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Occupying till He comes

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Occupying till He comes

George R. Knight
George Knight is professor of church history at the Seventhday Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

 

"Surely I come quickly" (Rev. 22:20).

The early church expected to see its Lord returning in a relatively short time. Yet Jesus has not come after nearly 2,000 years.

What did Jesus mean by quickly? I don't know, but apparently His definitions are not the same as mine.

Of course, shortness of time was not the only chronological aspect of Jesus' teachings regarding the end of the world. The other was delay. Repeatedly in the last-day parables of Matthew 24 and 25 Jesus refers to the fact that His coming would be "delayed" (see Matt. 24:48; 25:5, 19).

Jesus was apparently well aware of the tensions that His followers would face in the interim between His ascension and second coming. His main point in the Olivet discourse seems to be that they should live in the interim in a state of expectancy and faithfulness. Thus several parables in Matthew 24 and 25 direct Christians not only to watchfulness but also to faithful service. In a related parable Jesus commanded His disciples: "Occupy till I come" (Luke 19:13).

That command is clear enough, but how is it to be implemented? This question, among others, will always face those who take the Second Coming seriously. It faced the early Adventists in the post-1844 period, and it faces us today.

Early Adventism and the tension

Post-disappointment Adventism was thrown into an identity crisis in the last two months of 1844 and in early 1845.1 Two approaches to the problem of continuing time before the Second Advent came to the fore. The first stressed an immediate coming, while the second emphasized occupying during the interim, even though none expected a long delay.

Those who emphasized immediacy continued to hold to the necessity of some sort of preaching and most of them continued gainful employment in order to maintain their families. On the other hand, they opposed institutional and contractual arrangements on the basis that such arrangements implied delay and were thus indicators of a lack of faith in the Second Coming. Among those holding to the immediacy pole of their Advent belief there arose the temptation to continue to set new dates for the Second Coming. Thus William Miller and Josiah Litch came to expect the Advent to take place by the spring of 1845.2

Early Sabbatarian Adventists were not immune to date-setting. Foremost among them was the influential Joseph Bates. In 1850 he sparked a time-setting excitement by interpreting "the seven spots of blood . . . before the Mercy Seat" as representing "the duration of the judicial proceedings on the living saints in the Most Holy." Since each spot stood for a year, Christ's heavenly ministration would last seven years and He would come in October 1851.3

It was one of the other two founders of Sabbatarian Adventism who opposed Bates. The July 21, 1851, Review carried an important letter from Ellen White on the topic. "The Lord has shown me," she penned, "that the message of the third angel must go, and be proclaimed to the scattered children of the Lord, and that it should not be hung on time; for time never will be a test again. I saw that some were getting a false excitement arising from preaching time; that the third angel's message was stronger than time can be. I saw that this message can stand on its own foundation, and that it needs not time to strengthen it."

This was not the first time that Ellen White had stood against time setting. She noted early on that "the time of trouble must come before the coming of Christ." Even her first vision hinted that the city might be a "great way off." Her reward for taking such a position on date setting was that some charged her "with being with the evil servant that said in his heart, 'My Lord delayeth His coming.'" 5

Taken as a whole, Ellen White's 1851 anti-date-setting message is a powerful statement that she was among those Advent believers who were focusing on occupying rather than immediacy. It should also be noted that her emphasis on the preaching of the third angel's message implied a process rather than a point of time. James White stood with her on both the anti-time-setting issue and on the necessity of gathering in God's people who would stand on the platform of the third angel of Revelation 14.

But James hadn't always stood against the setting of new dates. In September 1845 he firmly believed that Jesus would return in October 1845. At that time he held that marriage was "a wile of the devil" since it indicated a lack of faith in the nearness of the ad vent. Yet by the summer of 1846 he had married Ellen Harmon.6

Between October 1845 and August 1846 a major ground shift had taken place in the thinking of James and Ellen White. They had perceptively moved away from the immediacy perspective of the date setters and had more fully grasped the occupy-till-He-comes horn of the Adventist dilemma. Their marriage is an impressive symbol of that ground shift. They had a work to do, and Ellen couldn't travel alone. As a result, they took the first step toward the institutionalization of Adventism. If the end was not to come as soon as they first expected, they had to take adequate steps to prepare themselves for service in the interim.

But they had not given up their Ad vent faith. To the contrary, in the next few years they began to see that God had another message for His people to give before the Second Advent that of the third angel of verses 9-14. Marriage for the Whites became a means to better accomplish the preaching of that mes sage. But it also pointed to their acceptance of the continuity of time.

