by Larry Downing  |  9 September 2018  |

Former Vice-president Joe Biden, in his tribute to Senator John McCain, said, “He [John] could not stand the abuse of power.  Wherever he saw it, in whatever form, in whatever country, it was always about basic value, fairness honesty, dignity, respect, giving hate no safe harbor, leaving no one behind….we’re part of something much bigger than self.”

Senator McCain might well have been distressed by the abuse of power on the part of those who hold high offices in the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.  With little, to no, biblical authority, the GC president and his colleagues have established the process that, with but slight modification, become an Inquisition process; a process that will intimidate and has high potential to  destroy careers. Competent and dedicated men and women will be fearful that someone will report them not in compliance with the GC mandates and interpretations as understood by those who are members of the GC Compliance Committee system.  What that committee will do, should an individual or organization be found to be out of compliance, is unknown. Likewise it is not known who holds the committee members and the GC president accountable. This is an abuse of authority and power.    

There is an important difference between authority and power.  Dictators well know this. One need not have authority to exert power.  The one who exerts power to control people or organizations will continue abuse until someone stands up to say, Enough!  

An example of how one individual ended abuse of power is the case of Joseph R McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin.  As chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee. McCarthy set about to hunt communists. He identified potential suspects throughout government departments and in numerous private sector enterprises.  He directed special attention toward the entertainment industry. Dozens of actors, writers and other media personnel were blackballed and their careers destroyed.

McCarthy was derailed in his power plays when  he took on the U. S. Army and Joseph Welch, a Boston attorney who the Army hired to make its case before McCarthy’s committee.  On June 9, 1954, McCarthy charged that one of Welch’s attorneys had ties to a Communist organization. In the words of the United States Senate Archives, “As an amazed television audience looked on, Welch responded with the immortal lines that ultimately ended McCarthy’s career: ‘Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.’ When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, ‘Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?’”

McCarthy’s power balloon immediately deflated.  His Senate colleagues censored him, the press ignored him and his popularity ended.  McCarthy died three years later, 48 years old, a broken man. His abuse of power came to a discredited end.

We learn from the above account that one brave individual can stand up to those who abuse power and bring about change.  One person can challenge the bully and end an irresponsible, unprecedented power grab that diminishes honorable people. McCarthy, as chair of an established government committee, did have authority to call and to question witnesses.  He violated his authority when power became his methods to control and abuse those who did not comply to his wishes.

GC President Ted Wilson has been given authority to fulfill his duties as the president of the Seventh-day Adventist church, although one looks in vain for a Job Description for a GC president.  He violates that authority when he adopts dictatorial methods and seeks to enforce his will on church organizations and their employees. The McCarthy/Army hearings and Attorney Welch implemented an effective method to challenge an out-of-control senator, “Sir, enough is enough.  Have you no conscience? Have you no shame?”

It is important to note that the GC president, once he steps out of his guarded 3rd floor office, has but limited authority.  He cannot hire or fire any person employed by a local conference or other church organization. He may summon a person to answer to one of the five Compliance Committees, but the person may refuse the mandate and there is nothing Ted Wilson, or the others, without the action of the people or boards of the organization that employees the individual, can do.  The GC president and the GC committees my reprimand the individual, but that is the limit of authority. True, Wilson can use his power against an organization that receives financial benefits. He can limit or remove financial support. He can take away voting privileges at the GC meetings, reprimand individuals and refuse to publish names in the GC Year Book.   When such actions are implemented, President Wilson well consider where the goose that lays the golden eggs resides. There is only one significant financial generator in the Adventist system: The local Adventist parish. The political levels above the local church are consumers. The GC distributes what comes to it from the thousands of parishes around the world, and the majority of these funds are generated by us in North America.  What we giveth, we can taketh away!


Lawrence Downing, DMin, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. 

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