1.03.2009

Foot-washing and Contemporary Practice: Should I Wash Your Feet?


You know Lord how I serve You,
with great emotional fervor,
in the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You,
at a women’s club.
You know how I effervesce when I promote
a fellowship group.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
at a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder,
if You pointed to a basin of water,
and asked me to wash the calloused feet
of a bent and wrinkled old woman,
day after day, month after month,
in a room where nobody saw,
and nobody knew?

Ruth Harms Calkin

Introduction:

As the poem by Calkin demonstrates, foot-washing is a humbling act. This act is not frequent in the repertoire of the lords, or even fishermen apparently like the disciples themselves. The Gospel books of Luke and John are the only Gospel books which record Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The last foot-washing is found in 1 Timothy 5:10 by the Apostle Paul.

Montague S. Mills suggests this Gospel story may be best read in the following order: Luke 22:24, John 13:2–17, Luke 22:25–30, John 13:18–20. Mills suggests that when read in this order "they complement and supplement each other very well indeed. (1)

In John 13:6 Peter is surprised that the Lord Jesus would attempt to wash his feet. Such feelings are also why many people will end up avoiding the practice altogether. For some, the idea of touching another persons bare foot is too much. This is indeed the point, since from Bible times it was an expression of hospitality extended to guests done by servants and occasionally the wife of the house. In ancient times people traveling dusty roads frequently needed to wash their feet for comfort and cleanliness. It was a job typically done by servants.

Foot-washing was generally performed by the lowliest servant in the household (c.f. Luke 7:44). At the Lord’s Supper, Jesus arose during the supper and washed His disciples’ feet. He explained that this act was an example of the humble ministry that they must always be ready to perform for one another. For example, John 13:5-17 states:

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; (4) He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. (5) After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. (6) Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? (7) Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. (8) Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. (9) Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. (10) Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. (11) For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. (12) So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? (13) Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. (14) If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. (15) For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. (16) Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. (17) If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. KJV

Why should I wash your feet today though?

Foot-washing? To some the very image might invoke a shudder. Isn't helping one another or occasionally doing good deeds appropriate? To some degree, these deeds are exactly what Christ would have us do. In fact, to Christ the greatest must be a servant. It is our devotion and commitment to Christ-like humility however that should sustain us in all that we do.

Washing the feet of another is not limited to simply hospitality. Tertuallian, Chrysostom, Augustine, and even Origen advocate foot-washing as part of Christian tradition. For many years Catholics have held this act as a sacrament. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) is such a one. In fact, Herbert Thurston states, "In 694 the Seventeenth Synod of Toledo commanded all bishops and priests in a position of superiority under pain of excommunication to wash the feet of those subject to them." (2)

Later groups like the 11th and 12th century Albigenses and Waldenses observed foot washing as a religious rite. Martin Luther would later oppose footiwashing. Anabaptists and some Pietists groups held to the ritual as well. Mennonite groups, differing baptist groups, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Brethren in Christ all practice foot-washing as well. (3)

The Apostle John records that after the Lord’s Supper had been partaken and Jesus Himself had washed the feet of the disciples,

(12) So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? (13) Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. (14) If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. (15) For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. (16) Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. (17) If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. John 13:12-17 KJV
Jesus says that what has been done, the Lord’s Supper/Communion and now the Foot-washing, was given BY HIM as an “example” that we should follow. Was the only meaning here for us to ritualistically wash each others feet? The foot-washing was a vehicle by which Christ portrayed the Christian virtue of humility and servitude to each other and their neighbor.

Christ tells us that if we know these things, happy are you if you do them. In fact, in 1 Timothy 5:10, prior to the writing of the Gospels, the Apostle Paul is writing before the 1st Century and suggests that the early church followed Christ’s example in observing the ritual of foot-washing. Paul states:

Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, (10) well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work. 1 Timothy 5:9-10 NKJV

To Paul it seems, the idea of foot-washing is a "good work" done by believers. Ultimately, each Christian should strive to be Christ like in honoring Him and remembering His saving work for all humanity. Foot-washing is honoring Jesus and His sacrifice. As humans we owe a debt that we can never pay, but a thank you is appropriate. Foot-washing is not a primary issue or, in other words it does not effect salvation of the believer directly. A proud spirit should be cautioned against here. We should be willing to serve and promote the Christian virtue of humility. Proverbs confirms this:

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Proverbs 16:18 NIV


Five Conclusions for Contemporary Christians:

First, foot-washing is an ancient and Biblical tradition of servitude in love (See Genesis 18:4, 19:2). Christ used this tradition to point out that the greatest among us must also be willing to serve.

