On Not Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater
1 Thessalonians 5:19-20
A few years ago I must have said “We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” once too often because when I said it the whole class burst out laughing.
That’s okay; one thing I know about myself is I’m funniest when I’m not trying to be.
I confess it. I do like that rustic saying—”Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” It very well describes a struggle I’ve been involved in for many years. In some ways, it defines my personal struggle with my religious heritage.
After teaching Christian theology to college and seminary students for 27 years I’m confident I’m not alone. Many students share my struggle in their own ways. The same is true for many of my colleagues and friends.
Some succeed in not throwing the baby out with the bathwater and some don’t. I’m not here to blame anyone but to share my struggle with you and hopefully encourage you if you find yourself involved in such a struggle.
That saying—”Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”—has an interesting history. I have heard one explanation of its origin that seems a little far-fetched. Allegedly, back in the Dark Ages, peasants bathed only once weekly. They would fill a half barrel with soapy water and the family members would take turns bathing in it. Of course, the father would go first. Then the oldest son. Then the mother and children. The baby would be bathed last and by then the water was so filthy it was easy to lose the baby in the bathwater—especially if you looked away for a minute and the baby sank down into the water. So, the tale goes, occasionally the baby would be thrown out with the bathwater.
Personally I always found that explanation unlikely. The urban myth debunking web site snopes.com agrees with me.
While nobody knows who first coined the saying, it seems to come from Germany and the first published appearance is in a 15th century book of German poems. Interestingly, Martin Luther used it in a 1526 letter. He wrote “Man soll das Kind nicht mit dem bad ausgiessen.” It’s first use in English was by British essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1849.
I suppose I probably first heard it from one of my grandmothers. They were always going around uttering quaint advice like “Watch your ‘p’s’ and q’s'”—whatever that means.
But this saying—”Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”—however quaint and odd seems to paraphrase Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians well. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20 he instructs them (my translation): “Do not quench the Spirit or despise prophecies. Carefully examine all things and hold on to what is good.” In the next verse—21—he tells his readers to “reject whatever is harmful.”
Some English translations translate the Greek word δοκίμάζέτέ “prove” thus rendering the verse in English “prove all things.” That doesn’t make any sense in modern English, of course. In the past “prove” could mean “test,” but today it generally means something else. So a good, workable translation for today is “critically examine everything.”
Thayer says δοκίμάζέτέ means “to test, examine, prove, scrutinize (to see whether a thing be genuine or not)”, as in metal testing. It is used often in the New Testament and in the Septuagint almost always meaning critical examination of something to prove its validity.
The context of this verse is “prophecies.” Paul instructs the Thessalonian Christians not to despise them. Immediately he then instructs them to critically examine them which raises a lot of questions the foremost being “how?” Paul doesn’t answer here. And that’s beside the point for my purposes.
My only intention in choosing this passage as a “text that has shaped me” is to support and defend something much neglected in Christian communities—especially conservative ones. That something is critical thinking and testing of things within the church and Christian organizations.
But Paul then goes on to say that after they have tested prophecies (or whatever) they are to hold firmly to what is good. The implication, of course, is that they were to discard what is bad.
Don’t you wish Paul had finished his thoughts sometimes? I can just imagine the Thessalonian Christians listening to this letter being read to them and asking in consternation “How?” “By what criteria are we supposed to critically examine prophecies?” We can only wish with them that Paul had given specific instructions about that.
I’ll never forget when this text first hit home to me. You know that “Aha!” moment when experience and text come together and suddenly it means something very existentially compelling to you? That happened to me. I don’t remember the date, but I remember the place and the time frame. Then this text became a great comfort and challenge to me.
I grew up in a form of Christianity most of you can’t even imagine. Sometimes I’m even embarrassed to talk about it. Whenever I meet someone who also grew up in it I want to grab them and sit down and talk at length. I want to say “Hey, let’s form a support group!” Often I find they went one of two directions with it—either deeper in or farther away.
You see, the religious form of life I was raised in was almost cultic in its extreme legalism. I’ve come to refer to us as “urban Amish.” We lived in a city, but we regarded everything and everyone around us as bound for hell unless they repented and joined our group or something very much like it.
Television was held in great suspicion; it tended to come and go in our home. Our first television was a rented set so that I would have something to do when I was bed ridden for months with rheumatic fever when I was 10. A 10 year old can only read the Bible so much. And reading the Bible was strongly emphasized in our home and church. Anyone who had not read the Bible all the way though—including all the “begats”—by the time he or she was 12 was considered destined for hell. (I exaggerate only slightly!)
When I got well the television stayed for a while, but then it went back to the rental store and we didn’t have another one for years.
Movies were absolutely Verboten. “What if Jesus came back while you were sitting in a den of Hollywood iniquity where people have sex in the back seats?” Seriously. That’s what we were asked by Sunday School teachers. I didn’t darken the door of a movie theater until I was 20.
I think you get the picture. But more pertinent to my story than all the rules and regulations that governed almost every minute aspect of life was the one great unspoken but always enforced rule and I learned the consequences of breaking it much to my detriment.
That one great rule was “Don’t ask why.” Of course, it was okay to ask why IF you asked in the right spirit and with the right attitude—one of humble acceptance of whatever answer was offered. But if you asked why really challenging a rule or a belief or a custom you’d better watch out. Your eternal soul was in jeopardy. Here I do not exaggerate.
My stepmother was the epitome of our spiritual way of life.
When we went on family vacation we had to find a church as close to ours in beliefs and practices as possible and attend it in Sunday morning—Sunday school and all.
I got punished for putting my school books on top of a Bible at home.
