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Can Our Leaders Become Theologically Paranoid? – Presidential Annual Council Sermon – 1


The recent Annual Council’s presidential sermon has generated controversy and some worries in the Italian Adventist community. For immigrant Adventists now living and working in Italy the sermon’s content and rhythm is perfect. It represents both what the church believes and the world needs to hear. But for many native, truly converted and engaged Italian Adventists that sermon instead represents the resurgence of a decadent, sectarian Adventism we naively thought was a relic of the past.

With due respect to all those in Italy and the world who praise that sermon as being the prototype of what we should be preaching, I feel constrained to offer a brief theological critique. My perspective is that of a Peruvian missionary pastor who has been working in Europe for the past twenty five years.

The church presidency, like any other department or sector, ought not to be above administrative and theological assessment. The administrative assessment is well understood and applied regularly every five years. There is an election. A theological assessment, however, instead is often skipped or undervalued. This is, in part, because the institutions that should be doing this (mainly the BRI and Andrews Theological Seminary) are somewhat distracted. They can become involved with the detection and control of more visible “heresies” around globe – or are themselves often accomplices of the same theological reductionism and unilateralism. In my view the necessary and continuous theological assessment of the GC presidency is a different sort of effort. It’s not mandatory in its conclusions and involves no sanctions. But it should provide theological awareness, balance and orientation to the president’s public positions – as often articulated in various sermons. And that is what unfortunately is not happening at present.

This theological assessment must not be obsessed with evaluating or weighing the president’s individual words, initiatives or strategies, but rather general trends. Every church leader ought to have a legitimate latitude of opinion without being attacked or censored. But here, with this presidency, we have continuous, serious and problematic theological trends. No GC president should use the office as megaphone to his own personal convictions without any filter. And the issue is not progressive versus conservative ideas. A GC president has the right to be theologically conservative and we should learn to respect and appreciate that. But what he should do first, together with the church advisors, is a serious and deep theological, spiritual, social and cultural analysis of the general condition of the Adventist community at large and of the surrounding current cultures. Only after that should he elaborate a vision that will, necessarily in part but not totally, coincide with his own. When a president’s public strategy and speeches correspond totally with his personal theological agenda and deep moral convictions – potentially contrary to the majority – we don’t have a healthy and stable institution, even if the dynamism and the efficacy of the movement has increased. Moral coherence is a necessary but insufficient condition to have a noble presidency leading the church. In theology, like medicine, there exist differentiated and opposed anomalies. People can be sick by either a hypo (under) or hyper (over) functioning of the liver, heart or the immune system. Likewise, in theological thinking and practice, people can be “spiritually ill” or “religiously unbalanced” by being hypo-Adventist but also by being hyper-Adventist. But this presidency and leadership circle seem to act as very reductive “physicians”, diagnosing all the actual Adventist malaises as solely due to hypo-functioning of the Adventist identity.

Conversely, I would contend that some important problems we face today aren’t because we are not Adventist enough but rather because we have become much too inflexible as Adventists, institutionally and theologically. Thus, misleading diagnostic categories need to be urgently reviewed, and then rebalanced through a continuing dialogue with local churches and territorial educational institutions. This can’t be reduced to disguised proselytizing activities, obsessed only with the transmission of acquired knowledge. It should also become, in part, experimental research to create new “present truth” in order to monitor and improve today’s Adventist message. From this perspective, initiatives like those provided by Spectrum – with all its limits, unilateralism and obsessions – nevertheless represent a richness and guarantee for the church as a whole to make it more credible.

The Adventist general trend today, so present also in this presidential sermon, is to see problems as located almost exclusively outside the church – in other churches or society at large. And the repetitive obsession with some traditional theological themes and the chronic unawareness of our main structural limits suggest a curious parallelism with paranoid dysfunction. 

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic. And paranoid disorder is not monolithic. There are various degrees, clinical pictures and levels. On a first level paranoia is a psychosis characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur. On a second level it is a personality disorder generally characterized by a long-standing pattern of pervasive distrust and suspicion of others. Someone with paranoid personality disorder will nearly always believe that other people’s motives are suspect or even malevolent. On a third level, paranoid attitudes may exist in normal and functional persons when the excessive suspiciousness and hostility is expressed in overt argumentativeness, in recurrent complaining, or by quiet, apparently hostile, aloofness.

Because people with this orientation are hyper vigilant for potential threats they may act in a guarded, secretive, or devious manner and appear to be “cold” or lacking tender feelings. Although they may appear to be objective and unemotional they more often display an emotionally unstable range of affect, with hostile, stubborn, and sarcastic expressions predominating. Such combative and suspicious nature may elicit a hostile response in others, which then serves to confirm their original expectations.

I would like to briefly highlight two elements that seem to characterize these paranoid psychological profiles: Ego-syntonicity and allo-plasticity. Ego-syntonicity means that the person/patient does not, on the whole, find their personality traits and behavior to be objectionable or disagreeable. He or she feels perfectly ok. Allo-plasticity means that the person tends to blame the external world for their misfortune and failure. In stressful situations there is an attempt to preempt a (real or imaginary) threat, change the rules of the game, introduce new variables, or otherwise influence the external world to conform. The person feels that others have to change and he or she wants devotedly to help them.

Now, in a hypothetical move let’s take these two descriptive categories and, crossing the hard fences of theological isolationism, let’s try an epistemologically hybrid application.

1. Theological ego-syntonicity

Here is a quotation from the president’s sermon that, I suggest, fits into this first anomaly:

“This prophetic movement, described in Revelation 12:17 as God’s remnant people who “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus,” is constituted in only one body of faith today: the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Thus it is no surprise to see Satan warring against us with unbridled fury.”

There is theological ego-syntonicity as anomaly, when Adventism feels ok despite objective evidences, outside and inside the church, that clearly show we have serious theological imbalances.

2. Theological allo-plasticity

Another quotation from the President’s sermon that fits the second anomaly:

“As you look at how the world is falling apart in every area — politically, economically, socially, ecologically, and ecumenically — could there possibly be any doubt that we are seeing the signs of Jesus’ soon return?…We are also told that society will become like Sodom and Gomorrah just before Jesus’ return. This is happening now, as well. We are seeing the general, popular acceptance of the sins that brought down fire from heaven destroying cities. Lying and deception of all kinds have entered every phase of our society. Predictions of financial collapse are heard on every hand. Natural and man-made disasters are seen throughout the whole world.”

There is theological allo-plasticity as anomaly, when Adventism describes others: current societies and other religious communities, as completely wrong and bad, despite objective evidences that show, not only that such other communities often do better than us, but also that we Adventists are not behaviorally and theologically so balanced and healthy as we pretend to be. Religious and theological health is much more than having principles and doctrines correctly written in a theological creed. Inferring a perfect creed has the air of idolatry. It is one thing to be inspired and write our own creed. It’s another to consider that creed as completely right. It’s not a deadly sin to have an imperfect creed. But it is a serious one to not to see our own theological imbalances. 

Can our leaders become theologically paranoid? My answer is yes, they can. I’m not saying they already are, but some signs go in this direction. If that were to happen I hope that the membership will be strong enough to resist. If it may be too much to ask the community to educate theologically delusional leaders, at least we can ask the community to avoid electing them. But in the actual myopic apocalyptic effervescence of the Adventist general mood even this may be too much to ask.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.


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