No single phrase of Scripture has been more responsible for the ongoing momentum of the Adventist movement through more than 175 years than the biblical injunction “Come out of her, My people” (Rev. 18:4).*
Devout Christians of every denomination first heard the heaven-sent invitation during the Millerite movement (1831-1844) that predated the organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They responded—sometimes reluctantly, always at the cost of personal and social pain—by leaving or being expelled from the faiths in which they and their families had happily resided for decades or centuries. They were walking away from a collective, world-circling system of heterodox teaching and false practice that Scripture identified as “Babylon,” and bravely stepping into a movement whose members shared a commitment to “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 12:17).
But “coming out of Babylon”—leaving a political and religious system so intertwined with the structures of society and the fabric of everyday life—was no easy or one-time action. Early Adventists saw the immense power of Babylon in the economic world, in the hideous institution of human slavery, and in the enduring appeal of sensuality cosmetically concealed as justifiable pleasures.
Chief among those practices to which we will always be tempted is the adoption of Babylon’s power structures and coercive habits.
So it was that one of Seventh-day Adventism’s cofounders, the retired but indefatigable sea captain Joseph Bates, replied to a group of Millerite believers who asked in the aftermath of the disappointment of October 1844, if he had a new message. “Stay out of her my people,” Bates urged.
The bon mot from the sea captain retains a special significance for modern Seventh-day Adventists still living with the ongoing reality of systems that deserve the name of Babylon. While “leaving Babylon” is frequently a difficult, painful decision to disengage with faith groups that espouse unbiblical teachings about Sunday sacredness, eternal torment, theistic evolution, and salvation through anything other than “faith alone,” it’s not a one-time choice. “Staying out of Babylon” requires an ongoing attentiveness to ensure that God’s remnant people don’t drift back into either the doctrinal fuzziness or the unbiblical practices of a hugely powerful and frequently attractive system. One of the least-useful phrases offered by those urging Adventists to adopt the worship practices or outreach strategies of other faiths is the frequently heard argument “But everyone else is doing it.”
Chief among those practices to which we will always be tempted, both personally and corporately, is the adoption of Babylon’s power structures and coercive habits. On every side we are surrounded by commanding and successful social and religious structures that underscore the authority of one human being over another for economic gain or political control. The “corporate world,” with its unparalleled reach into every detail of our economic lives, is a fair representation of modern Babylon. Its hierarchical, top-down insistence on surrendering private opinion to the will of either a CEO or a collective of amoral shareholders models a system directly at odds with the conscious surrender of personal authority illustrated in the life and teachings of Jesus. “I am among you as the One who serves,” Jesus taught His followers (Luke 22:27). “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
The political establishments of almost every nation similarly imitate the coercive practices that Scripture identifies with Babylon. This is immediately apparent in totalitarian regimes, where human rights and freedom of conscience are carelessly trampled. But it’s also on display in so-called “representative democracies” where triumphant majorities override the beliefs and values of minority populations. The biblical example of the Jerusalem Council, summed up in Acts 15, shows us a heaven-guided process of consensus-building, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that underlines the dignity and giftedness of each participant.
“Staying out of Babylon” will require not only a church militant but a church vigilant to remain faithful to the values of a Saviour who taught us to turn the other cheek, love those who persecute us, and frequently reconcile with each other. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Phil 2:3).
* All Bible texts cited are from the New King James Version (NKJV).