Washing of Feet

The Old Testament references (Ge 18:4; 19:2: Ge 24:1-67:Ge 32:1-32; 43:24; Jg 19:21; 1Sa 25:41; 2Sa 11:8; Song 5:3; Ps 58:10) show that the washing of the feet was the first act on entering the tent or house after a journey. The Orientals wore only sandals, and this washing was refreshing as well as cleanly. In the case of ordinary people, the host furnished the water, and the guests washed their own feet, but in the richer houses, the washing was done by a slave. It was looked upon as the lowliest of all services (1Sa 25:41). Jesus pointedly contrasts Simon's neglect of even giving Him water for His feet with the woman's washing His feet with tears and wiping them with her hair (Lu 7:44). On the last evening of His life, Jesus washed the disciples' feet (Joh 13:1-16). Their pride, heightened by the anticipations of place in the Messianic kingdom whose crisis they immediately expected, prevented their doing this service for each other. Possibly the same pride had expressed itself on this same evening in a controversy about places at table. Jesus, conscious of His divine dignity and against Peter's protest, performed for them this lowliest service. His act of humility actually cleansed their hearts of selfish ambition, killed their pride, and taught them the lesson of love. See also The Expository Times,XI , 536 f.

Was it meant to be a perpetual ordinance? Joh 13:15, with its "as" and the present tense of the verb "do," gives it a priori probability. It has been so understood by the Mennonites and the Dunkards. Bernard of Clairvaux advocated making it a sacrament. The Pope, the Czar, and the Patriarch of Constantinople wash the feet of 12 poor men on Maundy Thursday; so did the English kings till James II, and it is still practiced in the royal palaces of Madrid, Munich and Vienna. But the objections to such an interpretation are overwhelming: (1) It is never referred to in the Synoptic Gospels, the Acts or the Epistle; 1Ti 5:10 refers only to lowly service to the saints. (2) It was first in the 4th century (compare Ambrose and Augustine) that it became the custom to wash the feet of the baptized on Maundy Thursday. (3) Ritualizing such an act of love absolutely destroys its meaning. (4) No large body of Christians has ever received it as a sacrament or an ordinance.

F. L. Anderson

According to the Belief and Practice of the Church of the Brethren

1. Practice:

Feet-washing is always practiced in connection with the Agape and the Lord's Supper. This entire service is usually called "Love Feast." These Love Feasts are always held in the evening (in conformity to the time of Jesus' Last Supper). Preparatory services on self-examination are held either at a previous service or at the opening of the Love Feast. Each church or congregation is supposed to hold one or two Love Feasts annually. No specified time of the year is set for these services. Before the supper is eaten all the communicants wash one another's feet; the brethren by themselves, and likewise the sisters by themselves.

(1) The Mode.

In earlier years the "Double Mode" was practiced, where one person would wash the feet of several persons and another would follow after and wipe them. At present the "Single Mode" is almost universal, wherein each communicant washes and wipes the feet of another. Hence, each one washes and wipes the feet of other, and in turn has this same service performed to himself.

(2) The Salutation.

Feet-washing is also accompanied with the "Holy Kiss." As soon as one has finished washing and wiping the feet of another, he takes him by the hand and greets him with the "holy kiss," usually with an appropriate benediction as: "God bless you," or "May the Lord bless us."

2. Scriptural Basis for Feet-Washing:

There are three texts in the New Testament referring to feet-washing (Lu 7:36-50; Joh 13:1-17; 1Ti 5:10).

(1) Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet (Joh 13:1-17).

"At supper time" (deipnou genomenou) Jesus arose, laid aside His garments (himatia = "outer garments"), girded Himself with a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash and wipe the feet of the disciples.

(2) Peter's Objection.

"Simon Peter .... saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet (su mou nipteis tous podas)? Jesus answered .... What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt understand hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet." Whereupon Jesus said: "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me."

(3) Jesus Explains.

