A “Good-Father” or a “God-Father? On Institutional Paternalism

More than 360 Seventh-day Adventist theologians, college and university professors and church administrators, convened in Rome, Italy from June 11-21, for the fourth International Bible Conference (IBC). The gathering, which takes place every few years, seeks to explore a chosen theme associated with theological studies, through the presentation of papers, discussion panels and professional networking. The event is organized by the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), which exists to “promote the study and practice of Adventist theology and lifestyle as understood by the world church,” by providing research-based theological resources and by “facilitating dialogue within the Adventist theological community.” In Rome the chosen theme was eschatology, a word that literally means “the teaching of the last things” and describes the study of last day events and associated subjects. The choice of location (Rome), partnered with the theme (eschatology), is meaningful, explained BRI's sparkling and communicative director Elias Brasil de Souza.

The meetings, although interesting for the multi-faceted human friendship, Christian camaraderie and some breakout sessions, nonetheless appeared as excessively homogeneous, unilateral and paternalistic. No alternative voices were included. No women’s voice, no non-Adventist alternative readings, nothing other than BRI-ATS affirmative and institutionally compliant theologians. As if only Adventists knew what eschatology is all about. Unfortunately that’s not the case. We have not invented Eschatology and today's primary exploratory and fresh theological/cultural ideas on eschatology don’t come from us.

And the same compact, unidirectional and paternalistic tone also flavored the GC president’s sermon on Sabbath morning, June 16, 2018. Everywhere around us world events are pointing to the soon coming of Jesus, said church president Ted Wilson. And it’s time for every member to get involved and do something to spread the news. Based on Matthew 24: 36–39, where Jesus taught that just before His second coming the world will be like “the days of Noah” before the flood, Wilson said there is ample evidence the current situation of our world is making those words a reality. “The world is literally falling apart,” he said. “Politicians can no longer ‘fix’ problems. The social and cultural norms of the past … are disappearing fast.” Calling the meeting in Rome to some extent “ironic,” Wilson also reminded attendees that “the ecumenical landscape is changing daily to reflect the fulfillment of Revelation 13,” which anticipates the rise of a political-religious power that opposes God.

In these “days of Noah,” Wilson explained, Seventh-day Adventists have been called to lift up Christ and His righteousness. It is a call that, according to him, includes going to the great urban centers and getting every member involved in mission. Using the well-known Bible metaphor of the watchman, the president called scholars, theology professors, Bible teachers, and spiritual leaders to “give the trumpet a certain sound” – to be clear and unapologetic about the prophetic narrative based on Bible truth. “Let’s not forget what our pioneers studied, believed, and preached,” Wilson said. He directed his audience to Genesis 6:8, which says that Noah “found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” and called them to measure their efforts against that standard. He asked, “Is [God] pleased with what we are doing as academicians, theologians, administrators, and Bible scholars? Does He find us faithful as Noah was?” He then called attendees to stand like Noah in the proclamation of end-time events, based on the all-connecting grace of Christ. “That same heavenly grace that saved Noah… will save us,” Wilson said.

This “official” and “public” Sabbath sermon was introduced by the allusion to an event that woke up in the GC president an apparent deep pastoral concern. He said he saw that Sabbath morning two of us (theologians) improperly dressed, who chose not to attend the Sabbath morning meeting. Moved by a legitimate pastoral concern he wrote their names down on paper. Not to criticize or accuse them, of course, but to pray for them. And at the due moment, in the sermon, he presented their case – even if he didn’t mention the specific names – to the whole assembly as an example of what not to do.

His allusion can be read in at least two different ways. First, as proof of a meticulous and deep pastoral concern. Or, second, as a sophisticated intimidation strategy. But the unavoidable question underneath, of importance to all Adventists, is: Is it better to have a “good President” rather than a “Machiavellian one”? Is goodness in the GC presidency what really matters? “Good fathers” as much as “good Presidents” can easily become “god-fathers” and “god-Presidents”. This is what institutional paternalism is all about. To have “good presidents” is always very complicated. It's more than a mere question of efficiency. Paternalistic leaders tend to be unidirectional, non-dialogical, ultimate and compact. And this for them is a sign of coherence and fidelity to the Bible, and to the pioneers. They don’t understand another language, another code. Is this attitude based on strong theological convictions? On a monolithic psychological structure? Probably both.