As it turned out, marriage was only the first step in their putting Adventism on a more permanent basis for the preaching of the nearness of the end. Repeatedly the Whites led out in creating stability in Adventist ranks so that the sounding of the third angel's message would be supported by an adequate institutional base. Yet at every step they had to combat those fixated on the immediacy pole of the Advent hope.

Thus it was in the realm of education. As late as 1862 some believers wondered if it was displaying a lack of faith in the nearness of the Advent to send their children to school.

James White answered that "a well disciplined and informed mind can best receive and cherish the sublime truths of the Second Advent." The same logic, he held, went for those who would preach the gospel. Thus the next decade saw James (with Ellen close beside him) as the leader in establishing Battle Creek College for the training of workers.7

The Whites also led out in church organization. By and large, the Millerite movement had been anti-organizational, first because of the belief that time was short and formal organization was not needed since Jesus would soon come. Beyond that, many followed George Storrs in his claim that a church "be comes Babylon the moment it is organized. "8

Some of the Sabbatarian leaders held onto Storrs's Babylon logic into the early 1860s. In response to that position Ellen White penned: "I was shown that some have been fearing they should become Babylon if they organize; but the churches in central New York have been perfect Babylon, confusion. And now unless the churches are so organized that they can carry out and enforce order, they have nothing to hope for in the future." 9 Organization, she concluded, would provide power for future work.

The Whites' struggle for an adequate organization came to fruition between 1861 and 1863. They led out also in such areas as the publishing and medical work. With each step they put the denomination on a firmer basis on this earth so that it could preach the nearness of the earth to come.

The success-is-failure dilemma

The Whites had faced the tension between the imminence of the Advent and occupying till He comes by choosing to occupy in order that Adventists could continue to preach the imminent coming. Unfortunately, there was (and is) a paradox inherent in that very approach.

There is a sense in which failure was built into the very success of the young denomination. That is, in order to preserve the message of the imminent coming, institutions based on continuity and semi-permanence had to be erected. And in the process subtle and not-so-subtle transformations took place.

Perhaps John Harvey Kellogg epitomized the Adventist dilemma by the turn of the century better than anyone. Kellogg stood head and shoulders above his fellow church leaders as a kingdom builder. Not only was he in the process of creating a worldwide system of sanitariums to be controlled from Battle Creek, but he had begun his own medical school in 1895, and was the foremost Adventist proponent of a broad-based welfare work to the poor. By 1901 there were more Adventists working for Kellogg's organizations than for the rest of the denomination. 10

There is no doubt as to Kellogg's interest in mission and even to his initial interest in the mission of Adventism. Every student admitted to his medical school had to sign a pledge dedicating his or her life to medical missionary work. But Kellogg's endeavors brought him face-to-face with the Adventist dilemma between immediacy and occupying in a way that other Adventist leaders never had to deal with. The other branches of Adventist work were more insulated from the direct effect of secular culture and acceptance by that culture. Kellogg's endeavors, however, took place on the boundary between the larger culture and the church. As a result, acceptance of his contributions to society was both a very real possibility and a potential temptation to the doctor.

A case in point is the accreditation of his medical school. It had been denied accreditation in 1897 because it was sponsored by Adventists and taught vegetarianism.

By early 1899 Kellogg was ready for a new attempt at accreditation. But he had learned the lesson of the first at tempt well. A series of letters between Kellogg and the accrediting authorities indicate the extent to which the doctor was willing to go to gain acceptance. Not only did he claim that he did "not believe in such a thing as a sectarian school of any kind, either medical or theological," but he went on to feature his heterodoxy. "I am just as heterodox as you are," he penned. "I believe in the natural, not the supernatural."11 l He even denied his strong convictions regarding diet.

Such statements, made in private letters to non-Adventists, diametrically opposed much of what he had to say to church leaders. But such was the price of the politics of acceptance. The point to note is that in the hands of Kellogg, the mentality undergirding Adventist health and welfare work had gone through a radical transformation. Starting out as institutions for the furtherance of the third angel's message, they had become institutions for the good of humanity. And in order to successfully work with outsiders, Kellogg had found it profitable to mute his Adventism.

Ellen White stood against Kellogg's bid for acceptance and his moves to ward secularizing Adventism's medical missionary work. "The Lord," she penned in 1900, "has signified that the missionary, health-restorative gospel shall never be separated from the minis try of the word." Mrs. White also op posed the doctor's desire to develop the medical missionary cause disproportionately in relation to the other efforts of the denomination. The medical missionary work is to be the right arm of the third angel's message, "but the right arm is not to become the whole body." She expressed concern that many of the tasks that burdened Kellogg "the world would do largely, but the world will not do the work which God has committed to His people." 12

In short, Ellen White was calling Kellogg back to his original missiological focus and to the balance be tween imminence and occupying that had prompted the institutionalization of Adventism in the first place. But the doctor had his own agenda by the turn of the century. Occupying had become the whole for him and imminence both a bother and an embarrassment. He would leave the denomination early in the new century so that he could operate his philanthropic work without the hindrances of Adventism.

