The Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century resulted in the emergence of hundreds of new churches. Although these varied from place to place, many of them adopted practices that reflected distinctive Anabaptist emphases and were very different from the practices of other churches.
Some of those practices are now common in churches from many traditions, but the Anabaptist tradition continues to inspire and challenge Christians to rethink local church life and practice. In herited churches from many denominations and emerging churches are drawing on this tradition in various ways.
In this section we offer resources to encourage further reflection and practical outworkings of the Anabaptist vision.
Early Anabaptist congregations were distinguished from their Catholic or Reformed contemporaries by the much greater freedom their members had to participate actively in a learning community. There were monologue sermons, but often a number of people made contributions. Questions were invited and discussion took place. Gradually, as the tradition developed, a reversion to the dominance of monologue preaching can be observed, but echoes of a more communal approach remain, together with a conviction that God speaks through many people, sharing their gifts and perspectives in a multi-voiced community.
In this section we offer resources for reflection on alternatives to the monologue sermon.
by Paul Warby
The sermon had been boring. Ten points for effort though, well researched, nice thought structure, sprinkled with some humour and some helpful illustrations yet it lacked life. Perhaps I should have prayed harder? Perhaps I should speak with more passion, louder? Perhaps I should use a different preaching style?
It is questions like these that drove me on my search for a way to preach that reflected two of my core beliefs: 1) that the Scriptures are the source of all Christian practice and 2) that preaching should be relevant in our times.
So like a good little academic I rushed off to the University library and started reading what was being said about homiletics (the art and science of preaching). I picked up one of the most referenced books in the field; Fred Craddock's As One Without Authority (1971) and read from the first chapter:
"We are all aware that in countless courts of opinion, the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed. All this slim volume asks is a stay of execution until one other witness be heard."
It seems that I was not alone. In fact a whole new form of preaching has emerged in the last thirty years called the New Homiletic with the purpose of providing a homiletic to our post-modern culture. The New Homiletic has introduced ways of speaking that create a better sense of connection between the preacher and the congregation (Loscalzo 1992), appeals to both emotion and intellect (Breuggeman 1989; Lowry 1989) and how to pack sermons with more of a punch (Craddock 1971, Buttrick 1987). Some have focused on how to structure a sermon so that it mirrors the bibles structure (Long 1989; Hoggart 1995), others on thinking along more egalitarian modes where everyone gets a say in putting the sermon together (Rose, McLure 1995). All in all if you want to give a more effective speech then these guys have a lot of good and interesting things to say. The problem was that despite all these advances still not much has changed in the churches.
"We polled adult church-attenders to learn their perceptions of the sermon time. Here's some of what we discovered:
Just 12 percent say they usually remember the message
87 percent say their mind wanders during the sermon
35 percent say the sermons they hear are too long
11 percent of women and 5 percent of men credit sermons as their primary source of knowledge about God" (Schultz J and Schultz T 1994: 189)
Now maybe we just need to give pastors some time to embrace the New Homiletic or maybe we need to just preach the traditional way a bit better (some academics still prefer the traditional logic based sermon over the New Homiletics imaginative orientation). I wasn't sure and the more I thought about it the more I felt the need to develop a stronger theology on homiletics, a theology that would satisfy my intellectual and practical needs. As you will see my exploration led me to a place of seeing preaching needing participation or ...interaction.
How theology is developed?
Christians throughout history have approached theology with different models of thinking. Protestant churches have always placed the Scriptures at the centre of theology but have differed on what other sources are to be used and exactly how those sources relate to the Scriptures and one another. The Anglicans have the Lambeth quadrilateral (Scripture; Tradition and Reason; Creeds, historical episcopate). The Methodists use the Wesleyan quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience) which has also been adapted by other conservative evangelical scholars (e.g. Pinnock 1990: 40-44). Perhaps the most recent approach and the most geared towards postmodernity was the theological method of Stanley Grenz and John Franke found in their 2001 book Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. As seen below there are three sources.
This continues in the Protestant tradition of placing the Scriptures as authoritative over the other sources and gives it the title "norming norm". This is to emphasize that the other two sources are also norms (that which governs) within theological thought but that Scripture is the dominant norm bearing over and guiding the other two.
Tradition is taken to incorporate all of Christian history including Creeds, practices and ongoing theological discussions. This is in recognition of the Spirit's ongoing activity throughout the Churches history. As a trajectory it guides giving insight into how God has been speaking to his church in multiple contexts. Of the sources tradition is the one norm that has, in the Protestant tradition, been the quickest to "override".
Culture is brought in as a source but can be seen to synergize the previously separate sources of reason and experience of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. This is a necessary move to make as it has been established in other disciplines (sociology, philosophy, psychology etc.) that logic/ reason have particular cultural favours as well as the experience that emerges within certain cultural contexts.
So there I sat with three sources of theology. In the evangelical tradition (mine) there is also the knowledge that our very tradition states that we are to honour the Scriptures more than anything else in our search for theology (Sola Scriptura). So that is where I began.
What do the Scriptures say? (Scriptures)
1) Jesus in Mark's Gospel
As a follower of Jesus it just seems that the gospels are a good place to start in any theological inquiry (Ford 1997). If we just take the gospel of Mark and ask some simple questions of the text in front of us we get some interesting results. Did Jesus or those he taught initiate his teachings? Was there verbal interaction? Was there physical interaction when Jesus taught (tactile learning)? In short I asked the gospel of Mark, "How did Jesus teach with regard to interaction?"
I took Jesus' ministry prior to his arrest and crucifixion (Mark 1-Mark 14:42) and identified 63 teaching events.
7 are unclear as to being either interactive or non-interactive (these are generally sweeping statements, e.g. "Jesus came to Galilee preaching the gospel of God" Mark 1:14)
10 are non-interactive. Here we have taken the text as it stands although interaction is sometimes implied (e.g. the calling of disciples found in 1:17-20; 2:14). I also noticed that some non-interactive accounts like the telling of parables required interaction later in the story for the disciples to understand the message (e.g. Mark 4:26-33 of. vs34).
37 teaching events were initiated by others.
31 teaching events had verbal dialogue. These may be the same teaching events as those initiated by others (e.g. the story of the paralytic Mark 2:1-12) but in this category we are looking for recorded verbal dialogue in the text of Mark.
25 teaching events were also action events. These are healings, miracles and the like where teaching is associated with physical experiences (e.g. Mark 1:39; 1:40-44; 3:1-5 etc.)
It seems fairly obvious that Jesus' way of teaching is normally an interactive way. It is not merely an interaction that occurs between the thinking minds of the hearers and the words of the believers as some would think (Sleeth 1986, Stott 1982) but live verbal or tactile interaction. This is not to say that the spiritual monologue, which is also recorded in Mark (Mark 6: 7-11), should not have a place but to say that it should make space for more interactive forms of teaching. Now that we have seen that Jesus had used interaction as a common method we ask whether the Apostles followed in his footsteps.
2) The Apostles in Acts
Acts has many teaching events defined here as where persons attempt to instruct/ educate others whether this is toward unbelievers or believers. I identified 68 teaching events. Of the 68 the majority (43) were aimed at unbelievers. This makes sense as Acts tells the story of the spread of Christianity in the early years. But here we're asking how should we be speaking at churches and so focus on the 25 events where the believers were the main group. Of those 25:
13 are unclear as to their interaction (10 of these are unclear statements e.g. Acts 2:42"...they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching", others had interaction prior to the unclear statement but were not directly linked to the concept of teaching/preaching e.g. Acts 4:23-20 has worship preceding the unclear statement in Acts 4:31)
10 have dialogue. Sometimes non-believers infiltrate the meeting and begin a debate (Acts 15:1-2) while in other instances the discussion is amongst believers (Acts 15:4-5)
3 have action events
1 has no recorded interaction (Acts 20:17-35)
This survey stuck as close to the Acts text as possible. In the one event categorized as a monologue it can easily be argued as having an implied interactive nature but because the text doesn't directly point to interaction I called it a non-interactive event. So even if we accept it as an actual monologue we still only have one example of a monologue to believers in Acts.
Is there any significant difference in interaction if we add in the events that focused on unbelievers? Not really, you get the following results of the entire 68 events:
33 have dialogue
28 are unclear as to interaction
14 are initiated by persons other than the main speakers, e.g. an opening question.
11 are action events
5 have non-interactive monologues
(In case you're wondering about my math some events have multiple elements so they categorized more than once)
3) Behind the Scenes
Before we move on I would like to address two issues that have been raised in theological circles which have often influenced how the New Testament is read, so much so that the belief of preaching as a monologue has lasted this long. Firstly there is the view of the preacher as a continuation of the Old Testament prophet (Sleeth 1986:10) and secondly there is the relationship between the synagogue "sermon" and the New Testament practice of preaching.
The OT prophet as forerunner to the NT preacher.
The evidence for this view is very scarce and the belief is often founded on assumptions of the nature of the OT prophet as well as assumptions of the NT preacher neither of which stand up to scrutiny. I can't embrace the link for the following reasons:
"...there is no evidence to suggest that speeches were ever a regular part of Israelite cultus at the Temple or at there other shrines" (Norrington 1996: 2) i.e. The OT prophetic speeches were not normal occurrences.
The image of the OT prophet as a solo-speaker doesn't account for the often interactive nature of OT prophecy; between the prophet and God (Ezekiel 8) and the prophet and the people (e.g. Ezekiel 20:1)
Paul's understanding of the NT prophet is interactive (1 Cor 14: 20-32)
The link between the OT prophet and the NT preacher is ... tenuous.
The practice of NT preachers was predominantly interactive (see above)
It seems natural rather to associate the OT prophet with the interactive NT prophet and to allow the NT texts about the NT preacher to speak about their form of speech.
The Synagogue sermon
The question of how much the synagogue practices affected the early church flows mainly from the works of Oesterly (The Jewish Background to the Christian Liturgy 1925) and Dugmore (The Influence of the Synagogue on the Divine 0ffice - 1944). From there homiletic works have often linked the synagogue sermon to Christian sermon (Swank 1981:15) and so the monologue was seen to receive support from the synagogue practices. But there are some serious problems with this approach, namely
The link between synagogue and Christian practice is still contested (Rankin 1993: 173)
Those who accept the link still contest the extent of the link (Rankin 1993:175)
The Acts account indicates that the synagogue was primarily a place of evangelism and not Christian instruction. This brings into question the validity of the link as they are quiet different environments and agendas.
The early church separated itself from the synagogue.
Even if the link is embraced the evidence for synagogue practice is found predominantly in the gospels (McDonald 1980: 49) which support interaction (Luke 4:16-30 and John 6: 31-58).
4) Conclusion on Scripture
I believe we can say without fear of contradiction that live interaction was the norm of Jesus and the early disciples with the monologue being an exception.
So if the Scriptures favour interaction how did we get to the place where we have focused almost exclusively on how to give a good speech?
How did we get here? (Tradition)
De Wittte T Holland begins the first chapter of his book The Preaching Tradition with these words "Preaching has not always been practiced the way it is today." As we have just seen the preaching styles of the New Testament was more interactive, a conversational biblical study or a "progressional dialog" as Doug Pagitt would say (Pagitt 2005). So how did we get here from there?
1) The tradition after the New Testament times
The first centuries
Not much is known about the preaching that took place over this period. What we can say is that the church was skeptical of using Greek Rhetoric as Tertutillian (160-225AD) illustrates when he asked "What is the relationship between rhetoric and preaching? How the two could be reconciled with one another?" (Tertullian quoted in Shin 2004: 27) Even theologians who focus on Greek rhetoric today acknowledge that it was not fully embraced in the era of the early church (Shin 2004:27; Sleeth 1986: 20).
The established Church
Some trace the entrance of rhetoric speeches to Origen (185-254 AD) but most understand that the real development took place in the fourth and fifth centuries (Turnbull RG ed.1967: 51). From this point on the dominant tradition was one that focused on eloquent speeches rather than interaction. But even then interaction was not completely discarded as even that famed beacon of rhetoric speech Chrysostom "frequently interrupted his discourse to put questions in order to make sure that he was understood" (http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Homiletics).
In the middle ages the church became more focused on the sacraments. The sermon was still taught and certain works were written [Isidore of Seville (d 636) wrote Etymologies, Rabanus Maurus (776-856) wrote Institution of the Clergy, Alan of Lille (d 1203) wrote Summary of the Art of Preaching etc] although no significant changes were made. And so preaching became known as a speech more than an interaction.
Then came the Reformation and although they did bring a greater focus on exposition of the Scriptures sermons still came in the packaging of a monologue (drawing from the Latin and Greek classics that re-emerged within the Reformation Culture). Not much has changed with regard to interaction since.
But the monologue was not the only tradition of preaching. As has been pointed out elsewhere on this website (http://anabaptistnetwork.com/node/322) there is an alternative tradition to preaching which is interactive rather than lecture orientated, throughout the middle ages (12th Century Waldensians; 14th Century Lollards and the 16th Century Anabaptists). It is true however, that this is not a dominant tradition but it is there none the less.
The Current setting
And now we sit in the current era where Christianity is still an established religion but is becoming less and less of a majority. In mainline Protestant homiletics there are four dominant views of preaching (Traditional, Kerygmatic, New Homiletic, Postliberal) each supports the format of an individual standing in front of a group giving a one way speech. Some may use different methods of rhetoric than the classic Greeks (e.g. Lowry's narrative form) but they are still teaching the art of giving a speech with the attentive but not actively participating audience.
So we have a dominant tradition of the monologue but there is also a lesser known tradition of interactive preaching. If we take our three theological sources of Scripture, Tradition and Culture we are reminded that Tradition should be the servant not the master of Scripture and again we remind ourselves that the Scriptures support interaction over monologue.
But what of our Culture, surely how we do things is more cultural. Maybe we should follow culture for practice and Scripture for content. Maybe... but let's first see what our culture is saying about teaching and interaction.
How do we learn today? (Culture)
Elsewhere on this website (http://anabaptistnetwork.com/node/322) Williams gives a great exposition of cultural shifts that are impacting on how we as a culture learn. Not wanting to bore you with repetition I have chosen to flesh out Williams' observations with a fairly random collection of thoughts on the learning process in postmodernity.
Let's start by taking a sampling of quotes from the various fields of learning
Quotes from Academia
Didactics: "The teacher must make it his objective to bring about active and spontaneous participation by pupils" (Piek 1984:71)
Pedagogy: "The traditional "teaching" practice of lecture to passive students has long been discredited as ineffective...Ideally interaction will be a collaborative relationship toward shared goals where students are engaged learners..." (Taylor 2005:4)
Andragogy: "Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction... Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities..." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andragogy)
A study on how we are able to remember things based on different learning methods is shown below (Schultz J and Schultz T 1994: 109)
So if you're a preacher and you want people to remember what you have to say, i.e. that memory retention is one of your goals, what method should you choose? According to this study the more involved a person is the more they retain. Now obviously certain elements (particular dogmatic elements) do not relate directly to experience, for example, how can someone directly experience the Trinity?
But that doesn't mean we can't be creative in teaching through media and role-play (just think, you could role play that you are the Jehovah's witness at the door to teach the Trinity...or better yet you could knock on a Jehovah's witness door!). The possibilities are endless and at the end of the day the congregation will be better equipped and have a far greater retention of doctrine.
The Business World
Although the business world is somewhat removed from the church in agenda there is some possible crossover with regard to organizational theory. I mean we're still people right? Just think of it as the old theology of "general revelation" working, i.e. God also reveals knowledge through the natural world.
In the mid 1980's Dennis Kravetz set out to see how financially successful companies interacted with their employees. The end result was that the more participative the employees were the more successful the company.
In 1988 David Lewin's study (reviewing 495 organizations) concluded, among other things, "Companies that combine group economic participation, intellectual participation, flexible job designs, and training and development get an added productivity boost- two thirds of the difference observed in bottom-line impact was due to the combined effect of these practices" (McLagan & Nel 1995: 32)
Now there were of course other factors and no doubt an argument could be mounted against the correlation between sermons and organizational business practices'. All I'm trying to do is to point out that in our Culture when adults get together they are used to participating and when they don't participate they don't function optimally. This means that when we have groups gathering (e.g. a church assembly) the people in our culture are used to and thrive under conditions that encourage interaction.
A Cultural Caution
I feel the need for a second to address an issue raised by Buttrick who asked "when Saint Paul states flat out that "faith comes from hearing" (Rom 10:17), should we correct him by suggesting that faith comes from visual aids, and visual aids from your nearest publishing house?" (Buttrick: 1987:5). Just as Tradition, as a theological source, was not allowed to overshadow Scripture so too must Culture act and develop under the authority of Scripture.
Let me be clear; Interactive Homiletics is not about avoiding the speaking and hearing of the Word it is about finding the most biblical and effective way to speak and hear. It's about realizing that speech isn't isolated from action. It's about following Jesus more and more as we grow in understanding.
So let's wrap it all up. When developing theology we operate with the three sources of Scripture, Tradition and Culture. In my own Protestant evangelical tradition Scripture is the dominant source with Culture and Tradition acting as subservient sources. We have seen that Scripture is strongly in favour of interaction with teaching events (sermons/preaching/teaching/homilies etc). We have seen that Culture is strongly in favour of interaction in teaching events. We have noted that the Christian tradition is predominantly in favour of the monologue but that there still is a lesser known tradition of interaction there. You might say that the older tradition is one of interaction while the newer favours the monologue.
Given all this I feel confident in asserting that a theology of participative interactive homiletics should be the dominant theological thought and practice in our culture. I remember a preacher once saying that if biological evolution were true the church would evolve congregations that would consist only of bums, ears and eyes. Let us not be the church that simply sits, sees and listens let us be the church that lives, loves and learns...together.
If you would like to contact Paul and discuss things further please feel free at firstname.lastname@example.org
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By Stuart Murray Williams
Klaus Runia, in his book The Sermon under Attack, quotes a rather unkind definition of preaching as ‘a monstrous monologue by a moron to mutes’. In this book, which is actually a defence of preaching and a plea for more effective communication, Professor Runia explores some of the reasons why monologue preaching has been subject to such criticism. He identifies some important shifts which have taken place in the social context within which preaching is now situated and which challenge the practice of preaching.
Shifts in the Context
The first is a cultural shift away from passive instruction to participatory learning, from paternalism to partnership, from monologue to dialogue, from instruction to interaction. Those who teach, especially those who teach adults, no longer assume they are the experts who know everything and that their task is to convey information to others who simply receive this information. The new paradigm is of partnership, where teachers and learners work together, conscious that all bring contributions to the learning process. For preachers, this would imply that the congregation is active in discerning God’s word rather than relying wholly upon the preacher to declare it.
The second is a societal shift away from an integrated world to a world where networks overlap, a shift away from simplicity to complexity. We live in a world which is not only complex and diverse but a world in which rapid changes are taking place. There are very few generalists; most of us are specialists in one area or another. The education system is geared towards this, despite occasional attempts to broaden the curriculum. For preachers, this raises the issue of how to address such a complex world: the biblical text may not change but if we are concerned with application as well as interpretation, how are we to make the connections? Many preachers seem unable to relate the Bible and theology to the world of work or to issues in public life – these are areas of profound weakness in most churches. Perhaps we need the help of those in the congregation who have expertise and experience in areas where we do not.
The third is a media shift away from linear to non-linear methods of conveying information, from logical argument to pic ‘n’ mix learning. Whether we like it or not, the television age has deeply affected the way in which communication takes place and how people learn. A careful argument that takes thirty minutes to develop does not make for good viewing in the age of sound bites. Watching someone lecturing for thirty minutes, however many camera angles are used, is not an effective use of the visual media. Communication now frequently involves the use of images as well as words, short contributions from diverse points of view, and open-ended presentation that allows freedom to choose your own conclusion. For preachers, this implies not only the use of visual communication as well as verbal communication but hard challenges about the style and purpose of preaching.
These shifts can all be understood as manifestations of a larger shift in worldview that many argue is taking place throughout the western world. The term postmodernity means different things to different people and is in danger of losing its impact through over-use, but it does at least imply that the ordered, rational, structured worldview that has been dominant since the Enlightenment is under threat and that new ways of thinking are emerging. These new ways are not fully established or even fully formed yet, and there may be significant changes ahead or even a return to older ways. We live in an uncomfortable and unsettling era of transition, when we must both be open to change and hesitant before jumping on bandwagons. But there is no doubt that many in a postmodern culture do not appreciate monologue presentations. Sermons may be very poorly suited to this environment.
It is tempting immediately to react to these challenges and to defend preaching. Some of the responses would include:
• ‘Preaching is a biblical mandate, not just a form of speech to be assessed like other forms of communication’;
• ‘Preaching is not just about conveying information, it is a sacrament, an encounter with God’;
• ‘Social and cultural shifts come and go, we should not be unduly influenced by such things’;
• ‘Preaching has served well countless generations of Christians’.
We can return to these and other responses later, but it is important that for the moment we resist the temptation to leap to the defence of preaching and continue to examine the case against monologue preaching and listen carefully to the concerns. Some of these are certainly rooted in the cultural and social context in which we live and preach. The gradual transition from modernity to postmodernity brings with it a rejection of authoritative pronouncements, a preference for dialogue, an interest in exploring diverse options and a move towards learner-centred education.
It is perhaps in the schools that this change can most clearly be seen, despite some recent attempts to revert to a more traditional form of teaching. When I studied the history of the First World War twenty-five years ago, I was lectured and encouraged to learn the facts. But my sons were presented with newspaper cuttings, extracts from speeches, contemporary political cartoons and other primary sources and encouraged to discover not so much the facts as the different perceptions of events.
There may be strengths and weaknesses in both approaches, but the point is that the approach to learning has changed and our congregations are increasingly composed of those who have learned to learn in different ways, and who do not find monologue preaching that accessible. Research into the effectiveness of sermons has uncovered worrying evidence that all preachers need to take seriously. North American and European studies have produced similar results: somewhere between 65% and 90% of those interviewed directly after the meeting ended could not say what the main point of the sermon was or what issue it was addressing. Again, it is possible to argue that sermons are about more than information, that they impact the heart as well as the mind – but is that an adequate response?
How much preaching is a sheer waste of time? We pray, we study, we reflect, we craft a sermon, we illustrate it with stories, we deliver it with passion and integrity – but it has very little impact on those who listen to it. They are too polite to say so usually, but it did not really engage their attention, address their concerns or affect their lives. Some give up after a few weeks or several years and leave our churches. How many of the thousand people a week who have left British churches in the 1980s and 1990s did so because they were bored by our sermons? Others remain and listen to perhaps 100 sermons a year, but with what result?
Jeremy Thomson, a lecturer in Religious Studies at Birkbeck College, has explored this topic in a Grove booklet entitled Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? He writes in the introduction: ‘For all the effort of preparing, delivering and listening to sermons, most church members are not as mature as we might expect as a result. Why is this? Of course, there are bad sermons, and there are preachers whose lives are inconsistent with their teaching. But people may listen week by week to the best prepared and presented sermons, given by thoroughly sincere preachers, and yet make little progress in Christian discipleship. Some preachers blame congregations for a lack of expectancy that God will speak, for an inability to listen to a “solid exposition”, or even for disobedience to what they hear. But I suspect that there is a more significant factor in the failure rate of the sermon than the quality of the preacher or the responsiveness of the hearers. I want to suggest that the problem lies in our concept of preaching itself.’
