The Embarrassment of Adventism’s Corporate Guilt

SDA General Conference President, Ted Wilson
SDA General Conference President, Ted Wilson

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of the Seventh-day Adventist church. In honor of this event, General Conference president Ted Wilson addressed the members of the world-wide organization’s executive committee at the Seventh-day Adventist Tabernacle in Battle Creek, Michigan, the city where Adventists officially incorporated. In his Sabbath, April 13 sermon, Wilson emphasized that they “should have been home by now,” and asked why they should celebrate any more anniversaries when they “could be in heaven”. He further asked the members if they had been “as faithful to God’s commands and counsels as they might have been.” Wilson reminded the congregation that God had called them to a unique message and mission, and he asked them how long they, like unfaithful Israel, would keep breaking their promises to God. 

Wilson chided members for failing to be faithful in carrying out the work of declaring the Adventist gospel—the Three Angels’ Messages—to the whole world so the end could come. He then challenged them to proclaim those messages, to “reap the results from The Great Controversy Project”, and to commit to enter New York and other cities with their new “Mission to the Cities” project. Moreover, he reminded them that members should be fully utilizing the “right arm of the Gospel,” the organization’s comprehensive health message. 

 Wilson reminded his flock that the Seventh-day Adventist church is “uniquely intended for this movement”, and its special message will not pass to another group. “You and I are part of the final church God has prepared.” He also assured them that “the General Conference will continue to stand firm for God’s truth as the overall supervising body of God’s worldwide work. It will not lessen its strong guiding and nurturing role over all Seventh-day Adventists worldwide until the very events of history occur when ultimately religious persecution prevents organizations from functioning. The General Conference, by God’s grace and His power, will not be decentralized, neutralized or sidelined.”


Unpacking the language

Wilson’s scold, suggesting that members have not been faithful to God, and his assignment of guilt for not being “home by now” are both taken directly from Ellen White’s declarations that God has delayed Christ’s return because Adventists have failed to do their work.  She wrote in The Desire of Ages, pp. 633-34, “By giving the gospel to the world it is in our power to hasten our Lord’s return. We are not only to look for but to hasten the coming of the day of God. 2 Peter 3:12, margin. Had the church of Christ done her appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would before this have been warned, and the Lord Jesus would have come to our earth in power and great glory.”

In 1900 she put guilt-inducing pressure on her flock with these words: “Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69).

Three years later she wrote in the General Conference Bulletin, dated March 30, 1903, “I know that if the people of God had preserved a living connection with Him, if they had obeyed His Word, they would today be in the heavenly Canaan.”

The fact is, Seventh-day Adventism was born out of a failed prophecy that Christ would return on October 22, 1844. When Adventist leaders refused to admit they had sinned by date-setting, they devised an alternative explanation for the failed date: Jesus moved on that date from the heavenly holy place into the most holy place and began the investigative judgment in which Christ determines who of those who profess Him have truly repented of all their sins and thus are worthy to have their sins placed on Satan the scapegoat and carried out of heaven into the lake of fire.

The founding Adventists soon added a belief in the Sabbath as the seal of God, Sunday-worship as the mark of the beast, and a mandate to tell the world their unique “gospel”: the news that the three angels of Revelation 14:6-10 carry the last message for the world. In a nutshell, this is the message: The first angel calls everyone to remember that God is the creator, and everyone is to worship Him on the seventh day, the day He created to be the Sabbath. The second angel announces that Babylon, “apostate Protestantism” and the Catholics who have caused the whole world to drink the wine of false Sunday worship, has fallen. The third angel declares that anyone who worships the beast or his image (by worshiping on Sunday) will receive the mark of the beast. These three angels’ messages are the Adventist gospel. It is this call to come out of Sunday worship and to join the remnant church that is the work the Adventists have not finished, and Jesus, according to Ellen White and Adventist theology, will not return until His people have finished the work.

