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8001 W Capitol Drive Milwaukee, WI (414)461-2491

Why wash feet?

On Thursday, April 17th we will gather for a service of foot washing and share in a Seder Meal for our congregation’s Maundy Thursday service. Many churches now celebrate foot washing on Maundy Thursday, but the practice has been important and standard in this congregation since its inception in 1910.

Now, in keeping with the theme of these blog posts, we will ask the question once more—why do we do this? Why will our church have a foot washing service this year? Because it has been done for 100+ years? Because we really like showing off our feet? Because we like making new people uncomfortable? Because our church is more humble that all the others in the whole wide world?

The answer is really two-fold. On the one hand, we do this because we are a part of the Church of God. Foot washing has roots in the Winebrennarian movement that influenced the most influential figure of the first generation of the Church of God reformation movement--D.S. Warner. Beyond his Winebrennarian influence, Warner wrote frequently about the importance of foot washing alongside believers’ baptism and communion as an element of the life of the church depicted in the New Testament. Beyond it just being something found in the Bible, the Church of God has repeatedly affirmed the importance of sharing in foot washing. For example, there was a big conflict in the early Church of God movement (late 1800s) when a group that was teaching at an Ohio Campmeeting against baptism, communion, and foot washing. In response Warner and others sought to explain why that teaching was wrong and not consistent with the proper understanding of the Church of God in its aspirations to mirror the New Testament church (Strege, I Saw the Church, 35). The importance of foot washing for Church of God identity does not stop in the 1800s. Brother Slacum mounted an attack on those who he felt had apostasized from the true church in 1944 and one of the most important signs that a church was in apostasy was their failure to practice foot washing (Strege, 274).

Therefore, as a congregation that grew out of and remains a part of the Church of God movement, we have precedence on the side of practicing foot washing. In that sense, if we are going to practice believers’ baptism (we do.) and communion (every 3rd Sunday) then we are on the trajectory of following these ordinances and church practices. In other words, we should follow our tradition unless we have a good reason to go against it or let it go.

But the more important answer and the one that is the second half of this post is that ultimately, our commitment to practicing foot washing is about following Jesus’ example. In John chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet and tells them that since he as their Lord and Teacher has washed their feet, they should do likewise. In our congregation’s understanding, this was more than just a one time event and story for us to cognitively absorb. Instead we see a powerful message within the story about what true glory is, what true power is, and what posture we as followers of Jesus are invited to adopt.

Gil Stafford emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ disciples being “willing to lay aside [our] cloaks of respectability for the sake of God’s redemptive work in the world.” Jesus’ followers are to follow his way of servanthood by deliberate humility in service to others.

Stafford cites Edwyn Hoskyns, who writes about the societal implications of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Let’s just say, Jesus was subverting the standard practice in several ways. Hoskyns states,

“To wash the feet of their masters belonged to the duties of slaves (1 Sam. 25:41). According to Rabbinic teaching, slaves of Jewish birth were not bound to perform this menial action, thought wives were expected to wash the feet of their husbands.”

From this background, Stafford notes that Jesus was both not expected to do this and in doing so, took on the role of a slave or woman. I think it is important to comment here that Jesus regularly redefines things in the New Testament. It is not so much that we should think of Jesus as a slave or woman but to challenge how his actions here should adjust our notions of what is relegated as the work “merely” for slaves and women. Jesus takes claim of activities that “respectable men” wouldn’t dream of doing and instructs those people who follow him to practice these acts of servanthood.

So in short, we are going to wash feet on April 17th because Jesus taught us that foot washing is an important practice of those who follow him. Foot washing is an embodied practice that reminds us the posture of our Lord in the face of those who will betray you or follow you to the end.

If you’ve never participated in a foot washing service, we invite you to join us. You are welcome to just watch if it seems too new or strange to you. We trust that the experience will be one where you will have the opportunity to grow more deeply in your faith and the journey of following Jesus as Lord.