An Alternative History of Preaching
But it is not just cultural changes or evidence that sermons are ineffective that are causing some to question the adequacy of monologue sermons. Challenges to the sermon have come also from those who have researched its use in earlier periods of history when the cultural setting was quite different. Thomson has done some research into this and argues that what we understand as preaching may be rather different from references to preaching in the New Testament, where it was less formal and much more open to interaction. He traces the emergence of the modern sermon from the theology of the reformers (especially Martin Luther and John Calvin), which gave the sermon the central place in worship, through the writings of Karl Barth, where preaching in effect becomes the Word of God, to the more recent endorsements of monologue preaching by Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. Despite this impressive lineage, there are reasons for asking whether the form has been confused with the content and whether the way God communicates with humanity has been unduly restricted. There is an important theological issue here. Does God address us from a distance and not invite our response and interaction? Or are we invited to dialogue with him?
A more extensive critique of the sermon is offered by David Norrington, whose book To Preach or Not to Preach examines evidence from the New Testament and the early centuries of church history. He argues on the basis of careful and thorough investigation that monologue preaching was present in this period but was used only occasionally rather than regularly. Much more common were discussion, dialogue, interaction and multi-voiced participation. Drawing on both the New Testament and patristic texts, Norrington concludes that the normality and central role of monologue preaching in many churches today has no biblical precedent or support from the post-Apostolic period.
Where did this emphasis on monologue preaching come from? Norrington argues that it was the result of churches gradually adopting from the surrounding pagan culture assumptions about communication and, in particular, a rhetorical model that was more concerned about demonstrating the skill and knowledge of the speaker than about the impact on the listeners. The monologue sermon, he argues, achieved a central place in the church not because this place was biblical or even traditional within the early churches, but because the church was adopting somewhat uncritically the norms and values of contemporary cultural practices.
If Norrington is correct, this is very important. He argues further that the trend away from interaction and multiple participation towards monologue preaching was linked to a number of other developments in the 4th and 5th centuries. During this era the church was becoming respectable and increasingly conventional following the adoption of Christianity as the imperial religion. Huge numbers of half-converted pagans were flooding into the churches. Congregations were swelling in numbers and massive church buildings were being erected. Monologue preaching seemed the only realistic option in large basilicas with thousands in the congregation who had little understanding of even the basics of the faith.
It is certainly arguable that the size of congregations and the architecture of church buildings have had through the centuries at least as much influence on the way churches operate as biblical and theological principles. But two other changes in the church that had been coming for some time but which rapidly developed in this period also affected the style of preaching.
The first was the decline of charismatic gifts and ministries within the church. These had required opportunities for participation by those who were gifted in diverse ways. But church life became steadily more formal and institutional and gifts such as prophecy became inconvenient and unsettling. Sermons were much safer. The dominance of the preacher grew as these gifts were marginalised.
The second change was the gradual development of a clerical caste and the increasing dominance of the clergy over the laity. In a so-called Christian empire, the old distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’ was disappearing, to be replaced by a new division between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. And the clergy were demanding the same kind of authority as secular leaders and professionals. In this hierarchical environment, the clergy preached and the laity listened.
Is Norrington correct? Some have challenged his conclusions and it may be that he has over-stated his case in some places, but his research is careful and he has amassed a significant amount of evidence to support his claims. Other early church historians are broadly in agreement with him. They argue that the biblical and post-biblical evidence suggests that ‘sermons’ were frequently contributions to a dialogue rather than stand-alone monologues, that interaction and multi-voiced participation was normal.
One way of testing his conclusions is to examine later movements in church history which questioned or rejected some of the aspects of church life which Norrington claims were influential in the development of the monologue sermon. If we find groups which challenged clericalism, recovered charismatic gifts, operated through smaller and more intimate gatherings and had high expectations of the level of faith and understanding of church members, but who nevertheless continued to rely primarily on the monologue sermon, we may be less impressed by his arguments.
Three groups in European church history which fit the criteria are the 12th century Waldensians, the 14th century Lollards and the 16th century Anabaptists. Common to all these movements was an expectation that the Spirit would lead them into truth, that the Spirit worked through all, not just through preachers and leaders, and therefore that interaction and multi-voiced church life was crucial. We will concentrate here on the Anabaptists, who explored this issue in their writings and congregational practices.
Although the Anabaptists did not abandon sermons, they were wary of monologues and critical of the lack of participation in the Catholic and Protestant churches around them. They were outspoken about this issue and argued from Scripture that something was wrong. An early Anabaptist tract quoted Paul in I Corinthians 14 urging that all should contribute when the church met together and complained: ‘When some one comes to church and hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent...who can or will regard or confess the same to be a spiritual congregation?’ The reformers had proclaimed the priesthood of all believers but the Anabaptists, their contemporaries, were not impressed with what they found in the reformers’ churches. The monopoly of the Catholic priest seemed to have been replaced by the monopoly of the reformed preacher. Experts were still disempowering the congregation and hindering it from becoming mature.
Many Anabaptist congregations consciously moved away from the monologue tradition towards a more interactive style with multiple participation and dialogue. An Anabaptist under interrogation in 1527, Ambrosius Spitelmaier, explained how this worked: ‘When they have come together, they teach one another the divine Word and one asks the other: how do you understand this saying? Thus there is among them a diligent living according to the divine Word.’ Among Anabaptists there were three common convictions about how God spoke to his people: first, that listening to the Holy Spirit was more important in understanding Scripture than education or ordination; second, that the Holy Spirit might speak through any member of the church as they meditated on the Bible; and third, that hearing and discerning the Word of God was a community practice rather than an individual practice. Multiple participation, dialogue and interaction were vital.
So, challenges to monologue preaching come both from those who recognise that it is an inappropriate form of communication in contemporary culture and from those who argue that the predominance of this form of communication lacks biblical and historical support and is rooted in a hierarchical and clerical understanding of church life which disempowers most church members and limits the freedom of the Spirit to work through the whole body. In our postmodern and post-Christendom environment, perhaps we need to return to our biblical roots, learn from earlier pioneering movements and have the courage to do things differently.
The charges against the dominance of monologue preaching are as follows:
• This is not the way in which Jesus, the apostles or the New Testament churches operated;
• This is a practice which became dominant as the church moved away from its roots, adopted pagan cultural practices and became formal and institutional;
• The monologue sermon impoverishes, disempowers and de-skills congregations;
• This is not a form of communication that is appropriate in contemporary culture;
• There are alternatives practised by dissident movements throughout history and churches today.
How do you respond to these charges? How effective have monologue sermons been in shaping you as a Christian, or in forming your local church? What experience do you have of interactive preaching?
An Alternative Approach
It is all very well criticising monologue sermons. What are the alternatives? I want to suggest that interactive preaching is characterised by four features.
First, it is learner-focused, concerned more about what is learned than what is taught, more about the outcome than the methodology. If Norrington is correct, preaching went wrong when it became more concerned about crafting good sermons than ensuring that people were learning and growing. Interactive preaching is concerned about results, about growth in understanding and maturity, about connecting with the issues and life situations of congregations. This might require us to invite suggestions about subjects for sermons, to welcome the participation of those with experience in areas where the regular preacher does not, to gather honest feedback on the impact of the preaching on the congregation.
Second, it is multi-voiced, not dominated by one voice but open to participation by many people. It recognises that nobody has a monopoly on revelation or wisdom, that there are resources in the congregation that will enable the Word of God to be heard with much greater power and clarity if these are released. It picks up the cry of Moses: ‘Would that all God’s people were prophets!’ It believes Peter’s claim on the day of Pentecost that the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, as Joel had prophesied, so that young and old, male and female can bring revelation to the people of God.
Third, it is open-ended, prepared to leave loose ends and to live with uncertainty, to run the risk of allowing people space to think, to reflect, to explore, to ask how biblical teaching might apply to their situation. Interactive preaching is never the final word but a process of learning together, reflecting both on experience and on the Scriptures. It offers resources rather than rules, sees discipleship as a journey rather than a fixed state, poses questions rather than dispensing answers, invites ownership rather than imposing conclusions. It endorses the conviction of the Pilgrim Fathers that ‘the Lord has yet more light to break forth out of his Word.’
Fourth, it is dialogue-based, making room for questions, comments, challenges, ideas and exploration. This might mean drawing the congregation into sermons by asking questions, inviting responses, welcoming insights. It might mean discussion groups during or after sermons. It might mean changing the way the chairs are arranged to make dialogue and discussion possible. It might mean having two speakers debating an issue together, with congregational participation. It might mean asking several people to reflect on a passage for a week and then construct a sermon together. It might mean inviting a congregation to do some preparatory reading during the week so that they can contribute thoughtfully to a teaching period. It might mean developing a culture where people know they are free to interrupt and interject comments.
Could this happen? Yes, it could. I have been experimenting with interactive preaching over the past few years and about 80% of the time now use some form of interactive approach. But I recognise that there are significant obstacles to overcome, even if you are convinced that this is worth pursuing. Among these are the following:
• Congregations are locked into monologue preaching and are threatened by anything different. However boring or unproductive monologue sermons may be, they are at least safe, familiar and undemanding. Interactive preaching is none of these things.
• The sermon is seen as sacrosanct, often based on misinterpreting certain texts such as I Corinthians 1:21. The historical and cultural aspects of the development of this style of communication are not recognised.
• Preachers are very wary of interactive methods. We may feel insecure, liable to be put on the spot, doing something we were not trained to do. We may not feel we have the skills to cope with this.
• Preachers prefer to preach monologue sermons. Not only is it safer, it feels more satisfying, more fulfilling, more ‘anointed’. Putting it bluntly, preacher satisfaction takes precedence over congregational growth. Our response to cultural shifts and evidence of low levels of understanding and interest may be to try harder, to use more stories or visual aids, and to do another preaching course. This may help, but it does not address the deeper issues.
If interactive preaching is to catch on, both preachers and congregations will need to be re-trained and re-orientated. This will take time. It will require persistence and courage. But it may be that nothing less is required for church life in the 21st century.
1. In what ways could your local church be described as multi-voiced? Are there ways in which this might be explored further?
2. What kind of community can exercise church discipline responsibly and lovingly? How might this practice be introduced into your church?
3. Which of the objections to interactive preaching do you find strongest? How would you respond to this?
Reading and Resources
David Norrington: To Preach or not to Preach (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996)
Klaus Runia: The Sermon under Attack (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1983)
Tim Stratford: Interactive Preaching: Opening the Word then Listening (Nottingham: Grove, 1998)
Jeremy Thomson: Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? (Nottingham: Grove, 1996)
(This text was originally presented to the London Baptist Association lay preachers' annual gathering)
By Jeremy Thomson
Jeremy Thomson is the author of Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? (Cambridge: Grove, 1996, 2003). This book can be obtained from Grove Books at www.grovebooks.co.uk
This study guide is:
• A practical, 'how-to' guide that does not repeat much of my Grove Booklet
• Earthed in churches that want to explore this form of teaching/learning
• Anecdotes – my own experiences of doing it and imagined other scenarios
• What are the difficulties of introducing this form of preaching if it has not been done before? How can churches help their people to respond and interact?
• This will be an initial attempt to produce something. It is open to addition, modification, etc.
Preaching has been a key component of church life from the very beginning, yet it often seems to fall on deaf ears. This may be due to poor preaching, or to hearers unused to listening to speakers for many minutes. But it may also be due to the rigid format of preaching that normally prevents explicit interaction between speaker and hearers.
I believe that the church needs to employ a variety of formats for preaching. Sometimes the conventional monologue is appropriate, but on other occasions a dialogical format is much more effective. I have argued the theological case for dialogical preaching in Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? (Cambridge: Grove, 1996, 2003), and I followed this up with an article on ‘Interactive Preaching’ in Anabaptism Today 20 (Spring 1999), 14-21. This article can be accessed in the Anabaptism Today archives.
The purpose of this study guide is to promote thought and discussion as to the practicalities of how interactive preaching might be introduced into church life. In writing it I have drawn upon personal experiences of using interactive preaching, and upon some experiences of others.
1. Interactive Preaching
I begin by discussing two types of fully interactive preaching, drawn from my own experience. Later I will suggest that, even if such interactive practice seems out of reach, some of its benefits can be incorporated into more conventional preaching.
(a) In the conventional sermon slot
Once I was invited to lead a Sunday afternoon session for Methodist preachers on dialogical preaching. This was followed by a conventional evening service, to which some of the afternoon participants came, together with some others – perhaps 20 altogether. The evening service was led by a colleague, and the sermon ‘slot’ was followed by a time of prayer.
The subject of the sermon was ‘Salvation and Healing the Past’. I began by telling a story about someone I knew, who as a child had been emotionally abused by her mother, and the way this had affected her life as an adult. Her mother had become a Christian in recent years, yet the daughter could not talk to her about their past because the mother’s understanding of forgiveness was that the past had been wiped clean. Eventually in the course of her work, the mother received professional training in child abuse issues and began to realise the seriousness of what she had done all those years ago. She apologised to her daughter and their relationship improved significantly.
I then asked the congregation to reflect on what assumptions seem to have been at work in the mother’s initial understanding of salvation. Participants made several suggestions, most on target, but a few somewhat peripheral. I had to negotiate these – acknowledging possible answers and maintaining the focus.
I then resumed talking, making the point that when we discover God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ our social relationships begin to be transformed, referring to Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) as well as the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). This led to the key point that forgiveness does not mean making bad things as if they had never happened: redemption means dealing with their consequences (Matt 5:23).
Here I stopped again, and asked what people thought of this theological point (I believe many Christians are confused about this). There was some further discussion, including some proposals about how new Christians might be helped to understand it. The conversation passed between several participants without my intervention, until the time came for me to close it.
Reflections and Questions
My strategy was to begin by telling a real story that raised questions about a very practical, but also theological issue. Involving participants in exploring those questions formed an initial interactive phase. Some reference to biblical passages enabled me to clarify the issue, and this led into a second phase of discussion concerned with application.
As the preacher, I played a pivotal role in selecting the topic, thinking out the theological and practical aspects, designing some questions to initiate discussion, chairing the discussions and keeping everything within time limits. This required more preparation and a wider range of skills than would have a conventional sermon.
• What problems would this format encounter with a larger congregation, and how possible might it be to surmount these?
• What types of subject matter might be most suitable in such a format?
(b) In a dedicated format
I have preached interactively at several churches that have decided to run special events. On one occasion there was a short time of singing and prayers preceding my presentation, allowing extended time for the ‘sermon.’ This enabled me to present some teaching material (illustrated by several film clips). I stopped for questions and interaction with my hearers, in the middle and towards the end. The congregation was quite large (about 100), and the interaction with me was necessarily fairly limited, though several people of different ages spoke up. This took place post 9/11, and the subject matter was controversial since I was addressing the subject of violence from an Anabaptist perspective. The interest of most hearers seemed to be sustained, and some stayed behind after the formal conclusion to engage in further discussion.
Reflections and Questions
On this occasion I was attempting to argue an ethical case that few hearers would previously have heard presented with conviction. Thus the dynamics involved were necessarily different from those involved in case (a), quite apart from the size of gathering. Some interlocutors were unconvinced or put counter arguments – it was important to allow these points to be made, and that I responded to them graciously.
• What skills does the preacher need to draw upon in such a situation?
• What types of subject matter might be most suitable in this format?
2. Moving Towards Interactive Preaching
It may be that preachers lack confidence about launching into interactive preaching directly, but want to try some other methods of getting the congregation to discuss the conventional sermon, in the belief that this promotes profounder learning. I have come across several ways in which this can be done.
(a) Conventional preaching with discussion following the end of the service
When I worked as a curate in the Church of England, occasional sermons on controversial subjects were followed up with discussion after the end of the conventional service. This had the advantage of facilitating discussion with the preacher soon after the sermon, and was valued by a significant proportion of those present. Yet a considerable number of people tended to leave before the discussion, and the arrangement tended to endorse the impression that discussion was not quite appropriate to the ‘service of worship’.
(b) Conventional preaching with discussion groups during the week
Many churches have used mid-week groups as occasions to follow up the Sunday sermon with discussion. This solution avoids significant change to the conventional monologue sermon while recognising the value of reflection and discussion in small groups. It requires good leadership of small groups, and efficient coordination, and it depends upon a significant number of Sunday worshippers belonging to the small groups. It has several drawbacks:
• Significant numbers of people who hear the sermon may miss out on the discussion because they do not attend small groups.
• It tends to isolate the discussion from the original sermon (and preacher), and feedback to the whole church is difficult unless some further meeting is employed.
(c) Conventional preaching with discussion groups the following week
The Pastor of a Baptist Church in a small market town wanted to experiment with a form of interactive preaching. His plan was to preach a conventional sermon once a month, and on the Sunday following to replace the sermon with discussion groups. The conventional hymns, readings and prayers would happen as before. He went about it in the following way:
• Discuss the plan with the Deacons
• Communicate the plan at the church meeting
• Announce the plan in advance at church services
• Select and prepare group discussion leaders. In the groups these leaders would give a brief summary of the sermon and introduce three questions for discussion (20 minutes). They would not dominate the discussion but draw out those who might be shy. They would allow some exploration of the subject without wandering too far from the point.
• The preacher would lead a group for those who had not heard the sermon on the previous week, giving a brief outline of what was said then and prompting some discussion.
• There would be a time of plenary feedback (10 minutes)
On the Sundays that discussion groups happened, the Pastor rearranged the chairs so that rows were replaced by semi-circles. He plans in future to sit people around tables, and is considering introducing tea/coffee during the discussion.
Some opposition to the idea was voiced by some people (mainly older and more traditional members). There is to be a review of the initial trial and the hope is to agree to make these discussions a monthly feature next year.
Questions for Reflection
• Can you come up with other preaching formats that achieve elements of interactivity?
• What would be the practical implications of each of these formats if you were to adopt them in your church?
• If you were to adopt one or more of these formats, how could you ensure that you moved beyond them to truly interactive preaching at a later date?
3. Practical Considerations concerning Implementation
Church leaders who wish to embark on interactive preaching should explore the following:
• Which of the above formats seem most suited to your church currently, and on which occasions?
• What training and experience is needed by preachers to contemplate such kinds of preaching?
• What preparation, consultation and communication are required before initiating interactive preaching in your church?
• What opposition to new forms of preaching can be anticipated, and what is the best form of response?
• What are the time and effort implications? Where will these come from? Other activities may have to take a lower priority, so is this the right time for such an initiative?
It may be that more fundamental work is required before a church can agree to move towards more interactive preaching. I suggest that exploring the following areas may help to facilitate such moves (as well as having value in their own right):
• Research the effectiveness of current preaching:
o Review whether suggested practical outcomes of sermons are acted upon.
o Interview individuals about what they have found helpful or challenging in sermons (this may be more worthwhile than using written surveys).
• Find out more about and develop communication skills, especially listening, among the church generally.
• Run occasional church events that employ more interactive forms of teaching.
• Develop leaders who can handle group discussions.
Each of the proposed formats requires considerable effort and a variety of skills to be effective. Educating the church is a complex and demanding task that cannot be left to one or two individuals. Those with expertise in these fields should find ways of teaching and training others to develop likewise.
by Jonny Baker
Something Has Got To Change
Since I was asked to write this chapter on preaching I have been asking a lot of people when the last sermon was that really inspired or challenged or changed them. The responses have been interesting. A lot of the people have pulled a face and laughed as if to say 'are you serious?' - it's as though they can't even imagine the possibility of being inspired or hearing a brilliant sermon. Others have remembered a transforming preach but a typical answer has been that it was one or two years ago. In a recent debate in the UK on introducing a law against inciting religious hatred the Guardian newspaper published a cartoon of an angry woman pointing at a vicar and saying to a policeman ‘his sermons have made me hate church officer’. It made me laugh but like so much good humour/art it’s funny because it is making something visible that is hidden.
I assume that most people buying and reading this book will be preachers or have some vested interest in preaching. From the preacher's end of things it is often frustrating as well. We have all had the experience of chewing over the theme or the biblical text, crafting a sermon to bring God's word to the congregation, and yet when we stand up to preach, eyes gradually glaze over and we can see minds almost drifting out of the room. There are always one or two enthusiastic listeners taking it all in, but a large percentage just look blank. What's particularly frustrating about this is that we as the preacher have got fired up about the passage and have a sense of God wanting to speak but still people are not getting it. There seems to be a kind of disconnect, a communication breakdown.
Something has got to change. Maybe it’s time to think the unthinkable. For too long we have behaved like the 'well adjusted' courtiers in the famous story of the Emperor's New Clothes saying nothing, propping up the status quo, smiling politely with our vested interests in tact (whether as preachers or as listeners), or simply too embarrassed to say anything. Allow me to be the antisocial brat (as Marshall Mcluhan puts it in his retelling of the story) - the Emperor 'ain't got nothin' on!' Preaching is invariably dull. It is boring. People are sick of three point sermons beginning with P. People aren't listening. People don't want to be preached at. They don’t want to be told what to think. Like so many other areas of church life we're stuck in a time warp. It isn't working. Maybe it's time for a rethink.
Thinking Creatively About Preaching
We need some creative thinking about preaching. There are several myths and several blocks to creative thinking. These are a couple of each:
Myth one is that creative thinking is a mystical gift that some people have and others don’t. This is simply untrue. We are all made in the image of God and we all have this gift. It can lie dormant particularly if we don’t exercise it like an unused muscle but step one to being creative will be recovering the belief that we are all creative.
Myth two is what Edward de Bono calls the logic of hindsight – whenever anyone comes up with an idea very little attention is paid to how they came up with it because it looks obvious in hindsight. The problem is that whilst an idea may be logical in hindsight it is invisible in foresight. So we need to pay attention to the processes of coming up with creative ideas.
Block one is ‘the right way’. When it comes to preaching there is no right way – there are lots of ways. New ideas can be threatening of course. But the more ideas we have the richer we will be for it. Part of the skill of learning to think creatively is learning to detach your ego from the process. You don’t have to be right.
Block two is the habit our brains have for thinking along familiar tracks. We think in patterns and it can be hard for us to think along different routes. We need to be provoked or whacked on the side of the head to learn the art of seeing sideways.
People often come up with creative ideas when they are provoked. So if we want to be creative we need to deliberately come up with provocations or interruptions into our routine to knock us off track and into a different way of thinking. De Bono has devised several provocations. One is ‘Escape’ – in this method you look at some feature that you normally take for granted in a situation and then drop it or cancel it . If we want to think creatively about church then it might be worth trying this by dropping out priests, worship leaders, choirs, church buildings, house groups, alpha, the prayer book, singing or whatever. The point about this isn’t that you have to get rid of that thing forever – but it will force you to think in different directions even if you reintroduce what you have dropped out. (Be warned though I did hear of a church that gave up its choir for lent and never had them back!). I want to apply this to thinking about preaching – let’s drop sermons. Preaching is a sacred cow so let’s slay it.
