Are you washed? Or just starched and ironed?

Kids in bathJohn Wesley observed, “The church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.” With all due adjustments for differing laundry habits, the same can be said for the church in all times and places from the beginning.

Maybe even before the beginning. In Mark 7, the Pharisees complained to Jesus that his disciples didn’t properly wash their hands before they ate. Jesus didn’t respond with the deferential apology they evidently expected. In effect, he pointed out that they might be ceremonially washed, but not clean.


Returning to Wesley’s comment, what does it mean to be washed?

  • And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11, NASB)
  • And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our body washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:21-22)
  • And one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in white robes, who are they, and from where have they come?” And I said to min, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:13-14)

As these verses suggest, washing means cleansed from sin. Right before telling the Corinthians they were washed, he listed the sins that they had walked in before they had come to Christ:

  • fornicators
  • idolators
  • adulterers
  • effeminate (by perversion)
  • homosexuals
  • thieves
  • covetous,
  • drunkards,
  • revilers,
  • swindlers

He could have added various kinds of violence or any number of things to that list. (This one is not his only list of sins. They’re not identical.) He twice observes that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. According to Scripture, every single one of us starts out unrighteous. Justification and sanctification begin with repentance.

In Wesleyan theology, justification occurs at the moment when a person repents not of particular sins, but rather repents of the entire sin nature. Sanctification continues from that point on until God achieves perfection in him or her.

Justification and sanctification are not merely an outwardly visible change of behavior. As the writer of Hebrews says, we have allowed our hearts to be sprinkled clean.

I take it that a clean heart is more important in this context than a clean body. I also take it that a clean body means more than just taking a bath. It means clean from no longer participating in anything on that bullet list or anything that could be added to it.

Returning to the metaphor of laundry, John reports that the cleansing agent is nothing short of the blood of Christ. It’s metaphorical, of course. No one would expect white garments to result from using blood instead of water in the laundry. But blood inside the body cleanses it quite literally. It takes away junk and poisons. It shouldn’t be too hard to understand that Jesus’ blood within the body of Christ (the church) would achieve the same cleansing in a spiritual sense.

Starched and ironed

Kingsford's Oswego Starch. Advertisement showing seven women around table ironing. Lithograph by Julius Bien & Co., New York, c. 1885.

Kingsford’s Oswego Starch. Advertisement showing seven women around table ironing. Lithograph by Julius Bien & Co., New York, c. 1885.

I was a child at about the time men stopped having their shirts starched. I’m a wash and wear man myself and seldom need to iron anything. It wouldn’t surprise me if some younger readers don’t know what “starched and ironed” means.

Whatever metaphor I or any other writer could choose, there is an ongoing sad reality: lots of people join the church as a human institution without ever joining the body of Christ as a divine institution.

Have you ever heard people complaining about all the hypocrites in church? It’s true. (And if you’re on the outside complaining, there’s always room for one more! You’re no better, and cleansing is available within the church for any of the starched and ironed who realize they need it.)

People starched and ironed their clothes to make them presentable in public. It satisfied a social expectation for how people should look. Generations and generations before the invention of starch and irons, societies had their own expectations of what was presentable. As will generations long after everyone has to look in an encyclopedia to learn about such obscure and ancient practices.

Churches have expectations of how people will dress in church, how they will act, how church members will present themselves to the public. They’re changing, of course, but one thing hasn’t changed: the expectation of conformity to social rules as opposed to the expectations of living out grace.

I still wear a tie to church. Several years ago, I joined a praise band, and one member found the tie shocking and offensive in a contemporary service. And told me so in great heat!

God doesn’t care if we’re starched and ironed. He wants us to be washed clean from the inside out. For centuries, good starched and ironed church people have had holy hissy fits any time the style of church music or church poetry changes. They have had holy hissy fits when anything changes!

God looks on the heart. He likes any style of worship offered from a clean heart and hates the same style if it’s not.

“Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?’ If not, what are you waiting for? You can get any number of people to pray for you, but only God can wash you. And he won’t without your invitation.

Photo credits:
Kids in bath. Source unknown.
Starch advertisement. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.…trialsanderrors_-_Kingsford’s_Oswego_Starch,_advertising,_1885.jpg

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