Conviction, coherence and determination are certainly necessary, but are not enough to build up a healthy leadership. “Good presidents”, often don’t understand that churches, as much as mission, have differentiated stages of development. There is an initial stage of formation where things, events and roles must be clear and unidirectional. But in successive stages of maturation the rule is to value and pay attention to the exceptions. Exceptions express a community’s particularity, which emerges only in a true consultation, concertation and conciliation process. In a true concertation process the original plan always goes out modified and enriched. We need to pay attention to institutional paternalism not only because it deforms any leadership but also because it deforms the church itself. The symbiotic twin sister of a paternalistic leadership is a “childish church”. Very efficient and obedient but also unable to elaborate a credible global assessment of itself. This is a church which follows its leaders as illuminated and untouchable Gurus, and is unable to correct its leadership as much as be corrected by it. This is a possible poverty-scenario that Adventism must avoid, and has the means to avoid. But it must increase the dosage of its own religious and cultural awareness, and to work led by the Holy Spirit, knowing that the Holy Spirit doesn't always create certainty, conviction and determination. Sometimes it creates reflection, healthy doubts and changes of orientation. And here the imperfect Adventist European Church has something to say. But this is exactly what the GC presidency is not doing. He is not listening to what these regional churches are trying to say. Fundamentally the Adventist European Church is trying to say that “Church Growth” doesn’t necessarily mean “Church Development”. That quantity doesn’t necessarily make quality. And two important signs of religious and social quality are: first the emergence of internal theological and administrative alternatives, and second, a mature relationship with the outside world. The outside world is not totally good or totally bad. Other Christian institutions also have a divine mission which we must learn to acknowledge.

Three characteristics in the GC president's sermon introduction are deeply questionable because they represent the kind of institutional paternalism that perpetuates the church in a “childish condition”.

1. Judging the appearances.

We need to be affected by what we see in other people but not obsessed by it. If people dress, eat, organize, speak, read or feel in ways that are different than ours we don’t need to feel threatened or create strategies to control them. Even Samuel was tempted to judge Jesse’s children according to their external appearance and presentation. God reminded him that it is more important to see the invisible – the heart. If two Adventist theologians in a Bible conference in Rome wear alternative Sabbath morning attire, that’s not necessarily a pastoral issue.

2. Pretending to know all.

The temptation to pretend to know what people really feel, do or have in mind – based on limited and partial evidence, such as the way they are dressed – is certainly something every leader should avoid. Omniscience only belongs to God, not to us, even if we declare our good intentions.

3. Making it Public

And, if there is legitimate concern about the way some people dress, common sense teaches us to go and speak with them privately, not publicly. And even less create an “Eschatological” concern in an international biblical conference.

Paradoxically, more than a “true-president”, more than a “good-president”, and even less than a “god-president”, what we need today a “wise-president”. And a wise leader is one who, first, doesn’t necessarily accomplish all he/she has planned to do. Exhaustive and complete administrative strategies easily become compulsive, mechanical and even inhumane. Second, what he/she has in mind is never final and ultimate. It is only the initial ingredient that necessarily needs to confront itself with outside events and other people's input. To believe that our best ideas are essentially pure and perfect and that they can only be spoiled by others – is ultimately diabolic. Third, what he/she chooses as the best strategy should always be ambivalent. It can eventually produce good results but never rules out unexpected collateral effects. Not to consider the limits of good strategies is idolatrous and naive.

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.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/hanz-gutierrez

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8876
1 Like

Brave, on the mark, timely, telling the Truth to assumed power is well Needed. I doubt it will be heard let alone be heeded.