Route One – Slaying A Sacred Cow
Ok – so no preaching! This immediately raises several questions. What is preaching for? What other ways can we achieve that? What are we going to do instead? What about preaching is good that we need to find other ways to do? What about preaching is it that we’ll be glad to see the back of and never have back?
Mike Riddell suggests that ‘The purpose of the sermon is to unleash the power of scripture in a way that leads to personal and corporate encounter with God.’ I like that. I’d add that it should open up the possibility of transformation which maybe is implicit in his definition. One other goal of preaching/teaching is education – enabling people to learn.
There are actually stacks of ways we can do those things that don’t involve preaching. I am involved in an alternative worship community Grace in West London. Alternative worship has lots of insights and clues to offer the wider church I think on creative approaches to liturgy and worship. One of those is the treating of the whole worship service as the text rather than just the sermon. Another is the involvement of the wider community in engaging with that text from planning through to the service. We recently had a couple of services looking at Psalms. The planning of the services involved a few weeks of discussing and reading Psalms – planning is generally quite a chaotic experience. Anyone is welcome to come and contribute and the process tends to start with brainstorming ideas and letting the theme or the text inspire and challenge us – any random tangents are explored, with often the craziest ideas leading to some wonderful things. The end result of this process of wrestling with the scriptures was a series of two services on the Psalms. In the first we had identified about 10 different themes such as praise, lament, anger, despair, storytelling. Then the whole text of the psalms was printed out at different places/stations in the church along with activities or small rituals that related to the psalm and connected it with contemporary experience. These ranged from an online confession, post it notes of thanks, wrapping your self in a duvet to read psalm 91. The service involved a corporate reading of a couple of psalms sandwiched around time to walk round and pray and interact with all of the stations that had been set up. It was a powerful service, engaging with a lot of bible text. For the second service people were invited to create their own psalm using any media they liked and the service consisted of those being read/shown/performed. Not everyone created a psalm but a lot did. The results were stunning and in a range of media – VJed psalms, rewrites of existing psalms that related to an urban context and so on. Artists’ gifts came to the fore. Some of it was actually great contextual theology.
The same material could have been approached by asking one person to preach on Psalms for us, but so much was gained by everyone wrestling with the text rather than just the preacher. The culture we live in is shaped by consumption. All of life seems to be distilled through this lens including church. It’s very easy for people to come to worship to consume God. As leaders we get trapped in a provider-client relationship with the congregation. They sit and passively consume what is taught or provided for them. One of the keys to breaking this is looking for ways to empower people to move from being consumers to producers – i.e. creative involvement, using their gifts to contribute and create.
This issue is further problematised by the notion of priest/leader/preacher as expert and/or the mediator of God’s word to the people. We should look to move to the hermeneutic of the congregation – i.e. the people as the interpreters and co-authors rather than the one or two experts. I don’t want to overstate this. Communities do need gifts of expertise – but the way that these gifts are brought to bear could shift. One of the gifts a preacher can bring is their theological expertise – it is invaluable to have people who know the scriptures and theological takes on things and have put the leg work in terms of reading and research. But these can be brought as one of many gifts to the community who then need to work out how they might be communicated or discovered by the congregation in the worship, liturgy, group discussion, ritual, artistic interpretations of the text and so on. This is no different to the way a musician or photographer or DJ or liturgist might offer their gifts to the community. It can sometimes feel a risk to open up who can contribute in this way – we’re immediately losing some control. But in the gospels it is actually often (and pretty much exclusively) those with no power or those who are outside of the 'religious' community who have the most profound insights about the nature of the kingdom (such as the Samaritan woman in John 4). There is an implicit belief that God is at work in the world beyond the boundaries that the religious community has constructed where the Spirit leads people to creative discoveries and encounters with God and other people. If we took this seriously then we could let go of some of our fear and experience some of the energy and creativity that the Spirit brings to the community.
Education has changed a lot in the last twenty years, recognizing that people have various learning styles. The emphasis is on teaching people to think and discover for themselves rather than learning facts. This notion is captured in the old proverb ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever’. There is also plenty of research that shows that a talking head is actually a very ineffective means of communication. People retain only a very small percentage of information communicated in this way, and they know that if it is facts they are after, a quick visit to google will probably suffice anyway. Preaching it seems is stuck in the old school. The questions we should be asking are how can we help people to think, theologise, discover and learn – not what doctrine/information can we impart this week.
One of things I realized several years ago was that I had a lot of friends who had been Christians a while and were drifting out of churches. Sermons were the thing they most complained about. I know that for me one of the times I got the most out of the bible was when I had a sermon to prepare because it made me study it in depth. I figured that these people needed to do something like that. So I started a group called ‘nuggets’. We met in a pub and everyone had to deliver a ‘nugget’, (as well as drink plenty of beer). Now a nugget was an insight on a passage in the bible – it could be anything. But being a competitive bunch, people wanted to deliver impressive nuggets. The unspoken thing was that the more original and surprising the better. And a good nugget generally had a build up, the delivery and then basking in the oohs and aahs as people were wowed by it. This was the most fantastic time of learning for the whole group – the group had shifted from being passive bored listeners to active producers – learning and making discoveries in the process. We were often the noisiest group in the pub. The one qualified theologian in the group actually invariably delivered the best nugget and I think he enjoyed it so much more than preaching.
I was chatting with someone recently about preaching and they said that in their church they always preached for a response. By this they meant that the conclusion to the sermon always created space for people to respond to God. I know that these situations can be manipulated and there is plenty of bad practice around. But at heart this expectation is a good one and in line with the goal that preaching should unleash an encounter with God. We also live in a culture now where people want experience – they are up for encounter with God, they want to be touched, moved, changed. This is actually a very big turn around from the British stereotype of the stiff upper lip (thank God) - the unforgivable sin these days is boring people. One of the most wonderful discoveries I have made in the last ten years is the power of ritual to open up encounter with God. In Grace we invariably create some sort of ritual for people to respond to the theme or the text that we have explored in the service. Usually the rituals are inclusive and can be taken on a number of levels – this creates enough space for people to respond to God and for the Spirit to touch people where they are at. The rituals might be old ones such as lighting a candle, burning incense, anointing with oil, eating bread and drinking wine, or they might be new ones such as putting a footprint in sand, writing a pledge, walking a labyrinth. These embodied responses seem to open up a window for transformation and encounter. And you can facilitate the responses and encounter even if you have dropped the sermon.
I recently came across the web site for a café church in Australia. On the web site they describe how they have employed various artists over the last few years. They refer back to the days when churches might have employed someone to sculpt or create pictures in stained glass and see what they are doing as the equivalent. One of the kinds of art they have created is digital art – what they describe as contemporary stained glass windows in motion. Rick Founds was employed to create a flash animation that linked in with the theme of the lectionary for a whole year. Members of the community and further afield could subscribe to an e-mail list and get sent the animations – one each week. Several are available to download form the web site. I love the imagination of that community – the willingness to invest in artists and creative communication. Maybe dropping preaching could give us a chance to let the artists in our midst loose? Art can do so many things. It can be pleasurable, beautiful, and challenging. But it also has the ability to shatter settled reality, to evoke grief, to make things visible, to open up new imaginative possibilities and worlds. Allow me another couple of Mcluhan quotes: ‘the mind of the artist is always the point of maximal sensitivity and resourcefulness in expressing altered realities in the common culture’ and ‘the art of remaking the world eternally new is achieved by careful and delicate dislocation of ordinary perceptions’ . In times of change the gift of the artist/prophet is invaluable to the Christian community.
Our ‘escape’ provocation has led us on a brief journey where we have discovered new ideas, broken the passivity engendered by preaching, moved from the cult of the expert to the gifts of the people, moved from the preacher as the interpreter to the congregation as the interpreters engaging with the bible, let loose the artists in our midst, rediscovered ritual, remembered that the goals are learning, encounter with God and transformation and that preaching may be one gift or art among many that can lead us to that place. Having made this journey, for route two of our rethink about preaching I want to reintroduce preaching and suggest a few ideas for remixing it.
This ‘escape’ may seem contrived and of course it is. But it may also not be such a bad idea in practice. And it is certainly possible – maybe try it for 6 months. At Grace we very rarely have anyone preach. In fact I can’t think of a single sermon as such in the last three years.
Route Two – Remixing The Sermon
Sampling changed the way music was made. A sampler enables you to take a sample of music from a track – a drum loop or a riff say. Various samples can then be woven together to make a track on a computer. DJs and producers create and remix music tracks in this way. They take some elements (samples) of an old track – maybe a break beat or a riff and then add in some samples or loops from other places as well as create some original new parts to create a whole fresh sound – referencing the old but also completely reinventing it and giving it their own unique twist. In this way the tradition if you like of jazz is reinvented and carried forward and given a new creative edge. This provides one of the best metaphors for me for thinking about the art of preaching. We have a history of over 2000 years of the Christian faith, the scriptures, the resources of theology and biblical studies, insights from the world church, sermons preached, the arts, as well as access to what is happening in contemporary culture in music, literature, film, blogs and the media. Where preaching is stuck in a rut we can take a leaf out of the DJs book and sample and remix the tradition fusing it with contemporary culture to come up with some fresh inspiring and original sermons. Brueggemann puts it this way – ‘it (proclamation) is rather a place where people come to receive new materials, or old materials freshly voiced, that will fund feed nurture nourish legitimate and authorize a counterimagination of the world’ . As well as the negative experiences that I began the chapter with I have also been built up, challenged, moved to encounter God, to repent, laughed and wept, had the rug pulled from under my feet, and made new discoveries about God and what it means to follow Jesus all through listening to people who have crafted the art of preaching in this way.
Maybe a starting point for remixing is letting go of the old fixed ways of doing things. I want to end up just with a few ideas for preaching – these are not solutions, just some things I have discovered that you can add to your mix.
Get creative – learn to think outside the box. I’ve said plenty about this in the previous section but surprise people, come at things sideways, don’t let them know where you are headed, draw them in, intrigue them, find resources outside your area to fund your and their imagination.
Stop being a lone ranger. Don’t do all the preaching. Get in a team of people that want to communicate and dream ideas and creative ways of communicating and widen that group as much as you can.
Preach less often. Too many preachers trapped in the role of the provider/expert find themselves preaching too often. It’s no surprise they lose their edge and don’t have fresh things to say. In the previous church I was in I did preach but I said to the vicar I would preach three or four times a year so that I could be fresh and put plenty of effort into making those sermons really good.
Move from a deductive to an inductive approach . Deductive tells people what you are going to preach on, does so via a series of rational logical points, and deduces a conclusion. This is fine for certain types of audience but they have to be highly motivated to listen. What often happens is that you have shown your hand in the introduction so the congregation know what you are going to say and switch off. In contrast an inductive approach starts where people are at and from that life experience or illustrations takes people on a journey to where you want to lead them. When you get there the conclusion is induced – it’s obvious. A classic example of this kind of communication is where Nathan the prophet is tasked with confronting David about his adultery – he starts with a story about someone stealing a sheep. David is drawn right in to the story and Nathan turns it on its head when he says – it’s you!
Use storytelling. People love good stories. Weave them into your sermons or make the whole sermon a story or a series of interwoven stories. One technique I picked up from the comedian Ben Elton is what I call freeze framing. He starts telling one or more stories and then stops/freeze frames them at a point of suspense only to return to them later. People love this – it keeps their interest and intrigues them as they want to know the outcome.
Watch good communicators/comedians. I went to see Eddie Izzard at Hammersmith Apollo a few years ago. He spoke without notes for an hour an three quarters and then came back for a half hour encore and people still wanted more!
Arouse curiosity. The old school of preaching is very much about the banking concept of education – telling people what to think. Move from that to trying to get people to think. Ask questions rather than give answers. Jesus was a master of this. He spoke in parables and did not explain them. I love the translation in ‘the Message’ of Jesus’ answer when he was asked why he spoke in parables – ‘to create readiness, to nudge the people towards receptive insight’ i.e. get them curious, get under their skin, get them thinking because they have got hard hearts to get through to. Sometimes to do that you have to hide meaning. We tell parables and insist on explaining them. Try telling a parable and not explaining it.
Create space for artists to communicate and not just as illustration for your sermons, Use contemporary art forms as well as classic ones.
Create space for dialogue and interaction. One of the Greek words for preaching is actually our equivalent of dialogue. Get people into small groups to discuss and feedback. At the end of every sermon create a space for questions, disagreement and comments. Rather than one talking head have two people present different takes on the same material.
Preach for a response but don’t control it. I think preaching should open up the possibility of encounter with God but combine it with ritual that is open so that you don’t try and control the response too much. Let God do what God wants to do.
Accept that some people don’t need to hear any more sermons. Many of the people who like preaching are those who have been Christians for a short while. They are hungry to learn and grow in their faith. On the other hand there are other people around who have heard literally hundreds of sermons. They probably don’t need or want to hear any more for a while. Instead of worrying about how to please them try and think how to nudge them into doing more with their faith. Maybe they should start a new expression of church at the coffee shop on a Sunday morning for people who don’t like sermons?
Let prophets, evangelists and apostles as well as pastors and teachers preach. I think the comfortable option in letting people preach (and lead) is identifying those with pastoral and teaching gifts. Look for those who have more of a prophetic, evangelistic or apostolic edge. They are likely to see things differently and bring a different maybe more uncomfortable challenge.
Spend as much time on the communication as the content. My experience is that when people prepare sermons they work hard on the content and then put it into shape fairly quickly. I think how you say it is as important as the content. Try preparing a sermon well in advance. Then once you have worked out what to say meet with some others and see how creative you can be with the way you want to say it.
Don’t have sermons every week. Preaching is not sacrosanct. It’s one way of communicating. Do something different for a change.
Use cultural signposts. Jesus did this all the time. His metaphors and symbols for the kingdom were things like salt and yeast and shepherds. His stories were agricultural. They used signposts from the culture. The equivalent for us is using the stuff of culture and life – films, songs, media, art and so on. To do this you need to be immersed in ‘the real world’ rather than the Christian subculture.
Try a few short sermons – it’s surprising what you can say. When slam poetry kicked off the early nights consisted of anyone being able to perform for three minutes. People would do the most amazing things. Introduce slam preaching. I was once asked to preach three 60 second sermons for the BBC. At first I thought it was a joke but by the time I had done it I was thinking why do people need 30 minutes?
I explained my approach for this chapter on preaching to a friend on the phone and it made him laugh. He said it sounded like I was putting a hand grenade in the fruit bowl - the chapter’s not meant to be that destructive! But now you know what inspired the chapter heading. But I hope that it might at least have provoked or sparked you or given you a whack on the side of the head.
Christians in most traditions and denominations practise what we variously refer to as 'communion', 'eucharist', 'the Lord's Supper, 'the Mass', etc. The meaning ascribed to this varies from church to church, as do many of the practical arrangements.
Anabaptists have reflected on the meaning of communion over many years, placing particular emphasis on 'horizontal' dimensions of sharing bread and wine together (i.e. the significance for discipleship and community of this practice).
We offer here some 16th-century resources and a number of reflections by people involved in the Anabaptist Network.
by Bob Allaway
As I say in my contribution to 'Coming Home', "Shortly after being called to my present church, I was asked to have a midweek communion for the church in Holy Week. Since something special was expected, and the church had shared my vision in calling me, I gave them an Anabaptist Communion (based on Hubmaier's) with updated Pledge of Love. ... This made a deep impression on all present." As a result, I suggested introducing something similar in our special communion services such as New Year Covenant Communion, and welcoming in new members. What finally resulted were the three questions for self examination given here.
I should explain that we were originally a 'Strict Baptist' Church. Older members can still remember deacons questioning visitors at Communion before they would let them participate. This practice ceased decades ago, but we do still challenge all present to examine themselves (1 Cor 11:28) before participating. The questions help this.
These questions are now often used in regular communion services as well:
Leader: "Paul writes, [‘Examine yourself, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without recognizing the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.’] Let us so examine ourselves.
Jesus said, [‘This is my body, given for you’.] Do you recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, gave his body and blood for you on the cross, and that you only have forgiveness and eternal life through that one sacrifice, received by faith?
Leader: Paul writes, [‘We who are many are one body’ and, ‘There should be no division in the body, but all its parts should have equal concern for one another.’] Do you recognize that God calls you by his Spirit to be one Body with all who share that faith with you, to watch over and support one another in love?
Leader: Paul writes, [‘We were all baptised by one Spirit into one body .. You are the body of Christ’] and Jesus said, [‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit.’] Do you recognize that God sends you into the world by his Spirit to be the Body of Christ in it, showing his love in word and deed, even to those who are your enemies, just as the Father sent his Son into the world to give his body and blood for you?
At that time, the New Year covenant prayer was the Methodist one, introduced by one of our Elders. When the Baptist Union published a Covenant Communion service a few years back, I liked their prayer, and substituted it. Although they had it in preparation for communion, I made it a prayer over the cup in Communion, on the grounds that sharing in communion itself was a reaffirmation of our baptismal covenant. (In this, I was following the lead of our church meeting, which when I had suggested 'sharing the peace' before Communion, vetoed it on the grounds that sharing in Communion itself is 'sharing the peace'.) On the recommendation of our Elder, we later changed the "We come this day ..." form to "I come this day ..." to make it more personal. This has now spread to services welcoming in new members, and other occasions, as well.
A member: [And when he has given thanks, Jesus broke the bread (lifts and breaks loaf) and said, ‘This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’]
All: [Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.]
The loaf is passed round, each serving his or her neighbour.
A member (lifts cup): [Jesus said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, when-ever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’]
The individual cups are passed round and held onto.
All: [Creating and redeeming God, we give you thanks and praise for your covenant of grace made for our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord. I come this day to covenant with you and my fellow disciples, with whom I share this cup, to watch over each other and to walk together before you in all your ways known and to be made known. Amen]
All drink together.
by Keith G Jones
Anabaptist Eucharistic theology and practice has had considerable attention in recent years, with several scholarly books being produced on the topic. Then, of course, there has been the translation into contemporary English of the works of the principal first generation Anabaptist theologian, Balthasar Hubmaier, including his Order for the Lord’s Supper and his text on the Pledge of Love. Theologians such as the late James Wm. McClendon Junior have sought to give a more contemporary theological analysis and there has been the recent growth of writing on the theme of the gathering, convictional, intentional, missiological churches, all of which have touched the concern about contemporary Anabaptist worship.
Yet, little has appeared about how communities who are working with this way of doing primary theology and being the gathering, convictional church, actually put some of these insights into practice. This brief article seeks to describe a pattern familiar to two such communities. One is the residential community of IBTS, which meets each Wednesday morning around the table, breaking the word and breaking the bread. The other is the Šárka Valley Community Church, an English-language Czech Baptist Church, which celebrates the meal on Sundays in two ways – as a Eucharistic Celebration and on some Sundays as an Agape meal.
The celebration of the Eucharist and the agape are seen, in Anabaptist fashion, as communal and involve both breaking the bread and breaking the word. A basic order might be described as follows:
Gathering – in words and worship
Sharing – the text of scripture
Breaking – the word is broken open
Response – in extended intercession, people using their native tongues in multi-national, multi-cultural community
The Pledge of love (kiss of peace)
Offering – bread, wine, other gifts.
Gathering round the table
Great Prayer of Thanksgiving – celebrating the mighty acts of God
Breaking and sharing
Dismissal in mission into the world
It is, perhaps, the “stage directions” which reveal the anabaptistic format and drama of these liturgies. People gather in a circle round the table. Not for them the form and distance of pews or rows of chairs with a table set ahead and apart. The way of Gathering is inclusive and participatory. The Word shared is often narrative in format and owes much to insights of transformational preaching.
The worship room has a large map of the world down one side as a reminder of people who will not and cannot pray for themselves . Prayer comes in many forms and many languages – perhaps extempore prayer in ten or fifteen languages. The needs of the world, nations, countries, peoples, are at the heart of this real intercession.
Then the Pledge of Love is shared, either using the Hubmaier text, or some other, or some contemporary form of the Pax. The table is set with a simple single loaf made by one of the members. The wine comes from the vineyards around Mikulov, Moravia, where once Hubmaier’s Anabaptist community enjoyed a peaceful existence. The simple pottery chalice made in Bohemia reminding us of the Anabaptist skills in Haban pottery, such a feature of central Europe and entirely appropriate in the land of the Hussite proto-reformation, which restored the cup to the people.
The classic prayer of thanksgiving rehearses in narrative style, suiting the contemporary gathering church accent on narrative theology, the mighty acts of God in creation and then in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Again, this reflects the Anabaptist desire to see Scripture and faith through the Gospel narrative of the life of Christ, focusing on the Sermon on the Mount. A sharp contrast to the liturgies and prayers of the Catholic and Magisterial Protestant traditions, which focus almost exclusively on the death of Jesus. Then the bread is fractured and sisters and brothers pass the bread round the circle breaking off a piece as they offer it to the next person. Some keep the bread and dip it in the chalice (intinction). Others eat as they receive, then drink the rich Moravian Frankovka wine.
When all have served each other, the cup and bread are placed back on the table. Short prayers of thanksgiving are offered. Perhaps a hymn, or song, or Taizé chant are sung. Then the community is dismissed in mission. Many attending this celebration from beyond this particular gathering community have found the simplicity and spirituality of the occasion highly moving. The architectural setting is simple, though seasonal banners, the tablecloth and napkins changing colour depending on the Christian year, add a holistic dimension helping to emphasis that worship is to engage all the senses.
When the meal takes place in the setting of an agape, of course the bread is broken and shared round the table before the meal begins. Children present have the special privilege of dipping their bread in milk and honey (this is not allowed to the baptized!) helping them see with anticipation the koinonia yet to come. After the meal, gathered from food all have brought, has been shared, the cup passes around the table.
The community of IBTS and of SVCC varies in size week by week, but sometimes over 100 will share quickly, reverently and effectively in the meal on a Wednesday in under one hour – in deference to the early Swiss past of Anabaptists and saluting the Swiss train mentality of timekeeping! 98 sat down to the Harvest Agape this year as a gathering, intentional, convictional community. Around the table testimonies of faith are given. A Czech neighbour, a retired surgeon from Charles University, stood up and told the community about his lifer and how he had met deep love and friendship in this gathering, convictional community.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2004/05 issue of the journal of the Baptist Union Retreat Group (reprinted here by kind permission). Keith Jones is the Rector of the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague
by Stuart Murray Williams
Churches are often uncertain about how to decide whether children should be welcome to participate in communion.
They feel the tension between wanting to be inclusive and welcoming, especially to those who are growing up in their community and yet wanting to ensure that communion is a special meeting place for those who are committed to Jesus Christ and each other.
What follows is offered, not as an answer to this question, but as a framework for discussion, highlighting some of the key issues that churches need to consider.
1. The place of children in the church community:
(a) Are children regarded as full members of the community until they decide otherwise or as potential members of the community until they decide to become full members?
