Morality and a Dirty Shirt
"Some people think it is not proper for a clergyman to dance. I mean to assert my freedom from any such law. If our Lord chose to represent, in His parable of the Prodigal Son, the joy in Heaven over a repentant sinner by the figure of ‘music and dancing,’ I will hearken to Him rather than to men, be they as good as they may. For I had long thought that the way to make indifferent things bad, was for good people not to do them.” —George MacDonald
My mother, if asked, “Is this shirt dirty?” would almost always reply: “If it’s doubtful, it’s dirty.” That may be a passable theory of cleanliness, but as a moral premise, it’s deadly, a hypothesis that breeds paranoia and guilt for you never know if you’ve stepped out of line.
The “Doubtful if Dirty” moral thesis poses this proposition: “Everything is evil unless I know it is good.” The biblical theory of morality is the other way ‘round: “Everything is good unless I know it is bad.” Paul puts it plainly, “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated (put to its intended use) by the Word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4,5).
Satan has never created anything. Not even sin. Evil does not exist as a thing in itself; it is parasitic. It fastens itself to everything beautiful that God has made and twists it into a base and ugly thing through improper use, motive or timing. His deceits are multifarious. Thus we need to prayerful, thoughtfully read God’s Word to discern good and evil. The New Testament (the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles) is our authority in all matters of conduct, a final authoritative answer to the question of the good life—this despite our culture’s insistence that morality is subjective. God draws very few lines—there was only one forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden—but they are fine lines. What is prohibited is clearly prohibited.
But, what is not prohibited is permissible. Once again: Everything is good unless I know it is evil.
Now, admittedly, a permissible thing may not be prescribed for me. I may, for good reasons, decide to lay a good thing aside. But the thing in and of its self may not be wrong, nor is it necessarily wrong for others. To insist that it is, is legalism. “Doubtful things” become rules and regulations that go beyond scriptural proscriptions and acquire the force and finality of “biblical” sanctions nowhere found in the Bible (Cf., Colossians 2:20-23; Mark 7:7).
But the greater concern is that the Doubtful is Dirty premise is counter–productive of righteousness, leading us into greater unrighteousness, causing us to neglect the “weightier matters of the law—goodness, love and faithfulness.”
Let me explain:
When I was a young boy I was introduced to the “filthy five”: Thou shalt not drink. Thou shalt not smoke. Thou shalt not play cards. Thou shalt not dance. Thou shalt not go to the movies.
There was a sixth proscription, making it an even half-dozen: Thou shalt not engage in mixed bathing! At first I was unsure with what I was not supposed to be mixed. Then I learned it was girls. At summer camp, girls and boys swam at different times, ostensibly, to keep our thoughts pure. It didn’t work. We watched from afar.
There was security in the system, I must say; I knew where I stood. And, it’s conceivable that in certain circumstances any or all of those sanctions might be valid. Yet even as a young boy I saw the irony in these vetoes: I could refrain from all of them and completely miss the point of authentic goodness! Goodness, like God, is very subtle.
George MacDonald, in his novella Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood makes the case far better than I.
He writes of a young cleric who went out to acquaint himself with a parishioner, an elderly Scot named Rogers. He had seen the old man walking through the village, clouds of smoke billowing from his briar pipe, and so purchased a tin of tobacco for him and offered it to him as a gambit:
“You smoke, don’t you, Rogers?” I said
“Well, sir, I can’t deny it. It’s not much I spend on baccay, anyhow. Is it, dame?”
“No, that it bean’t,” answered his wife.
“You don’t think there’s any harm in smoking a pipe, sir?”
“Not the least,” I answered, with emphasis.
“You see, sir,” he went on, not giving me time to prove how far I was from thinking there was any harm in it, “you see, sir, sailors learns many ways they might be better without. I used to take my pan o’grog with the rest of them; but I give that up quite, ‘cause as how I don’t want it now.”
“Cause as how,” interrupted his wife, “you spend the money on tea for me, instead. You wicked old man to tell stories!”
“Well, I takes my share of the tea, old woman, and I’m sure it’s a deal better for me. But, to tell the truth, sir, I was a little troubled in my mind about the baccay, not knowing whether I ought to have it or not. For you see, the parson that’s gone didn’t like it, as I could tell when he came in at the door and me a-smokin.’ Not as he said anything; for, ye see, I was an old man, and I daresay that kep him quiet. But I did hear him blow up a young chap i’ the village he came upon with a pipe in his mouth. He did give him a thunderin’ broadside, to be sure! So I was in two minds whether I ought to be on with my pipe or not.”
“And how did you settle the question, Rogers?”
“Why, I followed my own old chart, sir.”
“Quite right. One mustn’t mind too much what other people think.”
“That’s not exactly what I mean, sir.”
“What do you mean then? I should like to know.”
“Well, sir, I mean that I said to myself, ‘Now, Old Rogers, what do you think the Lord would say about this here baccay business?’“
“And what did you think He would say?”
“Why, sir, I thought He would say, ‘Old Rogers, have yer baccay; only mind ye don’t grumble when you ‘ain’t got none.’”
“And this is the man I thought I would be able to teach!” the young minister mused.
October 5. 2015
 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: righteousness and love and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).