Ted Wilson's General Conference Sermon

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Published:
June 30, 2022

On June 11, 2022, the final day of the 61st Adventist General Conference (GC) Session, newly reelected President Ted Wilson, per custom, delivered the Sabbath morning sermon. It was titled “Hold Fast What You Have.” The transcript is here, but Wilson added numerous extemporaneous remarks, so you can watch the fuller version here. His focus in the 70+ minute sermon was unsurprising, first because of the context—closing the GC Session with a call to rededication. But more centrally because he has preached versions of this message for years. It seems to dominate both his sermonic and administrative priorities.

Wilson lists and elaborates on 25 “vital truths from God’s Word that He [God] would have us hold fast” to. The list is a mixture of very fundamental Christian doctrines (e.g., the Trinity) as well as multiple points that have historically been near-uniquely emphasized by Adventism. He then pivots to an exposition of why Adventism self-identifies as the remnant church. Lastly, Wilson draws an analogy to Israel wandering in the wilderness, suggesting that the church has somewhat lost its focus on these truths, and he urges rededication.

A Broader Context

It is important to consider this sermon in the broader context of Wilson’s previous preaching. For example, on October 9, 2021, before the opening of the GC Annual Council, he preached a message titled: “Trust God’s Prophetic Word in the Coming Impending Conflict” (transcript here). In this sermon, Wilson listed and elaborated on 14 points of heterodoxy the church has encountered throughout its existence and which remain issues today. He then finished by encouraging his audience to hold fast to classic Adventism and preach the Three Angels’ Messages with greater conviction. So, in Wilson’s most recent sermon, he listed doctrinal points to hold fast to, while in the earlier presentation, he used a negative list and urged rejection of the aberrant views. Further, in the 2021 sermon, he demonized this list of negatives and inferred that those who sympathized with them were on Satan’s side in the cosmic conflict. But the two messages are quite parallel, essentially differing only in having a positive vs. negative list, followed by a call of dedication. Then, beyond these two, you can see the same sort of emphases in his 2015 and 2010 sermons at the close of those General Conference Sessions.

Hold Fast—To What and Why?

In the 2022 GC Session sermon, he begins with multiple biblical exhortations to hold fast to what you were taught. From the transcript text:

I Thessalonians 5:21: “Test all things; hold fast what is good”; II Thessalonians 2:15: “Stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught”; Hebrews 3:14: “Hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end”; Hebrews 4:14: “Let us hold fast our confession”; Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering”; and Revelation 3:11: “Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.”

First, these verses were, of course, not written in support of his “25 vital truths.” They referred to the apostolic teachings that the early church built upon. There is certainly much overlap—or Adventism would be sub-Christian. But doctrines like the investigative judgment and a 6,000-year-old earth (two points in Wilson’s list) were not what those biblical authors were referring to. Yet Wilson appropriates these verses, as he is convinced his 25 points completely equate to biblical orthodoxy, so they would legitimately apply by extension. But that is his inference and should not be taken at face value.

Second, there is no attempt, or even allusion to, the “test all things” part of the Thessalonians verse. I have never seen Wilson acting as an actual apologist. To do so would necessitate being conversant with opposing views and being able to explain why such views are wrong. Instead, he operates almost purely by exhortation alone.

Berean?

Wilson’s sermonic approach has at times employed the false dilemma fallacy. That is, he frames the argument as if there are only two choices—supporting the presumably God-approved belief collection he lists, or being aligned with evil. This fallacy was evident in his 2021 sermon (which I discussed here). A consequence of this God vs. Satan packaging is that objections to the position he so passionately advocates for become not merely mistaken but morally wrong. He seems unable or unwilling to consider the possibility that criticism might arise out of principle.

But the biblical Berean example (Acts 17:10–15) legitimates honest and careful examination of doctrine. Wilson, I’m sure, would recognize the Berean concept as valid—after all, it’s in the Bible. But he doesn’t seem to operate that way. His sermons are heavy on exhortation to believe as he does but short on substantive rationale for why someone should just do it. I find this skewed emphasis seriously unbiblical. Indeed, a crucial reason for God’s tolerance of evil, and the apparent delay in wrapping things up, is to attribute the “slowness” to God’s overarching desire for mankind to have freedom and use it to choose him. Thus, I would argue that God is supremely Berean in dealing with sin and humanity. Yet Wilson shortcuts this by going from a list of what you should believe—straight to a zealous exhortation to share his commitment. Now I’m sure there are occasions where he operates in a more Berean fashion. But what comes across in sermons like the 2022 GC one is Wilson’s certainty and his intense appeal for others to just come along and follow him in that certainty.