Second, Christ washed all the Disciples feet. Here it seems He indicates His and subsequently our individual obligation to serve the whole. Jesus washed all the feet of the disciple and we can presume that includes Judas Iscariot. Jesus did so knowing the betrayal of Judas in advance.

Third, It is directly related to battling pride and conforming human nature to the will of God. If pride and conformation of human nature to divine principles is not being implicated in the texts of Scripture then very little can be said about the text all. Note 13:16

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.
In Luke 22:24-30 the disciples had been bickering over who would be the first in the Kingdom of Christ. This precedes Luke's account of the foot-washing incident.

Fourth, foot-washing is a continual act that we do literally and in practical living amongst others. It should be natural for believers today to gather and wash each others feet today in order to express their devotion and commitment to humility and servitude to the local Body of Christ. Some do this once or twice a year. It is truly a personal experience in humility.

In practical living though, the principle Christ is portraying should not be reserved for ritual foot-washing. An everyday attitude of humility and serving should be the permanent posture of the Christian believer.

Fifth, in the book--Alone with God--by John MacArthur proposes that the act of foot-washing was more than an example of humility. When this act was done by Christ it also represented "a picture of the forgiveness God gives in His repeated cleansing of those who are already saved." Although we must not wash our feet each time we sin, MacArthur also suggests that "purification is necessary every day because daily we fall short of God’s perfect holiness." (4)

This point overlaps with the third point since it is to remove pride and cause us to humble ourselves. At regeneration God changes our spiritual man but our human nature still exists and still must be sanctified.

Pentecostal Foot-Washing:

Vinson Synan, from Regent University, has noted that the teachings of early Pentecostal believers were defined early on. Groups like the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), The Churches of God (COG), or the Pentecostal Holiness Church are early 19th Century Pentecostal groups. The practice and teachings of these early Pentecostals typically consisted of a strong preaching diet about a life of holiness and the baptism of the Holy Ghost.

Shortly after what Synan terms the "'oneness' controversy" (1913), groups like COGIC added foot-washing as a sacrament. COG founder A.J. Tomlinson forbid tobacco and alcohol amongst the beleivers and also required foot-washing as an ordinance.
(5) Jack W. Hayford, pastor of the Foursquare Church in Los Angelas, states that "A number of Evangelicals and Pentecostals practiuce footwashing, following the example and instruction of Jesus."(6)

David K. Bernard in, History of Christian Doctrine, notes that most Oneness Pentecostal organizations worldwide practice foot-washing as an "ordinance"(7). The United Pentecostal Church International is one of the world's largest Oneness groups. Foot-washing is encouraged in their Articles of Faith and they urge all its members to practice this "in imitation of Christ and as a manifestaion of humility."(8)

Conclusion:

The practice of foot-washing revives an ancient principle within each of us. A principle of servanthood, humility, and forgiveness. Foot-washing is symbolic and reminds us that we are called to serve, for the glory of God.


NOTES:

(1)
Mills, S. Montague. (1999). The Life of Christ : A Study Guide to the Gospel Record. Three volumes: 1. The Advent of Jesus 2. The Beginning of the Gospel 3. Jesus presents Himself ot Israel. Dallas: 3E Ministries.

(2)
Thurston, Herbert. "Washing of Feet and Hands." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 3 Jan. 2009 .

(3)
Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-<2003).>The encyclopedia of Christianity (2:322). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill "The Encyclopedia of Christianity is the first of a five-volume English translation of the third revised edition of Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon.

(4) MacArthur, John (1995). Alone with God. Includes indexes. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

(5)
Synan, Vinson (2001). The century of the Holy Spirit : 100 years of Pentecostal and charismatic renewal, 1901-2001 (104). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

(6)
Hayford, Jack W., & Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1995). Hayford's Bible handbook. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

(7) Bernard, David K. A History of Christian Doctrine, © 1999 David K. Bernard Word Aflame Press

(8) Bernard, David K. Understanding the Articles of Faith ©1998, Word Aflame Press

9 comments:

Jason Dulle said...