(b) What will exclusion from communion communicate to children – that they are not really accepted in the community, or that this is something deeply meaningful that they can aspire to participate in, an incentive to faith and growth?
(c) What will inclusion in communion communicate to children – that they are fully part of the community, or that they have no need to exercise personal faith or commitment?
(d) If we exclude children from communion, what other ways can we find to assure them that they are fully part of the church community?
(e) What level of faith development do we expect of children? What understanding do they (or others) need to receive communion?
2. The place of communion in the life of the church:
(a) Communion was originally part of a full meal in a domestic setting, as was Passover, from which the Last Supper forms the link to communion. If we went back to this way of celebrating communion, might this affect our thinking about the participation of children?
(b) In the Passover meal, children were not only recipients but active participants. If we choose to include children, should they be passive or active participants? If we exclude children, with what can we replace the powerful symbolism and story-telling at the heart of communion?
(c) Is communion in the church for committed disciples, who commit themselves afresh through this ceremony to follow Jesus, love each other and lay down their lives for their friends, inviting admonition from others? Should it be preceded by heart-searching and foot-washing?
(d) Or is the communion table a place of invitation to all, a sign of God’s generous and unconstrained hospitality, an evangelistic moment, which we dare not restrict in any way?
(e) Or do we need two different forms of communion – one entirely open, another for committed members only? Some churches practise this.
3. The decision making process:
(a) Is the participation of children in communion something that the church should decide about? Should we have an agreed position on this?
(b) Or is the participation of children to be left to their parents, who know them and their level of faith and understanding?
(c) Or should the decision rest with each child? What about children who are not part of church families?
(d) Does it matter if some children participate but not all, or if some parents encourage this and others discourage it? Can we cope with this freedom or do we need a common policy? How do we integrate different views and experiences?
4. The relationship between baptism and communion:
(a) Baptism very clearly indicates commitment to Christ and to the church and, in the Baptist tradition, has been reserved for those able to make this commitment. How can we maintain this high view of baptism if communion is open to all?
(b) Many Baptist churches have an open table policy that does not require this of adults, conscious of different traditions in a more ecumenically sensitive age. Should we impose a different requirement on children?
(c) Might communion sometimes precede baptism, rather than baptism always preceding communion? Should baptism, rather than communion, be the transition point from child to adult?
(d) If we want churches that are strong at the core but open at the edges (where belonging can precede believing), can communion open to all be a significant step on the journey that leads to baptism? Or should communion be for the baptised and committed core?
5. The table-fellowship in the New Testament:
(a) There are lots of meals in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels. Which of these will be our model for communion?
(b) Will we pattern our practice on the intimate meals Jesus enjoyed with his disciples?
(c) Or will we pattern our practice of communion on the inclusive, indiscriminate meals Jesus enjoyed with ‘sinners’, tax collectors and those who thought he was mad or bad?
1. The brethren and sisters who wish to hold the table of the Lord according to the institution of Christ shall gather at a suitable place and time, so there may be no division, so that one does not come early and another late and that thereby evangelical teaching is neglected ... Then they should prepare the table with ordinary bread and wine. Whether the cups are silver, wood, or pewter, makes no difference. But those who eat should be respectably dressed and should sit together in an orderly way without light talk and contention.
2. Since everyone should begin by accusing himself and confessing his sins and recognizing his guilt before God, it is not inappropriate that the priest first of all should fall on his knees with the church and with heart and mouth say the following words: "Father we have sinned against heaven and against thee. We are not worthy to be called thy children. But speak a word of consolation and our souls will be made whole. God be gracious to us sinners. May the almighty, eternal and gracious God have mercy on all our sins and forgive us graciously, and when he has forgiven us, lead us into eternal life without blemish or impurity, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen."
3. Now let the priest sit down with the people and open his mouth, explaining the Scriptures concerning Christ, so that the eyes of those who are gathered together may be opened, which were still somewhat darkened or closed, so that they may recognize Christ, who was a man, a prophet, mighty in works and teaching before God and all people, and how the highest bishops among the priests and princes gave him over to condemnation to death and how they crucified him, and how he has redeemed Israel, that is, all believers. The priest shall also rebuke those who are foolish and slow to believe all the things that Moses and the prophets have spoken, that he may kindle and make fervent and warm the hearts of those at the table, that they may be afire in fervent meditation of his bitter suffering and death in contemplation, love and thanksgiving ...
On another day the servant of the Word make take the 10th or 11 th chapter of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, or the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, or 17th chapter of John. Or Matthew 3 or Luke 3 on changing one's life, Sirach 2 on the fear of God, or something else according to the opportuneness of the time and persons. No one shall be coerced herein, but each should be left free to the judgment of his spirit. But there must be diligence so that the death of the Lord is earnestly proclaimed, so that the people have a picture of the boundless goodness of Christ, and the church may be instructed, edified, and led, in heartfelt fervent and fraternal love, so that on the last day we may stand before the judgment seat of Christ with the accounts of our stewardship, and shepherd and sheep may be held together.
4. Now that the death of Christ has been proclaimed, those who are present have the opportunity and the authority to ask, if at any point they should have some misunderstanding or some lack, but not with frivolous, unprofitable, or argumentative chatter, nor concerning heavenly matters having to do with the omnipotence or the mystery of God or future things, which we have no need to know, but concerning proper, necessary, and Christian items, having to do with Christian faith and brotherly love. Then one to whom something is revealed should teach, and the former should be quiet without any argument and quarreling ...
5. Let the priest take up for himself the words ofPaul...and say:
'Let every one test and examine himself, and let him thus eat of the bread and drink of the drink. For whoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks a judgment upon himself, as he does not discern the body of the Lord. And if we thus judged ourselves, we would not be condemned by the Lord.'
Now such examination comprises the following: First, that one believes utterly and absolutely that Christ gave his body and shed his crimson blood for him on the cross ...
Second: Let a person test himself, whether he has a proper inward and fervent hunger for the bread which comes down from heaven, from which one truly lives, and thirst for the drink which flows into eternal life, to eat and drink both in the spirit, faith and truth, as Christ teaches us ...
Third: Let one also confirm himself in gratitude, so as to be thankful in words and deeds toward God for the great, overabundant, and unspeakable love and goodness that he has shown him through his most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. .. Further, that he be of an attitude and ready will to do for Christ his God and Lord in turn as he had done for him. But since Christ does not need our good deeds, is not hungry, is not thirsty, is not naked or in prison, but heaven and earth are his and all that is in them, therefore he points us toward our neighbor, first of all to the members of the household of faith, that we might fulfill the works of this our gratitude toward them physically and spiritually ...
Fourth: So that the church might also be fully aware of a person's attitude and will, one holds fellowship with her in the breaking of bread, thereby saying, testifying, and publicly assuring her, yea, making to her a sacrament or a sworn pledge and giving one's hand on the commitment that one is willing henceforth to offer one's body and to shed one's blood thus for one's fellow believers ...
This is the true fellowship of saints. It is not a fellowship for the reason that bread is broken, but rather the bread is broken because the fellowship has already taken place and has been concluded inward in the spirit, since Christ has come into flesh ...
6. Since now these ceremonies and signs have to do completely and exclusively with fraternal love, and since one who loves his neighbor like himself is a rare bird, yea even an Indian phoenix on earth, who can sit at the supper table with a good conscience? Answer: One who has thus taken to heart and has thus shaped himself in mind and heart and senses inwardly that he truly and sincerely can say, "The love of God which he has shown to me through the sacrifice of his only begotten and most beloved Son for the payment of my sins, of which I have heard and been certainly assured through his holy Word, has so moved, softened, and penetrated my spirit and soul that I am so minded and ready to offer my flesh and blood, furthermore so to rule over and so to master it, that it must obey me against its own will, and henceforth not take advantage of, deceive, injure, or harm my neighbor in any way in body, soul, honor, goods, wife, or child, but rather go into the fire for him and die, as Paul also desired to be accursed for his brethren and Moses to be stricken out of the book of life for the sake of his people." Such a person may with good conscience and worthiness sit at the Supper of Christ...
7. Since now believers have inwardly surrendered themselves utterly to serve their fellow members in Christ at the cost of honor, goods, body, and life, yea even to offer their souls for them to the point of hell with the help of God; therefore, it is all the more needful sincerely to groan and pray to God that he may cause the faith of these new persons to grow, also that he may more deeply kindle in them the fire of brotherly love, so that in these two matters, signified by water baptism and the Lord's Supper, they might continually grow, mature, and persevere unto the end.
Here shall now be held a time of common silence, so that each one who desires to approach the table of God can meditate upon the suffering of Christ and thus with Saint John rest on the breast of the Lord. After such silence the "Our Father" shall be spoken publicly by the church, reverently, and with hearts desirous of grace ...
8. Now the priest shall point out clearly and expressly that the bread is bread and the wine wine and not flesh and blood, as has long been believed.
Whoever now desires to eat of this bread and drink of the drink of the Lord's Supper, let him rise and repeat with heart and mouth the following pledge of love:
Brothers and sisters, if you will to love God before, in, and above all things, in the power of his holy and living Word, and serve him alone, honor and adore him and henceforth sanctify his name, subject your carnal and sinful will to his divine will which he has worked in you by his living Word, in life and death, then let each say individually: I will.
If you will love your neighbor and serve him with deeds of brotherly love, lay down and shed for him your life and blood, be obedient to father, mother, and all authorities according to the will of God, and this in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down and shed his flesh and blood for us, then let each say individually: I will.
If you will practice fraternal admonition toward your brethren and sisters, make peace and unity among them, and reconcile yourselves with all those whom you have offended, abandon all envy, hate, and evil will toward everyone, willingly cease all action and behavior which causes harm, disadvantage or offense to your neighbor, [if you will] also love your enemies and do good to them, and exclude according to the Rule of Christ all those who refuse to do so, then let each say individually: I will.
If you desire publicly to confirm before the church this pledge of love which you have now made, through the Lord's Supper of Christ, by eating bread and drinking wine, and to testify to it in the power of the living memorial of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ our Lord, then let each say individually: I desire it in the power of God.
So eat and drink with one another in the name of God the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. May God himself accord to all of us the power and the strength that we may worthily carry it out and bring it to its saving conclusion according to his divine will. May the Lord impart to us his grace. Amen.
9. The bishop takes the bread and with the church lifts his eyes to heaven, praises God and says:
'We praise and thank thee, Lord God, Creator of the heavens and earth, for all thy goodness toward us. Especially hast thou so sincerely loved us that thou didst give thy most beloved Son for us unto death so that each one who believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life. Be thou honored, praised and magnified now, forever, always and eternally. Amen.'
Now the priest takes the bread, breaks it, and offers it to the hands of those present, saying:
'The Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed, took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and said: "Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in my memory." Therefore, take and eat also, dear brothers and sisters, this bread in the memory of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he gave unto death for us.'
Now when everyone has been fed, the priest likewise takes the cup of wine and speaks with lifted eyes:
'God! Praise be to thee!'
and offers it into their hands, saying:
'Likewise the Lord Jesus took the vessel after the Supper and spoke: "This cup is a new testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me." Take therefore also the vessel and all drink from it in the memory of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.'
When they have all drunk, the priest says:
'As often as you eat the bread and drink of the drink, you shall proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.'
Now the church is seated to hear the conclusion.
10. Most dearly beloved brethren and sisters in the Lord. As we now, by thus eating the bread and drinking the drink in memory of the suffering and shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of our sins have had fellowship one with another, and have all become one loaf and one body, and our Head is Christ, we should properly become conformed to our Head and as his members follow after him, love one another, do good, give counsel, and be helpful to one another, each offering up his flesh and blood for the other. Under our Head Christ we should all also live, speak, and act honorably and circumspectly, so that we give no offense or provocation to anyone. So that also those who are outside the church might not have reason to blaspheme our head, our faith, and church, and to say: "Does your head Christ teach you such an evil life? Is that your faith? Is that your baptism? Is that your Christian church, Supper, and gospel, that you should lead such an ungodly and shameful life…? Woe, woe to him who gives offense! It would be better for him that a millstone should be hung around his neck and he should be cast into the depth of the sea. Let us rather take upon ourselves a righteous, honorable, and serious life, through which God our Father who is in heaven may be praised.
Since our brotherly love requires that one member of the body be also concerned for the other, therefore we have the earnest behest of Christ, that whenever henceforth a brother sees another erring or sinning, that he once and again should fraternally admonish him in brotherly love. Should he not be willing to reform nor to desist from his sin, he shall be reported to the church. The church shall then exhort him a third time. When this also does no good, she shall exclude him from her fellowship. Unless it should be the case that the sin is quite public and scandalous; then he should be admonished also publicly and before all, so that the others may fear.
Whereupon I pray and exhort you once more, most dearly beloved in Christ, that henceforth as table companions of Christ Jesus, you henceforth lead a Christian walk before God and before men. Be mindful of your baptismal commitment and of your pledge of love which you made to God and the church publicly and certainly not unwittingly when receiving the water and in breaking bread. See to it that you bear fruit worthy of the baptism and the Supper of Christ, that you may in the power of God satisfy your pledge, promise, sacrament, and sworn commitment. God sees it and knows your hearts. May our Lord Jesus Christ, ever and eternally praised, grant us the same. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters, watch and pray lest you wander away and fall into temptation. You know neither the day nor the hour when the Lord is coming and will demand of you an accounting of your life. Therefore watch and pray. I commend you to God. May each of you say to himself, "Praise, praise, praise to the Lord eternally! Amen.
Arise and go forth in the peace of Christ Jesus. The grace of God be with us all.
This extract is taken from Wayne Pipkin & John Yoder, Balthasar Hubmaier (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1989), pp393-408.
A communion hymn composed by Menno Simons
We are people of God’s peace as a new creation,
Love unites and strengthens us at this celebration.
Sons and daughters of the Lord, serving one another,
A new covenant of peace binds us all together.
We are children of God’s peace in this new creation,
Spreading joy and happiness, through God’s great salvation.
Hope we bring in spirit meek, in our daily living,
Peace with everyone we seek, good for evil giving.
We are servants of God’s peace, of the new creation,
Choosing peace, we faithfully serve with heart’s devotion.
Jesus Christ, the Prince of peace, confidence will give us.
Christ the Lord is our defence; Christ will never leave us.
(Text: Menno Simmons, 1552; tr. Esther Bergen, Mennonite World Conference Songbook, 1990. Translation copyright © 1990 Mennonite World Conference. Music: Johann Horn, Ein Gesangbuch der Brüder im Behemen und Merherrn, 1544; revised in Catholicum Hymnologium Germanicum, 1584)
I first heard the term ' multi-voiced worship' from Eleanor Kreider and found this a helpful description of an approach to corporate worship that challenges the apparent default position of worship that is reliant on one or very few voices. This paper attempts to spell out some of the components of multi-voiced worship and to offer some practical guidelines.
What is multi-voiced worship?
There is nothing mysterious about the meaning of the term ‘multi-voiced’. It means simply that when God’s people gather, our corporate worship is expressed by many people and in many tones and accents.
The inspiration for this approach to worship is found in 1 Corinthians 14, one of the very few passages in the New Testament that describes corporate worship. Here Paul addresses the tendency of the Corinthian Christians to engage in rather disorderly and unedifying practices, not by restricting who might participate but by giving guidelines to enable maximum participation but in a more constructive format. Evidently, multi-voiced worship carries with it dangers of misuse, but Paul does not counter these by proposing restrictions on who might participate.
We have much less information about the conduct of worship in other first-generation churches, so we cannot be certain that Corinth was typical. But multi-voiced worship seems coherent with the conviction of the early Christians that at Pentecost God had poured out his Holy Spirit on all – young and old, male and female from many ethnic groups (Acts 2). It also fits well with the teaching in various New Testament passages about the church as a body comprised of many members, each of which contributes according to their gift and each of which should be honoured (for example, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4).
Multi-voiced worship anticipates that God may speak or act through any member of the church for the benefit if the whole community. It recognises that no one person or small group has a monopoly on this. It welcomes the richness and diversity that flows from multiple contributions. It values the different perspectives, insights, angles of vision, experiences and convictions that different members bring. It does not require that all contribute or that all participate equally; nor is leadership abolished. But the ethos of multi-voiced worship is very different from corporate worship that consists of one or very few voices or allows wider participation only through pre-ordained words or actions.
There are various ways in which multi-voiced worship can operate:
• The planning and preparation of worship may involve many people meeting together in advance of when the church gathers.
• When the church gathers, part of the time may be guided by one person and part of the time open to many participants.
• When the church gathers, there may be no obvious leadership but reliance on the Spirit to prompt various members to offer contributions.
• There may be a carefully ordered liturgy which makes room for many voices.
• There may be occasions when people participate one by one, but other times when the whole community participate in unison.
• In larger communities there may be less opportunity for multiple participation when the church gathers, but opportunities are given for interaction between smaller groups.
The demise of multi-voiced worship
Although we cannot be sure how widespread multi-voiced worship was in the early churches, it seems clear that this practice gradually gave way to what became the default position within the Christendom church: mono-voiced worship. Before the 4th-century revolution associated with the Christendom shift, after which mono-voiced worship became absolutely dominant, there is evidence for a decisive shift in this direction.
The Christendom shift exacerbated this in various ways:
• The sheer size of congregations made multi-voiced worship more difficult.
• The limited catechesis provided for converts meant that they were ill-equipped to make helpful contributions.
• The demise of charismatic gifts associated with this era limited the scope for multiple participation.
• The growing power and status of the ‘clergy’ led to the increasing dependence and passivity of the ‘laity’ (using terms that are themselves open to challenge).
• The emphasis on performance and correct words and procedures inhibited all but those duly qualified from active involvement.
These factors also affected the capacity of church members to perceive the church as a learning community and resulted in monologue preaching becoming a further default position (see the church resource notes on this subject).
For much of its history, the corporate worship of the church has been expressed by a few dominant voices (often one per congregation), supported by a largely passive and uncreative community participating only in prescribed ways. This has been defended on various grounds: the higher quality it is meant to ensure, the need for training and accreditation to protect against heresy, the value of order within the church, etc. The persistence of mono-voiced worship relies on collusion between those who prefer to restrict participation to themselves and those who prefer to let others conduct worship on their behalf.
The recovery of multi-voiced worship
The desire for multi-voiced worship, however, has continued to prompt Christians in many generations to challenge the default mono-voiced position. As early as the late 2nd century, the Montanists (or New Prophecy movement) were encouraging multiple participation in ways that alarmed other Christians. Renewal movements throughout the centuries have restored aspects of multi-voiced worship – at least during the first generation.
However, the second or third generations of these renewal movements often revert to the default mono-voiced position. Why? Some would argue that it is too demanding to practise multi-voiced worship year after year and that this is feasible only in the first flush of enthusiasm in new movements. Others suggest that the default position is so strong that many movements gradually revert to this and give up their resistance. Or it may be that other dimensions of community life take precedence and the movements provide inadequate training to sustain this practice.
Multi-voiced worship was a feature of the early charismatic movement in the 1960s, especially of the House Churches. 1 Corinthians 14 once again acted as inspiration in many churches. Marginalised gifts were rediscovered and multiple participation was encouraged. Gradually, though, as numbers grew and the initial egalitarian approach faded, fewer were able to contribute. Gifted musicians, ‘worship leaders’ and worship bands clawed back from the congregation as a whole responsibility for corporate worship. Quality of participation (measured in rather different ways than indicated in 1 Corinthians 14) was regarded as more important than the multi-voiced approach. Although some elements of multi-voiced worship persist, more restrictive practices are widespread.
Within some traditions multi-voiced worship has persisted for several generations and reversion to mono-voiced worship is resisted. The Christian Brethren in the mid-19th century introduced a form of corporate worship in which no one person led or was responsible for what happened when the church gathered together. All the men (but none of the women) were free to participate, exercising their gifts and sharing their insights (although ‘charismatic’ gifts were not recognised). Many Christian Brethren today continue to operate in this way (some now allowing both women participants and ‘charismatic’ gifts). An older tradition with a similar reluctance to move away from multi-voiced worship is the Quakers.
However, these traditions have struggled in other ways with multi-voiced worship. It may theoretically be possible for all to participate but in practice relatively few do – and often in predictable ways. Multi-voiced worship can become moribund, banal and uncreative. The problem may not be disorder, as in Corinth, but the result is equally unedifying.
Very recently so-called ‘emerging churches’ are once again recovering multi-voiced worship. Some invite many people to plan and create corporate worship; some are ‘leaderless’ and multi-directional; some encourage diverse contributions using many different expressions and media. It will be interesting to see how successful they are in resisting reversion to mono-voiced worship and sustaining edifying practices.
Multi-voiced worship in the Anabaptist tradition
Multi-voiced worship has been a feature of the Anabaptist tradition since the earliest years of the movement. Swiss congregations, meeting in homes or in the open air, encouraged all to participate. Indeed, the expectation was that members were obliged to participate if the Spirit prompted them.
The earliest Anabaptist congregational order, known as The Swiss Order, probably written by Sattler in 1527 and circulating with the Schleitheim Confession, explained how the Swiss Anabaptists operated: ‘When brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it, the others should be still and listen.’
Swiss Anabaptists regarded the mono-voiced approach of the state churches (Catholic and Reformed) as deeply inadequate and unspiritual. An early Anabaptist tract quoted Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 urging that all should contribute when the church gathered together and complained: ‘When someone comes to church and constantly hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent, neither speaking nor prophesying, who can or will regard or confess the same to be a spiritual congregation or confess according to 1 Corinthians 14 that God is dwelling and operating in them through his Holy Spirit with his gifts, impelling them one after the other in the above mentioned order of speaking and prophesying?’
Was this multi-voiced approach limited to the Swiss branch of the movement? Some have suggested that this was so. However, Ambrosius Spitelmaier, an Anabaptist leader in Nicholsburg, wrote: ‘when they come together they teach each other the divine Word and one asks the others: how do you understand this saying?’ It seems that a communal approach was operating elsewhere than in Switzerland.
Furthermore, Leopold Scharnschlager, in his Seven Articles, described an order of service among Anabaptists in central Germany in which members stood in turn to read, prophesy and discuss Scripture. George Williams comments: ‘In this church order we see a community with a common treasury for the sustenance of the needy members and an order of worship beginning with prayer and ending with the admonition to steadfastness, a service in which, besides the Vorsteher (church leader), all the members one after another rise to read the scriptures or the communal writings, to discourse, and to prophesy.’
There are some indications also of a multi-voiced approach among the early Dutch Anabaptists.
Nevertheless, it seems likely that multi-voiced worship was less common in some branches of the movement, especially the communitarian Hutterites, and that over the years (as in other renewal movements) reversion to the default mono-voiced position occurred.
We do, however, have one fascinating account of multi-voiced worship from later in the 16th century, which suggests that this practice persisted longer than some have assumed. It comes from the pen of a Lutheran minister who infiltrated an Anabaptist gathering in a forest and observed what happened. His description and assessment of what he witnessed needs to be interpreted in light of his hostility to the Anabaptists, but the multi-voiced nature of the meeting is very clear. For a dramatised version of this encounter, based on the original eyewitness account, see here.
