps worship a God who has authored an inerrant textbook.” Are you speaking from the perspective of both individuals, or your own? Yes the Muslim may think his book is inerrant, but both cannot truly be inerrant because of the contradictions between the two. Second, because the rules changed at Christ’s death/resurrection, I don’t believe it is accurate to say that God changes the rules all the time. You are talking about revelation to Peter of the ramifications of a one-time event, and that event was even foretold and expected. I believe that is much different than one person having an “aha” moment in how they deal with others. Finally, I believe a conviction to not have women teach men can be interpreted as Biblical, since a theological stance can be taken and there is Scripture to support it. (Not saying I agree or disagree). The inclusion or exclusion of a Muslim into a Seminary doesn’t really have any theological implications either way. If you view the seminary as a mission field, as one other post mentions, then you could say that Mr. Patterson was actually being consistent in the way he handles his doctrine. I don’t know the man, and don’t know anything about Southwestern, but I think the analogy is a stretch at best.

  13. Thanks for replying. To answer your first question, I don’t believe either book is inerrant in the fundamentalist sense of the term. The concept of inerrancy, as a hedge against theological chaos, matters a whole lot to conservative Muslims and conservative Christians, and for much the same reason. You are right that God doesn’t change the rules “all the time,” but we are continually failing to account for the fact that the rules have changed so, for an experiential point of view, we experience God in that way. We keep expecting God to conform to our theological dictates and God keeps refusing to be boxed in that way.

  14. First, I would be curious to know you view of what sense the Bible is inerrant. I believe it has to be inerrant or no truth remains. Every matter becomes open to interpretation. The Bible has a lot to say about truth – that it will set us free. Paul warns us to be aware of false teachers who will lead many astray, as does John. If there is no absolute truth, than how can there be false doctrine? If the Bible has flaws, how do you know what God requires of you, or even how He loves you? Whose truth is the real truth? Second, I agree that most of us box God in, and I have done it myself on many occasions. On the flip side, though, doesn’t God box Himself in? That is the entire point of Scripture. God says He doesn’t want any to perish, but wants all to repent. Yet He also says that He is the way (the only way), and no one comes to the Father except through Him. He loves everyone unconditionally, yet gives free will to all. We all want to be “outside the box” and be truly tolerant/caring/loving, but I think we have to admit that there is a box (God’s truth) that needs to be abided by. Just because our culture may not think that our standards are “loving” doesn’t mean that God is wrong or needs to change.

  15. No, I don’t have an editor. Some bloggers might, but not many. It isn’t hard to find grammatical or spelling errors in most blog posts; it’s not like reading a book. That said, you are the second person to bring this to my attention (I honestly can’t remember seeing “throes” before, but I’m sure you’re right) so I guess I’ll correct the error.

  16. In answer to the issue about the immutability of God, check out Malachi 3:6 and Hebrews 13:8. As far as some of the other issues Drew2014 has argued those very well. I will raise one other issue, when arguing about the Old Testament law one should remember the purpose of the law. Romans chapters 6 & 7 help us to understand why God gave the Mosaic law. Another thing to keep in mind is if we can’t trust certain parts of the Bible we may not like, how can we trust other parts of the Bible we do like?

  17. The Bible always has to be interpreted in the sense that it has to be understood. A lot is very clear, but some is not. This is why we have so many sermons explaining what different passages mean, giving the historical and social context etc. And of course translations vary. Which translation is inerrant? Or is it only the original text, which most of us can’t read? And if we could read them, we’d still need to interpret their meaning. I think that many people who claim inerrancy for the Bible really mean that their interpretation – their understanding – is inerrant. This enables them to say that if you disagree with them you are disagreeing with God. If inerrancy means anything, it means that, sensibly interpreted, the biblical texts will not lead you into error.

  18. First, I will say that the reason we have a lot of sermons of explanation is not that the Bible is unclear. I believe it is that most Christians are lazy about being in the Word (myself included at times, unfortunately) and many preachers feel the need to preach their preferences rather than letting their congregants search out what God is telling them. I believe service and worship was meant to be corporate, but faith was meant to be personal. Too often worship is lacking (and thus forced to be personal) while faith is handled corporately. I agree with Stephen on the translation issue, but from what I have studied most of the majors (KJV, NASV, NIV, ESV, etc.) are 99%+ in agreement with one another. The problem comes when people insert their views as doctrine when Scripture is unclear. For example, I had a pastor who claims that Jesus turned the water into grape juice. The Greek word used can apparently mean either wine or grape juice. Since he believes that ANY consumption of alcohol is wrong, he would preach that it was absolutely grape juice. That, in my opinion, is where we get into problems. I believe each Christian should follow their own convictions on subjects like alcohol since the Bible doesn’t spell it out in black and white.

  19. There is NO way your “compassion motivated” appeal can be close to true. Why? Because this is the same man who fired 3 people for disagreeing with him in a closed meeting about the academic approach of SWBTS. Why? Because this is the same person who fired a professor in May 2014 because that professor was not “loyal enough” to Paige. Why? Because this is the same SWBTS president that fired or ran off 3 women because they had the audacity to obey God’s call to instruct or teach. Why? Because this supposed compassionate person is the same one who denied a hire recommendation of a faculty member because that man had the audacity to marry a divorced woman. No, this ‘defence’ fails the sniff test. The man has little to no genuine compassion nor does he even believe his own proclamations concerning inerrancy or trinitartianism. The ONLY reason he is still President at SWBTS is either (1) Satan is making headway at the seminary and Paige is a pawn or (2) he has given employment and position to so many of his past supporters that the political nepotism keeps him in power. The honorable thing that should happen is that the SBC leverages Paige Patterson out of office just as Paige Patterson did many years ago in the conservative resurgence.

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