I'm of the opinion that we need not specifically practice footwashing today, but can and should find a cultural equivalent.

In ancient times, washing someone's feet was a necessary practice due to the nature of the terrain and the nature of their footwear. But it was the job of servants to wash feet. By washing His disciples' feet, Jesus was doing the job of a servant, even though He was their superior.

But in our day, there is no practical need to wash someone's feet. Rather than producing humility, it produces humiliation. And there is a difference. It is awkward, not humbling (I think that is why we often speak in tongues during footwashing services). I think a more culturally relevant practice today would be washing each other's cars, or cleaning each other's houses. That is a true display of humility in our culture.

Jason

JN Anderson said...

Jason, thanks for the reply. I have been wanting to email you but have been spoiled over this 2 week vacation from work and have been taking it easy. Oh well, back to the grind in the am.

I do believe we should find a cultural equivalent. I suggested this in my post as well. I do not see this eliminating foot-washing altogether.

I disagree with the absoluteness of "no practical need" concerning foot-washing. I do not think we can take it that far.

You suggested that foot-washing "produces humiliation". While I agree it may to some, I do not agree it does to all. I do not believe humiliation is the default position here. I do believe it is a humbling act since our achetype here is Christ, the greater, serving the lesser, i.e disciples.

He demonstrates that and we teach and follow that in our services.

We are unique here at New Life though. We do family foot-washing. It is actually a very, very positive experience for our church. It has really helped our families bond and heal at times.

We clearly encourage and admonish them, as well, to put the principle of Johnannine passage into every day living. This is extremely important. I see foot-washing, which we do annually, as a celebration or remembering of our devotion and commitment to the work of Christ amongst each other.

I do think it is awkward and that is why some speak in tongues. I do think though that some people are at a loss of words, but not JUST out of humiliation. In my experience that does not necessarily follow.

I might suggest to one who sincerely felt this way to avoid the practice. Simply leave or do not attend. They should endeavor to examine themselves and make sure they are not doing it out of pride. They should also be about Christ-likeness in the community of believers and local people as well.

Praxeas1972 said...

I enjoyed reading this essay and the comments.

I don't see footwashing as a humiliating act.

Humbling, yes.
Humiliating, no.
Edifying, yes.
Degrading, no.

I can understand the argument that both of you make, but I have seen and heard of too many miracles taking place during footwashing to simply designate it as culturally outdated, or a relic.

I have observed relationships mended by obedience to this ordinance.

I have watched proud men bend a knee and in the process bow their will to the example of Christ.

I think that washing cars presents logistical problems. :)

I've heard of some churches that practice shining shoes as an alternative.

I'm no scholar, but I think doing it the Jesus way is always best.

As for the whole speaking in tongues thing...In the recent issue of the Forward (Sept.-Oct. 2008) several questions about footwashing were asked (p.6,7,& 20). Four men answered. Nathan Hurst was one of those men. He instructs the people he pastors not to take "a long time in the actual footwashing." I think this is wise. It is not the length of time, or amount of prayer, but the obedience to Christ's example and teaching.

By the way, when did it become wrong or distasteful for a Pentecostal to speak in tongues while praying for someone?

There is a mark of humility when a disciple of Christ washes the feet of a fellow disciple.

Hurst also refers to Jn. 13:10 while suggesting the possibility that Jesus "intended footwashing to be a symbol to remind us of our baptism." If this is correct, it strengthens the argument for footwashing over other socially viable, or culturally acceptable alternatives.

I do know several men who have a problem with footwashing. In every case the real reason is their pride.

I tell you what. If I'm ever blessed to meet either of you fellow disciples I'll be glad to wash your feet. I hope you'll forgive me if in doing so I let the Holy Ghost have its way. :)

Jason Dulle said...

James,

I really don’t see any practical need for it. We live in a culture where virtually everyone wears shoes (usually those shoes cover the entirety of their feet), and we typically don’t do much walking in dirty areas to the point that we need to clean our feet before walking into someone’s house. And you and I know that everyone except for the guy who forgot it was a footwashing service that night, washed his feet right before coming to service! Why, then, are we washing each other’s feet? They are clean! That’s why I say there is no practical need for it. The best reason to do it would be because the Word commands it, but I’m not convinced it does. And I’m pretty sure a cultural equivalent would do just as well, if not better anyway.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find the experience awkward and humiliating. I’m not into other men rubbing my feet, and I don’t see it as a service to me either. A humbling service to me would be cleaning my shoes, car, house, etc.