And the Anabaptist tradition, despite its reversion to a more mono-voiced position, has never entirely lost the instinct towards multi-voiced worship. One of the core convictions of the Anabaptist Network picks up this issue and states: ‘Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.’
Resourcing multi-voiced worship
These church resource notes are offered as an encouragement to churches to recover this approach to worship, to experiment with different ways of participating together, to discover how this practice can be as edifying as possible and to learn how to sustain a practice that is in constant danger of being lost or becoming moribund.
What follows are some very practical ideas and suggestions, rooted in the experience of those who have worked with multi-voiced worship. We welcome comments on these – and suggestions for further material.
A. Setting the scene
1. Multi-voiced worship happens more readily if the seating arrangements when the church gathers encourage this. Sitting in rows facing in one direction does not make multi-voiced worship natural. Arranging the seating so that members of the church can see and interact with each other is more conducive to multi-voiced worship. If there is no obvious ‘front’, it is harder for mono-voiced worship to be re-established.
2. Establish the principle of multi-voiced worship within the core values of the church and regularly rehearse this and other values. Be aware that the default position is not multi-voiced but mono-voiced and that this will only be resisted with persistence and care. Develop a community identity as multi-voiced.
3. Talk together about the practicalities of multi-voiced worship. Reflect together on experiences of this, good and bad, so that the community is learning how to take part and respond more effectively. Encourage an ethos of reflection on what works well and less well.
4. Induct newcomers into an expectation of multi-voiced worship, explaining what this means and why it is important to the church. Encourage all to contribute.
5. Display appropriate sections of 1 Corinthians 14 in the space where the church meets. Refer to this regularly as the pattern of worship for a multi-voiced community.
B. Encouraging participation
1. Develop liturgical patterns that are well-known and within which members know when and how to contribute. These can be flexible but familiarity will enhance multi-voiced participation.
2. Skilful leadership is more likely to encourage multi-voiced worship than absence of leadership. Most of those who experiment with ‘leaderless’ worship tend to revert to some form of leadership. But this leadership needs to be regarded by all (including the leaders) as facilitative rather than dominant, providing space and context for many to participate.
3. Encourage diversity of participation, drawing on the varieties mentioned in texts like 1 Corinthians 14. Encourage individuals to avoid becoming stereotyped and to participate in different ways on different occasions.
4. Communicate an ethos of permission and openness, so that everyone can contribute without fear of giving offence or being criticised. Build trust within the community.
5. Provide an explanation of what is happening for any visitors. Paul shows concern in 1 Corinthians 14 for ‘outsiders’, who may not understand what is going on.
C. Developing maturity
1. Encourage the community to pause deliberately after each contribution in order to receive it and reflect on it. This honours each contribution and allows space for the ‘weighing’ Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 14.
2. Establish the principle that all contributions are open to gracious challenge. This provides the community with protection from error and unhelpful contributions and provides those who contribute with confidence that others will weigh what they bring.
3. Discourage over-participation on the part of those who are liable to this. This might involve quiet words with those who show signs of participating too frequently, or it might be appropriate to establish known limits (two contributions per gathering, for example, or three in a month of gatherings).
4. Encourage a balance between contributions that are directed towards God (prayer, tongues and interpretation, songs, etc.) and contributions directed towards the church (prophecy, exhortations, biblical readings, etc.).
5. Encourage the use of a wider range of media for contributions (art, dance, video, mime, drama, photography, poetry, story-telling, etc.). These may require preparation beforehand, but multi-voiced worship is not equivalent to spontaneous worship.
6. Maintain a focus on the world and on mission. Encourage people to participate in language and imagery that is contextual, and to bring into worship experiences and challenges at work and in the local community.
Why does it matter?
There are several reasons for encouraging multi-voiced worship:
• It is congruent with the new covenant and the designation of the church as a ‘kingdom of priests’, all of whom are anointed with the Holy Spirit and gifted.
• It has been the instinctive approach of numerous renewal movements that have attempted to restore biblical principles to church life.
• It hinders clericalism and the domination of churches by powerful, eloquent and unaccountable leaders.
• It encourages spiritual growth in those who participate (whereas passivity does not encourage such development).
• It off It is appropriate for a postmodern context that values creativity and is wary of domination and institutional leadership patterns.
• According to Paul, multi-voiced worship can be deeply attractive to outsiders, communicating the reality of God’s presence to them.
Peacechurch is an emerging church in Birmingham that is drawing extensively on the Anabaptist tradition as it develops. On its website Joe Baker has posted a series of articles in which he reflects on several Anabaptist perspectives on church life - and their contemporary significance.
We are grateful for Joe's permission to post these articles here too. For further articles and information about Peacechurch visit www.peacechurch.org.uk
by Joe Baker
As discussed yesterday, the Anabaptists had an innovative approach to authority, especially the authority scripture, and one that seems all the more relevant now in the context of post-modernity and for alternative approaches to church, such as the emerging church 'movement'.
Key to the Anabaptists understanding was community. Community is a term thrown about with gay abandon in the post-modern climate, but the Anabaptists understood community very particularly. They were members of:
I'll return to each of these over the next few days, with particular reference to how I see them fitting into our faith community. But, for the time being, here's a summary.
by Joe Baker
In my previous post on sola scriptura and the emerging church, I discussed how the historical Anabaptists handled the issue of authority as the Catholic Church on the one hand and the Protestant Reformers on the other presented it.
The Anabaptist emphasis on life as persons in community was a direct consequence on their persecution by both the Catholics and the Protestants (the Catholics tended to burn them at the stake, while the Protestants usually beheaded them), but it was also birthed from their reading of the Bible.
The Anabaptists assumed that all church members had been born of the Spirit. The congregation was both the location for study of the Bible and the body responsible for the interpretation of the Bible. There is little specific or extended discussion of this practice in Anabaptist writing, but what Anabaptists believed about ethics, the nature of the church and so on required a communal approach to interpretation.
The movement was egalitarian to its core, and shunned clericalism for several reasons: in order to distinguish themselves from the Protestants and the Catholics; as a genuine outworking of their understanding of Christian discipleship; and because anyone who appeared to be an Anabaptist leader would be arrested and, in all likelihood, executed.
The Anabaptists, then, operated as a 'hermeneutic community' - a community who shared the task of interpretation of the Bible. This distinguished them from the autonomous individualism of the Spiritualists, was a rejection of the Catholic ecclesiastical hierachy and traditions, and in contradistinction to the appearance of Protestant clericalism and the sola scriptura principle.
The result was a substantial degree of local autonomy for Anabaptist communities. The imposition of creeds, traditions and professional leaders on local congregations was roundly rejected, and each community had to decide for itself on matters of doctrine, conduct and biblical interpretation. What leaders they had were chosen by the community and were accountable to them. This of course laid them open to disagreement and fragmentation, and disagreements were frequently over matters of interpretation. This was handled in conferences that brought together disagreeing parties, that resulted in joint statements such as the Schleitheim Confession. Despite problems, there was a remarkable unity and coherence across the movement.
The Anabapists read and interpreted together. Most of the 16th Century Anabaptists were illiterate, but the frequency with which they heard the Bible read aloud and the value they placed on knowing the Bible meant that most of them could recite verbatim huge portions of scripture, and when arrested, as they frequently were, the lowliest member would challenge the highest state and church authorities with recited scripture.
Sharing together enabled each person to share insights the Spirit gave to all believers. Discussing these insights together and seeking a consensus would help them to discard unreliable and erroneous interpretations, as well as confirming those that seemed helpful and trustworthy. Whilst it was innevitable that contributions would vary, and the potential for domination by strong characters or those with more experience or education was very real as in any human grouping, the strength of a shared hermeneutic was its refusal to exclude even the weakest members, since the Spirit was available to all.
It seems to me that the emerging churches are standing at a similar crossroads, and the experience and approach of both the historical and the contemporary Anabaptists is vital at this moment in time. Every emerging church, leaving behind the shackles of modernity and seeking to find a more open and integrated way of being a Christian community of faith, needs to confront the questions of authority and interpretation that the Anabaptists asked and ask still. How does a community foster a sharing of experience? What can be done to jointly own and mold the community's values, worldview and ethics? How can the weakest and the marginalised among us be heard and cherished, and the strongest and most assertive encouraged to subdue and submit themselves to the whole community? How can a faith community be going somewhere without being being lead by a single person? Or, in other words, how can the tendency to clericalism be challenged and ultimately rejected?
Following on the theme of Anabaptist approaches to church, the second key aspect of the Anabaptist perspective on community is that symbolised in the Eucharist.
Christians of all traditions practice regularly something variously referred to as the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, Communion, the Meal, the Mass, and so on. As most people who have some experience of Christianity will know, it consists of wine and bread, which are meant to represent the body and blood of Jesus and remember his death by crucifixion. Christians eat and drink these elements together, and all of the Christian traditions have different shades of meaning for the Eucharist.
Significantly, for Anabaptists the Lord's Supper returned to being a meal: in particular, a memorial meal for believers remembering the sacrifice of Jesus in which the bread is just bread and the wine, just wine, and not a re-creation of Jesus's death done by priests on behalf of sinners. It is a remebrance and a 'showing forth' of his death until his return.
To the Anabaptists, the LordÕs Supper was a highly significant feast. They were persecuted by both the Catholics and Protestants for the challenges they levelled at them both. In the context of persecution, celebrating the Lord's Supper together was a powerful symbol of common commitment. By sharing the bread and the cup, members were signifying their willingness to give their lives for one another. In the sixteenth century this was not taken lightly. Anabaptist prisoners were almost always tortured and asked to give the names of their fellow church members. In our post-modern world, this is a counter-cultural challenge of selflessness that subverts the pervasive power of individualism. The symbolism of the eucharistic ritual unlocks the beauty of community.
Balthasar Hubmaier, a theologian and martyr from the Anabaptist radical reformation, was instrumental in reinvigorating the LordÕs Supper.
Hubmaier formed a wonderful eucharistic service which is notable for three features.
THE PLEDGE OF LOVE
Let each one separately say I WILL.
Will you love your neighbour and fulfil on him the works of brotherly love, offer your flesh and pour out your blood for him? Will you be obedient to father, mother, and all magistracy according to the will of God, and this in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ who also offered his flesh and poured out his blood for us?
Let us each say separately I WILL.
Will you use brotherly chastisement towards your brothers and sisters, make peace and harmony between them, also reconcile yourself with all those who have offended you, drop envy, hate and all evil will toward any; willingly desist from all actions and dealings which injure, damage or vex your neighbour, also love your enemies and do good to them? Will you exclude from the church all those who are not willing so to do according to the order of Christ?
Let each one say separately I WILL.
Do you desire, here in the Supper of Christ, by the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, to confirm publicly before the church this covenant which you have just now made and to testify to the power of the living memorial of the suffering and death of the Jesus Christ our Lord?
Let each one say separately I DESIRE IT IN THE POWER OF GOD.
Therefore eat and drink with one another in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. May he give us all power and strength that we spend the time according to his holy will, worthy of salvation. The Lord communicate to us his grace. Amen
The local church was the worshipping community in its entirety. The Supper could not start until all were there because all together enabled the event to happen. Prayers are not said on behalf of but by the gathered people. Church was not an event within the rest of life but what was lived as the whole of life; hence there was an emphasis on the importance of a proper life-style. And the communal commitment of the Pledge makes it clear that the Supper functioned significantly as a community building exercise; this was not something which was done to and for these people, but which they did together.
It was not easily possible to have bystanders in this. As with any community life, there is a demand on participation and an expectation of Christ-like servanthood. Just as Jesus took the basin and the towel to become the humblest of all in the first communion supper (John 13: 1-17), showing true meekness, so we must serve each other. There is little hierarchy in the Body of Christ, each caring for each other as servant-enablers. In doing so, every individual is encouraged and aided in their unique journey towards Christ-likeness; the consequence is a beautiful richness and diversity in a body of believers with common commitment, pledged in love to each other.
But maybe most significantly, by pledging our lives to each other, we make a commitment that none amongst us shall be in need. Frequently Anabaptist communites, but historic and contemporary, participate(d) in economic sharing: they were and are always generous, sharing resoureces and talents to ensure no-one went without; many of the historical congregations renounced personal possession and everythign was owned by the community. The modern Amish tradition of barn raising is a contemporary descendent of this approach.
In a eucharistic community, lives are shared and no person is in need. As we explore alternative approaches to church in the post-modern world, in emerging church settings, we must remember, as the Anabaptists have always known, those on the margins are those at the centre.
by Joe Baker
In this series of posts on Anabaptist approaches to church we have so far looked at being a hermeneutic community and being a eucharistic community. The third theme is about being a missional community.
The series of woodcut illustrations in these posts have been taken from the Martyrs' Mirror, a book written at the time to record the huge number of deaths of Anabaptist believers who were killed because of their faith. The full text of the Martyrs' MIrror and all 104 Martyrs' Mirror illustrations are avaiable online. The reason for including them is to illustrate the incredible dedication they had for their understanding of Christian discipleship. Today's illustration is of Gerrit Hasepoot, a tailor, who was sentenced to be executed in 1556. With an infant in her arms, his wife came to bid him farewell. When Gerrit was placed at the stack of wood, he kicked his slippers from his feet, saying, 'It were a pity to burn them for they can be of service to some poor person.' When the rope that was being used to strangle him slipped he said, 'Brethren, sisters, all, goodbye! We must now separate, 'till we meet beyond the sky, with Christ our only head.' (Source: ThirdWay.com)
The story of Gerrit Hasepoort is not unusual. The Anabaptist believers took the so-called Nazareth Manifesto very seriously: for them the Gospel was good news for the poor and the marginalised. In the Europe of the day, governed as it was by the vestiges of feudalism, there were many peasants struggling to exist, and, since Anabaptism was outlawed, most Anabaptists were exceptionally poor. In this adverse social climate, they depended on eachother in order to survive. As we have already seen, taking a leaf out of the story of the church in Acts 2 they lived in a sharing community, a eucharistic community symbolised by the sharing of the Meal, holding things loosely and frequently holding things in common. In a few communities this economic sharing took the form of community sharing of goods, where members gave up all claims to property. But even in the more numerous non-communal Anabaptist groups there was a 'common purse' to help the needy. Just as they had freely received and benefitted from this sharing, they also freely gave. Just as there was none among them who was in want, so there was many they encountered who were provided for.
The Anabaptists, believing that the walk of Christian discipleship was a voluntary one, chosen as an adult rather than baptised into involuntarily as an infant, would result in a visible church, comprised of those who had made a public commitment to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. It was a church whose visible holiness was to be maintained by an attentive discipline and strengthened by the Lord's Supper and footwashing, and they became increasingly sure that among the visible fruits of the Spirit of Christ they would find truth-telling (i.e. refusing to swear oaths but rather letting their 'yes be yes, and no be no' after Matt. 5:34, 37), economic sharing and pacifism.
Gentleness was and is the key characteristic of the Anabaptists' understanding of mission. Preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, releasing the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favour was not a trivial task that could be done by edict, by aggression or by the sword. For them, the frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force was inappropriate for followers of Jesus, and so they were committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.
- Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
- Jesus is the focal point of GodÕs revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
- Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
- The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.
- Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek GodÕs kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
- Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
- Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.
Whilst it is specifically mentioned in point 5, mission saturates the whole set of value statements because it is about harmony with God and the way that God is active in creation.
by Joe Baker
It's taken a while to get to this last installment in my review of Anabaptist approaches to church, but here it is. Sorry folks. We have so far looked at being a hermeneutic community and being a eucharistic community and being a missional community. The fourth theme is about being a peaceful community.
The modern descendants of the 16th Century Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Bruderhof, the Amish and the like, have historically been called the peace churches, particularly for their rejection of violence, their advocacy of nonresistance and their general peacemaking and pacifist perspective. Indeed, the 4 peace activists currently held hostage in Iraq are there with Christian Peacemaker Teams, which was initiated in 1984 by Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers with broad ecumenical participation, with a goal to to devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war. But what was it that gave birth to this heritage? And how valid is this perception of the Anabaptist tradition?
The most severe point of disagreement between the Anabaptists and the other Reformers was over the ethics of Chrisitian discipleship. They believed that the challenge to follow Jesus required a change of heart and a consequent change of lifestyle, not just a change of allegiance from Pope to State. This led them to question the validity of private property, as previously discussed; to ensure that those in need did not go without, both within and without their community. Indeed, the 1527 Congregational Order urged: ÒOf all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostlesÕ time permit no brother to be in need.Ó When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.
Their social deviancy stretched to a critique of the state. Many refused to swear oaths, citing Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5, which fundamentally challenged an important aspect of sixteenth-century Europe that encouraged truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. As a consequence, neither would they swear loyalty to any secular authority; many, like Felix Mantz (c1498-1527), concluded that 'no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could [they] use the sword to punish or kill anyone.'
This stance was not gained without problems along the way, however. One of the internal struggles was the place of (particularly) the Old Testament apocalyptic scriptures in the life of the Christian community. From the start there were Anabaptists who were sure that they were living in the end times, and that Jesus would return in a matter of months or years. Among these were people who prophesied that the time for turning the other cheek had passed.
These prophecies proved to be tragically false, but not before many Anabaptists had died by the sword, thinking that they were preparing for the return of Jesus. The most spectacular and terrible occurrence happened in MŸnster, Germany, which was taken by armed Anabaptists and defended for almost a year and a half (1534-1535). For further details of the MŸnster rebellion, see this Wikipedia article and this Anabaptist.co.uk outline.
MŸnster was a tragedy, but it finally settled the question of violence for the Anabaptists. After MŸnster the Anabaptists came to agreement that in questions of discipleship, the words and the example of Jesus were final, and could not be set aside until Jesus himself set them aside.
Once this principle of discernment was accepted, it was clear to the Anabaptists that disciples of Jesus Christ must put away the sword, unconditionally, for three reasons:
By 1540 the Anabaptists had achieved wide consensus that reborn, baptized Christians will refuse to participate in violence and their rejection of violence and advocation of peace became a defining characteristic. And it is because of this pledge to nonviolence that the descendants of the 16th Century Anabaptists have been called the historic peace churches. This however misses the wider story of their ethical commitments to what I contest can be summarised in an understanding of the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom is discussed in more detail elswhere on the site, so I shall refrain from a full discussion here, suffice to say that shalom has three key shades of meaning: shalom as material well-being and prosperity; shalom as justice; and shalom as straightforwardness or integrity.
The Anabaptists' commitment to economic sharing, social and material justice, and purity and integrity was revolutionary in their day, and deeply challenging to us now. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that they behaved as shalom activists, not mere passive pacifists. They took on the challenge of Ephesians 2 to follow Jesus and offer shalom to those who were far away and shalom to those who were near.
The trouble with the transmission of this theological and ethical stance through time is that it has become narrowed to focussing specifically on nonviolence as the expression of shalom. For example, the website Every Church a Peace Church (www.ecapc.org) is owned and run by the historic peace churches, the Friends, Mennonites and Brethren. Their summary of the characteristics of a peace church is absolutely wonderful and deeply challenging. But its narrow focus on violence and responses to violence seems to limit the complexity and beauty of shalom.
The task set before us to be a peaceful community is one that calls us to share in shalom.
by Joe Baker
I've noticed on several blogs recently (Wheat & Chaff; Through a Glass Darkly; Slice of Laodicea) that the question of sola scriptura ('scripture alone') has cropped up with regard to the 'emerging' churches (see my earlier comments on use of the term 'emerging church').
This is the definition of sola scriptura given by Wikipedia:
Sola scriptura (Latin By Scripture alone) is one of five important slogans of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. It meant that Scripture is the only infallible rule for deciding issues of faith and practices that involve doctrines. The intention of the Reformation was to "correct" the Catholic Church by appeal to the uniqueness of the Bible's authority, and to reject Christian tradition as a source of original authority alongside the Bible or in addition to the Bible.
Sola scriptura is still a theological commitment of many of the Protestant churches, most frequently those from more conservative branches, and is frequently appealed to by those who would describe themselves with the slogan 'Bible-believing'. However, as with most slogans, the meaning has become simplified over time from the orignal challenge of the Reformers to the Roman Catholic understanding of authority to the current common usage as the demand for interpretation of the Bible unswayed by anthing exterior, other than, presumably, the Holy Spirit.
Ironically, sola scriptura was a direct challenge to the authority of tradition, but the Anglican church has held steadfastly to the three pillars of faithful understanding: scripture, tradition and reason (with experience being tentatively added in recent times).
The Anabaptists were part of the 16th Century Reformation movement. They agreed with the that sola scriptura was a good starting point but were suspicious of the use of the word. Who is qualified to interpret what Scripture says? It soon became clear that the Reformers wanted to maintain that it was the learned theologians who were skilled enough to interpret scripture alone. To the Anabaptists, this was replacing the authotity of the Catholic church with the authority of the leaders of the Reformation.
The Anabaptists believed that the best interpreters of Scripture were those who had received the Holy Spirit. This meant that an illiterate peasant who had received the gift of the Spirit was a better interpreter of God's word than a learned theologian who lacks the Spirit. As a consequence, sola scriptura, 'scripture alone', was rejected in preference for 'scirpture and Spirit together '. In its time, this was radical in the extreme, especially as most Anabaptists were the illiterate poor. The political authorities considered this politically dangerous and theologically irresponsible. But to the Anabaptists, discerning the will of God was something that all believers were expected to do.
This was soon adapted as certain individuals had begun to prophesy and do very questionable things, claiming to be lead by the Spirit. The challenge was to discern how to test the 'spirits'?
One early Anabaptist document recommends that the brothers and sisters read Scripture together, and then "the one to whom God has given understanding shall explain it." This process of community interpretation provided one way of placing controls on the interpretation of Scripture and prophecy.
The second arose after some maverick prophets lead some Anabaptists to disaster in MŸnster. In the aftermath, it was realised that all spiritual claims must be measured by the life and the words of Christ. In this way, the 'testing of the spirits' was returned to the discerning congregation, and to Jesus Christ and the scriptural witness about him.
Is this relevant to the emerging churches? What does the apparent rejection of sola scriptura herald for emergents? Is the rejection of sola scriptura in the post-modern climate a slippery slope to disaster, or the dawning of a new horizon?
As I've previously said, I'm not Anabaptist 'by birth' but have chosen to identify myself with the Anabaptist tradition. As such, I identify with the rejection of sola scriptura by faithful believers from 500 years ago, in favour of an understanding of revelation pregnant in Scripture, interpreted by all believers through the power of the Holy Spirit, discerned in community, and tested by the measure of Christ. But the Anabaptist hermeneutic approach is also a challenge to the individualism inherent in the Protestant/Anglican quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
Interpretation is a task for a community of believers full of the Holy Spirit seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
The practice of foot-washing, based on the example and instruction of Jesus in John 13, has been a feature of many (though not all) Anabaptist churches during the past 500 years.
This practice has not been a feature of most other Christian traditions (with the exception of the formal and exceptional practice associated with Maunday Thursday), although some other churches and denominations have practised it.
