Church Toilets and Reading the Bible with Agendas

Church Toilets and Reading the Bible with Agendas July 24, 2017

church toilets pangea

Did you know that churches haven’t always had indoor plumbing? (Yes, of course you knew this.)

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1880s that church building (and regular buildings and homes) started to get toilets installed on a mass scale.

And if you have ever been part of a congregation where the color of the carpet takes 24 monthly committee meetings, 8 quarterly council meetings, and 2 annual business meetings, to be decided upon… you will understand where I’m going in this post.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s read a bit from the Scriptures.

To set up the context, the Hebrew people have escaped the Pharoah and are en route to the Promised Land (yes, it takes awhile because apparently they chose the ‘scenic route’).

They set up a mobile camp every place they make a stop.
This is an encampement and a space of worship.
As you might imagine, there are specific instructions (within the material that would come to make up the Torah) about how all of this should be done.

Here’s one of many examples:

12 The latrines must be outside the camp. You will use them there, outside the camp. 13 Carry a shovel with the rest of your gear; once you have relieved yourself, use it to dig a hole, then refill it, covering your excrement. 14 Do these things because the Lord your God travels with you, right in the middle of your camp, ready to save you and to hand your enemies over to you. For this reason your camp must be holy. The Lord must not see anything indecent among you, or he will turn away from you. – Deuteronomy 23.12-14 (Common English Bible)

Apparently during this season in Israel’s story, there was wisdom and sanctity that went into how the people did their poo business.

Fair enough.

It was about holiness. It also made common sense. Disease would break out if they were living and worshipping among their droppings.

Holiness, sometimes in the Bible, goes along with practical matters of health.
I’d say this is one of those instances that made sense in a specific context.

But what do you think happened in the 1880s when certain preachers didn’t want to use church funds on indoor plumbing?

What verse or passage did “the Lord reveal” to them during this time?

You guessed it. This passage.

Should our church get toilets installed?


Why not?

Toilets are unbiblical, of course.

Oh. That clears everything up.
God said it, I believe it, that settles it!

But does it? Really? Not even a bit.

Isolating a singer verse or passage, without considering its context, is usually driven by an agenda of comfort.

Although I am guessing that you likely think that this passage makes a poor defense for anti-toilet pastors in the 1880s, we see this sort of thing come up all the time in conversations about God and life.

I can’t tell you how many blog or FB comments I’ve received over the years that were simply a splattering of verses (often in the king’s English) as though an idea could be instantly invalidated.

Talk about nonviolence; get a passage about God commanding violence.

Talk about women in ministry; get a passage (waaaayyyyy out of context) talking about women remaining silent.
(I have yet to see a church practice this consistently… but that is a conversation for another day.)

Often, we make the move to use the Bible as an argument when we want to justify something that already feels comfortable within our worldview.

And this is understandable.
We all live in particular times and places with specific grids through which we see the world.

We should honor this in each other.
But as people who believe a 2000+ year old book is authoratative, we should also honor the Scriptures enough to not use them to fit our agendas.

We may not want the toilets in the foyer of the church sanctuary.
But let’s use logic and wisdom to argue our point instead of abusing the Scriptures.

Throughout the Scriptures, and quite often in the gospels and Acts, the word ‘repent’ is used as a way of changing one’s heart and mind.

When it comes to how we read the Bible, many of us are in need of ongoing repentance.

We will always want our sacred collection of texts to reinforce the ideas that will make us most comfortable.

But it is within this holy library of books, that we learn that being a disciple is about crucifying our own ideas and adopting the attitude of Jesus himself.

I’m not sure what side Jesus sided with in the great toilet debate of 1880, but I have a strong inclination that he wasn’t a fan of abusing Deuteronomy 23 to make a point.

We can read the Bible with honesty.
We can allow the Bible to read us, agendas and all.
And we can allow the Jesus of the Bible to change our hearts and minds, to repent of the ways in which we use the text to prop up what makes us comfortable.


***Some of the insights come from Adam Hamilton in Half-Truths.

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  • Guthrum

    Two thoughts: a church should have directions to the restroom posted – visitors are hesitant to ask.
    Air conditioning: many of us remember those days when churches had no ac. We used those hand fans and had early services. The choir did not wear robes.

  • Ejaz Naqvi

    I would have loved to listen into the debate in the 1880s! I bet it was not limited to the churches.

  • Alan Christensen

    I just had to look up how the KJV translates that Deuteronomy passage. I haven’t read the KJV regularly since I was a teenager, and at the time I’m pretty sure I missed the fact that this was about toilets. “Go forth abroad”? “Paddle upon thy weapon”?
    Thou shalt have a place also without the camp, whither thou shalt go forth abroad: 13 And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee: 14 For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy: that he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee.

  • BrambleTree

    Thank you. Nicely done.
    BTW- “Isolating a singer verse or passage…”
    Thinking you meant single. That’s one of those “typos” spell check can’t catch. 🙂