Skip to content

Twenty-Six Years under Wilson Leadership: a Review (2 of 2)


In my last column, I reflected on Elder Neal Wilson’s presidency of the General Conference (GC) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the 1980s. This piece concludes my assessment of the Wilsons’ combined 26 years at the church helm as I now examine his son Ted Wilson’s turn as top leader.

In 1974, at age 24, Ted Wilson began his Adventist career as a local pastor in the Greater New York Conference. His pastorate lasted two years until he was appointed as the conference’s director of Metropolitan Ministries. Young Ted never went back to local church pastoring again. In 1981, 31-year-old Ted, whose resume then consisted of two years in a local church and five years as a conference ministries director, went to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, as the newly created Africa-Indian Ocean Division’s Ministries Department head. Five years later, he would become executive secretary of this same division.

From here on, the path was always upward, including two years at the GC secretariat, five years in Russia as president of the Euro-Asia Division, and finally two five-year terms as vice-president of the GC. Tracking Ted Wilson’s resume suggests two things to me about the inner workings of institutional Adventism. First, it is almost imperative to know people in higher denominational circles if one hopes for a quick climb up the church ladder. Ted had only seven years in church employment before landing a division department directorship, a position normally attained only after long experience.

Second, his resume is instructive in that it suggests the kind of leader he would become: an ideologue who seems to prioritize personal beliefs over administrative execution. Ted Wilson had only two years of interacting directly with parishioners and learning from a local church setting. Then he followed this limited lay-people experience with a career of interaction with more insular, institutional people, who more likely shared his beliefs.

In 2010, Ted Wilson attained the GC presidency that he seemed to have been groomed for since his first denominational job. And, like his father before him, his tenure has been controversial from the start. But what separates the two Wilsons is Ted’s use, or misuse, of church apparatus to achieve his aims. None of the dogmatic conservative views he has fixated on during his presidency are novel, but his advocacy for them is unmatched by any previous GC president. In this essay, I will discuss two driving forces that I believe have guided his policy choices and created conflicts throughout his unprecedented three five-year terms in office: biblical literalism on theological issues and resistance to societal change.

For 11 years before Ted became GC president, Jan Paulsen occupied that office. He was a European Adventist academic and statesman known for his behind-the-scenes consensus-building management style. Under Paulsen, the church avoided taking scientific positions that were in obvious conflict with contemporary understanding, as this had created credibility problems with the church’s youth and its scientific community. Nowhere was this approach more evident than the church’s reading of Genesis on origins and how it negotiated the pitfalls of literal/symbolic time.

Paulsen managed the different interests in the church on this issue by broadening the Adventist “tent.” He advocated for elasticity in our belief set with the goal of attracting and accommodating a larger Adventist constituency. Much to the chagrin of the conservative right, Paulsen encouraged ambiguity, generalization, and metaphoric language in finessing the 28 Fundamental Belief statements. While this reduced contentious polarization on such issues as young-Earth creationism, many hardline conservatives disapproved of his approach. For them, the entire Bible is best approached as a strictly literal document, one that could undoubtedly be correctly read with a modern mind.

It was against this background that Paulsen’s cautious approach ended when Ted Wilson became president. And in 2015, at his first opportunity to rework the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, he successfully got the Draft Committee to adopt extra literalism and specificity, rephrasing the church’s beliefs. Lawrence Geraty summed up the explanation from Angel Rodriguez, the Draft Committee chair, for the changes made to the creation statement in Belief #6:

First, they decided not to use ambiguous words that would allow evolutionary thinking.  Second, the word “recent” was necessary to combat the notion of “deep time”; the biblical genealogies place creation not that long ago, even though we know they are incomplete.  Third, “SDAs assume the history of our planet began in Genesis 1,” so a literal reading of Genesis is necessary and seven literal days has to be a part of the statement.

As would become his practice when dealing with contentious issues, before the amendment came to a vote, Ted Wilson took to the microphone in praise of the changes:

I personally endorse it. This wording will help us in our work. You can put a spin on any word, such as "recent," but it means "not old." There is no room for theistic evolution. I will tell you I personally believe, based on the Spirit of Prophecy, that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. 

As if Ted’s personal beliefs should settle all disputes in Adventism. But he seemed to know his audience because, after this interjection, adoption was swift. It became even more esoteric when the Geoscience Research Institute requested and was granted a word change, (“global” for “worldwide”) in Fundamental Belief #8. Apparently, there was concern that the original choice might undercut the literalistic meaning that the Genesis flood covered every inch of the world. In this manner, the 2015 Draft Committee combed through the 28 Fundamental Belief statements, scrubbing the language.

But Wilson’s legacy will hinge more centrally on his perceived anti-egalitarianism, as manifested in his position on whether women are equal to men, as pastors and administrators. The shorthand label for this dispute is “women’s ordination” and the central question is: should women be ordained into Adventist ministry as their male counterparts are? Wilson says no, and he has taken extraordinary steps to stop this from happening.