Why is this? --------------------



Regarding the “Sabbath Delinquents”–
IS it possible that they were 'good friends" that Sabbath morning. And decided to have
THEIR OWN Sabbath “church” together – just the 2 of them??
Perhaps to pray and read, to discuss what they had been hearing in presentations.
CAN"T TWO OR THREE together celebrate Sabbath together without having to do this
in a “Designated Building”?
IT was OK for President Wilson to pray for these two men — BUT Pres. Wilson was doing
it with the thought that they were desicrating Sabbath by NOT attending the designated
worship space he picked out.


Another great article by one of my favorite authors writing for Spectrum lately. Clear, straightforward, realistic, not intimidated by GC’s powers.

No comments necessary on these two statements. I bet we know exactly what they imply.

Keep writing Dr. Gutierrez!


You see Steve? He didn’t know what was going on with those two theologians, but based on his uneducated judgment he wrote down their names… to pray for them. Pray for what? Did he know that they had any need? And why did he mention it in his sermon? Clearly to send an intimidating message to those individuals and making them know that, “I got your names, boys!”

Why in the world would he pray for them without knowing anything about them at that moment if in Australia he refused to even be in the room knowing that there would be a prayer for a WOMAN being commission-ordained? What is the problem with people like that? Don’t they realize their own hypocrisy?

Regarding writing the theologians’ names down, well… I asked my parakeets, and one of them said to me, “You are not dumb, you know why he wrote those names down! To not forget them later on when he would be looking for their bosses and giving some ‘special instructions’ about those theologians’ future”… Unfortunately, that’s the way it works…

Now, for sure, we all here need to pray for those two poor theologians… :roll_eyes:


LBWLeRoy.B. Washington

It is ironic in the 21st century those same religious controls and intimidations are again in play within the Christian, protestant religious communities and more closely within the Adventist church through autocratic rule, hierarchical administration demanding coerced uniformity, loyalty pledges for conformity; rather than unity through servant leadership; administrators that threaten punishment and sanctions, rather that showing leadership through flexibility allowing different parts our world church to have the autonomy to freely interpret and implement policy within their own territories to meet the cultural norms of their local societies’ under the umbrella of love. The love exhibited by Jesus ultimately embraces unity; E Pluribus Unum (out of many one) was embraced by the founding fathers of the United States of America. This type of unity supports a church that was originally envisioned and structured by our forefathers as being a bottom-up rather than top-down. True biblical leadership is servant-led, who are not threatened by independence of thought, who embraces and welcomes input by membership and is not intimidated. An administration that has the improvisational, adaptable abilities, skills, discipline and experience to flexibly interpret and apply written policy, not become a slave to it, and not use it as a whip. Do we make mistakes, yes? Is it a smooth process, no? We are humans saved by the grace of God, and it can get messy. But with God on our sides we can be victorious. An orchestra seldom gets it right on the first practice, but by the performance, what beautiful music.

The reverse appears to happening today in religious organizations across the board as they become more institutionalized. Our Church is no exception and in need of:
• Administrators who are aware of policy but can hear the voice of the people; who are loyal to doctrine; who use standards and policy as achievable goals, not weapons for guilt. Leadership who are able to meet people where they are and grow together.
• Administrators who can allow independence of thought and not be threatened.
• Administrators who will not allow the traditions of ‘headship’ stand in the way of recognizing the gifts and abilities of both genders without limitation.
• Administrators whose approach is to the understanding of, and allowance for, local interpretation of policy as a guide as long as it does not violate doctrine, rather than threaten by discipline, sanction, and punishment.
• Administrators who do not build their own egos by the limiting of others.

