This article first appeared in the April 2007 issue of Ministry magazine. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
ome might say that an article about the mentality of Babylon hardly fits as a subject for an Adventist journal for clergy. Because God’s people of all denominations, the inhabitants of Zion, the citizens of the heavenly city, read this publication, this writing does not target those who belong to Babylon.
True enough. We want to maintain a safe distance from Babylon. We want to call others—as many as possible—to leave Babylon (Rev. 18:4). Babylon is bad news. Its philosophy and lifestyle are godless and addictive (Rev. 14:8). We, who have left Babylon, must always be reminded to stay far away from it, and not to succumb to the temptation to try to stand with one leg in Jerusalem and another in Babylon. For that reason I believe the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9) remains utterly relevant.
Of course, this well-known, beautifully constructed narrative was sandwiched between the stories of Noah and Abraham and placed somewhat awkwardly between the Table of Nations of Genesis 10 and the genealogy from Shem to Abraham in Genesis 11b. It tells us how, after the Flood, the descendents of Noah moved eastward, toward the plain of Shinar. They settled in the fertile Mesopotamian lowlands, where they quickly learned to master all kinds of technologies. Eventually, they felt confident they could construct a city “with a tower that reache[d] to the heavens” (v. 4, NIV).
Genesis 11:4 informs us succinctly of the twofold motive for this ambitious enterprise: The people wanted “to make a name” for themselves, and also wanted to make sure that they would not be “scattered.” God expressed His disapproval in no uncertain terms, for He “went down” and put a definitive stop to the disastrous enterprise by confusing their language. Chaos resulted, and the very “scattering” the people wanted to avoid was the inescapable result.
The root of the problem
Seventh-day Adventists know that the term Babylon stands as the ultimate symbol for the powers that oppose God and His people. If we want to know what constitutes the very essence of that opposition, we find the answer right here in Genesis 11. Babylon is a collective name for all who want to do things without God, who are not intent upon honoring the name of God but want to make a name for themselves. It is the unmistakable symbol of those who, poisoned by their devilish arrogance, do not know their place and want to reach into high heaven on their own steam. And it applies, as we well know, in particular to the end-time coalition of religious powers that will be intent on destroying God’s remnant people.
This profile of Babylon finds confirmation in another story of city building many centuries after the construction of the Tower of Babel. King Nebuchadnezzar, the famous ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, manifested exactly the same spirit. One day, when he walked on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon, he surveyed the magnificent buildings all around him and exclaimed: “Is not this the great Babylon I have built . . . by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30, NIV; emphasis added). No wonder that the prophet Isaiah referred to the king of Babylon as a fitting symbol for Satan, the first and ultimate embodiment of arrogance (Isa. 14:13, 14).
Characterized by presumptuousness, Babylon adopted the unashamed usurpation of God’s honor. A second characteristic, however, becomes clear in Genesis 11—Babylon also manifests a fortress mentality. Their belief that there is safety in numbers and in staying with the crowd, coupled with their fear that they might be “scattered” and might lose influence, power, and control, fostered in the postdiluvian people the desire to build this Babylonian bastion as a monument for themselves.
What has this to do with us?
The story of the Tower of Babel has, I believe, a powerful message on two levels: for the Adventist Church, and for clergy in particular.
How does it relate to us corporately, as a church? Let us, first of all, take a step back and reflect on the history of the Advent movement. Our church originated on the fringes of the Millerite movement. Its beginnings were among a small group of predominantly uneducated, rural folks whose leaders were mostly young and inexperienced. They were ridiculed after the 1844 debacle and treated as pariahs on the American religious scene. Their movement, at first, grew slowly. It numbered a mere 3,500 by 1863—when the Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially organized. By 1900 church membership stood around 75,000. Adventists were long regarded as a strange sub-Christian sect, and honesty demands to add that, though we have now grown into a significant worldwide movement, we are still regarded as a sect in many places around the world.
The church has poured a tremendous amount of resources into efforts to build its public image. We want to convince the world that we are a Christian church. We do all we can to tell the world around us that we are not as small as many tend to think. And we invite the world to look at what we are doing.
Yes, we want to be recognized as a growing, prestigious religious body. We proudly point to our annual statistical report as undeniable proof of steady growth and extension around the globe, and to our thousands of institutions in over two hundred countries. We proudly proclaim that the Adventist Church presently has about fifteen million adult members and predict that by 2020 membership may well exceed forty or fifty million. Many countries now treat us with respect. We have become widely recognized as having a strong organization and an educated ministry; we have an ever-growing number of institutions of higher learning, and our Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) continues to be increasingly respected as a global agency for humanitarian outreach.