My brother and I weren’t allowed to wear cut off jeans, to say nothing of shorts, or to swim with girls—which meant no swimming in any public pool. Occasionally our church would rent a YMCA swimming pool for an afternoon or evening. But the boys sat out while the girls swam and vice versa.
My problem was that I pretty much kept all the rules and, in spite of them, had a marvelous, life-transforming experience of Jesus Christ in that context, but as I matured I couldn’t stop asking “Why?” Why this rule and that belief? And when the answers weren’t satisfying I kept asking.
When I was in sixth grade I must have asked too many questions in Sunday School because one Sunday the teacher stood up, threw down his Sunday School quarterly and said “Roger, you teach the class” and stomped out. I did teach the class. Needless to say, I got a spanking that afternoon.
If you grew up in our church there was really only one option for college—our denomination’s Bible college. Everyone went there. To not go there was to put a big question mark over your spirituality. It was a deal breaker—not to go there was to be shunned by family and friends. So I went there. And I suffered four years of hell.
We were not allowed to ask questions in class unless they were simply for clarification of a point. The whole curriculum and pedagogy was about indoctrination. And there was a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in the school.
I simply couldn’t stop myself from asking the “Why?” question. “Why do we believe that?” “Where does that tradition come from?” “Why do we do that?” Most often the answers were less than satisfactory and I was labeled a trouble maker for persisting in my questioning.
At a particularly low point in my college career I came across this verse—”Examine all things”—and felt released from guilt and condemnation. I came to realize that I was being spiritually abused. That my elders had created idols out of highly questionable beliefs and practices and were using shame to manipulate and control students—especially those few of us who dared to question the idols.
One day the president of the college called me into his office and told me not to come back to school the next day unless I got my hair cut. My hair then came down a bit over my collar and about half way over my ears. Men were not allowed to have “long hair” or facial hair including side burns. (Not that I could ever grow side burns anyway!) I got my hair cut, but that was a turning point for me. I knew I was being singled out for special abuse because of my constant subjecting of things to critical examination.
During the second semester of my senior year the college’s board of regents discussed not allowing me to graduate in spite of my grade point average which was 3.5. They finally decided they probably couldn’t legally prevent me from graduating, but agreed among themselves to blackball me from finding a position in the denomination.
I was tempted to run as far as I possibly could from that form of Christianity. We called ourselves “conservative evangelicals.” Did I even want to be an evangelical Christian anymore? I wasn’t at all sure.
But I kept coming back to a few really amazing experiences of the reality of Jesus Christ in my life. They kept me anchored in my evangelical faith even as I slowly but surely shook off the extreme fundamentalism and legalism and anti-intellectualism of my home, church and denomination.
The last straw for my family and church and denomination was when I enrolled in seminary. I was the first person raised in that denomination ever to go to seminary. My people always called it “cemetery.” Enrolling in a Baptist seminary assured that I would never again be welcome among my own people.
At that seminary I found a very different flavor of evangelical Christianity—a warm-hearted but at the same time tough minded evangelicalism that was not at all threatened by my questions. And I drank deeply at the wells of open, progressive evangelical theology and it tasted so good.
As I progressed on into my doctoral studies I met many young men and women who had grown up in religious environments like my own and I noticed a pattern. It seemed they either were incapable of thinking for themselves or they rejected evangelical Christianity entirely. I determined to do what I didn’t see very many of those friends doing—keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater.
It hasn’t always been easy. Where’s the line between legalism and righteousness? Between traditionalism and tradition? Between fanaticism and passion? Between authoritarianism and authority? Between gullibility and openness to the miraculous?
Over the years I’ve witnessed so many young Christians in university and seminary struggling out of abusive fundamentalism with its near idolatry of human ideas and traditions and its abuse of inquiring minds. And I’ve been dismayed by how often they do throw the baby of evangelical faith out with the bathwater of fundamentalism. But I can’t blame them because I came very close to doing it myself.
Now I’ve become a little more comfortable in my own skin and knowing the difference between the baby and the bathwater comes easier for me. I need to be patient with those who are still finding their way in that. I want to give them guidance if I can.
So let me tell you some of the things I think we should keep as we discard their counterfeits.
We should not throw the baby of tradition out with the bathwater of traditionalism. Historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale said that “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living while tradition is the living faith of the dead.”
We should not throw the baby of certitude out with the bathwater of certainty. Kierkegaard coined the term “certitude” as the replacement for Enlightenment certainty which is a myth. We finite and fallen human beings can’t have certainty—especially about answers to life’s ultimate questions. But we can have certitude which means, in Lesslie Newbigin’s words, “proper confidence.”
We should not throw the baby of confession out with the bathwater of creedalism. I no longer will sign someone else’s creed or confessional statement, but if asked I will gladly tell my confession of faith in classical Christian doctrine.
We should not throw the baby of faith out with the bathwater of anti-intellectualism or the baby of reason out with the bathwater of rationalism.
We should not throw the baby of truth out with the bathwater of totalizing absolutism.
We should not throw the baby of feeling out with the bathwater of emotionalism.
We should not throw the baby of patriotism out with the bathwater of nationalism.
We should not throw the baby of the God’s supernatural activity out with the bathwater of gullibility about miracles.
We should not throw the baby of biblical authority out with the bathwater of wooden literalism and strict inerrancy.
We should not throw the baby of accountability out with the bathwater of hierarchy.
And so I could go on. There are so many examples of ways in which disillusioned Christians throw the good out with the bad.
So how can we know which is the baby and which is the bathwater? Perhaps there’s no litmus test. I haven’t found one. It would be too simple just to say “Jesus.” But a Christ-centered consciousness is part of it.
But one thing I’m sure of. In our Christian communities, we should find ways to reward and not punish those courageous souls who dare to ask “Why?” because they do us a great service by making us ask about the difference between babies and bathwater.