‘Throwing the baby out with the bath water’ is a way of saying that in an attempt to rid ourselves of the dirty, bad, or undesirable, we toss out that which is essential or prized. The idiom is quite graphic. Imagine a mother lovingly washing her daughter’s face, arms, and hair. She is careful not to rub too hard but thoroughly washes between fingers, behind ears, and around eyes and mouth. All the while, she softly reassures the child that she loves her. Once the mother is done, she takes the tub full of water and baby to back door and toss both into the yard! We get the message – you don’t throw out something or someone of value just because it sits in that which of no value. Besides being mentally unstable or out of touch with reality, a mother might throw her child out with bath water because she thinks (wrongly) that the only way to dispose of the nasty water is throw it and its contents into the yard. The problem is that she cannot differentiate between the value of the child and the filth of the water.
A surprising number of people inside the church feel that the only way to deal with the ugly past of missions is to throw it out with the bath water. They want to “own up” to the fact that missions was party to some of the ugliest episodes of human history – colonial aggression, slavery, cultural genocide, and power grabs. For its distractors, missions belongs to an era of unenlightened and even brutish abuse and disregard, motivated by religious naiveté and simplicity. They insist that in order to be free from this unsavory past, we must distance ourselves from every part of it. And yet, such an opinion is itself too simplistic and, frankly, is an over-reaction motivated by an attempt to resolve an uncomfortable past.
We must differentiate between value and filth. Missions is too valuable to throw out for at least three reasons. First, the value of missions can be seen in the myriad of good done by men and women on mission. In fact, I would say that far more good has been done in the name of missions than bad. We must not allow ourselves to be blinded to the vast amount of good and noble by dark and unsavory exceptions.
Second, missions is valuable because it is an enactment of the mission of God. Missions is a human endeavor, carried out by culturally bound and sinful men and women, and thus, it will always be in need of a bath – repentance, refinement and humility. And yet, in some miraculous way God demonstrates his love, grace, and glory through the human means of missions.
And third, without missions the church becomes too established and secure in itself. Much of the reason for rejecting missions is that it is not respectable, or it is unsophisticated. Missions is an embarrassment. The church needs missions because of its embarrassment and offense. Through participation in missions, we are reminded that we are a pilgrim people, exiles, sojourners, and witnesses of someone far greater than ourselves.
Who am I to dismiss, vilify, or reject missions? I am merely a broken, and yet redeemed, man invited to participate in God’s movement toward humanity. God’s mission uses me – my dirty bath water and all – to reveal his love, grace and glory to the world.