by Lawrence Downing
by Lawrence Downing, August 31, 2014
My purpose in writing this open letter to you, my theological and academic colleagues, is to thank you for the dedication and care you have shown to students and parishioners. The contributions you have made to the Seventh-day Adventist church are significant.
When I read General Conference president Ted Wilson’s speech addressed to the theologians and teachers who attended the ten-day Bible and Science Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, and St. George, Utah, as reported in the Adventist News Network (ANN) Bulletin of August 19, 2014, I could not help but wonder what thoughts his statements generated. (The GC News Network Bulletin for the same date has a link to the transcript of his speech.)
What thoughts surfaced when you heard Wilson say that if you, an employee of a Seventh-day Adventist institution, do not believe in a recent creation, meaning 6,000 years, that took place in six literal 24-hour days followed by the seventh day Sabbath rest, you should resign? He claimed the Bible and Ellen White as the authorities that led to his conclusions. The same books you read, but with very different interpretations and conclusions!
In explicit language, Wilson throws down the gauntlet: Believe as I say Seventh-day Adventists believe or do the honorable thing. Resign!
I thought how Wilson’s statements impact you scientists. How unfortunate, if not unreasonable, for a church administrator to demand that you ignore or deny the evidence that leads to a conclusion on the earth that is far removed from what the GC president stated. What are you anthropologists to do when when the evidence you’ve seen in your field of study leads to conclusions that exceed the model that Wilson demands? Resign? Ignore? Be patient—take a “this too shall pass” attitude?
I ponder how scholars, trained to pursue where evidence leads, will respond when a person who has potential to impact careers makes demands upon those who spend their lives examining data he knows little to nothing about.
Little surprise that some will question who gave this man authority to define a “genuine” Adventist. Where is it written that the president of the General Conference is empowered to be the judge of who is and who is not a “true” Seventh-day Adventist? He is certainly aware that only one entity within the Seventh-day Adventist structure has authority to define who is and who is not a Seventh-day Adventist, and that is the local Seventh-day Adventist congregation!
My theological colleagues, our scientists are not the only ones under threat. You theologians have not escaped Wilson’s demands. The devil’s work, he said, is evidenced in the methods associated with the historical-critical method. There is no place in the Adventist church, he declares, for this demonic practice, nor are those welcome who make use of this heinous method. (Is he unaware that Adventists have for decades employed the methods of textual criticism to support and promote Ellen White and her writings? When the GC “baptizes” a demonic source, is it then exorcised?) A similar question: When the GC president invites non-Seventh-day Adventists to address a conference he sponsors, it is acceptable. When others invite non-Seventh-day Adventists to address their meetings, it is not. How so?
Some may wonder how it is that this man is so free to make such sweeping pronouncements about a system he apparently little understands. Does he, with limited theological expertise, have the gift of defining what is and what is not a tool of the devil? Will this man’s mandate force some of our responsible theologians, like the Waldenses of old, to practice their craft in secret places? I join you in asking who bestowed upon this man authority to remove an important tool that is part of the theologian’s trade?
When Wilson’s remarks are considered in a package, why does not one of his peers look him in the eye and say, “Sir, enough of this!” Surely there are others than “Yes” men who occupy administrative posts. Or is what he said reflective of what church administrators believe?
The concern I have for our biblical scholars and science teachers reaches beyond one man’s statements. He, in fact, cannot terminate any scholar. What he can do is use his Bully Pulpit as GC president to proclaim his opinions. In the statements he made to those assembled at the Bible Science conference he has opened the door and given a welcome to those who will make it their work to report, and at times persecute, loyal and honorable Seventh-day Adventists whom they perceive deviate from the “Truth,” as they understand it. When this occurs, and it will, who will stand to support our scholars? Pastors have some insulation from the darts church administrators and others may toss their way. A congregation in their corner gives a pastor some security. There is recognition, however reluctant, among church administrators that there is only one goose in this denomination that lays the Golden Eggs—the local parish! Fry that goose and the denomination’s goose is cooked, too. Who is in the teachers’ corner? Do church administrators give a hoot when in-debt students protest because a favorite science or religion teacher is terminated? As the military responds when armament directed toward the enemy takes out civilians, including women and children, “It is collateral damage.” An educational organization’s governing board may offer some protection, although church administrators have significant presence and influence on college and university boards.
In the process of exploring how various Seventh-day Adventist professionals are affected by Wilson’s mandates, give some thought to the parish minister. Not every Seventh-day Adventist church member shouts Amen when, in their view, a bureaucrat in Silver Spring, Maryland, tells them what to believe about creation, the age of the earth and what theological tools are and are not acceptable. Be assured, there will be people, no one knows how many, who will say, “That’s what I must believe to be a Seventh-day Adventist? Not a problem. I’m out-a-here!” The pastor is left holding the bag. The pastor is the one responsible to struggle with the fall-out created by someone geographically, theologically and logically far removed. The pastor attempts to calm the distressed alienated members. The pastor’s best efforts to bring some solution to a problem she/he did not create do not make for a pleasant experience.
President Wilson’s statements that threaten and intimidate honorable men and women cause one to contemplate whether his chosen methods to purify the church have some antecedent in the Inquisition. History informs us that the Inquisition was intended to bring unity to the True Church, save men’s souls and assure a unified and purified body. It failed. Church employees and others are confronted, not with physical threat, but threats of another kind. “Believe as I say or find other employment and another church.” The years of service given? Let them go! Financial responsibilities and career decisions? Let them go! We who look from the outside cannot imagine the negative impact this statement has had on the families of those under threat. Suddenly, spouses and children face an uncertain economic future. The established social and spiritual lives may end. Questions multiply: “Shall I resign or continue?” “How will this decision affect our marriage and our children?” It is unfortunate you are confronted with this unnecessary trauma. May the Almighty One be with you and guide you as you seek a satisfactory response. We can but pray a better day awaits.
The abuse of spiritual power is one attribute by which Adventists identify the Beast Power. Spiritual intimidation and manipulation is a common trait cult leaders use to impose their will on their followers.
My hope for you, my valued and respected colleagues, is that life will not be made more difficult by Wilson’s pronouncements. There is sufficient challenge that comes through the ordinary run of your respective professions. Once, from a more ancient time than ours, it is reported that a man said something to this effect: “If you are attempting to carry the world on your shoulders, come to me. I will help you and give you rest.” He it is who is quoted as saying, “I will in no way cast you out.” These revolutionary statements, some suggest, apply even to Adventist scientists, theologians and pastors. And so they do!
Colleague in Ministry