Thursday, July 30, 2009

Washing the feet of the saints

Is foot washing normative in the church today?

I am clearly a big advocate of headcovering, both from an obedience standpoint and, if I am honest, from the standpoint of calling the church to consistent practice where Scripture speaks and silence where Scripture is silent. An issue that I find to be similar to headcovering is foot washing. It is similar in terms of it being something practiced by the church for a long time, being more recently abandoned and dismissed as a cultural relic. I fully admit that I have not been as diligent when it comes to foot washing but it is something I have been mulling over for a long time.

We have two sources here, one a passing reference and one big one that really is hard to explain away.

First, we see Jesus actually washing the feet of His disciples in John 13: 1-15. Let’s look at the whole passage, because it is a lengthy account:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (John 13: 1-15)

The key I think is in verse 14-15 where Christ says: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Well, that seems pretty straightforward. Foot washing is obviously a more personal and intimate practice. You can pass around a plate of bread and cups of wine/grape juice but washing the feet of another person is, well, kind of in their personal space.

We also see mention of the washing of feet in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, where we see Paul speaking positively of widows who have “washed the feet of the saints” as being one example of a good work. So in the early church, people still washed the feet of the saints and this practice is not merely described but spoken of approvingly. That is a major qualifier, there is a difference between a mere recording of an event and an affirmative remark accompanying the recollection of an event. It seems like a minor thing but I think it is vital to examine recollections to see if they are merely recollections or if they are accompanied by a qualifier, either positively or negatively.

There is additional mention of the washing of feet in the Old Testament as an act of hospitality and of purification in several places, but I don’t think that those examples are necessarily all that useful in the church under the new covenant. As a practice, we do see the continuity of foot washing into the New Testament and the traditional practice clearly tempered Peter’s response to Jesus washing his feet. The washing of feet has a clear connotation to Peter and other Jews based on the Old Testament, which is at least in part why Peter has such a visceral reaction when Christ says He is going to wash Peter’s feet. I don’t think we should use Old Testament verses to support or perhaps deny the normative nature of footwashing for today.

Based on some slim pickings, we do see mention of foot washing apparently in the early centuries of the church from Tertullian and Augustine (I don’t have solid documentation to back that up). We also see footwashing being a practice of many of the radical reformation churches and still practiced today in some Baptist, Pentecostal and Anabaptist descendent groups (there are quite a few resources about this practice online that I am digging into). I tentatively would say that the washing of feet was a relatively common practice in the early church and all the way up to at least the Reformation and the Radical Reformation era.

Roman Catholics (and apparently some of the Orthodox) still practice foot washing, but is seems to have (like most Roman practices) devolved into a mere ritualistic observation once a year that has lost the meaning of the early church. I am no more interested in rote, ritualistic repetition here than I am in the Lord’s Supper or anything else in the church.

This all raises the obvious question. Is foot washing normative today? Boy it is easy to throw out the cultural card here, well we don’t wear sandals so we don’t need to wash feet today, the purpose is merely symbolic of serving one another, etc. That is always a copout without doing the work of really examining the Scriptures and seeing if the practice is normative today.

So what say you? From a consistency stand point, should we wash the feet of the saints literally today? Should we dismiss this as a cultural issue of that day? Should we try to replace the washing of feet with another form of selfless service that makes more sense in today’s world? Keep in mind as you respond some of the other practices we assume are normative today and whether or not the evidence in the text is as supportive of those practices as it is of foot washing.

My conclusion will come later.

1 comment:

Steve Martin said...

I think that the foot washing ceremony was an expresion of law.

It was the lowest job (the lowest slave's job)since it was something that nobody wanted to do for another.

We don't wash our feet after a trip outside. We wear covered shoes (most of the time).

It was all about being selfless and serving the 'other'at the expense of ourselves.

And we just do not want to do, except on the rare occasion when it won't cost us too much of our time and treasure. And even then, our motives are probably shot to hell.