The tension lives on

The Whites, Bates, and Kellogg are long gone, but Adventism continues to exist in the seemingly unending tension between imminence and occupying till He comes.

A glance at the General Conference's 1993 statistical report indicates that the church is doing exuberantly well in occupying. As of December 31, 1993, it had 539 union and local conferences/missions, 36,920 congregations, 4,492 primary schools, 953 secondary schools, 85 colleges and universities, 35 food industries, 148 hospitals and sanitariums, 92 retirement homes and orphanages, 354 clinics and dispensaries, 7 media centers, and 56 publishing houses. These institutions employed some 136,539 workers. 13 The denomination's extensive international development and relief work (ADRA) is in addition to these figures.

Adventism has indeed become good at occupying. But the nagging question arises as to the purpose of the occupation. And that question raises the issue of Adventist identity.

Adventist identity in relation to time and change

Identity is a central issue to all Christian bodies. Understandings of identity and a church's role in the scheme of history provide purpose and direction. Needless to say, perceptions of identity are not static. They change with time. Those changes can be good or bad.

Closely connected to identity is time. Time can have a corrosive effect on identity. That is especially true for groups expecting the soon coming of Christ. The passage of time raises questions and presents problems and challenges that never had to be faced by a movement's founders.

The corrosive effects of time transformed the early church from a premillennial to a postmillennial mentality. And the effects of time are operating within Adventism today. With Adventism, of course, the results are yet to be seen. But after 150 years the questions of what Adventism is and what it should be about are of crucial importance, and they are being asked with increasing frequency.

Intimately related to time in relation to identity is the issue of change. Change not only operates within the church, it is a major factor in the world in which the church seeks to minister. Change is certain, and the way a church relates to change is absolutely crucial to its identity.

Ways of relating to change

There are only so many ways to face change and history. One is to live in the past as if the past can somehow be personally preserved as a golden age. Such an approach disregards the reality of change. In the long run its proponents have nothing to say to the present generation, because they have lost contact with daily realities. Such an approach finds mission only among those who desire to live in a past-oriented intellectual and/or social ghetto. Many Adventists continue to take this approach to change.

A second dysfunctional way of relating to change and history is to focus exclusively or almost exclusively on the future. Although having an opposite focus from those fixated on the past, this future-oriented focus has the same result. It loses contact with present needs and realities.

A third way of relating to change and history is to focus almost exclusively on the present, while emphasizing "relevance." And relevance is important. After all, irrelevance is a certain road to disaster. On the other hand, "mere" relevance is the road to nowhere. Relevance that has lost its biblical roots in the supernatural is one more way of getting lost. Lasting Christian relevance must be rooted in the transcendent and in God's great acts in the history of His people.

The Bible presents us with a fourth way of relating to change and history that is neither irrelevant nor merely relevant. This viewpoint is anchored in both God's leading in the past history of His people and in His bringing an end to earthly history at the Second Advent. But it does not neglect present circumstances and needs. Thus it sets forth a present orientation in the framework of the continuum of the past and the future. It presents a cosmic viewpoint that finds identity for the present in both history and prophecy. Thus its relevance, being rooted in the great continuum of history and change, is not transitory. Instead, the line running from the historical past to the prophetic future provides perspective, direction, and identity for the present. When Adventism or any other Christian body loses contact with either the historic past or the predicted future it will suffer disorientation in the present.

Modern Adventism and the immediacy/occupying tension

In 1995 Adventism stands in a place analogous to that of its Millerite founders in late 1844 and early 1845 as it relates to the continuum of history and change and to the tension between immediacy and occupying. From one sector of the Adventist world we find those bound up with almost a time-setting frenzy as they seek to live in a constant state of excitement regarding the nearness of the end. Their faith is based upon world crisis rather than the promises of God. Even their behavior is motivated by the "feeling" of nearness.

This kind of Advent faith tends to be an "up and down" experience. It has failed to learn the lessons of Matthew 24:36-25:46. A healthy Adventist faith must be based on more than immediacy and excitement. A deep faith based on the promises of God and a life characterized by watchfulness and Christian service in the interim between Christ's ascension and second advent is what is called for.

