This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Foot-Washing - a Forgotten Practice in Christianity

The practice of footwashing is something that today is only observed by a few groups - some conservative Holiness/Pentecostals, some groups of old-time Baptists, and the Old German Baptist Brethren are among some who do still actively practice it - and at certain times of the year in some of our liturgical/sacramental churches (it is traditionally observed on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week).  It is also one of those practices that makes many uncomfortable, and I am one of those who feels like that - no one, aside from my wife or a doctor if it's deemed absolutely necessary, ever sees my unshod feet.  It is actually kind of embarrassing for me.  So, this is a study that I feel is needed, and it goes against some of my personal feelings on the issue, but it is also something I feel adds a rich dimension to our spirituality that we also have lost over many generations, and perhaps it is something worth considering to bring back into the worship of the Church again.  Therefore, although I personally feel embarrassment at showing bare feet to anyone,  it is important to get past personal quirks and see value in some ancient practices. 

This practice has a Biblical precedent that is found in John 13:1-17, and it is connected to the Eucharist and the Agape Feast in traditional Christian practice.  The idea of washing another's feet, as well as receiving the blessing, is to demonstrate humility and service to our brethren in faith, citing Jesus' example.   Some churches, such as the Free Will Baptist groups, treat it as an ordinance, while others such as the Old German Baptists (Old-Order Dunkards) observe it as an integral part of the Agape Feast, along with the "holy kiss."  The purpose, therefore, is to build and strengthen bonds and fellowship among Christians, and in every context I have studied this in regard to different church traditions, every one of them agree that the ordinance of feet-washing is to be practiced only among those "of like precious faith."   In other words, it has sacramental significance.  Also, the fact that such a practice demonstrates humility also promotes an environment of extending and receiving forgiveness among fellow Christians - a person cannot wash the feet of another that he hates or is in conflict with obviously, which is also the reason why many churches who practice it also institute it before receiving Communion.  It seems to also be practiced in smaller, more closely-knit fellowships too, which is also practical - although it is possible to do this in a large church setting, it would also be cumbersome too.  Then again though, I have become more of a proponent of smaller, more tightly-knit congregations in recent years instead of the huge megachurches, which are often more about numerical growth than spiritual development (that also explains a lot of the entertainment spirit, carnality, and lack of fellowship one finds in megachurches these days too - our priest at our parish, Fr. John Poole, addressed this well a few weeks back when he said that many churches lack the "community factor" today).  These same megachurches often don't follow the Bible as seriously as smaller churches either, meaning that passages like John 13 are often viewed by these people as allegorical, despite evidence to the contrary that the ancient Church practiced feet-washing as well, being it was also rooted in a Middle Eastern custom you still see practiced in many countries today.  Also, I think this whole self-centered interest regarding being "purpose-driven" and also the infection like a bad virus of a lot of pop psychology in Christian circles has denigrated an emphasis on teaching humility and servanthood, just like it has with teachings on sin, repentance, hell, and related subject matters.  Most pastors are too cowardly to even touch these subjects because it might diminish their membership rosters and also their pocketbooks if the offerings fall off.  That worldliness and compromise has cost Christianity much, and as a result we have churches full of baptized pagans who are so Biblically illiterate that it is shameful - yet, the pastors don't care because the member rolls are big and so are their bank accounts.  If these churches were to introduce footwashing or other practices, and if - GOD FORBID! - they spoke about sin and repentance, people would be charging for the doors.  Our carnal nature is scared of truth, and more pastors are about appeasing carnality than they are proclaiming truth, and Rick Warren and others are selling best-selling books tickling people's ears with this garbage.  Any rate, I digress, so I should get back on subject.