As a true Adventist, Ted Wilson is consistent in scolding his flock for still being here to celebrate 150 years of existence. He knows that Adventists are losing their sense of urgency; they’re beginning to question when or if Jesus’ soon return will happen. So he’s reminding them what “inspiration” has told them: Jesus will return. There will be no other last day remnant church or message. Adventism is the new Israel. They have disobeyed and are still wandering in the figurative wilderness, but the day is coming when the Sunday law will be passed, and the Adventists will finally be silenced by religious persecution.

Before that awful day, they must finish the work. They must reap the fruit of their recently completed Great Controversy Project, which entailed the world organization disseminating millions of copies of White’s flagship book, The Great Controversy, in various editions and in all the major world languages. They must throw themselves into their current project to conduct evangelistic meetings in the major cities of the world, not only presenting the Adventist message but also training lay evangelists to continue the local work after the evangelists and programs leave.

Significantly, Wilson reminds his flock of White’s instructions: they are to use the “right arm of the Gospel”, their “health message”, to garner interest and entice people back to hear the Adventist message. They are to use health screenings, vegetarian cooking schools, community heart health classes, and health food stores and restaurants to introduce people to Adventism.

Wilson’s message is urgent. Adventists should feel embarrassed by their corporate failure to finish the work. Jesus has not yet returned because they, Seventh-day Adventists, have failed to preach the Three Angels’ Messages to all the world and they have thus far failed to reproduce the character of Christ—perfect law-keeping—so Jesus can return. 

Wilson assures his flock that the General Conference itself will not be “decentralized, neutralized, or sidelined”—in spite of many Adventists’ deviation from proclaiming historic Adventism. He will not let them off the hook; they have one reason to exist: to finish the work so Jesus will come back.

Wilson’s most powerful tool is the shame he can generate by reminding his beleaguered flock that they have failed God. They have prevented His return, and only they can make it happen. Ellen White summed up this Adventist dilemma in 1909 when she wrote, “If every soldier of Christ had done his duty, if every watchman on the walls of Zion had given the trumpet a certain sound, the world might ere this have heard the message of warning. But the work is years behind. While men have slept, Satan has stolen a march upon us” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 29).

Adventism’s corporate guilt is the burden Wilson carries as its president. He needs his faithless flock to pick up the burden and help him carry it into glory.

For further reading, the source link to the Adventist Review article by Mark Kellner can be found here: “No More Anniversaries, Wilson Says in Spring Meeting Sermon”.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Colleen Tinker, the editor of Proclamation! magazine, and her husband Richard left Adventism in 1998 with their two sons, Roy and Nathanael, who were in grades six and ten. They have co-led the Former Adventist Fellowship Bible study at Trinity Church in Redlands, California, since 1999. Colleen, a graduate of Walla Walla University, is a former high school English teacher and also the former managing editor of Adventist Today magazine. She is also a small-group discussion leader for Trinity Women’s ministries. Colleen became the stepmother of Roy and Nathanael in 1989, and in 2008 she adopted them. Romans 8:15-17 has assumed new depth and significance for her and Richard since she and her sons chose to claim each other legally and permanently. She and Richard share their office with Rocky the sheltie, and they love having a new granddaughter.[/author_info] [/author]

Colleen Tinker

Colleen Tinker

Colleen Tinker, the editor of Proclamation! magazine, and her husband Richard left Adventism in 1998 with their two sons, Roy and Nathanael, who were in grades six and ten. They have co-led the Former Adventist Fellowship since 1999. Colleen, a graduate of Walla Walla University, is a former high school English teacher and also the former managing editor of Adventist Today magazine. Colleen became the stepmother of Roy and Nathanael in 1989, and in 2008 she adopted them. Romans 8:15-17 has assumed new depth and significance for her and Richard since she and her sons chose to claim each other legally and permanently. She and Richard share an office and a commitment to sharing the gospel of the true Jesus with all of those seeking a way out of the bondage of the false gospel of Adventism.
Colleen Tinker

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  1. Colleen,

    Thanks for this post which is both enlightening and saddening at the same time. While you have clearly pointed out the Adventist sources for this notion “we should have all been home ere now” etc, and I applaud your clarity in doing so, as someone who is in the Catholic Tradition, this entire idea nonplusses me.