I agree with your assessment that people speak in tongues during footwashing largely because they find the act awkward, and are at a loss for words. I think we can say confidently that such a practice was foreign to the early church. Washing feet was just that: washing feet. It was a task, not a spiritual venture.

Jason

Jason Dulle said...

Praxeas1972,

I can appreciate those who do not find the experience humiliating and unedifying, but that hasn’t been my experience, and I know I am not alone. I can also appreciate the fact that some wonderful and miraculous things have taken place during a footwashing service, but that does not in itself canonize this particular practice anymore than the fact that some people report how anointed handkerchiefs “worked.” God will honor one’s faith, wherever, and in whatever it may be instantiated, but that doesn’t mean we require anointed handkerchiefs as a standard practice of the church, and neither does it mean that the church must practice footwashing.

I’m not opposed to people speaking in tongues or praying for me. The point I am raising is that footwashing is being treated as a spiritual act that should be accompanied by prayer (whether in tongues or English). I’m not saying it cannot be accompanied by prayer, but I am saying it need not be. As I said to James, I’m pretty confident it wasn’t in the early church. It was a mundane practice. Jesus’ point was that no one is too good to do what many would consider menial service jobs for others. In our day it might be comparable to the pastor cleaning the bathrooms in the church for the sake of others (after all, he is not above it). But I highly doubt the pastor would be praying over the toilets as he scrubs them (yes, I know, they are not persons, but I think you get the point).

It may be that some people object to footwashing for reasons of pride, but don’t be so quick to conclude so. Maybe I am deceiving myself, but that is not the nature of my objection. I object to it on the basis that it is culturally awkward, (and at least for some) it does not produce the same effect that it produced in Jesus’ day, and that other culturally relevant practices better capture Jesus’ point.

Jason

JN Anderson said...

Jason, thanks for your reply. Pardon the delay. I have been very busy lately. You noted:

"I really don’t see any practical need for it. We live in a culture where virtually everyone wears shoes (usually those shoes cover the entirety of their feet), and we typically don’t do much walking in dirty areas to the point that we need to clean our feet before walking into someone’s house. And you and I know that everyone except for the guy who forgot it was a footwashing service that night, washed his feet right before coming to service! Why, then, are we washing each other’s feet? They are clean! That’s why I say there is no practical need for it."

I understand your point and I think you are missing another. For example, even the footwashing of Christ to the Disciples in John was not because there were dirty feet in the room needing washed. Indeed that may have already been done since Christ rose from the supper and begain to wash.

It is likely too, then, that the servants may have alread washed their feet. The point was not "dirty feet" it was about humility and servitude. Modern footwashing only seeks to support and strengthen this as well.

JN Anderson

JN Anderson said...

Jason, I think you are suggesting that footwashing was a menial task. For the servant this is true. For Christ this was not true since it was rarely done by the lord, master. It was a task for servants or if need be, the wife of the house. That is why Peter was shocked and did not want Jesus to wash his feet at first. It was made significant by the way in which it is carried out.

My wife or neighbor can wash their feet in the tub but it would be an act of humility and servitude for me to do so for them. Especially in our culture when it is not normative.

Jason Dulle said...

James,

Whether the disciples feet had already been washed by a servant prior to Christ's cleaning of their feet is something we cannot know with any certainty one way or the other, and I don't think it is all that important to the discussion. What was important about Jesus' act was the fact that he, as their teacher, was performing an act deemed appropriate only for someone of a lower "class." He, the superior, was washing the feet of inferiors, and thus displaying humility (although I think the reason he washed their feet went beyond a mere demonstration of humility, but had significance concerning his impending crucifixion). I just don't think footwashing illustrates the same thing today, or evokes the same response in the recipients. I think other practices in our culture more clearly demonstrate servanthood and humility.

I would still maintain that it was a menial task. But the menial task became significant for the disciples only because of who was performing it. Indeed, it is a menial task for someone to wash my car, but if President Obama did it, I would think of the job quite differently. But the task itself remains menial.

Jason

Calin Paul Alb said...

When were women allowed to participate in this act? I'm wondering, as I could not find information. I suppose that after Reformation. Can you help me on this? Thank you.

Adversus Trinitas

"...unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:24 ESV)