We need to pause a moment and make a distinction between command and demand. As an example, command comes from a position of authority, i.e. the U.S. military, and demand does not. Commands in a military setting come from a position of authority with a ‘chain of command’ down through the ranks that are answerable at each level. Demands are often driven by passionate or strong requests but lacking the power or authority of a command. I maintain in spite of our current church administration the membership remains in that position of that authority, delegating to our administrators, even though it appears to be in the reverse at this time. A review of the history of the formation of our church structure confirms this. It is incumbent upon membership to reclaim that authority and exercise it by commanding answers and action at each level of administration. Especially when administrators assume umbrage, and indignation when theirs positions are questioned or challenged. I am sure some current administrators do not want membership to reminded and educated of the history of this church’s foundation. This is not a power grab but a right supported by our own constitution and bylaws. Know your history and the structure of your church and exercise that right with wisdom and boldness.
When we accept Jesus Christ in the SDA Church, acceptance into membership is thru baptism. As part of the baptism process we agree to a set of baptism vows. Vows 9 and 13 address membership into the ‘body of Christ’ and fellowship. The question is how well members understand what that means. Are they given sufficient orientation about the structure and function of the church and membership role, responsibility, and privilege? The church is very intentional in orienting toward tithe and offering responsibilities but how well do we orient about structure, and operational aspects of the church – how it works. Is there emphasis on the importance of membership knowledge and participation? What is the base level of information for effective participation? Should a basic level of information be part of membership preparation and orientation? Priorities are important but do we promote some at the expense of others. What impact does that have over time? Does leadership at times exploit the lack of member knowledge? How important is transparency? A lot depends on leadership at any given time. History is often times enlightening.

In Adventist Today James Breauer, wrote an article entitled, “Christian Leadership and Spiritual Abuse. He States in part:
“…The behavior of current leadership at the top of our denominational hierarchy constitutes spiritual abuse. The battles for control, the “God talk,” the attempts to discover who is in rebellion on non-Biblical issues—all are classic cases of spiritual abuse.
Abuse takes place when an individual crosses another’s boundaries [2] and attempts to manipulate or control them. Spiritual abuse is similar: it is when an individual or organization crosses another’s boundaries and attempts to manipulate them by use of “God talk,” doctrine, or withholding salvation. Spiritual abuse is an addiction to power, position, being “right,” and allowing only the approved kind of people around you.[3]”
There are several actions I am proposing that membership rally behind in holding our administrator accountable for the coming Annual Counsels and General Conference. Again this is coming in the form of a command from the membership and not just a demand or request. Requests have often fallen on deft ears, placated, mollified, minimized. These are responsibilities delegated
by membership and require action by administration. Membership is taking back their constituted rights to require, command action by administration. We have in recent years acquiesced to the dictates of autocratic administration and it is time for membership to halt the downward spiral. Membership loves this church as much as our administrators and have equally as much invested in it as they do and are not naïve as to the inner workings of the church. It is time we step up. This is what I am proposing:
• Empower the Constitution and Bylaws Committee to act independently in drafting constitutional revisions that are gender inclusive.

• Equal with this is the analysis of term limits.

• Remove from the constitution, bylaws, and working policy all criteria referencing male exclusivity along with ministerial license and ordination as qualifications for certain office positions, leaving the only qualifications membership in good and regular standing.

• By modifying the constitution, bylaws, and working policy it opens up the possibilities for taping talent from a broad spectrum of education, experience from any number of disciplines that will meet the needs of a 21st century church for new beginnings and fresh perspective, transparency utilizing technology the benefit of all.

• The nominating committee has a large responsibility in vetting choices for General Conference Officers and specifically the GC president. Typically, one name is recommended to the body. It is suggested that 2 or more names be brought to the floor with full disclosure of backgrounds and vetting process to include a minimum of one female. If two are brought one must be female. If three are brought one must be female, etc. Yes, we trust the committee but I believe our duly elected representatives should have more of a choice. This fosters transparency as well as responsibility.

• The incumbent president is not to be part of the nominating committees work. The previous president’s name can be considered but he should not be part of the deliberations for the office of the president.

• In this process review of the structure of the church in conjunction with the Constitution and Bylaws Committees for the needs of today with the idea of structuring for efficiency.

• If we are seeking revival/change/growth pouring new wine into old wine skins will not work.

• This will require thinking outside the box; openness to new ways of thinking.

• In using this we will be utilizing the best minds across disciplines, taping the best resources within and outside the denomination for consulting purposes.

