by Loren Seibold | 11 October 2023 |
I want to feel at home in this church in which I was raised, to which I have dedicated my life—I really do. I long for happy fellowship with these people with whom I share so many spiritual experiences.
Maybe that’s why on Sabbath morning (October 7), even though I needed to prepare for the Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar, I turned on Elder Ted Wilson’s Sabbath morning address to the attendees at the General Council Executive Committee.
Our General Conference president, I’ve been told by those who know him, is personally friendly and gracious. I hope someday to see that side of him.
But in all the times I’ve listened to him, that’s not what I’ve heard. I’ve heard a man who comes at the church negatively, critically. A friend who was listening at the same time that I was messaged me: “Did you notice how angry he sounds?”
Of course he’s angry: he believes the church is a mess. So very much is wrong with it. And he’s carrying the whole load.
In fact, every point he made (there were 16 of them) warned about how bad things are—not out in the world, but here in the church! Several of his points worried me, because they don’t describe a Protestant church that is seeking for and growing in truth. What he described sounded more like a cult.
And I’m worried about the man himself. How frightened and angry must he be to feel the need, in his every turn at the pulpit, to attack his own church, and insist on greater control over it!
Defending the Bible
Early in his talk (it is hard to think of it as a sermon, since it was mostly scolding), Elder Wilson indicated he was going to talk about the Bible, that book containing so much hope and forgiveness. That sounds good, doesn’t it?
But it turns out he was only concerned about the denigration of the Bible. That has a different feel to it—a critical, ugly note, one that lasted through the whole morning. “We are under attack by the historical-critical method,” he said, and “any other method of biblical interpretation which is unacceptable to Seventh-day Adventists.”
But how to read the Bible, then? The answer is in Ellen White—or, as he refers to her, “the Spirit of Prophecy.” The Spirit of Prophecy tells us to “read the Bible as it reads.”
Sorry, but “reading the Bible as it reads” is a truism, not a methodology. Most of us who have studied theology realized fairly early that the Bible doesn’t unfold the Adventist message that readily, or we wouldn’t need to study it for decades, much less have to defend our method of interpreting it.
Fortunately, he soon explained: “Reading the Bible as it reads” means that we read it through the lens of the Spirit of Prophecy, the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, and the authoritative voice of church leaders.
It concerns me that among these four things—the Bible, Ellen White, the 28, and the General Conference—the man who superciliously describes himself as “the President of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church” seems to see little distinction.
The usual sex rant
I’ve never met anyone quite as obsessed by homosexuality as Elder Ted Wilson is. He never misses a chance to fulminate against LGBTQ people. (This time he lumped “bestiality” in there with homosexuality, for good measure.) While he says that “we are all sinners at the foot of the cross” and we must treat all people with love, care, and respect, being gay clearly falls into an advanced category of sin, and he can’t contain his anger for long on this point. Thus:
The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church does not and will not accept individuals as church members or elected church leaders who are not adhering to the biblical understanding and practice of biblical human sexuality.
This was the longest section of the 16, and here he was at his most fierce. I am less offended by his disapproval of homosexuality than by at his remedy: “Biblical life-changing conversion through the power of the Holy Spirit.” I appreciate idealism, but a lack of pastoral experience has left him ignorant: I have never met anyone whom the Holy Spirit has “cured” of homosexuality, and neither has he.
Of course, the problem, he tells us again, is “not reading the Bible as it reads.”
Paul tells us don’t let anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit (Colossians 2:8). …We have many wonderful theologians in our church—the Biblical Research Institute is a wonderful organization. … But there are some even within our own ranks who are twisting the word of God, not reading it as it reads. Stay away from them!
I know some of these latter theologians. They are good, honest, thoughtful women and men who wrestle honestly with both the text and the pastoral application, especially where it concerns LGBTQ people who have so often been rejected. How do they feel when they hear their sincere efforts denounced as cheating and deception?
Leave—and good riddance
It is under the heading of sexual behavior that we were treated to this—what was to me the most disheartening statement of the day.
If you are unable for some reason to not fully trust this book… I’m talking about our major fundamental beliefs, 28 of them, and I’m talking about reading the Bible as it reads—if you as a leader … cannot accept the word of God as it reads, I urge you to resign your position.… I’m not wanting a purge, I am not wanting some kind of witch hunt—and I’m speaking for myself and my position: I want leaders who believe 100% in the full word of God.
I have puzzled often about the enthusiasm in Silver Spring to rid the church of all critics. Elder Wilson rarely passes up the chance to say “agree with me or leave.”
I found it especially jarring in a worship service. I wondered what was going through the minds of the church leaders there in the chapel: to have to sit for an hour looking engaged and interested with a camera panning over you, while wondering, “Is he talking about me?” Were any thinking, “I have doubts and questions. I don’t see the church as Elder Wilson sees it. Does he want me to leave?”
Twice Elder Wilson mentioned that we are in the shaking time of the church. The shaking appears to be one of his favorite themes. It is a way of saying that “God has already predicted you will leave—so good riddance!”
