At the recent General Conference Annual Council, church president Ted Wilson gave his customary address (reported here and here). The talk was titled “Chosen for Mission” and centered on 16 “confusing interruptions” propagated by the devil to harm Adventism. This speech followed an annual pattern he has used when officially addressing representatives of the Adventist world body. For example, in his 2022 General Conference session sermon, Wilson spoke of 25 “vital truths” to “hold fast” to. And the previous year, again addressing the Annual (Fall) Council, he focused on 14 aberrations harming the church. So, whether emphasizing what we should (2022) or should not (2021, 2023) be doing, Wilson seems intent on drawing lines to demarcate Adventism.
He has certainly been critiqued by Adventist liberals. And in reading such commentary, I find myself significantly aligned with the concerns raised. But I doubt a high percentage of conservative, “historic” Adventists would feel the same. Are we all so hopelessly tribal these days? It’s depressing to think this may be true. But my preferred, hopefully more constructive reaction to such polarization is to try and understand what’s actually going on by examining the underlying arguments employed. Wilson is certainly the church's most visible and influential leader and thus a sort of “point man” for historic Adventism. But he is also just one instantiation of a widely-held, traditionalist perspective.
Ted Wilson may be polarizing, but he certainly gives every appearance of trying to lead. His determined, repetitive, and strident calls for adherence to his vision are clearly more directive than if he were to just focus on administrivia. And he is generally advocating for what a majority of Adventist Church members would consider orthodoxy. Thus, such views arguably should have “pride of place”—that is, 28-belief normative, unless good reasons for change can be provided.
So, given Wilson’s (and other like-minded, highly-placed church officials’) proactive doctrinal advocacy, shouldn’t this exemplify good leadership?
I don’t think so, and I will argue that my critique is not tied to the specific positions that Wilson & Co. advocate for. The leadership problems are generic.
Limits to Authority
Wilson is making what’s known as an “argument from authority” at its most surface level. This, in essence, means that because an influential figure advocates for a certain position, those who have confidence in that person should accept their position as trustworthy. But immediately underlying Wilson’s personal exhortation is a continual reference to a proffered-as-inerrant corroboration from Ellen White. He implies that he understands her correctly, thus adding divine inspiration to undergird his own authority.
But even Wilson-affirming Adventists ought to agree there are limitations in such appeals to authority. To see this more clearly, consider an analogous and not-so-hypothetical example. Instead of Wilson’s various exhortation addresses, what if the same approach was carried out by the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon)? In this case, the LDS church president is also considered a “prophet, seer, and revelator,” so the inspiration-warrant is built into one package, as compared to Wilson fronting for Ellen White’s authority.
Would an Adventist be content if the Mormon leader exhorted his followers to adhere to all their church orthodoxies because he said so? I think not. But why? Is it acceptable for our leader to exhort the faithful to hold fast to Adventist understanding in this way if it’s not equally acceptable for the LDS president to do so? The only difference would be that we think we are right and they are wrong. But how is that argument persuasive for anyone not already convinced of the message?
To next examine this underlying generic leadership problem, I need to briefly explain the structure of a formal argument. Wilson packages many positions in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion, but each issue is separable and can be examined individually under a formal argument structure. So, what would that look like?
First, there are two “arguers.” I’ll call them Advocate (A) and Dissenter (D). There is a proposition under consideration that A believes is right, but D doesn’t. The “argument” proceeds in a back-and-forth fashion, something like innings in baseball.
A1) The proposition is stated by A, including rationale explaining why it is supposedly true.
D1) It’s possible that A1 is so persuasive that, at this point, D will agree with their proposition. That’s very unlikely but, if so, the “argument” now concludes in favor of A’s position. Realistically, D does not agree, and now explains the position of dissent, giving rationale why A1 should not be accepted.
A2) A then considers the D1 argument and, again, can decide to agree with D or not. Usually not. So, A is then expected to proceed by possibly modifying the initial proposition and/or giving new, additional reasons for why D1 should be rejected, in full or in part.
D2, etc.) We continue, potentially “forever,” and often without resolution. But each step in this back-and-forth model fosters the evolution of the original A1 proposition based on the modifiers that D proposes, which are either (partially) accepted or rejected because A can satisfactorily rebut (some of) what D has to offer.