• We are talking about the management of a world church we have talked about this for years but now is a reality in the 21st Century. Continuing to manage today’s organization from a 19th and 20th century is a formula for disaster. It has had its time and served us; not always as well as anticipated but to continue without change does a disservice to the membership and the larger community we are commissioned to serve.

• Balance of representation between membership and laity at all levels of administrations.

• Develop means of communication that stimulates member involvement engaging in meaningful dialogue using all media forums available.

• If unity is our goal this is going a long way toward fostering it as opposed to forced conformity through loyalty oaths and various forms of strong armed intimidation.

• Timeliness is important to give committees sufficient time to pursue their respective jobs and submit recommendations for study in preparation for future Annual Counsels and the 2020 General conference.

• To remain a responsible a church it becomes the responsibility of membership to hold administration accountable and that responsibility to hold administration comes as a command not a request, understanding who works for whom. The structure exists for us to accomplish this. Failure to implement these recommendations by administration requires responsible membership to move forward in the absence of that leadership. In the 21st century lack of action is a decision will trigger a reaction the church may want to avoid.

• We are at a crossroads with choices and opportunities. Lord help us to make informed choices for a finished work.

• This church will not remain relevant for these changing times on it current trajectory. The world is passing it by as we question our effectiveness. This is not unique to the SDA Church. All institutionalized religions are facing similar growing pains form the tug of war from its founding principles and adaptation to an ever increasing and rapidly changing society in the 21st Century. How we adapt to and manage these changes will determine our effectiveness for the future. As the words of the song says, written by Barnard Ignor, “Everything Must Change, Noting Stays the Same”.


I’m not sure why anyone would expect anything other than this to happen

It’s absolutely intended to intimidate, IMO…but hardly sophisticated.

This incident is beyond the pale! I’m having a hard time finding the words to express what I think about this…at least words that would be appropriate here, and wouldn’t get me kicked off the boards.


All those things are nothing but a reminder that we should focus on our LOCAL CHURCHES and not be disturbed by what happens at the corporation level. Remember, the corporation is just a business, not the Church!


I fully agree with George Tichy. The “corporation is just a business, not the Church.” It took Vatican II for the Catholic Church to say that the Hierarchy was not the church. The people of God are the Church.

I was told by one of the theologians in attendance at the Rome conference on eschatology that all the presenters at the group sessions he attended expressed the need for the church to update its eschatology, that it was no longer possible to teach what was taught in the XIX century. Throughout the meetings there was no acknowledgment that the BRI had prepared a statement to be voted on. At the final banquet, after all the speeches had concluded and everyone was standing up to leave. Someone announced that there was a statement and it began to be projected in the screen while someone read it aloud. At the end there was no vote taken. This was the report of one of those in attendance.
Now we know that ignoring the report of the committee that studied Ordination for two years at the GC session was not just an anomaly. Manipulating the discussions and pulling out surprises to get away with one’s way is the modus operandis of our very “unwise president.”


I agree entirely with Hanz on this. If we don’t take a risk and allow outside voices (let alone women’s voices) then we will be stuck indefinitely in the rut we are currently in as a church. The problem is we are stuck where we are because we will not move forward on a scriptural basis from the positions our church founders settled on, and which Ellen White endorsed. Most of our best positions were put forward by Joseph Banks (Ellen White contributed none of our positions), and like him we need to maintain our deep focus on scripture. If a past idea is fallacious, based on scripture, we must have the courage to leave it behind. I could quote Ellen White even on this, but why bother.

As the author said, “As if only Adventists knew what eschatology is all about. Unfortunately that’s not the case. We have not invented Eschatology and today’s primary exploratory and fresh theological/cultural ideas on eschatology don’t come from us.”

Pretending to know it all is one of the biggest traps all Protestant churches have fallen into. All have fallen behind their founders and refuse to go any further. I maintain that Protestant churches in general, and even Adventism, are still captive to Roman (read Platonic) ideology in some areas. We need to stick to scripture and continue to move back to a biblically based doctrine.


Just as well HG stuck to capital letters in the title and didn’t
stray (a Freudian slip) into lower case!

“promote the study and practice of Adventist theology and lifestyle as understood by the world church,” Is one to assume that the SDA church has it all figured out?? I think not!