I wish he could occasionally wonder why so many people leave the church, and how the church could stem the exodus. But I don’t think he can. Because he already knows why people leave: we are in the shaking, and you are being sifted out. So he is content—indeed, eager—to send you on your way.
The church organization is the foundation of everything
I’m never surprised to hear people from our top church office brag about their power. Rarely does a governance meeting in Silver Spring go by without Elder Wilson or one of his helpers telling us that the Spirit of Prophecy says that the General Conference (GC) is God’s highest authority on earth.
Again this past Sabbath we learned that “the Holy Spirit works through structured organizations that were organized by heaven itself.” But—somewhat alarmingly—it is not just the GC in session any longer.
When committee decisions at the worldwide level are made based on biblical and Spirit of Prophecy instruction and guided by humble prayer, personal opinions and convictions are to be laid aside.
I’ve been in these meetings based on the committee system. I know how they’re run. Yes, there is some prayer, though I must admit it feels forced and a bit icky.
And the prayers never seem to change this: that Elder Wilson gets to tell everyone what the Holy Spirit wants. I have seen little “congenial recognition that we work together under the power of the Holy Spirit.” I have seen power and manipulation. I have seen Elder Wilson scolding venerable church leaders as though they are naughty kindergartners.
Isn’t it amazing how like our perception of our archenemy, the Roman Catholic Church, we have become?
Attacked from all sides
I was both reassured and disturbed to learn that among the things that are threatening the church, not all are liberal beliefs.
Okay, it’s mostly us liberals—but not all.
On our side is insufficient dedication to the Spirit of Prophecy, the remnant church, prophetic events, the sanctuary, Adventist lifestyle, Sunday as the mark of the beast, and public evangelism.
But also threatening the church are those who (like James White) question the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as those who accuse the church of being ecumenical.
In short, the poor church is beleaguered on the right and the left! Thank goodness Elder Wilson places his foot exactly in the correct middle, as he was at pains to remind us.
Something that occurred to me as I listened to this talk is that to make a good argument for the Seventh-day Adventist message (and Elder Wilson did it as well as I’ve ever heard, and certainly with the most passion) you have to play defense: that is, you must remind people before they err that their contemplated error was anticipated by the Spirit of Prophecy.
Ellen White warned (perhaps self-servingly, it seems to me, when I remember that she received the profits from her books) that “The very last deception of Satan will be to make of none effect the testimony of the Spirit of God.”
As for the Bible,
In the last days, the earth will be almost destitute of true faith. Upon the merest pretense, the Word of God will be considered unreliable, while human reasoning will be received, though it be in opposition to plain Scripture facts.
Then there’s creation (which Elder Wilson believes to have happened just 6,000 years ago)
Men and women will endeavor to explain from natural causes the work of Creation. But just how God wrought in the work of Creation He has never revealed to mortals.
And, as mentioned above, she also warned that in the last days people won’t respect the authority of the church—which means Elder Wilson and company feel justified in never changing their minds.
In short, name something that should make church leaders reconsider a stubborn, embedded viewpoint, and Ellen White has already warned against it. She told us where the leaks would be, and plugged them. She anticipated the ragged edges, and reinforced them. There is no objection you can make for which she didn’t provide a ready answer.
Adventism is by nature and history a defensive movement. We began defending ourselves, and we’re still at it. This strategy has served our Adventist entropy well.
Could it be that that’s why we show such “lack of enthusiasm for direct personal and public evangelistic outreach”? Who wants to invite people into a church that is as frightening as the one Elder Wilson spent an hour warning us about?
A frightened, angry leader
I am worried about Elder Wilson. I wonder if it is healthy to be so certain, so opinionated. The pieces of his world fit together too tightly. He admits of no flexibility in what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist. I fear that makes him fragile, and even dangerous.
He says he is a true believer in this church, that it is God’s true and only church and it will go through to the end. But does he really believe it? If the church is fated to be what he claims, why does it require him to defend it with such indignation? Why is he so eager to say “good riddance” to so many of us?
The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks. He is trying to convince himself. He is the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, trying to hold back the flood. His theological pants are too tight: if he should have to readjust his position, a seam could give way.
Through my career I so often felt chastened by my doubts, my uncertainties, my faithlessness. Usually those feelings were brought on by meetings like this one. But now, seeing a man expressing so much certainty, a man with such a rigid, angry, scolding faith, I think perhaps his certainty is more dangerous than my doubts.
As the camera panned the audience, I wondered: how many of those church leaders are squirming inside? How many are thinking, “This isn’t how I see God. This isn’t how I see God’s church.” Yet what can they say? How can they react, tucked safely as they are into comfortable offices with a big travel budget at the top of the church? Who has the courage to reply, “No, sir, with respect, this isn’t church I want to be part of. What you are prescribing is going to hemorrhage believers, not attract them.”
I fear there is no one who will warn Elder Wilson that he is alienating a significant sector of his constituency. Thus all of us will continue to suffer from his inelasticity.
I confess, listening to this talk didn’t make me feel at home in my church.
I am being shaken in the shaking of Adventism—and Ted Wilson is the one doing it.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.