But what do we see from Ted Wilson? He states his positions—a collection of (separable) A1 claims. But most of these positions have been previously debated. That is, there are many D1 arguments already “out there” contra Wilson’s A1 assertions. Now, it’s possible he is unaware of them. If so, he is being negligent, as they are widely known and articulated both inside and outside of the denomination. It’s also possible he knows of them and explicitly chooses to be non-responsive. This would amount to stonewalling.
For a brief elaboration, consider (quite incompletely) several D1 arguments against A1 claims:
Young Earth Creationism (YEC): the overwhelming consensus of science is that the earth is very old. The arguments historically made by YEC contain thoroughly demonstrated inadequacies. They have not scratched the surface in answering the extensive, interlocking theories of conventional science. And it’s a tough sell to claim that conventional science is a conspiracy of atheism. It’s also very problematic to say that science is irrelevant because we know inspiration mandates a young earth.
Homosexuality: traditional Adventists, like many of their evangelical counterparts, lean on the so-called “clobber texts” to warrant their A1 position on this matter. But there are at least two broadly-argued responses that are unaddressed:
1) The physiological argument that much of homosexuality is not chosen behavior but rather physically innate and thus cannot be categorized as moral/sinful.
2) The complexities of biblical interpretation. Why should these cobbled verses be taken as an exhaustive position? They may reference a subset of homosexuality that was the only position visible to the biblical author. This gets us into the general disagreement about how we interpret the Bible.
Hermeneutics: Wilson continually speaks about taking the Bible as a “plain reading.” He stays firmly away from higher criticism and holds instead to the “historical-grammatical” method. But, in practice, they do the same work. Wilson does not respond (via an A2) to the scholarship and contextual/linguistic interpretation possibilities that can make a so-called “plain reading” incorrect.
This is a tiny D1 sampling. The main point here is what isn’t happening. Wilson is not engaging with the state of the argument by formulating and articulating any A2s in response to serious D1 rebuttals. Instead, year after year, he reiterates A1s. This is not what a good leader does. They should instead recognize the need to respond to serious criticism and do so as fairly and completely as possible.
Modernity and the “Long Argument”
How does one ground belief? Simply by accepting authority or by expecting evidence and argumentation to justify it? One of the major intellectual threads of Western culture—which has traversed time from (at minimum) late antiquity to modernity—has been the issue of received authority. This has nominally been embodied in issues surrounding the Catholic Church, but it’s also present in philosophy beyond parochial borders.
Martin Luther’s 95 theses were a significant example of this challenge to received authority. So too was the eventual overthrow of Ptolemaic cosmology in favor of Copernican. And, within medieval philosophy/theology, there was also the first dazzle of Aristotle’s depth and brilliance, followed by a long authoritative entrenchment that made everything Aristotelian stand as unassailable truth.
A pivot-milestone came from Francis Bacon, who articulated, in his New Organon, a concept we now call the “scientific method.” And, while his focus was the physical world, the overall approach is both valid and expected in the metaphysical realm as well. It comes down to modernity’s expectation that a belief should be justified in serious ways. This is considerably harder for non-physical assertions, but the need for evidence and reasoning remains. The “long argument,” then, is a tug-of-war between those advocating received authority versus those challenging it. And modernity has significantly chosen the position against received authority. The success of science has certainly played a part, but appeal to authority—even buttressed with presumed inspiration—has now become a non-starter.
The Followership Consequences
Wilson complains in his addresses that too many Adventists are not following his vision of orthodoxy. I infer he attributes this to a partly Laodicean constituency, with the “remedy” being the so-called “shaking”—where Adventism is winnowed down to only true believers who will persevere throughout the coming “time of trouble.” I don’t think this is wrong, per se, but it should certainly not be viewed as the whole answer, convenient as that might be.
What is much more inconvenient, however, for those aligning with Wilson and his leadership methodology, is that received authority is generally inadequate for modern people. Consequently, many Adventists are not incentivized to follow such leadership and won’t get behind his agenda. They expect their leaders to adequately defend the direction they wish to lead. To mislabel principled dissent as Laodicea is, minimally, to misunderstand the followership problem, but it also scapegoats and demonizes.
I’ve said earlier that this essay is intended to point to generic leadership problems. I reiterate this because it is easy to make this problem personal, merely focusing on Ted Wilson. But the crucial concern I have is not about him or anyone else. It’s whether Adventism will have a future in modernity. It took the Catholic Church 359 years to acknowledge that Galileo was right. Adventism is unlikely to have that much shelf life.
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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: Lucas Cardino / Adventist Media Exchange (CC BY 4.0)
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