While the role of women in ministry has had a long and often contentious history in Adventism, strides were made under Paulsen’s leadership for women to attain parity with men. For example, in 2005, Ella Simmons, an academic with no pastoral training, was nominated by Paulsen and subsequently overwhelmingly elected as the first woman GC vice president. So, there was willingness to see more women in higher leadership within the church, even to the General Conference. Therefore, when the Columbia Union Conference (Ted’s home union) scheduled a vote at their constituency meeting in July 2012 to make their ordination policy gender-neutral, it was not such a radical move. A month later, the Pacific Union Conference followed suit. The North German Union would vote similarly, all overwhelmingly in favor of parity in their ordination practices despite threats of “dire” and “serious consequences” from Ted Wilson, who wanted unions to stop until yet another study was conducted on the issue.

This is how the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) became the largest study ever embarked on by the Adventist Church. It had been authorized in 2011 by the GC Administrative Committee, with the “aim of reaching consensus on as many points as possible.” And the General Conference Biblical Research Institute was tasked with helping all 13 divisions to form division-wide TOSCs. From its inception, the committee's mandate was to present a final consensus report to the delegates at the 2015 GC Session, presumably to provide a framework for voting on women’s ordination. But midway through the process, as the consensus statements began to take shape, it was evident that there was insufficient biblical backing for male-only ordination. This would be confirmed in the final TOSC consensus statement in its 2014 report. Here, in part, are some relevant excerpts:

The biblical evidence is clear: there is nothing spiritually, ethically, or morally wrong with ordaining women to the gospel ministry.    


The Bible does not explicitly command or forbid the ordination of women to ministry. Adventists who love the Lord and take the Scriptures seriously as the inspired Word of God have come to different conclusions using the same Bible on the same subject.    


Even though there is no explicit and direct biblical statement commanding to ordain women to ministry, neither is there any biblical hindrance to doing so. On the contrary, a careful textual and biblical-theological analysis points in the direction of fully including and affirming women in all ministry positions.

These conclusions would be ignored, and the San Antonio delegates would not formally be made aware of such consensus statements, despite the time and resources expended to generate them. Rather, the delegates would be asked to vote on a so-called “compromise” referendum question: “Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No.” A question that lacked the point of reference the TOSC consensus statements could have provided. It came as no surprise, then, that unions who had voted to ordain their pastors before San Antonio without regard to gender felt “played” and continued their ordination practices unabated after San Antonio.

Wilson’s second term would become consumed by struggles with the various unions and their duly elected leaders who believed they held the right to determine their ordination policies. The result was administrative stasis at the church’s highest levels as Ted Wilson sought to delegitimize the so-called recalcitrant union leaders. The maneuvers ranged from:

– The GC threatening to take over “obstinate” unions.
– A proposal that church leaders sign “loyalty pledges” or be denied “voice and vote.”
– Establishing “compliance committees” to enforce GC orthodoxy, only to suspend the same committees a year later.

An extreme example of Wilson’s posture was his refusal to allow Pastor Sandra Roberts’s name to be listed as president of the Southeastern California Conference in the Adventist Archives. She was duly elected by her constituents and served two terms as president. The same constituents who know her best have since elected her as the executive secretary of the Pacific Union Conference. But Ted Wilson would not recognize her offices, because she is a woman.

This 72-year-old leader, who once insinuated that 70-year-olds should not seek renomination to lead the world church, has again been reelected to the GC presidency. Although he’s been leading the church for 13 years, his has been an ideological tenure, tugging at the seams of unity (as opposed to uniformity).

The Wilsons have demonstrated what happens when ecclesiastical power is placed in the hands of persons consumed by dogma. Instead of continuing with the moral work of expanding human rights, they have dedicated themselves to closing doors, particularly regarding the role of women. Neal Wilson went to court to argue in favor of paying women inequitably. When his son became president, one of his first policy enactments was to couple career advancement to higher administrative office with an ordination requirement. Then he fought to prohibit women from being ordained.

Ella Simmons was not ordained when she was elected GC vice-president in 2005. Before Simmons, three other women in pioneer times had also served as vice presidents of the treasury. Ted Wilson’s prohibition, then, is clearly a choice not based on theology or Adventist history. We don’t even address ordination in our Fundamental Beliefs. Nor is it tradition, because during Ellen White’s lifetime (in 1881), the world church voted to ordain women. So his anti-women's ordination stance is both personal and volitional.

The Wilsons have not pointed us to a future our children or historians would be proud of. Their paternalism has set the church back, especially with our youth. The gospel advances an innate egalitarian ethic in which inherited rights take a back seat to individual rights. And in our case, the advantage of privilege is subsumed by equal opportunity. The Wilsons seem to miss this essential principle, that biblical egalitarianism leaves no room for limited liberty: full for men and partial for women. Women were made by the same God who made men. There is something almost sacred about the open invitation to serve in the Master’s vineyard that should not be thwarted by misguided ideological zeal.


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Title illustration by Spectrum. Source images: Tor Tjeransen / AME (CC BY 4.0); Centro de Pesquisas Ellen G. White.

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.