Cleanliness Next to Godliness?


When I was very young, so I have been told, I was one of those children who hated having stuff stuck to my hands. I’m sure there’s a deeper meaning there (where’s Freud when you need him?), but as I passed through adolescence into adulthood, I have become one of those “shower every day” type of people.  There’s nothing like waking up and washing off that dank sleep smell and bed head to get a start into the day, in my opinion.

All of us have most likely heard the old addage “cleanliness is next to godliness.” But we are surprised to discover that this little proverb is not from the Bible, but first appeared in English in the writings of Francis Bacon. Yet, in more ways than one, we have imbibed this proverb and made it part of the warp and woof of our religious understanding of life.

Lauren Winner, one of the most thoughtful authors in evangelical Christianity these days, recently wove together a review of three different books on the history of the idea of cleanliness for Christianity Today. Now, you may not immediately sense the need to understand the history of the idea of ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’, but hold on a moment.

In looking at these books, Winner specifically brings into focus the religious understanding of cleanliness through the past two-thousand years of Christianity in quick strokes. She then brings us some challenging words on our own understanding of cleanliness and how it ties in with stewardship of the earth.

Winner is by no means advocating a strict environmentalism, but she does present some important concerns about our motivations for cleanliness.  She also builds upon the Puritan connections between baptism and cleanliness. Our baptismal life – “buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4) – must also invade our hygienic life:

there might be a connection between bodily cleanliness and baptism ought to include our remembering that we become washed in baptism not so that we can stand around preening with other clean people, but so that we can go forth into a world where the clean and the unclean are sometimes quite inseparable…

perhaps that is one way for 21st-century Christians to connect our baptisms with our evening baths—by recognizing the intersection of our hygiene and our stewardship of the planet, and perhaps cutting out a few of those baths as an expression of the very baptisms that bathing can recall.

I found Winner’s comments insightful and thought-provoking for me personally, as well as for the life of the church.

What do you think: is cleanliness next to godliness for you?

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