Many argue that this is no longer culturally appropriate in contexts where washing the feet of guests is not regarded as a mark of hospitality. But this is one of the very few occasions when, according to the Gospel writer, Jesus explicitly said that he was setting an example for his disciples, so many Anabaptists have chosen to practise this, regardless of the cultural context.
Here we offer a number of articles and resources on the subject of foot-washing for churches interested in exploring this practice.
1. Purpose. The communion service was instituted by the Lord Jesus for remembrance, for fellowship, and for edification of believers. In this service the frail memories of believers are refreshed with the truth pertaining to their salvation. While the memory is being refreshed, believers are sharing these precious truths and are rejoicing more abundantly in the Lord who provides so graciously and so freely. And the result of remembrance and fellowship is the spiritual growth of the believer in the most holy faith. In order that this service may accomplish its purpose, it is necessary to make full and careful preparation.
2. Preparation. This service, to which a whole evening is devoted, is threefold, consisting of feetwashing, love feast, and the eucharist. Ample provision must be made for each. Quarters should be provided to seat comfortably at tables all those who expect to commune. In order that men and women may wash feet by themselves, other quarters may be provided with water and toilet facilities, and with seating capacity for all the women and all the men at one time if possible.
For the feetwashing service one tenth as many basins should be provided as there are people. And for cleanliness there should be a small towel for each person. Fresh water should be supplied in the basin for each person, and toilet facilities for the washing of hands after the rite is completed. In order that this portion of the service may be attractive and spiritually uplifting every effort should be expended to make it sanitary and well ordered…
Prayer and confession. The minister, resident elder, deacon, or several people in the congregation should lead the people in prayer or prayers of confession. This should lead to personal confession of all known sin before the service is carried further and it should prepare for the blessing of the service (1 John 1:9).
Retirement for washing. Then the minister should read John 13:1-18 and make appropriate explanations. Then let the deacons and the deaconesses retire for serving, followed by all those participating in the service, the men and the women retiring to their respective rooms. Feetwashing may be cared for at the tables when propriety and a division of sexes is maintained.
Return and thanksgiving. When all the communicants have finally finished the washing of the saints’ feet and have returned to the tables, then the one in charge may pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the reminder of daily cleansing thus wrought by the Word of God.
Note: the Holy Kiss of Love (Rom. 16:16, 1 Pet. 5:14) is often practiced by some following the washing of feet.
(An extract from the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches Ministers’ Handbook, revised 1986, pp30-34)
For Brethren, the traditional love feast, held once or twice a year, remains the profound central act and symbol of the church's life. It is as close as ‘low-church’ Brethren get to a high holy time. Based on a literal reading of the New Testament, Brethren have shaped an agape meal or love feast. When Brethren gather for this special meal during Holy Week they are able to see themselves as part of the events of Jesus’ final week with the disciples. Whenever the community gathers around the love feast tables they are reminded of the relationship of all disciples to one another and to the Christ they serve.
The love feast begins with a period of examination. Brethren cite Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24, calling for reconciliation before offering gifts to God, and Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 about the dangers of participating in the love feast in a thoughtless fashion. At one time deacons visited each member’s home to challenge members to examine whether they remained firm in their covenants with God and brothers and sisters. Today some opportunity for self-examination and prayer remains a vital part of the love feast.
Following this time of examination, participants ponder the powerful meanings in Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, recorded in John 13. These meanings include God’s cleansing and forgiveness, as well as our need to give and receive service. Jesus’ command to wash one another’s feet is a clear reminder that if we do not live in the spirit of feetwashing, we have no part in him. The exchange of an embrace and kiss that usually follows feetwashing expresses the Christ love that binds members of the community to one another, recalling the insistence in I John 4:721 that the love we share with one another validates our knowledge of a God of love.
The love feast meal recalls the meal Jesus shared with his disciples. The unique character of the relationship envisioned for those who are members together in Christ’s body is described in John 14-17, and some segment of that text is often used to frame this portion of the service. Christ is the centre, the source of the unity. The sharing of food symbolizes the sharing of life and looks toward the messianic banquet of the future. Some congregations choose to eat in silent reflection. Others believe the bonds that bind them to one another are more adequately rehearsed as they talk with one another around the tables, much as they do on other occasions when they eat together as a church family.
Finally, the Brethren share the bread and cup, remembering Christ’s supreme gift of life and renewing their commitment to embody Christ and to follow his path of sacrificial love for the world.
After a closing hymn, it is a pattern in many congregations for everyone to join in the necessary chores. Hymnals are returned to the sanctuary, chairs and tables are folded and put away, dishes washed and dried. The sharing of these simple tasks also expresses the covenant that binds members to one another. They become another part of the feast of love.
Although some are concerned to maintain total conformity to a traditional pattern for the love feast, others find that creativity in the framing and interpretation of the various elements intensifies its meaning and power for participants. Some ministers involve committees of lay people in the planning. Themes are chosen, worship centres created, drama and music used. Leadership is shared throughout. As innovations are introduced it is important to consider carefully the biblical foundations from which the service has been drawn and the values that have been central to our Brethren heritage. Planning should be done with respect for the traditions and with attention to the congregational setting. For example, the concept of servanthood may require sensitive handling. Some women and certain racial-ethnic groups bring past experiences that radically affect the way this biblical teaching is experienced. The intent is to enable this particular congregation to reaffirm and renew faith in a way that connects people more meaningfully with Jesus Christ and the community of believers.
Although sanctuaries have many advantages as a setting for worship, few sanctuaries are equipped to accommodate all the facets of the love feast. Congregations will want to consider how best to use their facilities to provide a worshipful atmosphere and preserve the unity of the whole experience.
Consider whether there will be people present whose physical limitations affect their ability to participate fully. Remember the visually impaired in your plan for lighting and the size of print to be used in the bulletin. Try to plan for voice amplification if there are those who have difficulty hearing and provide one skilled in signing if there will be deaf people present. Be sensitive to any adjustments that will avoid embarrassment or awkwardness for those not easily able to kneel to wash feet.
Preparation or Examination
A time of preparation normally begins the love feast service. As an alternative, a congregation may provide direction for individual self-examination and penitence, or design a corporate worship experience in a setting prior to the love feast.
Basins of warm water, along with a towel that can be fastened around the waist and used for drying, should be conveniently placed in preparation for the feetwashing. In addition, there is need for water and towels for washing hands afterward.
At the proper time, designated people wrap towels around their waists and begin to wash the feet of another person. As soon as the washing and drying are complete, the two people who have shared the feetwashing exchange an embrace and/or ‘holy kiss’ or kiss of love (Rom 16:16; 1 Pet 5:14). This is often accompanied by simple words of blessing such as ‘God bless you’. The towel is moved from the one who has served to the one who has been served. Then the one whose feet have been washed proceeds in like manner to wash the feet of the next person and so on until all have participated.
Traditionally, men and women are seated at separate tables. Some congregations are adopting alternative models to allow men and women or families to be seated together. Whatever the seating arrangement, an atmosphere of devotion and reverence will be fostered by a room lighted by candles and the use of either instrumental music or congregational singing. Although some choose to move to separate rooms for feetwashing, this has a tendency to disrupt the flow of the service and break the sense of community.
The Symbol of Service
Scripture John 13:1-17
Remarks Concerning the Feetwashing (minister)
Some will say that to wash another’s feet is an outdated act, that the symbol is no longer common in our time. That is true, but we are not seeking to learn a common lesson, rather a deep one. This symbol takes us radically from our own world back to the time of a most important teaching. Only as we relive those moments can that message become contemporary and live with us now.
We must note that the servanthood assumed by Jesus in this drastic act is related to the dedication of his coming. It is eternally bound to the cause for which he came and died. As the bread and cup are symbols of the sacrifice and giving of his life, so the kneeling to wash one another’s feet is the symbol of the purpose and the living of his life.
By demonstrating the servanthood of his life, Christ called all disciples to be servants. He called them from disputes about position to a life position that left no doubt about the intent to serve. We do violence to the heart of this act if we suppose that by stooping to wash another’s feet we rise in status in the kingdom. We do not kneel to demonstrate humility, but to remember the service of the life of Christ, and to let that memory till us with inspiration and determination. Preparations have been made for us to relive those moments.
Here the minister will give whatever simple instructions are necessary for all to participate comfortably.
Let us with eager, searching hearts do this in remembrance of Jesus, the Christ, that the meaning and message of his act may work its miracle in our lives.
During the service of feetwashing, the participants may sing favourite hymns or appropriate music may be played.
Washing Feet: Remembering Jesus Our Servant
(Sister/Brother), why do we wash each other’s feet before this meal? Before other meals we wash only our hands, and maybe our faces. Besides, I already had to wash before I came. Aren’t we clean enough? And why all the hugging and kissing afterward?
Our brother Peter asked questions too when Jesus bent down to wash his feet. You are right in assuming that washing feet has something to do with getting clean. Yet the main reason we wash each other’s feet is that Jesus commanded us to do this. Let us listen to the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. It may help us understand.
There is a cleansing element in feetwashing that in some ways is related to the cleansing we receive at baptism. In feetwashing we are symbolically washed of our sin without having to be repeatedly baptized. Most of us washed before we came tonight. Yet I need you to wash my feet. I need you to help me in my Christian walk. We need each other.
I also need to wash your feet. Jesus, through his example and commandment, teaches us to serve one another as humble servants. In Jesus’ day, washing feet was an act of hospitality performed by a servant. After a long journey travelling on dusty roads in sandaled feet, washing feet was a welcome act of kindness. It was unheard of for a rabbi of Jesus’ stature to bend down and wash his disciples’ feet. Through this act, Jesus taught that we are all brothers and sisters in his community and that leaders are servants of all. And as Christians we need not only to serve each other but also to wash the feet of the poor and homeless of the world.
Why do we kiss and hug? To show our affection for each other as sisters and brothers in Christ. We often call this the holy kiss. In several of his letters, Paul tells us to kiss one another in greeting.
Let us now participate in the ordinance of feetwashing. As we begin, let us sing ‘When We Walk with the Lord.’ Then we will choose other hymns to sing while we wash feet.
We remember how Pilate took water and tried his best to accomplish what none of us can do for ourselves. As we take basins and water tonight, we remember that in a startling action long ago Jesus knelt and demonstrated for the disciples in that time and for later times a new way to become clean.
We cannot cleanse ourselves. However, as we kneel to wash one another’s feet, we extend God’s cleansing grace to one another. In our giving and receiving, God’s cleansing love is made manifest.
The Washing of Feet
Pilate tried to wash his hands of the responsibility for the life of another human being. We do not have the legal power Pilate did to impose a death sentence. Yet each one of us is bonded with many others in a complex web of relationships that begins at home and extends around the globe. Our actions contribute either to life or to death for others with whom we are inextricably linked. Quite honestly, there are times we would like to simply wash our hands of any responsibility for, or any connection with, the enormous complexities of pain, injustice, and need in the world. Sometimes the same is true even in the church.
As we have washed one another’s feet and expressed our affection with an embracing warmth, we have symbolized our intention to live by a different standard: to care about and for other people, to value their salvation as well as our own.
This connectedness, this love we proclaim, is an inseparable part of what it means to know and love God.
Meditation for Feetwashing
Just plain, ordinary,
He didn’t ignore the head,
the heart and the soul
– spectacular things like that.
But I’m especially glad
That he cared about feet.
How many Messiahs ever did that?
You can wax eloquent
And be beautifully abstract
About people’s heads and hearts and souls.
But it is hard to be
removed from human need
When you’re kneeling down on the floor
Washing another’s feet.
Dusty roads are scarce
And very few sandals are worn now.
But feet trapped in leather
Are just as tired
And just as ignored.
There still aren’t many
Who care about feet.
Prayer for Feetwashing
Eternal Creator and Loving God,
In the act of kneeling to wash one another’s feet,
may we kneel also in our hearts
so that our lives may bow in service
to your will and not our own.
In allowing our feet to be washed,
may our lives be cleansed with your forgiveness
so that we may go forth
freed from the bonds of guilt and despair
to live in freedom and hope.
In our washing of feet,
cleanse our relationships with one another as well.
May we, in washing one another’s feet,
forgive and accept forgiveness from one another
for any hurts or wrongs or misunderstandings
that have passed between us,
so that we may rise to sit together at your table
in a renewed and strengthened fellowship in your love. Amen.
Text (adapted slightly) from For All Who Minister: A Worship Manual for the Church of the Brethren (Elgin, Ill: Brethren Press, 1993), pp183-184, 187, 191-192, 204-205, 214-215, 225-226.
Footwashing, also called the ‘washing of the saints’ feet’, is observed as an ordinance by most Mennonites in the world today. It is customarily based on the express command and example of Jesus, who washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-17), and on the statement by Paul (I Tim. 5:9, 10) that having washed the saints’ feet was a qualification for a widow’s acceptance into the church widows’ group. Rarely has the Old Testament practice of washing the feet of visitors as an act of hospitality toward strangers (Gen. 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; Judg. 19:21; I Sam. 25:40, 41) been used to support the practice, except in the early days in Holland, when the practice in some groups was limited to washing the feet of visiting elders and ministers or even of laymen as a sign of affectionate recognition. The most common practice has been and still is to observe the ordinance immediately following the communion service. In the Franconia Conference (MC), where the ordinance was long out of practice, it is observed at the preparatory service on the day preceding communion. Since most congregations that observe it today celebrate the communion twice a year, in the spring and fall, footwashing also comes twice a year.
The most common mode of the observance is as follows: After the communion service is completed, one of the ministers or deacons reads and comments on John 13:1-17. Basins, usually small wooden or metal tubs, with warm water and towels have meanwhile been provided in sufficient quantity to permit a fairly rapid observance. These are placed, either in the front of the church or in the ‘amen’ corners, and in the ‘ante-rooms’, or in some cases in the rows between the benches. The sexes then wash (more properly rinse or lightly touch with water) feet separately in pairs, concluding with the greeting of the holy kiss and a ‘God bless you’. In some localities towels are furnished in the form of short aprons to be tied by cords around the waist, in presumed imitation of Jesus ‘girding himself’, though most commonly ordinary towels are used. In some congregations the practice is not pair-washing but row-washing, in which case each person washes the feet of his right-hand neighbour in turn in a continuous chain (United Missionary Church, some General Conference Mennonite congregations). In the Church of God in Christ Mennonite group the ministers wash each other’s feet first, and then wash the feet of all the brethren in turn, the ministers’ wives doing the same for the sisters.
Although the interpretation of the ordinance may vary, it is always held to be symbolical of a spiritual lesson, and is never considered to have any religious value per se, or to be a ‘good work’. The most common interpretation is that it teaches humility and equality. Often the lesson of service is included along with the other meanings. In some instances it has been and is observed as a symbol of the daily sanctification which is needed by the Christian as he comes into contact with sin and temptation.
Among the North American Mennonite groups the observance varies. The following groups practice it universally, following the communion service: Mennonite Church (MC), Conservative Mennonite Church, Old Order Amish, Evangelical Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonites (Kleine Gemeinde), Reformed Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, United Missionary Church, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, Church of God in Christ Mennonites. The Mennonite Brethren formerly universally observed the ordinance, but now in the United States the number is 85-90 per cent of the congregations, while in Canada only a minority do so. Among the General Conference Mennonites only a small minority of the congregations practise footwashing, depending upon the background of each congregation. A study by S. F. Pannabecker in 1929 showed that of 107 G.C.M. congregations in the United States, 23 encouraged it. Of the 23, the Western District had 10, the Northern District 8. Since then the number has decreased. An official conference study in 1943 showed that then 9 congregations made it obligatory, while 14 encouraged it. The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, who formerly practiced it universally, have almost completely dropped it. The Lower Skippack Mennonite Church (Johnson Mennonite) withdrew from the Eastern District Conference (GCM) in 1861 because it observed footwashing, while the conference refused to make it mandatory. The Evangelical Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren in Fernheim Colony, Paraguay, also practise footwashing.
It is customary in the Mennonite Church (MC) and related groups to have a collection for the alms fund or charity fund in connection with the footwashing service. Usually the contributions are placed in the collection plate by the members individually upon completion of the footwashing ceremony.
The History of the Ordinance: Pre-Reformation Times
In the time of Jesus it was customary for the host to make provision for the washing of the feet of guests (Luke 7:44-46), but without religious significance. Jesus gave the rite religious significance and told His disciples, ‘Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you’ (John 13: 14, 15). Paul’s report in I Corinthians 11 concerning the observance of the communion does not mention footwashing, but this is no absolute proof that it was not practiced in Corinth. The widows’ washing of ‘the saints’ feet’ (I Tim. 5: I 0) is clearly a rite performed only for church members, but no indication is given of when or how often it was to be done. Apparently the widows had a special office or function in the church which included this duty. The implication is that they washed the feet of others, possibly visiting brethren and sisters, rather than practising a universal mutual ordinance.
Tertullian (145-220) of North Africa in his De Corona is the first Church Father to indicate that footwashing was practiced in his time, but he gives no clue as to by whom or how. Ambrose of Milan (340-97) states that it was not the practice of the Roman Church, but endorses it as a symbol of sanctification. Augustine mentions it as being rejected by some. Knight (p. 816) says flatly that footwashing always remained ‘a purely local peculiarity, introduced at an early date into some parts of the Catholic Church, but never universal’. Among the monks in particular, the hospitality custom of footwashing was widely practiced, and often in the name of Christ, but not as a universal ordinance of the church. For the monks the observance was often intended to express humility. St. Benedict’s Rule (529) for the Benedictine Order prescribed hospitality footwashing in addition to a communal footwashing for humility.
The ordinance of footwashing persisted down through the Middle Ages, with varied interpretations and applications, more prevalent in the East than in the West. The Roman Church finally observed the practice only as a part of the liturgical festivities of the Holy Week (Maundy Thursday), not as a sacrament, while the Greek Church recognized it as a sacrament, but seldom practiced it. When practiced outside the monastery, it was gradually taken away from the laity and made a pompous ceremony for state officials and clergy. It was frequently observed at coronations of kings and emperors, and installation of popes and archbishops. As late as the 18th century it was a common feature of Maundy Thursday in European Courts, and there are references to it in Bavaria and Austria as late as 1912. Monastic footwashing is still practiced in both Roman and Greek churches.
The Albigenses and Waldenses, two medieval sects which arose in Southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries, apparently observed footwashing as a religious rite. The Albigenses observed it following the communion service. Among the Waldenses it was the custom to wash the feet of visiting ministers, but there is no evidence of the practice of the ordinance by the members. The Bohemian Brethren or Hussites also practiced it, at least in the 16th century. The ordinance was not introduced into the new Reformation state churches, but it was adopted by the Anabaptists.
From the beginning (1525-35) some Anabaptists practiced footwashing, but it was not universal. It was most common in Holland and the related or descendant groups in Northwest Germany, West and East Prussia, and Russia. It was not practiced by the Swiss Brethren or Hutterites, nor by the 16th century Anabaptists in South and Central Germany, with rare exceptions. Hubmaier (d. 1528) practiced footwashing at least once in his early (1525) Anabaptist congregation at Waldshut, but does not mention the ordinance in any of his writings. Sebastian Franck in 1531 (Chronica) mentions the practice as observed among some of the Swiss Brethren. William Gay claims (in an unpublished M.A. thesis of 1947 at Columbia University), though without giving documentary proof, ‘Among the various Anabaptist sects which sprang up all over Western Europe early in the 16th century, ... footwashing as a sacramental act of communal humility was practiced almost universally at one time or another. The rite fitted in well with their tendency toward communalism, their Biblical fundamentalism, and their emphasis on self-effacing equalitarianism among the members. Often the ceremony was done in connection with a ‘complete’ observance of the Last Supper, with the agape and the communion itself following mutual footwashing, segregated according to sex.’
If the practice was prevalent at the beginning in Switzerland and South Germany (and there is no proof of this), it must have died out very soon. There is no mention of it in the Schleitheim Confession (1527) or the Peter Riedemann Hutterite confession (1545) or in any other known source except in the writings of Pilgram Marpeck (ca. 1495-1556). Marpeck’s great book of ca. 1542 (Verantwortung) makes repeated mention of footwashing as a Christian ordinance on a par with other ordinances. The first edition of the Ausbund (n.p., 1564) contains a hymn of 25 stanzas (No. 42 in the 1742 first American edition, pp. 692-700) for use at the observance of the ordinance, still used by the Old Order Amish.
Wappler (Thuringen, 128) reports a case of footwashing observed among the Thuringian Anabaptists in 1535 (see also Halberstadt). The leader of a group conducted a communion service, before which he washed the feet of all the 16 participants and greeted them with a kiss. Bullinger claims there was a group cal1ed ‘Apostolic’ Anabaptists who practiced footwashing. This is possibly the ultimate source of a statement by E. Daniel Colberg which names an ‘apostolic’ Anabaptist sect, ‘also called footwashers, who had as their ancestor Matth. Servatus’ (Servaes?). Colberg adds, ‘modern Anabaptists are almost all footwashers as Joh. Hoornbeek has shown from their writings’, probably meaning the Mennonites in North Germany and Holland.
Menno Simons (1496-1561) mentions the practice twice in his Complete Writings, but only as a hospitable practice and not as a church ordinance. However, his col1eague, Dirk Philips (1504-68), gives detailed teaching on footwashing as an ordinance in his Enchiridion of 1564 (English edition, Elkhart, 1910, pp. 388-90). His treatment reveals careful and serious thought and exhorts vigorously to its practice. There is nothing like this treatment in any other 16th-century Anabaptist writing. It was practiced in general by the Dutch Mennonites in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
The first direct evidence that footwashing was practiced as a general ordinance in Hol1and is found at the time of the division of the Danziger Old Flemish ca. 1635 from the Groningen Old Flemish. The Groningen group required the observance in connection with the communion service, while the Danzigers required it only for visiting elders who came from other districts to administer baptism and communion. For these the ordinance was to be observed in the house in which they were guests.
Out of the 19 confessions of faith produced by European Anabaptists and Mennonites from 1527 to 1874, 12 speak of the ordinance of footwashing as a Christian practice, while 9 omit it altogether. The first one to mention it (Dutch Waterlander Confession of 1577) indicates that it is to be done for visitors from a distance, particularly refugees, but is not prescribed as a church ordinance for a worship service. The same is true for the Concept of Cologne (1591), the Twisck 33 Articles of about 1615, and the George Hansen Flemish Confession of 1678 (Danzig area). Al1 the other seven which mention it (Olive Branch of 1627 in Hol1and, Dordrecht 18 Articles of 1632, Jan Centsen of 1630 in Holland, the first Prussian confession of 1660, the Prussian confession of G. Wiebe of 1792, and the confession adopted in Russia in 1874 by the Mennonite Brethren) treat it as a general ordinance of the church. The Cornelis Ris' Dutch. Confession of 1773 does not mention it, probably because it was already dying out in Holland. The widely used Elbing-Waldeck catechism of 1778 includes it, as does the Russian Mennonite catechism of 1870.