    I have not been an Adventist in any sense for more than 35 years, and I left Protestantism over 20 years ago. Both these two departures were as as a consequence of my intensive and still-ongoing research into Church History, Canon History, and the History of Theology (currently all Church Fathers in the Eerdmans series and over 2m pages of secondary sources – not all of it in English).

    You have validly and correctly pointed out the psychological trauma aspect of this guilt tripping imposed by Ted Wilson.

    Can I add something to this critique.

    This notion of “the church” being “responsible” in at least some way for the “hastening of the return of Yeshua” has been a standard component of *every* major heresy in the millennium of the undivided Church from 49CE (Acts 15 Council) to 1054 (the great schism between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Church.

    It was never present in the “Jerusalem-Central” Tradition of St John the Evangelist and St Joseph of Arimathea – and thus the Celtic Church prior to 597CE.

    It may not have been the major feature of their particular heresy, but it was there in their heresy nevertheless, to some degree.

    After 1054, neither medieval Rome nor Romanov (Russian) Orthodoxy, in all their triumphalistic arrogance, had the nerve to advance this notion in support for their triumphalism.

    While I do stand willing to be corrected on this (remember I am no Protestant), it is my understanding of Protestantism that none of the schisms of the magesterial Protestantism of the 16th C generated this notion either.

    And so on ecclesiology grounds alone, in the field of the history of theology, this notion is highly suspect.

    To cut the story short, and bring it to the threshold of Adventism, this notion is a natural outgrowth of and from Puritan/Calvinist messianism set in the context of secular American particularism, with the “good-ole US of A being God’s instrument of bringing about the advent of the messianic Kingdom.

    If you look at some aspects of American Protestant Evangelical Zionism with respect to Israel, we also see it there: with the idea that the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem by human activity being seen as the final trigger for the Second Advent coming to pass. And the earlier this Temple can be rebuilt, the earlier Armageddon and the Second Advent can be brought to pass.

    Ever since the death of St John the Evangelist in or around 100 CE, the urge to reject Yeshua’s counsel in Acts 1:7 and give God a “helping-hand” in the process has been a classic temptation for the Church. Here, it is wisdom to obey Yeshua and be a wise virgin, ready for an “any-time” Second Advent, so that when it happens, we shall be found ready.

    I am reminded of Martin Luther’s riposte to the Radical Protestants who also were seduced by the siren-call of this notion. When asked the theoretical question of what he would do if he were told that the Second Coming and Last Judgment was to be literally “tomorrow” he replied, “I will go out and plant a tree.”

    May we all have this sagacity of Luther when it comes to this notion.

    Blessings abundant in Yeshua,

  2. I cannot trace the idea of a human-controlled timeline for Christ’s return to any spot in church history; I simply have not read enough church history to know where this idea first surfaced. I do know this: the triumphalistic idea that “the church” brings in the kingdom or was God’s tool for claiming the world for God predated the Puritans. The Crusades were actually driven by a triumphalistic idea that as God’s people, the Catholic Christians were to break the power of the infidels and claim the world for God’s kingdom.

    Here’s the bottom line: a false gospel will always twist the sovereign power of God and warp the fact of human responsibility. Scripture teaches clearly that Christ’s coming will occur exactly on time, and God knows the time. Concurrently, we are to be Jesus’ witnesses and make disciples. God’s sovereign timing and my human responsibility exist concurrently, and both have eternal significance.

    How these apparently contradictory things exist concurrently we are not told. But Scripture says they are both true. False gospels warp the truth and downplay the sovereign power of God.