Angie Cheek, a contributor/editor to the Foxfire 40th Anniversary Book - Faith, Family, and the Land (Mountain City, GA:  The Foxfire Fund, 2006) says it better than I could on page 61, as she writes about the practice of footwashing among Appalachian Christian churches, when she writes "Those who would be great leaders must be willing servants."  I got this book recently, and being I have Appalachian roots myself and had heard of churches back home in West Virginia that practiced footwashing, I never though much of it, mostly because of my own quirkiness about exposing my own naked foot to anyone besides my wife.   But, the Foxfire book, as well as some things I have read recently about the ancient Amazigh Christian communities in North Africa that also practiced this as part of their faith centuries before, made me realize that there may be substance to this.  Therefore, I spent a couple of weeks looking more into it.  What I have found was interesting.  That being said, let us talk some about the practice itself.

A number of common things are noted when reading up on churches that still practice footwashing, be they old-time Appalachian Baptists or Old-Order Dunkards.  These include the following:

1.  It is always practiced in connection with Communion or the Eucharist

2.  It is sex-segregated - only men can wash men's feet, and women can wash women's.  To cite that, there is a quote by an old-time Baptist preacher, Rev. Ben Cook, in the Foxfire 40th book .  Rev. Cook, now deceased, was a veteran Southern Baptist preacher in the mountains of Rabun County, GA years ago who had to fight with the local Baptist association to get approval to observe footwashing in his church, but was eventually allowed to do so.  He says regarding the practice in his congregation, "We put the ladies on one side of the church and the men on the other.  The men wash the men's feet, and the women wash the women's feet."  (ibid. p. 63).

3.  Humility is a necessity in its practice also.  Esco Pitts, an old-time mountain Pentecostal Christian who although was limited in education had more wisdom in regard to this practice than many of the highly-educated theologians who try to explain it away. He says, "That humble spirit is the thing - not what you do but how humble your heart is.  It's not necessary to wash feet, but it is necessary to be humble to do it if it is necessary (ibid. p. 62).  The Old German Baptist Brethren hold a similar position as well, as is noted in their Doctrinal Treatise (Covington, OH: Vindicator Press, 1970 {3rd ed.}) on page 21:

The Christian virtues of faith, love, obedience, humility, service, and sacrifice are part of the foot-washing ordinance as exemplified by the Savior.  As we are to follow His example, they are the part that man complies with in order to receive the promised cleansing.  We cannot wash away sin by washing our brother's feet, but we can love him, and be of humble service to him, and sacrifice for him.  These are the visual lessons the Savior teaches through foot-washing.

Notice, in both of these vastly different Christian expressions, the same emphasis comes to light - humility!
Humility is sadly lacking in today's society, and that is unfortunately reflected in today's churches.  Many churches are so caught up in social programs, catering to "seekers,' and other such stuff that they often forget to be a cohesive Body among themselves as God intended them to be.  That is why old-time churches often have a family feel - practices like footwashing and the "holy kiss" solidify relationships, and the Church thus becomes the spiritual family it was meant to be.  Social programs, evangelism, and all the other programs many churches institute do have their place, and many benefits are in such things, but first and foremost there needs to be the forging, solidifying, and strengthening of bonds among the local body of believers before we can be a witness to anyone else. We as Christians are a spiritual family, after all, so we need to act like one.  Therefore, I see a merit for reviving the practice of footwashing - before people participate in the life of a church, they need to be fully reconciled to the brethren and be an integral part of the community with full fellowship.  If they are not, then they are strangers that can be used of Satan to destroy individual churches, and church strife is a major weapon in Satan's arsenal.  I say this especially to our liturgical/sacramental churches, because we often lose the essence of the depth of the Liturgy when we don't have genuine community amongst our people.  Catholic churches like mine should be some of the most enthusiastic to embrace these time-honored and Scriptural practices, yet we are often the most resistant to it.  Church, it must be noted, is more than just an hour on Sunday mornings; we as the Church are the Bride of Christ, and He wants His Bride to be spotless, free of rends and tears, and complete.  And, whether you agree with it or not, footwashing and other related practices are means to bring that about. 

Much more can be written on this subject, but essentially the value of a tangible act like footwashing is to teach us about fellowship and humility to our brethren, and Jesus Himself was the best example of that. Therefore, it may be in our best interest to revisit these subjects, for in them we could find what our churches are missing.  God bless and be with you all until my next visit with you.