The Alsatian congregations which adopted the Dordrecht Confession in 1660 were probably the channel for the adoption of the same confession with its footwashing article by the Amish schismatic group which originated 1693-97 in Switzerland. The Amish have ever since been fully committed to footwashing and in fact were distinguished from the other Mennonites of Switzerland, France, the Palatinate, and South Germany by it, since the latter did not practice it. The Northwest German Mennonites, being closely related to the Dutch Mennonites, followed them both in the observance earlier and in discarding it in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The decline of the practice among the European Mennonites who had earlier practiced it had set in by the 17th century in Hol1and. N. van der Zijpp supplies the following account of the history of the practice in Holland.
‘While in course of time the practice among the Waterlanders soon fell into decline – it is not mentioned in the ordinances of the Waterlander churches of 1581 – it was maintained for some time, though not after 1640, by the Frisian, Flemish, and High German congregations. (In the Hamburg congregation under Dutch influence the question arose in 1628 whether footwashing should be maintained or not; see Inv. Arch. Amst. I, 576.) But among the conservative Old Flemish and Old Frisians in the 17th century it was again more earnestly practiced. Among them, and also among the Jan Jacobsgezinden and other Fijne Mennisten (q.v.), it became a church practice observed in connection with the Lord’s Supper. So it was still in 1741, when Simon F. Rues visited several Dutch churches among the Groningen Old Flemish (Rues, 53 f.). (A pictorial illustration of footwashing as practiced in the Groningen Old Flemish congregation of Zaandam is found in Schijn’s Geschiedenis of 1743.)
‘In this same way footwashing was performed “publicly in the meeting”, as Rues says, among the Old Frisians and also among the Swiss Mennonites who had immigrated to Holland about 1711. The Swiss in Holland practiced it until 1805. Most Old Frisians had abandoned it by 1770, and most Groningen Old Flemish by 1800, though in some of their congregations it was performed until 1815.
‘Among the Danzig Old Flemish Mennonites (q.v.) footwashing was not practiced in the meetinghouse in connection with the Lord’s Supper, but in the older hospitable form, i.e., to a visiting preacher or elder. The ceremony was performed at his arrival, or in the evening, the host washing the guest’s feet in the room in which the guest lodged. It was also done to new members who had come from other places (Rues, 19). The practice was continued among this group until about 1780, when the last Danziger Old Flemish congregation died out. In the 19th century footwashing in the old form (to visiting elders) was performed only in four Dutch congregations: Giethoorn, Ameland, Aalsmeer, and Balk. Since 1854 no footwashing has been practiced in Holland.’
Footwashing died out among the French and South German Mennonites of Amish background much more slowly than elsewhere. The last observance in Luxembourg was in 1939. There are still five congregations in France which practice it: Birkenhof, Diesen, Haute-Marne, Meuse, and Montbeliard.
Clarence Hiebert (ST.B. Thesis, Biblical Seminary, 1954) comments upon the decline of footwashing in Europe as follows: ‘The decline of this practice was due largely to secularization and compromising influences in the church. Along with the loss of this practice European Mennonitism has gradually lost almost all beliefs that were once distinctive to them. In America, footwashing was rigidly observed by most Mennonite groups, the form and mode being more uniform than it ever was in Europe.’ Hiebert speculates further as to the causes for the decline, suggesting five reasons.
‘1. The ridiculing of the peculiar beliefs of the Mennonites and their emphasis on the “fringe doctrines” rather than the cardinal beliefs stimulated them to question some of their literalistic practices. Many abandoned this practice as a result of re-examination of their beliefs, in favour of the more cardinal emphases.
‘2. The literal interpretation of the Johannine footwashing narrative had never been satisfactory to all. The spiritual concept came to be emphasized as being sufficient without the external act.
‘3. The influence of the larger denominations upon the Mennonites played no little part in bringing about compromises in their traditional beliefs. This was especially true in Holland, where the Reformed and the Mennonite churches often united.
‘4. The liberal tendencies which began in the 18th century, especially through the Mennonite Seminary in Amsterdam, were influential in changing the entire church.
‘5. Because the more conservative element was constantly emigrating in the 19th century from Germany and France in search of religious freedom, the liberalizing tendencies gained the upper hand.
‘Other reasons could be listed, but these are the cardinal factors and suggest the trend of European Mennonitism.’
Here, according to P.M. Friesen (Bruderschaft, 40, 82), the Flemish group observed the ordinance in connection with the communion, while the stricter of the Frisians practiced the observance in the home of the minister when a guest minister arrived. Specifically the Gnadenfeld and Alexanderwohl congregations were among those that observed the ordinance at communion. Among Bernhard Harder’s (1832-84) poems, published in 1888 at Hamburg as Geistliche Lieder, was one written to be sung at the footwashing service. Its dominant emphasis is that of cleansing from ‘sin which collects like dust’ in men’s souls. All the schismatic groups in Russia, Kleine Gemeinde (1812), Mennonite Brethren (1860), and Krimmer M.B. (1869), continued the practice. The observance was brought to North America by all these groups and the Mennonite congregations as well which had practiced it there. The Swiss-Alsatian Amish in Volhynia also brought the practice with them.
The first documentary evidence of the observance of footwashing in North America is found in a document of ca. 1775 relating- to the Martin Boehm case, in which the leaders of the Lancaster Conference specifically refer to the ordinance of footwashing as commanded by Christ to show humility. John Herr, the founder of the Reformed Mennonite Church in 1812, describes the Lancaster Mennonite group as having declined greatly and states, ‘The washing of feet, if not rejected, was at least practically omitted for many years’ (Funk, 13). By contrast Funk (p. 114) quotes a letter of an aged member in 1878 who specifically recalled that Bishop Jacob Hostetler’s (bishop 1831-65) charge to the bishops he ordained included the administration of footwashing. The Lancaster Conference hymnal Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch (1804), contained one hymn (p. 117) to be used during footwashing, and the first English Mennonite hymnal, A Collection of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Mountain Valley, Va., 1847), contained three (pp. 288-91). A pamphlet published in 1859 at Berlin, Ont., written by Ulrich Steiner (?), was devoted exclusively to footwashing (Fusswaschung und Deutung derselben).
The strange deviation in the Franconia Conference from this general practice of the Mennonite Church is unexplainable. The Dordrecht Confession, first printed in English in 1712 for the Germantown group, and adopted in 1725 by a conference of all the congregations in America at that time (printed at Philadelphia in 1727), has a specific and strict article on footwashing. Yet J. C. Wenger reports, ‘It appears that until a generation or so ago what is now the Skippack bishop district was the only one which observed Feet-Washing’ (Franconia, 34). This is supported by the fact that the Franconia Conference hymnal Die Kleine Geistliche Harfe (1803), in contrast to the Lancaster hymnal, had no footwashing hymn. Only gradually did the observance spread after 1900, particularly when Henry S. Bower, a preacher, and the noted bishop Andrew Mack put his influence behind it. ‘As late as 1917,’ says Wenger (p. 105), the conference admonished the ministers ‘to teach the subject of footwashing more earnestly, so that it may be more generally observed.’ But there are some facts on the other side. The letter of Andreas Ziegler et al. to Holland in 1773, written on behalf of the Franconia Conference, inquires ‘whether you keep up the observance of footwashing’ (Franconia, 401), thus implying the observance in Franconia at that time.
It is interesting to note that the Oberholtzer group, which broke away from the Franconia Conference in 1847, according to Hiebert, for a time after their initial organization continued the practice of footwashing in connection with the communion service. In 1851, four years later, they decided the observance should not be compulsory, and in 1853 it was made an optional practice with complete freedom in the local congregation. Finally, in 1855 it was no longer recognized as a church ceremony. A spiritual interpretation of the passage (John 13) was agreed upon at the 1859 conference. The Lower Skippack congregation, which intended to continue the observance of the ordinance, thus came into conflict with the conference. Henry G. Johnson, the bishop, was declared out of order by the conference in 1859, and formally excommunicated in 1861, taking most of the congregation with him. Lower Skippack has continued as an independent congregation to this day. J. C. Wenger (Franconia, 360) suggests that the conference may have originally adopted footwashing to meet the demands of Johnson who was a strong advocate of it, but without any connection with a general practice by the body as a whole.
Footwashing has been introduced into the foreign mission fields of the American Mennonite groups in accord with the constituency.
The following other North American denominations are among those which still observe footwashing as a standard ordinance: Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Grace Brethren Church, Brethren in Christ, and a number of minor Baptist bodies. The Moravian Brethren practiced it until 1818 when it was discontinued by act of the Moravian Synod.
There is no uniformity in the writing of the term ‘footwashing.’ Five other forms often used are: foot washing, foot-washing, feetwashing, feet washing, and feet-washing. The initial letters ‘F’ and ‘W’ are sometimes also written in capitals.
(Reprinted from the article on 'Footwashing' by Harold S Bender in Bender, Harold S & Smith, C Henry (eds.): The Mennonite Encyclopaedia, Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955, pp347-351).
by Sue Haines
Foot-washing was once a very contentious issue and on one particular occasion quite a number of years ago it took place during the Sunday service and some people were unprepared for it - not just visitors. This has shaped our policy, which rules out having it as part of Sunday service, and our practice of making sure we don't "spring it" on people. Over the years some members have felt strongly about footwashing and would not participate - mostly I think from personal sensitivities rather than theological objection.
More recently, there was a short sermon series on footwashing and the elders put a proposal to the business meeting proposal in Nov 2002 as follows:
"The Elders would like to recommend to the church that footwashing be continued every quarter as part of members' communion. We consider footwashing to be an important Christian discipline, which Mennonites have normally practised. Our sermon series explained the biblical basis for footwashing and dealt with some of the issues, such as relevance, around it. We don’t envisage having footwashing on a Sunday morning or at other times, unless this is discussed with members."
The business meeting accepted this with the proviso that dates for footwashing in members’ communion must be clearly advertised in advance, in our case most often by being put on the schedule. There was some willingness to revisit the question of use of footwashing on Sunday at some point in the future but in practice this hasn't happened.
(Members' communion is a closed meeting (with meal and communion) for members/those exploring membership and invited visitors. So it is easy to ensure that everyone who will be present knows in advance that footwashing will be involved.)
To give a little more detail on our practice, we usually divide into groups of 4 or 5, each with a basin and towel and comfortably warm water, and then wash the feet of someone in that group, often concluding with a hug. We are quite informal, feeling free to talk or laugh while we are washing each others' feet, which helps us overcome embarassment. Where the configuration of the group makes this practical, we often use same-sex groups.
On an even more practical note, because we combine this with a meal, we also try to pay attention to washing our hands between footwashing and eating.
by Tom Goodhue
The Gospel According to John records that during the last meal which Jesus shared with His disciples, He did something which greatly shocked them: He washed their feet. The idea of a master washing the feet of his disciples was without precedent in His culture – it was a job performed only by a child, a wife, or a slave. This was such a powerful display of the new, radical nature of Christ’s loving service that it had to be preserved in the ritual of the church.
But traditions have a way of growing stale unless they are periodically renewed and reapplied to contemporary use. As a Methodist minister who has only recently begun to use footwashing in worship, I find it sad that in many the churches which endorse the ancient practice of footwashing, interest in it is declining. What value is there in this practice? Why does it need to be revived?
In the ancient Middle East, to bring a visitor a bowl of water for his feet was an act of hospitality, a response to a specific need. Maybe if we walked in sandals on dusty roads on a hot summer day we could understand better how it could feel to have one’s feet washed. Luke 7:36-48 shows that Jesus valued this hospitality and the kiss of brotherhood and that He did not find physical contact distasteful or embarrassing, not even when it came from a ‘woman of the streets.’
In the same way, Jesus did not shirk from touching the most dirty part of the body Himself during the Last Supper. (Bernini’s panel on Peter’s chair in St. Peter’s Basilica even shows Jesus affectionately kissing a foot after washing it, and Roman Catholic prelates do this in the Catholic celebration of Maundy Thursday.)
The World Needs Affection. What does this have to do with twentieth-century America? While most of us have been conditioned in our society to be a bit embarrassed by any show of affection, we are also discovering how much more warmth, love, and affection our world needs. Footwashing can be both a symbol and an act of warmth, love, and affection, helping us to deepen our ability to express affection. If the youth in many churches refuse to participate in footwashing, it may be due not only to their embarrassment, but also to the mechanical way in which they see many people performing the ritual, or because adults refuse them the holy kiss because of their dress. I have seen the youth in several mainline Protestant churches respond enthusiastically to footwashing and the exchange of .the kiss when the congregation expressed genuine warmth through these acts.
And footwashing can be a moving occasion for growth and reconciliation. A Mennonite student from the Lancaster Conference told me the story of what happened once in his church on a communion day. The pastor asked two men who had been quarrelling bitterly to wash together. The bitterness between them was broken, and they were reconciled. Somehow, we must restore this warmth, love, and reconciliation to the tradition.
The washing can also be a powerful symbol of how our lives are transformed through faith and growth. The use of the washing basin by physicians in the ancient Mediterranean world for washing, massaging feet, and applying oils might have suggested to early Christians that footwashing was connected with the restoration of wholeness to the sick, broken body. After going through the powerful experience of baptism – dying to the past, and re-emerging to new life – any action in the early church which involved water would also have been associated with baptism, that is to say, with the complete transformation of a person’s life.
In fact, through the Middle Ages, footwashing was a part of baptism in the churches of France, Milan, and Ireland. Apparently it was used in baptism earlier in Spain, North Africa, and other areas. The ancient Egyptian church’s mass for Maundy Thursday connects footwashing not only with baptism but also with the liberation of Israel from oppression (cr6ssing the Red Sea) and entering a new land (crossing the Jordan).
Footwashing, then, can serve as a dynamic symbol of the renewal of the church and each of us, signifying growth and change, liberation and new life. Like communion, it reminds us we need continual growth and periodic renewal.
The footwashing in John 13 also tells us something about the politics of Jesus and how we are to respond to His politics.
In the time of Jesus, Passover was the season in which Jewish hopes were focused on the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. His disciples are pictured throughout the Gospels as wrestling with Jesus’ refusal to be a military Messiah; they continued to expect that the kingdom would be brought in through military victory and conquest. When Jesus, during Passover, washed the feet of His disciples, He dramatically rejected the role of conqueror. The new kingdom comes not by conquest but by the reordering of our lives and our society. Authority in the kingdom of God, He demonstrated, comes not from dominating others but, as theologian Peggy Way put it, from those to whom we minister.
How to Achieve Greatness. The footwashing also fits together with Jesus’ teaching about how to achieve greatness (Mk. 9:33-37; Mt. 18: 1-5; Lk. 9:46-48; Mk. 10: 41-45; Mt. 20:24-28; Lk. 22:24-27; Mt. 23:8-11). In John 13:14-17 Jesus tells a group of men to wash feet as He has, to take on the role of a servant, child, or wife. Likewise, all the teachings about how greatness comes through serving (which was also seen as the work of slaves, children, and women) are addressed to all-male audiences. It seems as if men in particular need to hear this message, since it is men who worry the most about proving how great they are. (For women He had a different message. In Luke 10:35-42 He tells Mary of Bethany that she had ‘chosen the better part’ in seeking learning, which Palestinian society thought women had no right to.) Our society is just now beginning to realize how much anxiety we give men by making them prove their greatness in all sorts of distorted ways and how it is unjust to think of subservient roles as being only ‘women’s work’ or work for servants. To teach His male disciples that they would find greatness through serving Jesus Himself took on the role of serving (Jn. 13:1-17; Lk. 12:35-38; 22:27).
From time to time various parts of the church have taken seriously another lesson from John 13: Jesus identified with the poor and taught His disciples that to do this makes possible a new relationship between them. Beginning at least as early as the fifth century, monks in many monasteries regularly washed each other’s feet and the feet of travelling strangers, especially the poor, binding the monks and the poor together in Christian community. Menno Simons likewise made several references to the importance of welcoming ‘those on the road’ with the hospitality of footwashing.
It is striking to me that the churches in America whose members (over a million in all) regularly wash feet are mostly either churches where almost all members are poor or else the descendants of those Anabaptists who refused to follow Martin Luther because of his hostility to the lower classes in the Peasant Wars of 1525. When we wash feet, we participate in Christ’s identification with the poor and the powerless who were commanded to do this work, the women, the children, the servants.
All Are Accepted. It is probably no accident that in many parts of the church, the practice of footwashing is connected with communion and the shared meal. The communion and the agape or love feast have embodied love and affection between Christians and our need for periodic renewal. Moreover, the early church remembered and celebrated in the communion and the agape the table-fellowship which was instituted by Christ in which all were accepted – men and women, rich and poor, Pharisees and tax collectors, the afflicted and the well, prostitutes and the pious.
This, of course, was not the way things were before He came, Indeed, His table-fellowship caused scandal, as it might upset people today. The mealtimes became something which the early church was built around – the first Christians remembered how when they ate with Jesus they were bound together in a new, community of love.
Jesus shattered the distinctions between master and servant, adult and child, man and woman, by the simple act of washing feet. The washing of feet can be one of the most powerful, most intimate expressions of how we are bound together in a community of faith which breaks through social barriers, identifies the powerful with the powerless, deepens our ability to love, and transforms our lives.
(Reprinted from Gospel Herald, May 7, 1974, pp377-379)
It is an
extraordinary honor for me to be invited by the conveners of this
conference to speak on the topic of footwashing, not only because
there are others present who are perhaps better prepared for such an
assignment, but also because I have been asked to represent a church
tradition which is not my own. For such a distinctive privilege I
want to express publicly my genuine thanks.
It is, of
course, a very dangerous thing to invite someone to give a twenty
minute presentation on a subject to which one’s PhD thesis was
devoted. Being faced with this dilemma I have pondered what might be
the best way to proceed. Given the fact that the bulk of my more
academic work on this topic is readily available in print1,
I do not feel pressed to cram all of that material into the time
allocated for this portion of the section of this meeting devoted to
the ‘Brethren Heritage of the Lord’s Supper’.
there is the pressure of trying to convey an understanding of the
justification of a practice which is not part of the tradition of
many of the participants in this conference. Given the purpose of
this section of the program and the time allocated for it, I have
decided to concentrate on three specific questions: 1) What is the
theological justification for the practice of footwashing? 2) What
does footwashing mean? and 3) What is the relationship of footwashing
to the Lord’s Supper?
Theological Justification for the Practice of Footwashing
It is, no
doubt, obvious that the primary theological justification for the
practice of footwashing is grounded in the explicit nature of the
commands Jesus gives to his disciples to wash one another’s
feet in John 13:14-17.
therefore, I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet you ought
(must) to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an
example in order that you should do just as I have done. Truly, truly
say to you, no servant is greater than his Lord neither is a sent one
(apostle) greater than the one who sends. If you know these things,
blessed are you if you do them.”
is true that not all readers of John 13:14-17 interpret these verses
for a literal fulfillment of the commands, those communities of faith
which observe this rite are convinced of the mandatory nature of
Jesus’ words. Although in some communities this interpretation
has resulted simply from a surface reading of the text, there is
additional evidence which indicates that John 13:14-17 was intended
to result in the actual practice of footwashing as a religious rite.
the fact that a hermeneutical gap exists between twentieth-century
readers and their ancient counterparts, it is possible to narrow that
gap somewhat by examining attitudes toward and the practice of
footwashing in Graeco-Roman and Jewish antiquity. When this evidence
is examined it becomes clear that footwashing was a remarkably
widespread practice in the ancient world and functioned in a variety
of ways: as a sign of hospitality, for the purpose of comfort and/or
hygiene, as a sign of servitude, and as a religious/cultic cleansing.
In other words, footwashing was a part of every day life.
footwashing came to be regarded as a sign of preparation in
antiquity. It was so commonplace that to approach a task without
adequate preparation could be described in a traditional saying as
acting ‘with unwashed feet’. Descriptions of footwashing
most frequently occurred in banquet settings and/or before a meal of
some type. In these situations a host would provide water, in some
cases spiced wine or ointments (if the home were an affluent one and
the guest was deserving of special honor) for the guests to remove
from their feet the dirt which had accumulated on their journey. Such
a practice was commonplace and appears to be presumed. Most texts
place the washing at the time the guests arrive.
commands of 13:14-17 are read against the cultural context of western
antiquity, it seems probable that the first readers (members of the
Johannine community) would have taken vv. 14-17 as calling for
compliance on their part. Given the extensive practice of footwashing
in antiquity, it is reasonable to assume that the readers of the
Fourth Gospel would have been familiar with footwashing of one kind
or another through actual participation. These first readers were in
a very different position to modem western readers, who, due to their
unfamiliarity with the practice of footwashing, seem unable to take
seriously that a literal fulfillment of the command is in view. The
first readers’ familiarity with the practice in general makes
it likely that, after reading John 13:14-17, they would be inclined
to carry out its literal fulfillment.
addition to the evidence from western antiquity, the most natural
reading of the text of John 13:14-17 is one that calls for a literal
fulfillment of the commands. In v. 14, ‘therefore’ serves
to make clear the connection between Jesus’ own actions in vv.
4-12 and the following commands. In the light of his actions, the
disciples are instructed to wash one another’s feet. The
emphasis of his instruction is borne out by the appearance of ‘also’
and the emphatic use of the personal pronoun, ‘you’. The
verb in this verse often translated as ‘ought’ further
highlights the nature of the act. Rather than a suggestion, this verb
carries with it the idea of necessity and/or obligation. Its force
can be seen from elsewhere in the Johannine literature. According to
John 19:7, in an attempt to convince Pilate that Jesus should be
crucified, the Jews say, ‘We have (the) Law, and according to
the Law he must die…’
epistles the same verb is used to describe the mandatory nature of
moral conduct (1 John 2:6 – ‘The one who claims to remain
in him ought himself to walk just as that one walked’) and
Christian service to other brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16 –
‘In this we have known love, because that one laid down his
life for us; we also ought to lay down our lives for the brothers’;
4:11 – ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to
love one another’; 3 John 8 – ‘Therefore, we
ought to receive such ones as these, in order that we might be
fellow-workers in the truth’). The only other time Jesus uses
the term in the gospels is also in a context of mandatory service,
that of a slave to a master (Luke 17:10). Normally, in the other New
Testament uses of this verb the nuance is that of ‘an
obligation towards men which is deduced and which follows from the
experienced or preceding act of God the Saviour. In many instances
the sentence construction indicates the connection between human
obligation and the experienced act of salvation.’2
disciples’ directive to service is based upon the salvific
action of the Lord and Master, for ‘…now that Jesus,
their Lord and Teacher, has washed his disciples’ feet –
an unthinkable act! – there is every reason why they also
should wash one another’s feet, and no conceivable reason for
refusing to do so.’3
The disciples have received cleansing at the hands of Jesus. Now,
they are instructed to preserve this practice. The stress of this
verse lies upon washing one another’s feet. Because of the
connection of these verses with vv. 6-10 there is the implicit and
contextual directive that the disciples receive this service/sign
(from one another) as well as render it.
of Jesus’ command for the disciples to practise footwashing
among themselves in v. 14 is strengthened by referring to the
footwashing as an example in v.15. While a general call to humble
service cannot be ruled out altogether, there are three reasons to
think that the readers would see in ‘example’ a
reinforcement of the direct command to wash one another’s feet.
