Who Advises the Current General Conference President?
By Erv Taylor | 4 June 2018 |
Introductory Note: My previous four commentaries have related conversations with a fictional character I’ve referred to as OV, or Our Visitor. Over the last six months, OV has visited Earth from time to time by traveling from a planet circling a star system we call Proxima Centauri. OV came to our planet to learn about Jesus of Nazareth and the religion which he was said to have founded, Christianity. All OV knew about Jesus and Christianity was what he had seen and heard monitoring radio and TV broadcasts from Earth. I was expecting OV to be back for his final visit last week. However, a message from him was sent through what we call Einstein-Rosen bridges, or “worm holes in the fabric of space/time.” Such transmissions and movements are orders of magnitude more rapid than those that would travel through “ordinary” space at the speed of light. The message said he will be delayed on his home planet by urgent business. When he travels here for his last visit, I will provide a report on that final conversation. In the meantime, my commentaries will be considering other topics.
Over the last few months, I’ve been collecting information related to the question of who is advising the current General Conference President Ted Wilson. Such information would be helpful in understanding the sources of the specifics of the ideas being propagated by Wilson. It also would be enlightening with respect to who are the members of the inner core of the current leadership of the Adventist denomination.
One assumption generating these questions is that Wilson himself is not writing his own periodic epistles and sermons. I assume that he relies on others to help with that. Many GC watchers believe that a relatively small circle of advisors provide his material. Several have suggested that that inner circle is getting smaller and smaller as Wilson continues to advocate increasingly contentious views which further alienate and divide the Adventist faith community, particularly in North America and Western Europe.
Various names floated as sources of his ideas have been suggested. One name often cited is E. Edward Zinke, a wealthy conservative Adventist theologian who gained his financial resources from a nut company, through what I’ve been informed is an affine connection. Zinke is reputed to have been a central player in the founding and continuing financial support of theologically far-right-of-center organizations such as the Adventist Theological Society, GC Faith and Science Council, and the original General Youth Congress, now operating under the name of the Generation of Youth for Christ. He also actively embraces the idea of the notorious GC International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTE). For those not familiar with the IBMTE, it is widely viewed as an attempt to form an Adventist version of what the Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic Holy Office was organized to accomplish. That is to “inquire” into the orthodoxy of certain church theologians and scientists and, by that means, “root out heresy.”
A 2016 article that Zinke published in the Adventist Review helps one gain an appreciation of the flavor of Zinke’s thinking. He began by asking, “What are the theological issues stirring within Adventist [higher] education?” He wrote that “[i]t is easy to recognize a theological issue if a professor … denies the six-day creation of life on earth….” He later commented, “When the Bible is called into question, many theories alien to Scripture follow in its train … The Bible is seen as the product of the historical background out of which it came, rather than the result of God’s action revealing Himself to individuals living with particular historical backgrounds. Its universal truth and origin by the Holy Spirit are thus compromised … We decide … whether God created in six literal days a short time ago.” Many of the same points raised in Zinke’s article have appeared over the last few years in articles by Wilson in Adventist denominational publications.
Another name that has been repeated in informal confidential reports as currently having higher standing than Zinke is the an assistant to the GC president and veteran evangelist Mark Finley. Because of this, I was interested in a sermon that Finley delivered on April 12, 2018, during the Spring Meeting of the General Conference executive committee. The text of this sermon was posted on the Adventist Review website.
I’ll preface these remarks by making clear that, as far as I know, Finley is a fine Christian gentleman of high moral standing and impeccable ethical integrity. I’m not commenting about his personal ethics or deportment. I’m sure that he is a great husband and father and takes good care of his dog and cat (if he has either or both). I’m also confident that he is destined for the Good Place (whatever and wherever that place may be) when he passes. It is his theological and church polity concepts with which I wish to take issue. In addition, let me be clear that my comments here have nothing to do with Wilson’s personal moral standing or ethical status. I’m sure that they are exemplary and that he will go to the same place as Finley at the end of his sojourn as a carbon unit on this planet. This discussion is about theological and church polity perspectives of the GC president and his immediate circle of advisors. I am submitting for readers’ consideration that their views are profoundly misguided and counterproductive − at least for the future of First World Adventism.
The title of Finley’s recent presentation was “Every Wind of Doctrine.” That title would seem to be a clue that what he said might be very revealing. Another clue was that his remarks were characterized as addressing “Contemporary Issues.” If we analyze his speech, we may discover something about how Finley “assists” the current GC president.
He began his message with a set of phrases which we tend to hear from certain types of clergy. I’m guessing here, but words such as these are intoned with the expectation that they will provide a “holy” aura for his comments. In this case, Finley suggests that the group to which he is speaking have already “saturated . . . this meeting with prayer” and asks God to “take the feeble words of the preacher [i.e., Finley] and indict them with the Spirit to move upon our hearts . . . .” As I read this, I stopped short and said to myself, Whoa! (I often talk to myself.) I went back to the phrase “indict them.” “Indict?” What on earth does that mean? I overcame the temptation to be sidetracked by that question. Perhaps Finley will, at some point, explain the use of this word, assuming it is not a typo. But let’s proceed first to a general consideration of his approach to this topic and then consider the main points he raised in his presentation.
