SILVER SPRING, Md. (Oct. 7, 2023)— In the middle of a week of Annual Council meetings for the executive leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, General Conference President Ted N.C. Wilson delivered the Sabbath sermon. In it, Wilson drew on the 160th birthday of the denomination’s organization in 1863 to emphasize its identity as “uniquely chosen for mission by God himself.”
The more than hour-long address was delivered at the denomination’s headquarters in Maryland to an audience composed of about 350 General Conference Executive Committee members and 70 invitees. With the talk title “Chosen for Mission,” Wilson diverged from this forward-looking theme to detail 16 issues that are “confusing interruptions” of the devil to the denomination’s work of proclaiming the Three Angels’ Messages.
The sermon format continued a long list style Wilson has used for some of his largest audiences of late. At the 2022 General Conference Session, he gave a sermon with 25 “vital truths” for church members to hold fast to. At the 2021 Annual Council, he presented 14 “aberrations” that he saw as infiltrating the church.
After repeating multiple times that Adventist Church members must be faithful and are “chosen for mission,” Wilson said that “nothing can stop God’s mission,” though “the devil tries everything.” He listed several examples: violence, hostile environments, persecution, discouragement, and confusion. Slowing down and holding up a finger, he specifically singled out “internal bickering, distractions, false doctrines, [and] attacks against God’s people.”
Wilson further indicated that he would focus his message on the “denigration of God’s Word” and “neutralization of God’s Word.” He also said he would focus on “other angry assaults, including misinformation and outright false allegations against God’s Word.”
Wilson’s first issue was a “lack of understanding the Bible, how to interpret it, and antagonism against the very Word of God.” The Seventh-day Adventist Church, he said, believes in the authenticity and authority of the Bible, which is to be “applied to all people, everywhere, for all time.” Emphasizing the singular, he stated that “the church accepts only the historical biblical or historical-grammatical method of interpreting scripture, allowing the Bible to interpret itself, line upon line, verse upon verse, precept upon precept, by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The church, Wilson said, is “under attack” by historical-criticism, or “any other method of Biblical interpretation which is unacceptable to Seventh-day Adventists,” because those aren’t “God-focused methods, but rather humanistic.”
Defining the difference as the presence of the Holy Spirit (or lack thereof), Wilson specified only the “historicist approach” when interpreting biblical prophecies. He stated that the Spirit of Prophecy tells us to “read the Bible as it reads,” and then he read a quote from Ellen G. White’s 1858 book Spiritual Gifts that positions human reasoning as antagonistic to “plain Scripture facts.”
Slowing his delivery and enunciating each word, Wilson stated, “do not be influenced by those in the church” who stray from the church leadership’s hermeneutic.
Moving to the Trinity/Godhead, the second “confusing interruption,” Wilson stated that after this sermon, it was likely that his assistants would receive emails asserting that “Wilson is wrong” on various statements. To blunt that, he emphasized that he was “telling you from my perspective what the Bible says.” Countering Trinity questions that have bedeviled Christian leaders since the middle of the second century, Wilson utilized a couple of sentences that appear word-for-word at the top of the denomination’s website summary. He added that, “we fully embrace our Fundamental Belief number 2” and then used a third summary sentence from the website.
Concluding the topic in less than one minute, Wilson ended with a four word flourish—“from eternity to eternity.” Part poetic, part ontotheology—von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit—popularized by the influential 16th century Lutherbibel and dispensationalism, it also shows up as the subtitle of a compilation of scripture and Ellen G. White quotes on angels, published in 2000. In part because "eternity" doesn't capture the metaphorical richness in the Hebrew and Greek, the words Wilson used are not used in major Bible translations. It does appear in the 1971 Living Bible, a personal paraphrase of Isaiah 43:13. Neither the term nor the text appear in the official Adventist belief.
Wilson then quickly moved on to his third issue, “Misunderstanding about human sexuality,” to which he devoted a significant amount of time—nearly 15 minutes.
“The Bible is clear that marriage is only between one man and one woman,” he said to a chorus of “Amen” from the audience. “Aberrations in human sexuality are not acceptable to God," he continued. “It includes adultery, licentiousness, bestiality, homosexuality, and other alternative unbiblical LGBTQ sexual activities.” The Bible, Wilson said, indicates that “all of those aspects of human sexuality which go against God’s Word” are sin.
He also singled out groups within the Seventh-day Adventist Church who affirm LGBTQ people, saying that “we have some situations” and “we’re working with two divisions and their administrations to care for current challenges in this area.” These words seemingly referred to recent controversy surrounding the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Germany, which recently released a magazine feature that seemed to challenge the Adventist Church’s official stance on LGBTQ issues and supported a pastor who identifies as bisexual.
“The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church does not and will not have individuals as church members or elected church leaders who are not adhering to the biblical understanding and practice of biblical human sexuality,” Wilson continued, listing a series of Bible references known as “clobber texts” that are commonly used to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Wilson also said that efforts to change someone’s sexuality through spiritual means are not conversion therapy but rather “biblical, life-changing conversion through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Furthermore, he expressed complete confidence in the Biblical Research Institute (which has supported the assertion that “homosexual behavior is a sin that needs to be repented of and forgiven” throughout various position papers) and encouraged the church leaders in attendance to hold the same enthusiasm. Wilson urged the audience to “stay away” from those within the Adventist Church who hold alternative theological views. After reading from Proverbs 4, he said: “Don’t get stuck in the ditches on the right or the left. Look straight ahead . . . because you are chosen for mission.”