Peter now goes to the other extreme and desires complete washing. Jesus answers "He that is bathed (leloumenos, from louo, "to bathe entire body") needeth not save to wash (niptein--"to wash a part of the body") his feet." Jesus was not instituting a new symbol to take the place of baptism, to cleanse the entire person, but clearly distinguishes between the bathing (louo) of the entire body and the partial cleansing needed after the bath (baptism or immersion).

(4) The Command.

"If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet" (Joh 13:14, kai humeis opheilete allelon niptein tous podas), "I have given you an example (sign, symbol, hupodeigma), that ye also should do as I have done to you" (Joh 13:15). "If ye know these things, happy (or "blessed" the Revised Version (British and American), makarioi) are ye if ye do them" (ean poiete auta). No language is clearer, and no command of Jesus is stronger than this. Furthermore, no symbol is accompanied with a greater promise. Note also, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me."

3. The Meaning of the Symbol:

(1) Negatively.

(a) It cannot be explained as necessity or custom, i.e. that the dust must be washed from the feet of the disciples before proceeding with the supper. It was so cold that Peter had to warm himself, and this is sufficient evidence that they wore shoes instead of sandals at this time. Furthermore, Peter did not understand the action of Jesus, hence, it could not have been customary. Most of all, Jesus was not scrupulous about keeping the customs or practices of the Jews; compare Jesus' breaking of the Jewish Sabbath (Mr 2:23-26); the Jewish fasts (Mr 2:18-22); the Jewish cleansings (Mr 7:1-20). (b) It was not customary for the host to wash the feet of the guests. Peter objected, and Jesus told him distinctly that he could not understand at the time (arti), but would afterward (meta tauta). The symbol had a deeper meaning.

(2) Positively.

(a) Feet-washing symbolizes humility and service. The apostles had been quarreling as to who would be greatest in the kingdom which they thought Jesus was about to set up (Lu 22:24-30). Most authorities agree that this quarrel took place before the supper. Peter's question. "Dost thou wash my feet?" shows clearly that his objection lay principally in this, that Jesus, the Lord and Master, should perform such humble service. But Jesus was trying all the time to teach His disciples that true greatness in His kingdom is humility and service. "I am in the midst of you as he that serveth" (Lu 22:27; compare Mt 5:5; 23:11-12). Humility and service are fundamental virtues in the Christian life. To wash the feet of another symbolizes these virtues in the same way that the Eucharist symbolizes other Christian virtues. (b) Cleansing: Jesus clearly distinguished between the first cleansing which cleanses the whole person, and the washing of a part of the body. Baptism is the new birth, which means complete cleansing. But after baptism we still commit sins, and need the partial cleansing as symbolized by feetwashing. Compare Bernard of Clairvaux: "Feet-washing is cleansing of those daily offenses which seem inevitable for those who walk in the dust of the world" (sed pedes (abluti sunt) qui aunt animae affectiones, dum in hac pulvere gradimur, ex toto mundi ease non possunt).

4. Practised by the Church of the Brethren:

Feet-washing is practiced by the Church of the Brethren for the following reasons: (1) Jesus washed His disciples' feet and said, "I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you" (Joh 13:15). (2) Jesus said, "Ye also ought ("are bound," opheilete) to wash one another's feet" (Joh 13:14). (3) "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me" (Joh 13:8), (4) "If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them" (Joh 13:17). (5) Feet-washing symbolizes humility and service, which are fundamental virtues. (6) Feet-washing symbolizes cleansing from the sins committed after baptism.


For the Church of the Brethren: C. F. Yoder, God's Means of Grace; R. H. Miller, The Doctrine of the Brethren Defended; tracts issued by the Brethren Publishing House, Elgin, III. For history of feet-washing, see ERE, V; New Sch-Herz Eric of Religious Knowledge,IV , 4; Smith and Cheetham, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, articles "Baptism," "Maundy Thursday."

Daniel Webster Kurtz

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