Sometimes, life is so upside-down you couldn’t make it up.
For example, Paige Patterson has emerged as an ecumenical leader among Baptists.
You may remember Patterson. He’s the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the past few days, he’s created a stir, because Baptists have learned he admitted a Muslim student to the Fort Worth school.
Patterson broke seminary rules to accept a practicing Muslim into Southwestern’s Ph.D. program in archaeology. According to the school’s catalog, prospective students must give evidence of “mature Christian character.” They must demonstrate a desire to enter Christian ministry and show a record of active church involvement. Presumably, a devout Muslim fails to meet these requirements.
On the seminary’s website, Patterson acknowledges admitting the Muslim student to the seminary. Patterson calls him “a man of peace” who “loved our people and asked to study with us.” Patterson says the student’s admission to the seminary has enabled Christians “to share biblical truths” with him.
Reaction has run the gamut. Positively, Patterson’s action affords opportunities to evangelize a non-Christian and/or engage in interfaith dialogue. Negatively, the admission violates seminary policy, squanders funds Southern Baptists provided to educate Christians and counters the seminary’s mission to train ministers.
But here’s the real irony: Patterson extended the kind of grace to a Muslim he has spent his lifetime denying to fellow Baptists.
A little history
From the 1970s into the ’90s, Patterson led a revolt that upended the Southern Baptist Convention. Depending upon perspective, observers call it the “fundamentalist takeover” or the “conservative resurgence.” Patterson led the charge from the far right, claiming the SBC—and particularly the seminaries—were led by “liberals.”
Patterson provided the theological fuel to the political fire. He understood theology well enough to know questions of biblical interpretation require complex answers, particularly from scholars whose inclination is precision. He recognized the political power of demanding yes-or-no answers to complicated questions. He realized his faction could translate a pause, a halting answer into a steady refrain: SBC leaders are liberals. They don’t believe the Bible.
Politically? Brilliant. Morally and ethically? Abhorrent.
So, Patterson led the charge to cast out from the convention legions of faithful, Bible-believing lifelong Baptists. And now he admits a Muslim to his seminary. You couldn’t make this up.
But maybe you could see it coming.
More than three decades ago—when Patterson’s movement within the SBC was just beginning—Baptist historian Bill Leonard predicted U.S. Christians would realign. They would shift from affiliation by denominations to groupings along a spectrum from liberal to moderate to conservative to fundamentalist.
Denominations still exist, but history soon validated Leonard’s prediction. With the rise of the religious right, Christians jumped denominations to cluster around social issues, such as opposition to abortion and, later, other conservative issues such as homosexual marriage—to cite two examples. On the left, Christians vaulted denominations to oppose nuclear armament and, later, to affirm other progressive issues such as homosexual marriage.
Social issues trump theology
Now, Patterson’s acceptance of a Muslim student to a Southern Baptist seminary extends that trend toward its logical conclusion.
Patterson is willing to override longstanding seminary policy and practice that requires students to hold traditional, orthodox beliefs about the Christian faith. Devout Muslims don’t believe the same things about the Bible and Jesus as any Baptist—either fundamentalist or liberal.
But 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.