“Foot Washing: Empty Ritual or Full Symbol?”

by Israel Steinmetz

From an outsider’s view, Christianity is full of strange rituals. Even in non-liturgical churches like ours there is plenty of strangeness. We gather groups of people who mostly cannot sing and sing together every week. We dunk people under water as an initiation rite. We have a specialized language and social structure. We eat bread and drink juice that symbolize a human sacrifice. Week after week we read and talk about a Book of ancient writings that we treat as sacred and determinative for our entire lives.

In all this strangeness, one of the weirdest things we do is gather once a year and wash each other’s feet. Even more bizarre, most of us go out of our way to cleanse and groom our feet in preparation for this event, ensuring that the basin of water is just as clean after the ritual as it was before!

Why do we gather every year and wash each other’s pedicured feet? We say it’s because of what Jesus taught in John 13:12-17. Jesus had just played the role of a servant, washing His disciples’ filthy feet at the dinner we call the Lord’s Supper. Then He instructed them to follow His example. So here we are nearly two thousand years later assembling every year to commemorate the Lord’s Supper by eating the bread, drinking the juice, and yes, washing each other’s feet.

Clearly what began as a practical way of serving each other has turned into a symbolic ritual. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whether it is an empty ritual or a full symbol depends upon how we relate to each other throughout the year. Jesus’ foot washing represented humility in the form of practical service.

In a society like ours where feet are fairly clean and we bathe ourselves, washing each other’s feet is no longer a viable way of serving each other. So we are called to think of comparable activities in modern life. What are things that the wealthy would have a servant do for them that we could do for each other instead? Consider a few examples:

  • cleaning someone’s house, washing their clothes or dishes;
  • giving their car an oil change and thorough scrubbing;
  • raking the leaves in their yard or cutting their grass;
  • caring for their children;
  • giving them rides to the grocery store or park or hospital.

These answers call us to the same radical servanthood Jesus demonstrated that night. Some of us would object to doing these things for others, and most of us would scoff at the idea of letting someone do them for us. But if we’re not humbly serving each other in practical ways, we’re not following Jesus’ command in John 13, no matter how many clean feet we wash during Lord’s Supper service. Whether foot washing is an empty ritual or a full symbol depends upon our willingness to serve and be served by one another all year long.
Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for LifeSpring School of Ministry.

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Written By

Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and pastors New Hope United Church in San Antonio, TX, where he lives with his wife Anna and their eight children. In addition to teaching, Israel is a prolific writer, having co-authored four books and contributed over fifty feature articles to the Bible Advocate. Committed to lifelong learning, Israel holds a Bachelors in Pastoral Ministry, a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Theological Studies and is pursuing the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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