But, could it be that we are in danger of placing too much stress on this desire for recognition? As we grow and develop, does it remain our sole purpose to honor the name of God? Or are we also intent on making a name for ourselves? And might there be the risk that, in so doing, we follow our own human strategies rather than the divine agenda?
These questions apply not only globally but also nationally and locally. Always and everywhere the danger exists that we so focus on the church as an institution, on growth, on institutional development, on church finances, on a positive image in the press, that we forget the real mission of the church: to preach and reflect Christ. I would submit that the church exhibits a dangerous Babylonian trait if it is first of all an institution, a corporation, that tries to position itself as positively as it can in the religious marketplace, rather than as a place for spiritual growth and nurture.
This observation connects with the second aspect: the fortress mentality of Babylon. We should continuously ask ourselves the question, Is our church open, outgoing, attractive to others? Is it interested in what is going on in the outside world? Is it making an impact on the world? Or do we prefer a church that manifests itself as a bastion, a fortress, where we feel safe and cozy as we live together in our own little world—enjoying our own peculiar subculture? Are we happiest when we are at a considerable distance from the world and do not have to mix and interact with others who are not of our faith? Do we feel most comfortable when we talk to ourselves, in our own jargon, focused on our own problems?
If that is the situation, we have created a little Babylon and we must expect God to “come down” and take a critical look at us. Yes, we must even expect Him to shake us, and possibly even to scatter us from our Adventist ghettos, to force us out of our Babylonian fortress mentality.
Sadly, there are Adventists who want to stay away from the world as much as they can. Studies indicate that most longtime Adventists have few or no friends outside of the church. It takes, on the average, about seven or eight years for new members to lose most of their non-Adventist friends. Christ was adamant: Although we are not of this world, we must be in this world. The church must have its windows open to the outside world. It cannot be reduced to a safe, secure, familiar environment for those who already believe and belong. God’s children must not live in a spiritual ghetto, but must be “scattered.” They must venture out, accepting the risks this involves. Their mission must not be to shy away from the world and to abandon the world. They should gladly accept the positives in the world and embrace the good things the world still has to offer. Possibly even more importantly, they must know the language of the world and be aware of what is happening in the world. They must know where people are hurting, and learn how to relate to real people in the real world.
Where is our focus?
But what about each of us, as individual believers, or, specifically, as Adventist pastors? Are we loyal citizens of the heavenly city, or do we continue to maintain an address in Babylon? Are we fully focused on honoring God’s name and on that grandiose promise that we will soon bear a new, God-given, name? Or are we at times still rooted in a Babylonian mode of thought and intent on making a name for ourselves?
The temptation to make a name for ourselves never goes away. I am very conscious of that temptation. Why do I work for the church? Why do I travel, preach, write, work long hours, and attend endless committees? Could it be that, deep down, I would like to make a name for myself? That question remains relevant for all of us who work for the church, whether employed by a church entity, or serving as an elder, deacon, or organist in the local church.
What are our deepest aims, our innermost motivations and ambitions? Do we want to be obedient to our calling, or do we simply want to be important? Do we strive to be influential or to be a blessing to others? Is our ambition to lead and to be in charge, or are we willing to serve?
In today’s narcissistic culture, people tend to focus on themselves. The key words are self-improvement, self-worth, and assertiveness. We are challenged to exploit our unique talents and to keep working on ourselves. We must feel good about ourselves. If we try hard enough, we can do almost anything. So, at least, we are told by the media.
Many are obsessed with their work, their status, their material possessions, and the very latest gadgets. They are totally convinced of their own importance. For many, virtually no limit exists to what they will sacrifice on the altar of success. At the same time, many do not want to invest time, energy, and emotion in deep and long-lasting relationships. They seek the anonymity of the masses rather than to take a more than superficial interest in people and meet them where they are. They feel more comfortable in “networking” than in establishing real friendships.
The story of the Tower of Babel tells us that God disapproves of this widespread desire to make a name for ourselves, and of this tendency to cocoon in our private fortresses. God wants us to reject this Babylonian approach to life. He wants us to realize that the deepest meaning of our lives does not include how we can make ourselves shine; it is about how He can shine through us.
Making a name for ourselves and refusing to be “scattered” so that we can bear our witness in the wider community can be identified as a Babylonian trait that should have no place among the citizens of the heavenly city. As a church and as individuals we belong in Zion. We belong to that new world with God as the focus of praise and His name honored above every other name.
Reinder Bruinsma, Ph.D., now retired, was president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands, Huis ter Heide, Netherlands, when he wrote this article. The above article was first posted September 10, 2007.