Sadly there is a total unwillingness to take any input from other theologians (Both Adventist & non Adventist). It is so blinkered for the GC to assume we have “all the truth”. Unfortunately this is driven by their insistence that EGW is the final arbiter on everything.


Hello Ray! Yes this is and will always be the thing that keeps Adventism from reaching a wider audience, unfortunately.


You are right. The world church voted to:

  1. Not allow for WO
  2. Voted by a large majority TW as president.

Now, are you disagreeing with what the members did in counsel together as a properly organized group?

Seems that they are doing exactly what you want, but are unhappy with the results of that democratic vote?

The world church votes in the administrators on all levels. So, they reflect their thinking. I am aware of the process. Are you suggesting a different way to do it?

The SDA church is growing, just not in first world countries. Elsewhere it is doing quite well, thank you. And churches, as I have said many times, that are adopting modern ideas, WO, acceptance of homosexuality etc, are shrinking. And some, like the Episcopal church will be irrelevant shortly. Our third world brethren may save the day for the SDA church. The first world certainly is not stepping up to bat.


Thank you, @h_gutierrez for your report. Seems like I didn’t miss anything.

As to your allusion to the god-father … brillant (except I don’t go to movies). As a pastoral counselor I am no longer surprised very often, when it comes to human (or institutional/systemic) misconduct. Disappointed I am, nevertheless and that’s a polite British understatement.


I can see the faithful shepherd Jesus, seated close betwixt the two who failed to bring their pressed sharkskin fig leaves (oh for SHAME). In his dusty travelers robe and sandals that shabbot morning, seated under the green doubletail Norse sirens logo, communing. Having a cuppa with the only two fellow travelers who were not too busy honing their own sartorial skills, the only two willing to rest their own efforts, and take shalom in the presence of the one true shepherd.

I overheard their compassionate prayer-even, especially, for that proudly humble sharp dressed man who would deign to publicly shame even one or two in the flock, and I breathed my amen in unison with theirs.

Jesus prayer was simple-may my rest lay as a gentle shroud across your shoulders like a mantle-but please, first, remove those other trappings of your own craft.

Thank you for this article!


I understand and appreciate the democratic process. That does not mean that it is never manipulated or driven by hidden agendas. And with that sometimes duly voted policy, established by following ‘the rules’, and voted by the majority, is proved to be not effective and is just plain bad policy, for the good of the body. When the evidence, over time, becomes abundantly clear of the ineffectiveness of said policy, it is the responsibility of body to act to make every effort to change that policy.

Second it is really time to stop conflating women’s ordination with homosexuality. That is fanning the fire at its lowest level. There has never been any relation between the two. It is only done purely to insight conflict. We need to stop that. One does not lead to the other or visa versa. Study and know the literature. Those who choose to do so really expose their lack of insight and understanding and personal biases. Many sight such assumptions but fail to provide any empirical support. And beyond that who gives anyone the right to judgement. We have to do better than that.

Hanging on to bad policy for the sake of policy because it supports someone ego and quest for power does all a disservice. This is what we are dealing with in this current church conflict, and the issue of woman’s ordination is but a symptom. Sometimes the best solution if not the only resolution is change in leadership. If leadership demonstrates repeatedly the lack of ability to grow with and adapt to the times it is time for change. I believe this is where we may be in spite of the resistance.


I find it almost laughable that you would suggest that TW was voted in by a large majority. Have you ever been to an Adventist constituency meeting? The process is a joke. It isn’t like there is more than one choice for any office. Rarely, if ever, does anyone ever not get voted in. I remember one meeting where there was a school board chairman that was very unpopular, many wanted him canned. Yet, he still carried about 75% of the vote. You would almost have to find that Ted Wilson had an affair with Stormy Daniels and had photos in order for him to loose an election…so you can forget the whole “he won by a large majority” because it is simply a joke.
And yes, I can suggest a better way to do it. Have competitive elections where several choices are presented. Not just one candidate with a yay or nay vote. Is that so hard?