May 23, 2014

​Baptist Seminary Admits its First Muslim Student

 ©2014 Religion News Service

In the first instance of its kind, Southwestern
Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist
Convention (SBC), acknowledged it has admitted a Muslim to one of its doctoral

Ghassan Nagagreh, a Palestinian Muslim, recently
completed his first year of doctoral studies at the seminary in Fort Worth,
Texas. Nagagreh, a Sunni Muslim, has worked with the seminary since 2008 as a
volunteer on an archaeological site in Israel. He is pursuing a
doctorate in archaeology.

“This young man asked about the Ph.D. program,
and I told him we don’t normally admit non-born-again believers to the
seminary, but there is no reason we can’t,” said Paige Patterson,
Southwestern’s president.

Patterson said that as many as 80 people work on
archaeological digs, and only about a quarter come from Southwestern, so it is
not unusual to find students and volunteers from different schools and
different faiths.

But Nagagreh’s presence at the school has touched
off controversy within the SBC.

Wade Burleson, an Enid, Oklahoma, pastor and
former member of the SBC’s International Mission Board, posted a lengthy piece
on his personal blog on May 16 accusing Patterson of ordering the
administration office to admit Nagagreh in violation of the school’s charter.

Burleson, who describes himself as actively
interfaith, said the issue has nothing to do with any particular person or
faith but is instead a matter of principle. “Not only do we have decisions
being made secretly and by presidential fiat, we have not addressed the
possible use of cooperative funds being used for the education of a practicing
Muslim,” Burleson said.

Cooperative funds are collected as part of tithes
and offerings at SBC churches and are used for various projects, including
missions, relief work and seminary subsidies.

Nagagreh said he has had a very good experience
at the seminary thus far and will return for his second year in the fall.
Patterson said he agreed to admit Nagagreh because Nagagreh agreed to follow
the seminary’s lifestyle covenant, which covers personal behavior such as smoking,
drinking and sexual relations. “I also thought it provided a chance for us to
have an influence on his life,” Patterson said.

Meanwhile, Burleson or others may bring up the
issue at the SBC’s annual convention June 10-11 in Baltimore.

“The floor of the convention is the worst place
for this,” said Joel Rainey, executive director of the Mid-Maryland Baptist
Association and adjunct professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
in Wake Forest, North, Carolina.

“First, we have an odd proclivity for making
public arguments into arguments about people, and there is a young man whom God
created at the center of this discussion,” he added. “Second, I don’t want our
work with Muslims and other faith groups damaged by what might be said in the
midst of this debate.”