  3. I think the problem is reading into the Bible what the Bible doesn’t actually say (ie. eisegesis). The way I remember being taught and then taught my students in Adventism (mind you that was 32 years ago) is that Jesus commanded us to take the gospel (read Adventist truth) to the whole world and then the end would come. They definitely link the gospel commission with the end of the world. So, if this is true, then the church is responsible for whether the second coming will happen sooner or later. This was traditional Adventist theology, and it’s interesting that Wilson’s speech reveals that Adventism remains the same despite its “evangelical window dressing.”

    Now, carefully read the following texts (all from ESV, but all the other versions read the same): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19,20. “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Mark 16:15. Notice that Jesus commands the disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel, make disciples, and teach what he commanded them in Matthew 28 and Mark 16. He mentions that he’ll be with them “always.”

    Now notice his words in Matthew 24: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:14. He simply states that the gospel will be proclaimed and then the end will come. In this text he doesn’t mention the disciples’ activity, but simply states the cause and result. In our human way of thinking, we assume that Jesus is talking about his disciples’ work in Matthew 24 by connecting it to Matthew 28 and then Mark 16.

    I think Colleen is correct in saying that Christ commands us to spread the gospel, but that it is God’s work. The gospel WILL BE PROCLAIMED throughout the whole world and then THE END WILL COME. There is certainty in this statement without any mention of man’s effort or responsibility. Perhaps it will be literal angels that deliver the three angels’ messages of Revelation.

    The bottom line? God is sovereign. It is all about Jesus. It has always been his creation, his work, his salvation, his grace, and his love. It is his gospel, and he will complete the work. But, he allows us to participate in his work.

    To put the responsibility completely on the church or man’s effort, as Wilson obviously does, means the glory and honor go to man instead of to God. This is blasphemy!

  4. Colleen and Craig,

    Thank you both for your thoughtful and useful contributions. After some considerable reflection I think I can trace the idea from its beginnings. And this is in addition to what I have said above. And in saying this, I remain nonplussed. How otherwise sane people, supposedly informed by Yeshua’s teaching, could get caught up in all this. Its emergence in the multiplicity of heresies in the first millennium of Church history were, after Constantine, merely attempts to provide a counter-model to that prevailing at the official level.

    Within the Pauline/Imperial Roman Church, the Arian Emperor Constantine was, perhaps, the originator of the idea. Not in what he said in words, but what he said in stone with his Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. . . .

    “The original church of the Holy Apostles was dedicated in about 330 by Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman Empire. The church was unfinished when Constantine died in 337, and it was brought to completion by his son and successor Constantius II, who buried his father’s remains there. The church was dedicated to the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, and it was the Emperor’s intention to gather relics of all the Apostles in the church. In the event, only relics of Saint Andrew, Saint Luke and Saint Timothy (the latter two not strictly apostles) were acquired, and in later centuries it came to be assumed that the church was dedicated to these three only.

    “By the reign of the Emperor Justinian I the church was no longer considered grand enough, and a new Church of the Holy Apostles was built on the same site. The historian Procopius attributes the rebuilding to Justinian, while the writer known as Pseudo-Codinus attributes it to the Empress Theodora. The new church was designed and built by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, and was consecrated on 28 June 550. The relics of Constantine and the three saints were re-installed in the new church, and a mausoleum for Justinian and his family was built at the end of its northern arm.

    “For more than 700 years the church of the Holy Apostles was the second-most important church in Constantinople, after that of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). But whereas the church of the Holy Wisdom was in the oldest part of the city, that of the Holy Apostles stood in the centre of the newer part of the much expanded imperial capital, on the great thoroughfare called Mese Odós (English: Central Street), and was the busiest church in the city. Most emperors and many patriarchs and bishops were buried in the church, and their relics were venerated by the faithful for centuries.”