First, on a positive note, we might comment that a disinterested observer (not the present writer) might applaud Finley’s use of a well-known rhetorical device sometimes employed in political discourse − which, of course, is the type of discourse that Finley is here advancing. In this case, the politics is not about some secular political matter, but a political matter involving how a church establishment lobbying group seeks to maintain or gain greater control by influencing the opinions of members of that church body. The device is to combine two rather separate set of ideas, associate both sets with one or more groups that have negative connotations and, by this means, seek to discredit the target group(s) using the same negative association. In this case the target groups are the progressive left and ultra-right wings of the Adventist Church, both of which oppose, for different reasons, the current regime in power in Silver Spring.
What are the negative associational themes that Finley uses? Fanaticism and cold formalism. By inference, the charges of “fanaticism” and “cold formalism” are associated with both the progressive left and ultra-right wings of the contemporary Adventist Church. A brilliant rhetorical strategy! Take out two opponents with one swipe.
Another positive note that might be offered by a disinterested observer is the use of frequent quotations from Ellen G. White (EGW). While some readers (such as the writer) might see this strategy as a negative, it is not a negative for the audience that Finley wishes to heed his message. This is because Finley must believe that most members in his audience, and those who would later read his text, confer on EGW special powers and authority. Because of this, her words can be effectively employed for the purpose of having readers accept statements he makes in this piece on the basis of the authority which many vest in every word issued in the name of EGW, even if the logic of a certain statement is, at the least, problematic.
Let’s first consider four of the most egregious of Finley’s statements, prefaced by what this writer suggests are their most obvious implications. We conclude each point with some observations:
(1) The proclamation of Seventh-day Adventist doctrines will usher in the Second Coming.
Finley: “Since the devil knows that a united church focused on the proclamation of the Gospel in the light of the three angels’ messages preached to the entire world will usher in the coming of Jesus . . . [t]he devil will do everything in his power to hinder the progress of the proclamation of God’s work.”
Observation (1): “[T]he proclamation of the Gospel in the light of the three angels’ messages” conflates the Christian gospel and the unique doctrines of the Adventist Church. Another brilliant piece of rhetoric.
(2) The Adventist Church needs to be purged of any dissenters from Adventist orthodoxy as defined by the current GC administration.
Finley: “The days of purification of the [Adventist] church are hastening on space (sic) [I think he means “hastening on apace”]. God will have a people pure and true. In the mighty sifting soon to take place, we shall be better able to measure the strength of Israel. The signs reveal that the time is near when the Lord will manifest that his fan is in his hand, and that he soon will thoroughly purge his floor” [EGW, Review and Herald, January 11, 1887, paragraph 3].
Observation (2): Who gets to define what a “pure and true” Adventist Christian will believe? I think we can accurately guess who Finley thinks should have the power and authority to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” By the way, the statement of EGW was published in 1887. A sifting will “soon” take place? What does “soon” mean, in light of the fact that this statement was written 131 years ago?
(3) Questioning the fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture promulgated by the current GC administration constitutes apostasy.
Finley: “If the devil can persuade us to doubt God’s Word or question His revealed will, He knows we are on the pathway to apostasy.”
Observation (3): And who gets to interpret when someone is doubting the Bible and God’s revealed will? There is no consideration here of the obvious fact that there are major differences of opinion within contemporary Adventism as to the meanings of what Finley says simply is “God’s Word.” Also, it might be asked what precisely God’s “revealed will” is and who gets to decide that. Finley seems to think that any deviation from current Adventist orthodoxy as defined by the current GC administration means one is on the “pathway to apostasy.”
(4) “Human opinion” is questioned. Finley: “Fanaticism often begins with the substitution of human opinion for the Word of God.”
Observation (4): A theme that is typically employed by biblical literalists is to accuse those with whom they disagree of “substituting human opinion [or reason] for the Word of God.” When statements are made one might wish to ask whoever employs that phrase what kind of entity the individual making it thinks he or she is. Clearly, someone making such a statement must not think of himself or herself as a human being. The point is that all we have is “human opinion.” Those that intone the type of statement Finley makes perhaps think that they have some “secret knowledge” that they can draw on. (Perhaps we thought that Gnosticism died in the 4th Century. It appears that it is alive and well in certain Adventist Church circles in the 21st Century.)
There are several additional problematic statements contained in Finley’s piece which do not merit extended discussion. They are so obviously directed at keeping people “in line” that it really is not worth the time to discuss them. Two stand out: “False Teachings often question church authority and organization” and “Understanding truth involves the willingness to accept, as far as possible, the authority of God’s church and the desire to be in harmony with God’s people.” One might wonder to what the “as far as possible” refers. Some might wish to email Finley and ask him if he would be so kind as to explain that phrase, as well as explaining what the word “indict” was supposed to be.
In conclusion, briefly unpacking the views of two members of Wilson’s inner circle is helpful in understanding from whom Wilson may be receiving his ideas. Fortunately, the Adventist Church in 2020 will have an opportunity to replace what has elsewhere been referred to as “neo-medieval Adventist theologians and church administrators” because the person they are advising, also a representative of neo-medieval Adventism, will no longer be the president of the General Conference. There might be a “wind” blowing through the Adventist denomination, but, it may be blowing in the wrong direction for those espousing neo-medieval Adventism.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.