A second issue that both post-1844 and current Adventists have had to wrestle with in relation to history and imminence is the reality of a literal coming- in-the-clouds Second Advent. In the mid-1840s some frustrated Millerites spiritualized away the literalness of the Advent and suggested that Christ comes individually into hearts and minds. It is all too easy for modern Adventists to follow a similar line of thinking by interpreting the promises of the Advent metaphorically, holding that the Second Ad vent takes place for each person at death, and so on.

Taking such a course is equivalent to surrendering the Advent hope that stimulated the rise of Adventism. It not only moves away from plain Bible teachings, but it negates the prophetic promise of the future. That line of thought leads to the abdication of belief in Adventism itself. It dissolves Adventist identity.

At the opposite extreme from those living on the frantic edge of apocalyptic excitement are those who are tempted in their frustration at the delay to turn away from apocalypticism altogether. That course of action was followed by many of the disappointed Millerites, and it is a live option in the 1990s.

But to follow that direction is to surrender the very core of Adventist identity. Millerite Adventism arose in response to a study of the prophecies of Daniel 7-9, and Sabbatarian Adventism enriched that perspective by emphasizing Revelation 12-14. The Sabbatarians saw themselves as the personification of the remnant message of Revelation 12:17 and of the third angel of Revelation 14:9-12. That understanding provided an end-time cosmic perspective that drove them to the ends of the earth with their peculiar message. They saw them selves as a prophetic people. 14

Take away that apocalyptic under standing, and you have removed the living heart of Adventism. And yet the temptation is very real for Adventism as it nears the twenty-first century. The temptation will increasingly be to turn away from the preaching of Adventism's apocalyptic message and toward "doing something useful" in the real world. After all, doesn't Matthew 25:31-46 plainly teach that social justice and mercy will be crucial elements among those who await the return of Jesus?

That is true but it is not the entire picture of the waiting church. There are two apocalyptic foci in the New Testament. The first emphasizes faithful ministry during the waiting and watching time (Matt. 24; 25; Mark 13; Luke 21). The second, primarily found in Revelation, portrays God's last-day message and earth's final conflict between the forces of good and evil.

Biblical Adventism in both 1844 and 1995 and throughout its history has been challenged to integrate both New Testament apocalypses into its theology and mission. It is not a question of either/or but of both/and.

Unfortunately most church members, and even leaders, appear to be more comfortable with one half of the picture than with the whole. Thus those who are "turned off by the immediacy wing of Adventism are tempted either to "play church" or adopt the Kelloggian vision.

Playing church and the Kelloggian vision

Playing church is a popular sport among both mainline Adventist members and leaders. In essence the game is based on counting and maintaining. It can be argued that the worst thing that ever happened to Adventism was its learning to count. Adventism counts institutions, members, converts, money, and everything else that can be digitized or quantified. Unfortunately, quantity and success are not necessarily related.

Among those who love to count things there is a danger of viewing Adventist identity in terms of the size, number, and variety of the denomination's institutions and the size of its membership rather than primarily in terms of mission. Playing church involves a great number of activities to keep the machinery running quietly and, of course, expanding.

Unfortunately, the machinery too often becomes an end in itself rather than a means to the end. As a result, it is difficult to modernize or replace it with more efficient models. The tendency in such situations is to progressively gain identity from the wrong things.

Somewhat related to those who are in some degree turned off by Adventism's immediacy/apocalyptic wing and like to play church are those who have a tendency to opt for the Kelloggian vision of Adventism. These often see work for humanity in medical and welfare lines as the focal point of what Adventism should be about during the period of occupation.

Michael Pearson suggests that Adventism is facing a replication of the dynamics it experienced under Kellogg' s philosophy some 100 years ago. He points out, for example, that the finances of the massive Adventist Health System dwarf the expenditures of the General Conference. 15 Beyond that, powerful forces operating in the marketplace have done much to secularize Adventism's extensive North American health-care system. Institutional prosperity and growth appear to be primary in the system as it now exists, while any distinctively Adventist mission appears to be an extremely weak "second."

Pearson also notes that the same dynamic may affect for the relatively young Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA). 16 While in many cases ADRA is currently much more closely tied to the distinctive mission of Adventism than is the hospital system, age and continued growth could easily negate that relationship in an agency that has the potential eventually to overshadow the expenditures of even the hospital system. In the process, Adventism's primary focus could be unintentionally redirected as ADRA's influence strengthens within the denomination.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, I am in favor of the good done by the hospital system, ADRA, church organization, and other Adventist institutions. My point is that Adventism faces the same sort of problems and temptations from its current "successes" that Kellogg faced earlier. It is all too easy to mute Adventism's apocalyptic message in small increments in order to achieve wider and wider acceptance or to receive additional funding. Yet the third angel's message as portrayed in the heart of Revelation is still the focal point of Adventist mission.