    Constantine’s sarcophagus was to be located in the centre of this basilica – clearly preaching through placement in stone that he, Constantine, was now “Chief of the Apostles” – displacing Yeshua from this role. And that he (and his political successors), rather than Yeshua and his angels, by direct political action in collaboration with the preaching by his ecclesiastical appointees (commencing with Pope Sylvester), was inaugurating and spreading the prophesied millennial kingdom spoken of by St John the Evangelist in Revelation.

    This idea and model was exported to the West with the Rise of the Papal States and Carolingians concurrent with the Byzantine Empire. After the fall of Byzantium, this idea was taken up by the Russians, the Bourbons, the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns.

    The Arian Templars also embodied this idea, and their first foray in implementing the millennial kingdom was with the Crusades, as you, Colleen have so rightly pointed out. With the collapse of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099 – 1291), this idea was transferred with the Templars to Scotland in 1307 with the fall of the Templars in France. It was entrenched in Scotland by 1314 (the date of the Battle of Bannockburn). It later flowed into the Arian Scottish Rite Freemasonry with the banning of the Templars there, and later into the equally Arian Protestant Rosicrucianism in both Germany and the Netherlands.

    Within Rome, its political preaching dimension was expressed in the Dominicans (OP) and the Redemptorists (CSSR).

    With the rise of the at least semi-Arian Reformed Tradition, this idea flowed from Scottish Rite Freemasonry into Presbyterianism and the English Nonconformist Puritans, and from Rosicrucianism into the Dutch Reformed Kerk and Anglican Puritanism – with their idea of the “godly-magistrate” and “godly-King”. It also entered the State Lutherans in Germany and Scandinavia from Rosicrucianism.

    It was exported to America with the Mayflower and Cotton Mather, and caused the rise of the Puritan theocracies in a number of the New England Colonies (with their “blue” Sunday Laws). Their English-language “Bible” was the KJV whose chief translator was the Rosicrucian and esotericist Robert Fludd.

    Up to this point it was a purely political idea with subordinate and supporting ecclesiastical action, with the “godly state” being the actual “incarnation” of the Johannine Millennial Kingdom.

    In the Great Awakening, we see rise of the idea that the “preaching of the Gospel” (i.e. a Protestant Evangelical “gospel”, rather than a state-approved Byzantine or Papal one), in addition to (or instead of) direct political action where possible, would be the primary means of manifesting the millennial kingdom – in accordance with the NT texts quoted by Craig.

    In this “Awakening”, the idea that this “Preaching” by all – not just clergy, (thus the rise of the cursed Evangelical sermon) as much as political action, would be the compulsory “prerequisite” for the coming of Second Advent, took hold. This caused the rise of Evangelical foreign missions and the plethora of “mission societies”.

    With this “Awakening” came the secular idea (borrowed from the business community) of “mapping” the sequence of events required to see the advent of this “Kingdom” come to pass (as in some building-project). Thus the variety of “end-times” charts showing the expected progress towards this goal.

    The final layer for an “end-times” schema for heretics came from those on the fringes of Protestantism – the “persecution-complex” / “persecution-paranoia” – where the heretical fringe would be the victims of physical persecution for holding fast to their heresy. This persecution of them, together with their attempts at perfection in the face of persecution, was also duly “mapped” in their end-times charts.

    However, the means towards implementing this millennial end never changed: direct human action – whether by the Political / Military process (pace Constantine et al), or by Evangelical Preaching (pace the “Awakening”). Or, as in British Imperial India prior to 1857, by a combination of the two.

    I trust that this assists.

    Craig, you are 110%+ right:

    “The bottom line? God is sovereign. It is all about Jesus. It has always been his creation, his work, his salvation, his grace, and his love. It is his gospel, and he will complete the work. But, he allows us to participate in his work.

    “To put the responsibility completely on the church or man’s effort, as Wilson obviously does, means the glory and honor go to man instead of to God. This is blasphemy!”

    May Yeshua abundantly bless you both as you pursue giving glory to God – ALONE!

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