by John McLarty
Occasionally, I come across accusations that there are Jesuits at the General Conference. I am alternately amused by the silliness of these charges and saddened by the spiritual sickness they evince. Then I read President Ted Wilson's (President Wilson II) repeated calls for submission to the authority of the church, and I recognize a theme that has characterized Catholic spirituality for a thousand years.
Anyone who has known President Wilson II for decades finds accusations that he is a closet Jesuit so preposterous it's difficult to give a coherent response. On the other hand, he is following a trajectory described by his father in the Merikay case of movement away from anti-hierarchicalism toward a form of church governance reminiscent of the papacy. A primary reason for this movement is its effectiveness. If your objective is a global, coherent, long-lasting organization, the papacy is by far the most compelling exemplar. President Wilson II's commitment to the Adventist ideal of the remnant—not merely as a spiritual movement but as a recognizable, ordered church—requires the imposition of a discipline that can only be achieved through an authoritative hierarchy.
When Wilson urges people to submit to the church, by "church" he means the top clergy, more specifically he means the General Conference Executive Committee.* President Wilson II acknowledges people may have sincere, individual differences of conviction regarding women's ordination. They may believe their respective views are supported by the Bible. Still, he insists, they must subordinate their individual consciences to the decisions of the church (i.e. the GC Executive Committee which Wilson dominates). This is another baby step toward the establishment of an Adventist papacy. Two hundred years from now historians will be writing about the efforts (successful or unsuccessful) of Wilson II to secure the unchallenged primacy of the Bishop of Columbia in the hierarchy of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (a.k.a. American Universal (catholic) Church).
The teaching of submission as a virtue has a long and venerable history in Judaism and Christianity. Passages in the Bible advocate submission. Certainly, we are warned about the folly we can get into when we reject wisdom from outside ourselves. However, the great heroes of the Bible were not mildly submissive.
Abraham directly challenged God's announced plans for Sodom. Moses twice flatly rejected God's stated judgment on Israel. The Syro-Phonecian woman blithely dismissed Jesus' explicit statement that she was asking him to operate outside God's template for his ministry. In each of these cases, God bent to the will of his challengers.
Jesus repeatedly rejected the authority of the church of his day. He gently chided Peter for acquiescing to the Jewish leaders' claims of authority over Jesus in the matter of paying the temple tax. (This would be the equivalent of messing with tithe policy in the Adventist Church.)
The great revivals in Israel were led not by the high priest but by the kings–Hezekiah, Josiah, Jehoshaphat. On the other hand, Elijah and Elisha modeled principled, sustained opposition to the authority of King Ahab. The high priest Azariah with eighty of his fellow priests confronted King Uzziah when he overstepped his prerogatives and went into the temple to offer a sacrifice. In Israel God never consolidated authority into a single person or institution. The monarchy and the priesthood each traced its roots back to an independent inauguration by God. Neither was the "final word." Then there were the prophets–wild cards in the authority structure of Israel. Their role is filled in our day by bold preachers of the left and right who call for the radical application of principles that are deeply rooted in our heritage.
Ellen White celebrates the intervention of Frederick of Saxony to protect Luther from the authority of the church of his day. She repeatedly delights in the refusal of the reformers to submit to formally constituted church authority.
When President Wilson II orders people in the church to submit, he is voicing his sincere convictions about what people ought to do. He is fulfilling his divine mandate as he understands it. He is seeking to defend the institution of the church. This is the normal (and I would argue, appropriate) role for a church bureaucrat. Reformers ought to respect the sincerity of President Wilson's convictions.
On the other hand, reformers—other church bureaucrats, pastors, laity—who oppose President Wilson II, are also acting out of sincere conviction. Their commitment to God and justice requires them to exercise all available means compatible with integrity to shape the church according to the vision God has given them.
The Bible offers no tidy formula for resolving this conflict. Passages can be cited in support of both institutional primacy and prophetic (individual) primacy. Frequently in the Bible the formal structure of religion is shown to be opposed to the will of God as voiced by minorities and individuals. Other times dissident individuals are portrayed as mere rebels.
I look for the bottom line by measuring ideas and practices with the yardsticks of the Two Great Commandments and Micah 6:8. Neither mentions institutional conformity as a primary virtue.
*Wilson writes: "The General Conference Executive Committee, the highest deliberative authority of the worldwide church between General Conference Sessions, includes nearly 120 union conference and union mission presidents as voting delegates, along with elected officers, departmental directors, pastors, frontline employees and numerous laypersons." The inclusion of "laypersons" in this list is disingenuous. This committee is dominated by clergy, primarily the higher ranking clergy.
John McLarty is a contributing editor for Adventist Today.