“If you as a leader cannot accept the Word of God as it reads, I urge you to resign your position,” Wilson said, preceding a round of applause. He continued: “I am not wanting a purge . . . or some kind of witch hunt. I want leaders who believe 100 percent in the full Word of God.”
Though it did not match Wilson’s overall tone on the rest of his point, he asked the leaders to deal with the “issue” with love and respect because “we are all sinners at the foot of the cross.”
He then moved to his fourth issue, “Confusion on the sanctuary service and righteousness by faith.” The earthly sanctuary services that ancient Israel conducted are essential to understanding the process of salvation, which is based on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, he explained.
“Seventh-day Adventists ought to be the foremost in lifting up Jesus and his righteousness,” Wilson said. “Never let anyone say that we are legalists. We are full of Christ’s righteousness. It is the very core of the Three Angels’ Messages.” He continued, affirming the Adventist Church’s belief in the “heavenly sanctuary.”
“We are not saved by being vegan. We are not saved by our contribution to the General Conference treasury’s wonderful offering for today,” he said. “We are saved by the grace and the absolute saving power only of Jesus Christ.”
For his fifth issue, Wilson focused on “misconceptions about biblical creation” and stated that the Adventist Church believes in a recent creation that transpired over six literal days. He also said he “fully believes” that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. After this assertion, Wilson moved on to his sixth issue, “False doctrine circulating.”
These false doctrines, he said, diminish “sanctification.” Wilson alleged that a “false movement” called “Love Reality” is circulating among some Adventist higher-education institutions and that the movement is a derivative of the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. “It is promoted that behavior is not important since God loves you,” he said.
God’s love is powerful and important, Wilson said, but “these false doctrines are very dangerous and should not be accepted since they destroy the entire understanding of Christ’s justifying and sanctifying righteousness.”
Wilson’s seventh issue was the “loss of urgency in the Advent movement.” He opined that there are those within the church who seem to have lost their sense of urgency for the second coming of Christ. After touching on the Three Angels’ Messages again, he turned to his eighth issue, “Loss of identity as God’s remnant church.”
Emphasizing that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is “not just another denomination” but rather the “remnant church of God,” he told the church leaders in attendance to “not be confused as to who Seventh-day Adventists are.” He firmly asserted that they were not to allow “mission drift” in church entities and institutions “which result in loss of identity.”
Directly speaking to union presidents and division presidents, Wilson told them to “take an interest in everything about those institutions,” particularly in what is being taught in religion classes—a statement reminiscent of previous instances in which he has been hostile to the intellectual environment of higher education institutions.
Next, for Wilson’s ninth issue, he addressed “false accusations about the church’s relationship to ecumenism.” Raising his voice, he said that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is “absolutely not involved in compromising ecumenism with other religious bodies or movements.” The church believes in making friends in other religious and public groups, Wilson said, to help them understand who Adventists are. He emphasized that the church’s presence in public or religious groups does not imply a compromise on theology.
“Do not believe any false accusations that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has become ‘Babylon,’” Wilson continued. “Yes, we are sinful—I understand that. We all are. But we’re not ‘Babylon,’” he said with a grave tone.
Wilson’s tenth issue was “Challenges to the authority of the church.” Throughout this segment, he pushed back on those who have resisted directives from the General Conference on various issues. “The church understands that the Holy Spirit works through structured organizations that were organized by heaven itself,” he said. Wilson elaborated that the church is organized on a representative committee system that “allows for the Holy Spirit’s direct intervention in how decisions are made.”
“When committee decisions are made at the worldwide level based on biblical and Spirit of Prophecy instruction and guided by humble prayer, personal opinion and convictions are to be laid aside.” The authority of the General Conference is to be respected and accepted, Wilson said.
He continued to address the issue for several minutes, at times issuing a call for unity under the General Conference and its policy, before moving to his 11th issue, “Misunderstandings about the role of the Spirit of Prophecy as given by God through the writings of Ellen G. White.”
While talking about this issue, along with his 12th, 13th, and 14th issues, Wilson reemphasized a collection of the church’s Fundamental Beliefs, which, according to surveys conducted by the General Conference, are not as firmly accepted by new church members.
Wilson’s 15th issue, “Lack of enthusiasm for direct personal and public evangelistic outreach,” touched on the “I Will Go” theme of the Annual Council meeting. He urged for an increase in public evangelism, telling attendees to “reject the Laodicean approach of doing nothing.” More on the stated theme of his sermon than some of his previous issues, he repeated: “We are chosen for mission.”
For his 16th and final issue, “Neutralization of personal Christian lifestyle and church comportment through worldly influences,” Wilson implored those listening to “live a pure and simple lifestyle as a witness to the world” and reject “evil influences that affect our lifestyles.” He listed business activities, music, entertainment, recreation, clothing, food, and “other lifestyle activities” as things that contain “worldly influences.”
“It is my observation that God is beginning the shaking and sifting of his precious Advent movement,” Wilson said, echoing a statement from earlier in his sermon.
Wilson said that he would further elaborate on the “issues” in his upcoming column in the Adventist World magazine and that the church service was “just a preview.”
Concluding his sermon after an 18 minute interlude to dedicate a missionary family going to Switzerland, Wilson read a series of Bible texts and Ellen G. White quotes. “Despite the future attacks on the mission of the church, God will see his remnant church through to the second coming,” he said. “Regardless of the slippage of biblical beliefs and practice by some, regardless of the shaking and the sifting, God is directing his final mission, which will not fail despite the attacks from within and without.”
Alex Aamodt and Alexander Carpenter contributed to this report.
Samuel Girven, a journalist based in Timberville, Virginia, is the special projects correspondent for Spectrum.
Title image from the Annual Council livestream of Wilson's sermon.
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