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Question:
A friend of mine wants to have foot washing at an upcoming fellowship time, and I’m a little uncomfortable with this. It has never been my understanding that foot washing was an ordinance, on the level of communion or baptism. I’ve always seen Jesus’ foot washing story as an example of servitude toward one another, rather than a literal command to wash each other’s feet. What do you think?

Answer:

First, let me define what a “foot washing” is for those folks who may not understand the question.

John 13:5 After that, He (Jesus) poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (NKJV)

Jesus was showing the reality of his servanthood, that he came to serve mankind; that the first will be last, the greatest will be least. He was leading by example.

In the culture of that time, people wore sandals. Their feet were filthy and dusty constantly. We are used to nice, soft feet that are protected in shoes, socks and lotions. Not so in that day. Feet took a beating.

Only the lowly slaves, or lowest in a household would wash feet. It was considered the most humble of tasks; maybe akin to cleaning public toilets after people today.

You are correct in your understanding that foot washing is not on par with Communion or Baptism. It was never commanded for us to do as a ceremony or some sort of requirement.

The reason why some people do it today, is to follow Jesus example by becoming the humble servant, doing the things that the proud would consider “beneath” them. In that sense, there is certainly nothing “wrong” with doing it; but I’m not convinced that washing feet in Western culture ends up teaching or delivering the same lesson it did for Jesus.

You ask me, “what do you think” about it? A few thoughts….

  • Washing feet is not the same type of “chore” it was then; while feet can still get dirty, it is simply not a custom that has a whole lot of meaning to us today in Western culture.
  • However, it is STILL humbling to wash someone else’s feet; it is also very humbling to ALLOW someone to wash your feet (unless you’re paying $150 at a salon!). Anything that produces humility can certainly be argued as being positive.
  • Perhaps your discomfort is from either not being used to this custom; or it COULD stem from our Western pride that simply doesn’t like either washing someone else’s feet, or having someone wash ours.

You are correct in your statement that the point Jesus made was one of humble servanthood. In Jesus day, this was perfectly demonstrated by the foot washing.

So your friend, or a Pastor/Elder, wishing to make a statement about humility, or teach a lesson on servanthood, might think of what is considered to be the “lowly” tasks of our culture such as:

  • helping clean up a homeless person who hasn’t bathed or washed in days or weeks
  • cleaning the home of an elderly person whose level of cleaniless (or ability to clean) has slipped with age
  • taking on the “menial”, “thankless” chores at church like cleaning bathrooms or taking out garbage
  • cleaning the pots and pans while everyone else at church is enjoying a nice fellowship meal together

The list could go on but my point is: you don’t actually have to wash feet to participate in the lesson Jesus was teaching. You can do this by asking God to reveal in your heart the most humbling service you could perform, and then go do it.

Jesus was saying by His act of washing feet that there is NOTHING too “lowly” for Christians when it comes to serving and helping other people.

My suggestion? Sit down with your friend, and the two of you come up with a way to help or serve someone or some group that most people would “turn up their noses” at. For example, locate a really poor family, or some homeless folks, or an elderly person who lives in poor conditions… clean their house, get them a hot bath, give them a haircut and shave, trim their finger and toe nails, get them some new clothes.

Do something that truly shows that Christians are never “too good” to help anyone, no matter what shape they are in. This will be equivalent to “washing feet” and in my opinion, probably more effective. Washing feet was about REAL LIFE when Jesus did it; it wasn’t simply a ceremonial or symbolic act.

Find some humble service that is REAL LIFE for today. This would honor Jesus’ example.

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