The Implicit Argument

How does Wilson legitimate this flirtation with certainty? None of us have a “God’s eye view,” hence our understandings are both partial and fallible. Yet this humility of fallibility is largely absent in his sermonic approach. I submit now what I think is the most likely underlying “argument” that he employs. I have seen it over and over among Christians who exhibit almost dogmatic certainty in their religious philosophy. It runs roughly as follows:

1. Information from God is true, by definition.

2. Information from mankind is potentially erroneous.

3. The Bible (and perhaps the Spirit of Prophecy) is true. Not just has truth but is never untrue—i.e., it’s inerrant.

4. I (the one making this argument) have examined these truth sources. They are clear to me, and thus, I correctly understand them. Then conclusions I form from my readings are also guaranteed to be God’s truth.

5. If my understanding of these truth sources differs from some other religious views, I can confidently reject all those non-aligned ideas, arguments, and positions (because of step #4). Indeed, I don’t even have to investigate alternatives. Their misalignment with my understood God-truth already invalidates them.

Now, before scrutinizing the steps of this argument, there are some things initially worth noting:

• The argument is straightforward and thus quite easy to understand. That simplicity can be attractive because investigating alternatives might involve considerable work, like digging into details of the positions contra your current beliefs in order to see if those different views have any merit.

• It appears to be obviously true. After all, God-knowledge is certainly superior to human-knowledge.

• This approach will never uncover error. Step #4 assures that.

Now, in analyzing the argument’s logic, the first two points are incontrovertible. And science is human-derived, so it falls under the #2 point of fallibility. But #3 goes awry with the necessity for inerrancy. If these sources might contain error you would have to—fallibly—judge whether you are reading a truth-part or not. Then #4 is an even bigger problem. Humans cannot perfectly comprehend any source, even if it was penned by God directly. That doesn’t mean that the source is thereby uninspired, or your understanding is untrue, or you cannot apply the material for religious profit. But the whole argument is trying to approach certainty. And, if you could get through #4 with certainty, then #5 does indeed follow, avoiding a great deal of messy ambiguity. That’s highly attractive!

Wilson and the Age of the Earth

Let me be less abstract now and exemplify the above by considering Wilson’s contention that the earth was created some 6,000 years ago. At the sermon’s 18-minute mark, he makes an extemporaneous addition to the prepared text. I have transcribed that portion with slight redaction:

I earnestly appeal to you . . . do not allow anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances to negatively influence you to believe anything but Bible truth that tells us that this earth . . . was created by God . . . in six literal, consecutive days, just like we experience today, recently. In fact, I will share with you my personal conviction . . . in the Spirit of Prophecy, which I believe was inspired, just as God inspired all prophets, tells us that this earth was created about . . . 6,000 years ago. I want to tell you, I believe that statement. By God’s grace I want you to understand, why would you be a Seventh-day Adventist if in the very fourth commandment God tells us to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy . . . why would you keep the seventh-day Sabbath literally if God was telling you a big fable and story and was fooling you? Be a Seventh-day Adventist because you believe God created this earth in six literal, consecutive days, recently.

There are multiple problems here.

First, the dominant mode of “argument” is simply a passionate appeal. Alright, Wilson has some strongly-held convictions. And his position is the official church belief (fundamental belief #6, albeit considerably modified toward Wilson’s understanding in 2015). But, like the rest of his sermon, why should we be expected to accept this view without possibility of error? Simply because he strongly implores us to do so? And, just because a given doctrine is church orthodoxy, that shouldn’t make it above reexamination.

Next, he equates his positions to “Bible truth.” He has not demonstrated that they are, but if he can equate them without advancing a compelling argument, then the warranting authority switches from Wilson to God. Very helpful. He also claims that if 6,000 years is not biblical, then God is fooling you and the story is a fable. Again, Wilson produces a false dilemma. Either 6,000 years or God’s a liar?  There is no necessity for giving us only two options. Wilson knows that a lying God is nonsense, by definition, so this is not a real choice for believers. Thus, only his position is left.

