Footwashing: A Personal Perspective

Tom Barlow

Footwashing? What’s that about? Certainly it is not a very common practice in today’s Church. In fact, some readers may not even know the practice exists. It is often relegated to the realm of the ‘irrelevant’, usually because of personal discomfort at the notion of baring one’s feet. Biblical texts that refer to it are usually interpreted symbolically. But over the past three decades, I have experienced firsthand the powerful elements of this practice that are not found in any other act bequeathed to the church by Jesus.

I first need to give a bit of background. I became a Christian in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC USA), not having grown up in a Christian home. A bit of research reveals that the roots of the Fellowship go back to Schwarzenau, Germany (1708) at the height of the Anabaptist movement. The burden of the founders, including Alexander Mack, was to return to the Scriptures alone. Added to this commitment to the Scriptures was a deep desire not to devalue personal piety and to practise one’s faith in concrete ways. They tried to hold together the anabaptistic and pietistic threads of their day. Among other things, this yielded the practice of threefold communion (agape meal, footwashing and the eucharist).

Among my earliest recollections as an 11-year old boy are the communion evenings we celebrated together. In essence, we were re-living the events of the last evening of Jesus’ life on earth as recorded in John 13: a last meal with his disciples (the agape), his washing of the disciples’ feet, and the bread and the cup. We even concluded the evening singing a hymn in some cases, just to complete the re-enactment (see Mark 14.26). In spite of the oddity of seeing 300-500 men washing each other’s feet (not to mention the ambient odours!), these times were uniquely meaningful.

Over the years, I learned that each part of the evening focuses on a particular phase of God’s ministry in our lives. The bread and the cup commemorate the past act of Jesus’ shed blood and his body given for the forgiveness of our sins once and for all. The footwashing focuses on the present and daily need for cleansing from sin (1 John 1:9). Jesus told Peter, ‘a person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet’ (John 13.10). Finally, the future is symbolised in the agape as a precursor to the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19.9). Jesus gives the meal this futuristic emphasis when he states ‘I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God’ (Luke 22.16).

For the past 18 years, I have been involved in leading threefold communion services. Each communion celebration, often on a quarterly basis, provides an opportunity to reflect again on why Jesus left these symbols for us. A discovery in recent years is the correspondence between the three parts of the communion service and elements found in the Jewish Passover. Exodus 12 talks of the need for purification through the removal of all leaven from the house, the spilling of blood to provide deliverance, and the backdrop of a clearly prescribed fellowship meal. Could it be that Jesus had these elements in mind during his last evening with His disciples? The Passover context itself seems to argue for it, as Jesus’ Jewish followers would have seen the parallels quite easily.

On a practical level, most of my experience with footwashing and threefold communion has been in church planting situations in France and the United Kingdom. Because we work with believers from many different Christian backgrounds, this mode of communion has been the focal point of a lot of discussion and debate. Those who are used to practicing a weekly eucharist often have difficulty adjusting to a quarterly celebration (though no specific frequency is imposed in Scripture). Nearly everyone who is not used to the practice of footwashing is surprised, some are even shocked, the first time they celebrate threefold communion.

I’ve tried over the years to determine where the reticence to practice footwashing comes from. Is it a sense of modesty that is hesitant to reveal one’s feet or touch another’s feet? Certainly this is part of it. Is the practice of threefold communion just too different from the Christian tradition they received as new believers? Undoubtedly.

Yet, the validity of our Christian experience is never meant to be evaluated on whether our personal level of modesty is violated or whether what we had been taught for years is brought into question. In the final analysis, the question is whether our practices and church traditions are in line with the teaching of Scripture and helpful to our growth as disciples.

I have come to the deep personal conviction – through study of the Scriptures and through experiences lived in the various faith communities of which I’ve been a member – that the practice of footwashing is a powerful, concrete depiction of certain biblical truths that we find in no other church practice. Here are three truths in particular for your consideration:

The need to forgive one another: The eucharist is a powerful symbol and tangible reminder of our need for forgiveness from God. But the footwashing reminds of our need to forgive one another (it is one of the allelon / ‘one another’ passages). The reality is that it is (nearly) impossible to wash the feet of a fellow believer if sin is blocking the relationship. I am convinced that footwashing provides a regular, periodic opportunity to make sure that our relationships are clean and right in the body of Christ.

The daily need for forgiveness: Footwashing helps each of us remember that we need regular cleansing. We can forget that we still need God’s forgiveness, after years of being a Christian. The fact that I allow a fellow believer to wash my feet leaves me no choice but to admit I need daily cleansing.

The mutual ministry of putting off sin and purity: James 5.16 instructs us to ‘confess your sins to each other and pray for each other’. There is a mutual ministry of prayer one for the other, that we may overcome sin and be healed of sin’s consequences. Washing a fellow believer’s feet engages me in a ministry of prayer for his/her ability to stay pure.

As we seek to live as Christ’s body in an increasingly post-Christendom era, these qualities of redeemed, authentic relationships are desperately absent. Unbelievers need to see that we Christians recognise our own sinfulness and yet we deal with it, personally and corporately. The practice of footwashing is a concrete symbol of our commitment to do that.

Indeed, there are other legitimate ways for the church to celebrate communion; there is no pretension in this article to the contrary. But I would suggest that Jesus has provided some very powerful, tangible symbols for the strengthening of his body—the agape, the eucharist and footwashing. His church has a lot to gain in re-discovering them.

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