They say confession is good for the soul, so I am going to take one for the team on this one. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is not in the Bible. It can be attributed to the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley (though the genesis of the idea may come from Francis Bacon or the Talmud). It also contributed to messing up people’s conceptions of God.
Okay, here is the thing about John Wesley. He was not just the accidental founder of a new Christian denomination (he didn’t think he was founding a new denomination, but instead thought he was reforming an existing one; the existing one didn’t take too kindly to his reforms, and so what had been a movement became a denomination). He was also a best-selling author of the most popular medical guide of his day, a little work called Primitive Physick. He was concerned not just with the health of the soul but also the body. He had good little bits of advice for people, including keeping clean to avoid diseases. He also believed in a sort of properness both in the house of God and in representing God’s people, which he shared in his sermons. You shouldn’t pour excess money into clothes and jewelry, but you should nurture a discipline of good hygiene. Thus, he coined the phrase “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” in his Sermon “On Dress.” It caught on. Church is now a place where the dirty are not so welcome, and our idea of Jesus is far too sanitized.
It is neither biblical nor faithful to think in such terms. Now, you may say, but wait, aren’t there all kinds of regulations about being clean and unclean in the Bible? And aren’t unclean people supposed to stay away from the Temple? Okay, yes, there was a system that described a fluid movement from unclean to clean to holy. But let’s get something clear. Clean and unclean in this sense did not really have to do with how dirty someone was, nor was holy understood as super clean (particularly clean understood as the absence of dirt). It had to do with a state of being prepared to be either among the people or before the Lord. The system of clean and unclean seems to us now like arbitrary isolation of particular people for random things, but as my Hebrew Bible professor Roy Heller put it, it usually had to do with those vulnerable states that were approaching death, the ultimate unclean state.
Often it was the presence of blood that marked someone or something unclean. For instance, a woman who had given birth was unclean for a certain number of days after having a baby (unclean longer if she gave birth to a girl, but I am going to just blow past that detail right now). Now, isn’t there an advantage to keeping a woman and baby isolated from the general population, especially in an era before penicillin? Unclean served an important purpose back in the day, whether people understood it or not. While not always the case, the system of clean and unclean tended to keep the vulnerable from getting sick or exposing the general population to sickness. This state marking someone as unprepared to be around others or God was actually possibly the very thing that kept them alive.
Built into this system, however, was an inherent paradox. There is the profound and beautiful fact that blood, which typically marked someone as unclean, was actually a vital element to worship at the holy altar of God. While a body flowing with blood was unclean, another body of blood was flowing across the altar and making everything holy. In a striking reversal of all that is expected, the unclean becomes the Holy. The unclean draws symbolically closer to God than the clean ever will. It has nothing to do with dirt. It has to do with vulnerability. Always implicit in the practice of Israelite worship was the proclamation that the most vulnerable, the injured, the dying, were drawing ever closer to God. Somewhere in the middle sat the clean ones, not at risk, but not intimately touching the Holy either.
And then God’s own son would draw us all closer to God through his own vulnerability, through his own blood. He would sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, he would pour out water and blood from the cross, and somehow unclean and holy would be united. Something dangerous and base would be cleansing and transcendent. This turned-upside-down-world would be definitively exposed, and we would all be closer to God for it. Clean or unclean didn’t matter anymore.
Our faith cannot be boiled down into some bleach commercial where we are all made spotless of dirt. Instead, our faith is lived as a journey where hearts are made more perfect for love, and that process in itself is incredibly dirty and messy. And so for the misunderstanding, for the covering up of this beautiful, bloody redemption of brokenness in favor of the sterile and spotless body of Christ, we repent. We repent, and we seek to be covered over with the dirt and grime and blood of Jesus’ holy love.