And the Bible does not tell us the earth was created 6,000 years ago. Ellen White does. So, his warrant for elevating this understanding to God-truth is because he believes: 1) Ellen White was inspired by God (fine so far), but also 2) that she is inerrant. She has to be; otherwise, Wilson would need to concede the possibility that, in this case, she might be mistaken. But because her writings are presumed to be wall-to-wall inspired, he can apply steps #3 and #4 of the above argument. This has the convenient feature of making any investigation into geological evidence completely unnecessary. Wilson has never given any public indication I’m aware of that he knows anything about geology. But, with the way of reasoning I’m suggesting he employs, you don’t have to!

Wilson next links the Sabbath doctrine, and keeping the day holy, with the necessity for believing in a literal, recent, six-day creation. I will certainly agree that if this view is reality, then it is a support for keeping Sabbath. But necessary? That is a question that deserves some serious theological consideration, not just to be assumed.

What I find here is a passionate and sincere man. But one who wants to will the church into following him, driven by both the fervor of his exhortation and the authority of his position. I have no quarrel with his sincerity. But, as a leader, he gives every indication to me—across his presidency, not just this sermon—as embodying “my way or the highway.” This is exemplified in the above quote by him saying, “Why would you be a Seventh-day Adventist?” to show his amazement at anyone who fails to see this issue his way, thereby implying such people aren’t really fully Adventist, so why would they, or even should they, remain?

Well, I fail to see things his way—on a variety of theological issues. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilson would see people like me as the sort of Adventist who ought to be shaken from the church as part of some “Cleanse and Close.” But my views (and perhaps many like me) are grounded as follows:

1) I am trying to be completely honest in my treatment of the data at hand—both geology and theology. As honest as Wilson believes himself to be. This is not satanic, and it is unreasonable to ask someone to fall in line without considering the underlying rationale of the dissent.

2) I have considerable literacy in geology for a layman, and there is no way I can reconcile my understanding with a flood-generated geologic column. I actually wish it was reconcilable, as one contentious church-dividing topic would then disappear.

3) I strongly differ as to whether Ellen White can justifiably be used as a warrant here. I do not consider her to be inerrant, and I think there is ample evidence to support that view.

Wilson’s Use of Ellen White

I have said Wilson considers White to be inerrant, and I think believing he holds this position is defensible from his speaking and writing over the years. But is an inerrant E.G. White normative Seventh-day Adventist doctrine? When you read fundamental belief #18, the phrase used is “speak with prophetic authority.” And both “prophetic” and “authority” can connote a fairly wide range of meanings. This imprecision, I think, is actually helpful, as it provides legitimacy for different, plausible interpretations. But what it definitely doesn’t demand is inerrancy. So, I would argue that Wilson’s perspective is an overreach, as judged by fundamental belief #18. But he would wish it to be normative, indeed needs it to be so, to underpin his theological conclusions.

Polarization

The passion and institutional influence of Wilson, matched by what I say is an improperly grounded worldview (“Ellen White said it, I believe it, and that settles it”), produces inevitable polarization. Some Adventists welcome his forceful expositions, as they are happy to have a champion. Others, like myself, find both the pressure and arguments employed to be inappropriate and ultimately indefensible, as they are anti-Berean and lean on an extreme view of Ellen White.

It is historically demonstrable that dissent from within the paid church community is risky to one’s career and reputation—more so when an authoritarian mindset of someone like Wilson, regardless of his evident sincerity, holds the power position of GC president. Thus, silence dominates, problems fester, and broad-reach pushback can come almost exclusively from places like Spectrum and Adventist Today. But they are marginalized by the right-wing church, as their obvious liberal perspective gets conflated with their separate but equally important defense of the need for full examination of complicated religious issues.

Ultimately, the church needs to rise above the very human tendency to think and act politically and patriotically. My arguments contra Wilson’s approach would remain even if every single belief in his set of 25 were 100% God-truth, as he maintains. The membership-at-large, including and especially conservatives, needs to see the dysfunctionality of Wilson’s polarizing and demonizing methodology. That will be a daunting task indeed. I am not optimistic.

 


Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is columns editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found by clicking here.

Title image: Ted Wilson preaching at the 2022 GC Session. Photo by Tor Tjeransen / Adventist Media Exchange (CC BY 4.0)

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