The postmillennial temptation

Waiting for the Advent is a frustrating business. In frustration it is easy to disconnect from the premillennial Ad vent hope, except in name, and to emphasize doing good and even preaching social justice as Adventism's prophetic mission. In the process, Adventism's apocalyptic dualism and prophetic understanding gradually fade out of the picture. As noted earlier, doing good and working for reformed social structures in the name of Christ are excellent in themselves, but they need to be seen and appreciated within Adventism's premillennial perspective. That perspective is rooted in the continuum of time that runs from the past and extends into the future.

Divorced from that continuum, such good works and excellent perspectives could evolve into a form of postmillennialism in which Adventism's primary focus becomes improving this world rather than the Second Advent. With that postmillennial vision, held implicitly if not explicitly, Adventism will have come full circle from the polar extreme of immediacy to the polar extreme of occupying. Thus Adventism could evolve into the ultimate eschatological contradiction a religious body that has immensely succeeded in institutionalizing for the purpose of preaching the Advent near, but a church that has lost the meaning of the very name that originally provided its identity.

Learning to live successfully within the tension between the present and the future is the unfinished task left to Adventism by the survivors of October 1844.

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This article is adapted from a chapter in The
Fat Lady and the Kingdom: Adventist Mission
Confronts the Challenge of Institutionalism and
Secularization (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub.
Assn., 1995).

1 See George R. Knight, Millennial Fever
and the End of the World (Boise, Idaho: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1993), pp. 231-325.

2 See Richard W. Schwarz, Light Bearers
to the Remnant (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1979), p. 54.

3 Joseph Bates, An Explanation of the
Typical and Anti-typical Sanctuary by the Scriptures
(New Bedford, Mass.: BenjaminLindsey,
1850), pp. 10, 11.

4 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald
Extra, July 21, 1851.

5 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Wash
ington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1945), pp. 14, 15, 22; cf., 75.

6 James White, "Watchman, What of the
Night?" The Day-Star, Sept. 20, 1845, pp. 25,
26; James White, "Letter to Bro. Jacobs," The
Day-Star, Oct. 11, 1845, p. 47; James White
and Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Battle Creek,
Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn.,
1888), pp. 126,238.


7 W. H. Ball and James White, "Questions
and Answers," Review and Herald, Dec. 23,1862, p. 29; Roy E. Graham, "James White:
Initiator," in Early Adventist Educators, ed.
George R. Knight (Berrien Springs, Mich.:
Andrews University Press, 1983), pp. 18-25.

8 George Storrs, "Come Out of Her, My
People," Midnight Cry, Feb. 15, 1844, p. 238.
9 R. F. Cottrell, "Making Us a Name," Review
and Herald,Mar.22, 1860,pp. 140,141; Ellen G.
White, "Communication From Sister White,"
Review and Herald, Aug. 27, 1861, p. 101.

10 Richard W. Schwarz, "Adventism's Social
Gospel Advocate: John Harvey Kellogg," Spectrum, Spring 1969, pp. 15-28; "John Harvey
Kellogg: American Health Reformer" (Ph.D.
disertation, University of Michigan, 1964), p. 347.

11 Schwarz, "Adventism's Social Gospel Advocate,"
p. 18; Dudley S. Reynolds to Robert Levy,
Jan. 6,1899; Dudley S. Reynolds to J. H. Kellogg,
Jan. 17,24, 1899; Memo from the Council of the
Association of Medical Colleges, June 2, 1897;
J. H. Kellogg to Dudley S. Reynolds, Jan. 19,26,
1899.

12 E. G. White to Brother and Sister Irwin, Jan.
1, 1900, in Ellen G. White Manuscript Releases
(Silver Spring, Md.: E. G. White Estate, 1990),
vol. 4, pp. 427-429; Ellen G. White, "The Work
for This Time" (General Conference Daily Bulletin,
Mar. 2, 1899); White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948),
vol. 8, p. 185.13 131st Annual Statistica lReport 1993
(Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference of Seventhday
Adventists, 1994), pp. 2, 3, 31.


14 P. Gerard Damsteegt, Foundations of the
Seventh-day Adventist Message and Mission
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977); Knight, pp.
327-342; Anticipating the Advent: A Brief His
tory of Seventh-day Adventists (Boise, Idaho:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1993).

15 Michael Pearson, Millennial Dreams and
Moral Dilemmas: Seventh-day Adventists and
Contemporary Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1990), pp. 28, 29.

16 Ibid.

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