The first consideration is the context of this verse. In v. 14, it
has been clearly stated that the disciples are to wash one another’s
feet. Following so closely upon this explicit command, it is likely
that ‘example’ would be taken in a specific fashion.
this is the first (and only) ‘example’ given by Jesus,
which the readers encounter in the Fourth Gospel.4
combination of ‘just as ... also’ emphasizes the intimate
connection between Jesus’ action (washing the disciples’
feet) and the action of his disciples (washing one another’s
They are to act precisely as he acted. The instructions to wash one
another’s feet are rooted and grounded in the actions of Jesus
in vv. 4-10.
the footwashing is far more than an example. ‘It is a definite
In all probability, the readers, as well as the disciples in the
narrative, would take ‘example’ with reference to
footwashing in particular, not humble service generally.
In v. 16
again there is an appeal to the person and status of Jesus as the
basis of the command to wash one another’s feet. This time it
comes in the form of a saying that also appears in a Synoptic context
(Matthew 10:24). The authority of the statement is understood by the
double ‘Amen’ which precedes the rest of the saying. The
‘Amen, Amen’ formula denotes a particularly solemn saying
which issues forth from Jesus’ own authority. As Schlier
concludes: ‘The point of the Amen before Jesus’ own
sayings is: to show that as such they are reliable and true, and that
they are so as and because Jesus Himself in His Amen acknowledges
them to be His own sayings and thus makes them valid.’7
already identified himself as Teacher and Lord (vv. 12-13), Jesus
here expands upon the implication of his Lordship. Since as Lord he
has washed the feet of his disciples, they have no choice but to take
similar action, on account of their own position as slaves in
relation to Jesus. Their own status and consequent actions cannot
hope to be on a higher level than that of their superior. That
identical action between Jesus and the disciples is being described
is borne out by the use of this saying in John 15:20, where the
world’s hatred for Jesus and the world is said to be the same.
maxim-like saying underscores the point. ‘No one who is sent is
greater than the one who sends him.’ Again, the clear emphasis
is upon the authority of Jesus’ actions in relation to the
similar activity of the disciples. This interpretation of the
master-slave language, which agrees perfectly with the context, is
much to be preferred over reading back service into v. 15 and thereby
making it simply an ethical example. In any event, the full authority
of Jesus is given to the injunction to wash one another’s feet.
In v. 17 a
final exhortation is given in order that the disciples might not fail
to carry out the footwashing among themselves. This time the command
takes the form of a blessing. It is not enough for the disciples to
know what to do; they must actually do it in order to be considered
blessed. The grammar of this verse bears out that the disciples
possess some knowledge of the footwashing, now that Jesus has given
this explanation, but must follow through with action. This contrast
is accomplished by the use of a first-class conditional clause, which
indicates a future possibility.
The use of
the term ‘makarios’ in this context clearly underscores
the importance of acting out Jesus’ commands to wash one
another’s feet. Such emphasis is similar to that of v. 8, where
Peter is warned that ‘meros’ with Jesus is dependent upon
reception of the footwashing. Therefore, not only have the disciples
received footwashing from Jesus as a sign of continued fellowship
with him, but they are now also instructed to continue this practice.
In the light of its earlier meaning, it is likely that the
footwashing to be practised by the disciples would convey a similar
significance, continued fellowship with Jesus. Obedience to Jesus’
commands to wash one another’s feet results in a declaration of
the narrative contains not one, but three directives for the
disciples to practise footwashing. It seems improbable that either
the disciples (in the narrative) or the implied readers would
understand such emphatic language as not having primary reference to
the actual practice of footwashing. Or to put this in the form of a
question: if the Johannine Jesus had intended to institute
footwashing as a continuing religious rite, how else could he have
said it to get his point across? When compared with the words of
institution associated with water baptism and the Lord’s Supper
in the New Testament, the commands to wash feet appear to be the most
emphatic of the three.
support for taking vv. 14-17 as calling for a literal fulfilment is
not limited to the evidence from western antiquity and our own
reading of the text of the Fourth Gospel. For in the case of John
13:14-17, this interpretation may be tested by how actual readers in
the early church understood these commands. A number of early
Christian texts give evidence of the regularity with which a reading
of John 13:14-17 resulted in the practice of footwashing. In these
cases, the relationship of the practice to John 13 is explicit. Such
evidence comes from Tertullian (De Corona 8), the Canons of
Athanasius (66), John Chrysostom (Homilies on John 71),
Ambrose (Of the Holy Spirit 1.15), Augustine John: Tractate
58.4}, the Apostolic Constitutions (3:19), John Cassian
(Institute of Coenobia 4.19), Pachomias (Rules 51-52),
and Caesarius of Arles (Sermon 202 and 86).
addition to these texts, others indicate that Christian footwashing
was observed in a variety of contexts in the early church. Such
evidence comes from 1 Timothy 5:10, Tertullian (To His Wife
2.4), Origen (Genesis Homily 4.2), Cyprian, the Synod of
Elvira (Canon 48), Ambrose (Sacraments 3.4, 7), Augustine
(Letter 55.33), Sozomen (Ecclesiastical History 1.11.10), John
Chysostom (Genesis Homily 46), Caesarius of Arles (Sermon
1, 10, 16, 19, 25, 67, 104, 146), and Benedict of Nursia (Regula
Fourth Gospel is taken as the starting point, there is every reason
to believe that footwashing was practised as a re1igious rite in the
Johannine community. Not only does a careful reading of the text
reveal that the implied readers would have understood John 13:14-17
as calling for a literal fulfillment, but the cultural environment of
western antiquity demonstrates that readers of the Fourth Gospel
would have been predisposed to practice footwashing as a result of
reading John 13:1-20.
evidence from early Christianity exhibits that a number of people
read the text in just such a fashion. Not only is the geographical
distribution of the evidence impressive, in that it comes from North
Africa (Tertullian), Egypt-Palestine (Origen), Asia Minor (1 Timothy,
John Chrysostom), Italy (Ambrose, Augustine), and Gaul (Caesarius),
but the diverse contexts in which the commands were fulfilled are
also noteworthy, in that they range from the church, to monastery, to
the home. Enough examples have been given to show both that the
implications of the reading of John 13:1-20 were somewhat consistent
and the practice of footwashing was widespread.
evidence for the practice of footwashing based on John 13 is of
sufficient strength to conclude that in all likelihood the Johannine
community engaged in religious footwashing as the direct result of
John 13:1-20 (or the tradition that lies behind it). Indeed, those
within footwashing communities would want to argue that instead of
interpreters needing to demonstrate the probability of the practice
in the Johannine community, the burden of proof is on those who would
deny such a probability.
Meaning of Footwashing
is sufficient reason to believe that Jesus, as depicted in John 13,
desired that footwashing be practised, what was the intended meaning
of this act? Several aspects of the text point in the direction of an
and the Passion of Jesus
of indicators in the text demonstrate that a close tie exists between
the passion of Jesus and the footwashing. First, the reader is
prepared for this connection in John 12 where Mary’s anointing
of Jesus’ feet is said to be a preparation for his burial.
Second, the location of the footwashing within the farewell materials
(John 13-17) indicates that the footwashing, along with the rest of
the materials, was intended to prepare the disciples for Jesus’
departure Third, the tie to the passion is made explicit in 13:1,
which serves as the introduction to the entire Book of Glory (John
13-21), where the reader learns that Jesus’ hour had come.
Fourth, the statement that Jesus loved his own ‘eis telos’
at least suggests to the reader that Jesus’ ‘end’
is near. Fifth, the appearance of Judas in v. 2 ominously foreshadows
the betrayal of Jesus. As Raymond Brown notes: ‘The betrayal is
mentioned in 2 precisely so that the reader will connect the
footwashing and the death of Jesus. Jesus undertook this action
symbolic of his death only after the forces had been set in motion
that would lead to crucifixion.’8
the betrayer will also be made in 13:11. Sixth, in v. 3 the return of
Jesus to the Father is mentioned again. Seventh, more than one
commentator has seen a reference to the death of Jesus when in v. 4
he is described as laying aside (‘tithemi’) his clothing,
since ‘tithemi’ has reference to his death in over half
its Johannine occurrences. Additionally, the mention of Jesus
disrobing foreshadows in the footwashing the humiliation connected
with laying down his life. The stark reality of nakedness presents a
clear reference to the crucifixion.
As P. G.
Ahr concludes: ‘The reference to the crucifixion is ever more
clearly present in the statement about Jesus’ nakedness: anyone
familiar with the story of Jesus’ death can grasp the reference
to the removal of clothes, and, indeed, it is the very unexpectedness
of this statement which points the reader to this reference.’9
of this serves to relate the footwashing to the death of the Lord.’10
Unusual Nature of this Footwashing
learns in John 13 that this is no ordinary footwashing. The first
indication that there is more to this footwashing than meets the eye
is the fact that it is chronologically out of place. When footwashing
occurs in the context of a meal, it precedes the meal, most often
occurring at the door of the host. However, the footwashing which
Jesus provides for the disciples interrupts rather than precedes the
The Evangelist underscores the importance of the footwashing by its
indication that this footwashing is unusual is the highly
deliberative way in which Jesus’ actions are described. Instead
of simply saying that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, John
methodically underscores the significance of Jesus’ actions by
specifically mentioning each element of the procedure.
In v. 7
Jesus himself indicates that this footwashing is no ordinary one when
he informs Peter that he will not understand the significance of this
action until ‘after these things’. Just as the disciples
are unable to comprehend other events in the Fourth Gospel fully
until after the resurrection (John 2:22 and 12:16), so Peter (and the
other disciples with him) are unable to understand the full
significance of the footwashing until after the resurrection.
to Peter’s emphatic refusal of the footwashing Jesus informs
Peter that this act is not optional and that its significance is
far-reaching: ‘If I do not wash you, you have no ‘meros’
with me.’ One of the first things the reader would see in
‘meros’ with Jesus would, no doubt, be a share in eternal
life. Not only has the prologue promised such to those who believe
(1:12), but it has also been stated that Jesus bestows eternal life
upon those who are placed in his hands (cf. 3:35-36; 6:40; 10:28-29).
The immediate referent is found in v. 3, where the reader is reminded
of Jesus’ knowledge that all things were placed in his hands by
interpretation is supported by the many New Testament texts where
‘meros’ appears in contexts which deal with issues of
eternal life and/or punishment (cf. Matthew 24:51; Revelation 20:6;
21:8; 22:19). Therefore it seems safe to assume that one idea ‘meros’
with Jesus conveys in John 13:8 is eternal life.
understanding does not exhaust the significance of ‘meros’.
The closest structural parallels to this verse, found in Matthew
24:51, Ignatius’ Epistle to Polycarp 6:1, and the
Martyrdom of Polycarp 14:2, suggest that to share a person’s
‘meros’ was to share his/her identity or destiny. Matthew
(24:51) describes the unfaithful servant as being assigned ‘a
place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing
of teeth (par. Luke 12:46).
affirming the legitimacy of ecclesiastical offices Ignatius claims:
‘Give heed to the bishop, that God may also give heed to you. I
am devoted to those who are subject to the bishop, presbyters, and
deacons; and may it be mine to have my lot with them in God. Labour
with one another, struggle together, run together, suffer together,
rest together, rise up together as God’s stewards and assessors
As part of
his last prayer, Polycarp gives thanks: ‘I bless thee, that
Thou has granted me this day and hour, that I may share, among the
number of the martyrs in the cup of thy Christ, for the Resurrection
to everlasting life, both of soul and body in the immortality of the
has cast their lot with Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, it is the
disciples. To have a share in his destiny includes not only eternal
life, but also being sent as Jesus himself was sent (4:31-38;
20:21-23), resurrection at the last day (6:40), and the hatred of the
world (15:18-16:4). Simply put, it appears that ‘meros’
here denotes continued fellowship with Jesus14,
and a place in his community which ultimately results in
uninterrupted residence in the Father’s house (14:1-14).
view of ‘meros’ dovetails neatly with 15:1-17, where
remaining in Jesus is the key to life. Without such remaining, one’s
fate is like unproductive branches which are cut off and cast out to
be burned. Consequently, the footwashing is a sign which points
beyond itself to some deeper meaning. Two things point to the
crucifixion/exaltation as essential to that deeper meaning.
qualities represented by ‘meros’ (eternal life, identity
with Jesus, sharing his destiny, mission, resurrection, and
martyrdom) are ultimately secured through Jesus’ death.
Jesus’ act of humiliation in washing the disciples’ feet
foreshadows his ultimate act of humiliation on the cross. These hints
in the narrative make it easier to understand the importance of
footwashing. By refusing the footwashing, Peter is ultimately
refusing the effects of the cross. The emphatic language of v. 8
removes all doubt concerning footwashing’s importance. Without
it Peter will have no ‘meros’ with Jesus.
as a Sign of Cleansing
doubt, the meaning of the footwashing is given in John 13:10, where
in response to Peter’s request for washings in addition to his
feet Jesus says, ‘The one who has bathed has no need to wash
except the feet but is wholly clean; and you are clean, but not all
of you.’ In order to understand the function of footwashing one
must accurately identify a) the meaning of the two verbs used to
describe a washing, b) the bath to which Jesus makes reference, and
c) the kind of cleansing which it provides.
first be noted that John appears to intend a distinction between the
two verbs ‘to bathe’ and ‘to wash’. The
former always has reference to a bath when it is found in the same
context with the latter, and is never used in extant Greek literature
to refer to a footwashing. Therefore, Jesus views the footwashing as
a supplement to or an extension of an earlier bath.
explanation, which uses these two verbs, draws upon the ancient
custom of the day. A traveller or guest would bathe at home before
leaving on a trip. During the course of the journey, dirt/dust would
become attached to the feet. Upon arrival the host would offer water
to remove that which accumulated on the way. There would be no reason
to bathe again, only to wash those parts of the body which had become
the proverbial/parabolic character of John 13:10a by pointing to a
parallel found in Seneca (Epistulae Morales LXXXVI 12): ‘It
is stated by those who reported to us the old-time ways of Rome that
the Romans washed only their arms and legs daily – because
those were the members which gathered dirt in their daily toil and
bathed all over once a week.’16
Together with the evidence mentioned earlier, this text demonstrates
the common character of the practice. The analogy is used by Jesus to
convey the deeper meaning attached to the action.
initial question is, to what is Jesus alluding when he speaks of a
complete bath that makes someone clean? For the disciples in the
narrative there is one option that seems most likely, baptism. Not
only do the first disciples come from the Baptist’s circle
(which would imply an acquaintance with and appreciation for
baptism), but Jesus (3:22) and/or his disciples (4:2) are said to
have baptized others and to have been more successful than John.
Regardless of the way in which the tension between 3:22 and 4:2 is
handled, the implication is the same. Baptisms are either performed
by Jesus or under his auspices. Whether John’s baptism, which
is of divine origin (1:33), is being exalted by the subsequent
actions of Jesus and the disciples, or his baptism is subsumed by the
later practice, the implication for 13:10 is the same. It is
extremely likely that the disciples, who baptize others, would have
experienced baptism themselves, either at the hand of Jesus or John.
readers, while familiar with baptism and its role, might be able to
discern another meaning for ‘leloumenos’. On the basis of
the post-resurrection perspective of several statements in the
narrative, the reader may suspect that the bath which cleanses has
reference to the death of Jesus. Other passages in the Johannine
literature testify to the connection between Jesus’ death and
cleansing. Owing to the special qualities of Jesus’ blood in
Johannine thought (John 6:53-56; 1 John 1:7-9; Revelation 1:5; 5:9;
19:13), as well as the remarkable usages of water in the Fourth
Gospel (every time water appears something significant takes place),
it is difficult to avoid interpreting the water and blood which come
from Jesus’ side in 19:34 as having reference to the
life-giving and cleansing qualities of his death. 1 John 1:7-9 gives
clear evidence of the connection between cleansing from sin and the
blood of Jesus: ‘But if we walk in the light as he is in the
light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his
Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we
deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins,
he is faithful and righteous to forgive us (our) sins and cleanse us
from all unrighteousness.’
be little doubt that such statements are based upon reflection about
the crucifixion of Jesus. In Revelation 7:14, one of the elders
responds to John concerning the identity of certain ones who are
dressed in white clothes: ‘These are the ones who are coming
out of the great tribulation, and have washed their clothes and made
them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ Again the cleansing
efficacy of the blood should be noted. The readers, then, might
already see the significance of ‘leloumenos’ in terms of
Jesus’ death, especially in light of ‘meta tauta’.
But it is unlikely that the cleansing through baptism and through the
blood would have been seen as mutually exclusive.17
appear then that ‘leloumenos’ most likely has reference
to baptism (and Jesus’ death). Several additional pieces of
evidence tend to corroborate this decision. One of the reasons for
this identification is the effects of the bathing. Jesus says, ‘The
one who has bathed (‘leloumenos’)…is wholly
clean.’ In early Christian literature no rite signifies
complete cleansing from sin as does baptism. Certainly, the
crucifixion is that event which accomplishes the cleansing, but it is
baptism which signifies the cleansing. The occurrence of ‘leloumenos’
fits well with such a theme.
Jesus declares that there is no reason to repeat the complete bath
one has received. Likewise, baptism is a rite which is
once-and-for-all. Additional support for this nuance is the
tense of ‘leloumenos’. In the light of the significance
of the perfect tense, which designates a past action with abiding
results, it is difficult to assign the choice of tense to
coincidence. Finally, there is some philological support for taking
‘louo’ as a reference to baptism. In several New
Testament passages ‘louo’ and its cognates are likely
references to baptism (Hebrews 10:22; Ephesians 5:26) or are closely
related to it (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5).18
Therefore, it seems likely that the readers would make the connection
between ‘leloumenos’ and baptism as most scholars
following the ancient banquet practice to its completion the deeper
meaning of the footwashing comes into view. The one who travels any
distance at all on the dusty paths in the ancient orient accumulates
dust which must be removed. If, in the analogy Jesus uses, ‘louo’
represents baptism, then it makes best sense to take the function of
the footwashing as an additional act of cleansing. Dodd concludes:
‘In xiii 10 ‘louesthai’, to take a bath, is
contrasted with ‘niptein’, to wash a part of the body.
Baptism is a bath (‘loutron’, Eph. v. 26; Tit. iii, 5).
The Christian reader is assured that having undergone the (‘loutron’
he is ‘katharos’, yet may need some kind of recurrent
one interpreter has seen in the footwashing an allusion to
forgiveness of post-baptismal sin.20
This association is due in part to the occurrence of ‘katharos’
in this verse. A cognate of this term appears in later Johannine
literature (1 John 1:7, 9) with explicit reference to forgiveness of
sin through the blood of Jesus. In addition, a multitude of ancient
texts use ‘katharos’ (and its cognates) in contexts which
describe the forgiveness of sins. The LXX [Leviticus 16:30; Psalm
18:14 (19:13); 50:4 (51:2)], and certain para-biblical literature
(Sirach 23:10; 38:10; Josephus, Antiquities XII 286; Testament
of Reuben 4:8) use ‘katharos’ in such a fashion.
Although ‘katharos’ may designate other kinds of
cleansing (cf. John 2:6), its frequent associations with forgiveness
of sin make it likely that the readers of the Fourth Gospel would
have understood ‘katharos’ to have reference to
forgiveness of sin. Thus, while sin is not explicitly mentioned in v.
10, its presence is implied. Such an interpretation fits well with
Jesus’ emphatic language in v. 8. On this view, Peter is told
that he would have no ‘meros’ with Jesus because of
(post-baptismal) sin which had not been removed by cleansing. This
meaning would become clear to Peter ‘meta tauta’.
point concerns the Book of Glory. This understanding of footwashing
fits well within the context of belief, of which chapter 13 is a
part. The disciples are not being initiated into belief in this
passage, but are continuing in their belief. Their earlier baptism,
which the community probably understood as being at the hands of John
(1:19-39) or possibly Jesus (3:22, however cf. 4:1-2), would
designate initial belief and fellowship with Jesus, while footwashing
would signify the continuance of that belief and fellowship.21
As a sign of preparation for Jesus’ departure, footwashing
signifies the disciples’ spiritual cleansing for a continuing
relationship with Jesus and taking on his mission in the world.
another point concerns evidence from the LXX which demonstrates that
footwashing could be used in a sacred/cultic way (Exodus 30:17-21;
40:30-32; 1 Kings 7:38; 2 Chronicles 4:6). For Jesus to treat
footwashing as a religious rite would not be wholly without
the efficacious nature of the washing is emphasized by the way the
footwashing ‘foreshadows the self-giving involved in Jesus’
death on the cross.’22
In the light of the preceding considerations, an identification of
footwashing with the cleansing from the sin contracted through daily
life in this world is an appropriate one. Just as a banquet guest
would bathe at home and only wash the feet at the house of the
host/hostess to remove the dust and debris accumulated on the road,
so Peter (the believer) who experiences baptism (which signifies a
complete cleansing from sin) does not need to be rebaptized, but
undergoes footwashing, which signifies the removal of sin that might
accumulate as a result of life in this sinful world. In a sense,
footwashing is an extension of baptism, for it signifies the washing
away of post-baptismal sins in Peter’s (the believer’s)
Relationship of Footwashing to the Lord’s Supper
Fourth Gospel does not make the connection of the footwashing to the
Lord’s Supper altogether clear, three things may be deduced
about the community’s practice.
of its placement in the Fourth Gospel the footwashing was probably
observed in conjunction with the eucharist. If so, it is possible
that the footwashing took place in the context of a meal (perhaps the
Agape?) together with the eucharist. It cannot be determined whether
every eucharistic celebration would involve the footwashing.
2) If the
footwashing was observed in connection with the eucharist then in all
probability it preceded the Lord’s Supper. John 13:1-30 is
certainly open to such an interpretation. Of particular relevance are
v. 12, which describes Jesus as rejoining the meal, and v. 27, which
records that the meal had been completed.
Corinthians 11: 28, Paul admonishes the Corinthian believers to
examine themselves before approaching the Lord’s Table.
According to the Didache (XIV), in some early Christian
circles a period of confession of sin preceded the eucharist: ‘1.
On the Lord’s Day of the Lord come together, break bread and
hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your
offering may be pure; 2. but let none who has a quarrel with his
fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your
sacrifice be not defiled. 3. For this is that which was spoken by the
Lord, “In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I
am a great King” saith the Lord, “and my name is
wonderful among the heathen.”’24
Johannine community’s eucharistic celebration was anything like
that described in the Didache (or allowed for a period of
self-examination), the footwashing would most easily fit at this
point, serving as the sign that confessed sin was forgiven. The
believer would then be able to sit at the Lord’s table with a
than likely the footwashing itself was carried out by all members of
the community. Such participation would accord well with the commands
of John 13:14-17 and also with the emphasis upon mutual intercession
in 1 John. Since the confession of sin may have been a public one to
the community, the brotherly intercession could well have been quite
specific in its petitions.
It is not
too difficult to envisage a footwashing of this sort in the context
of the house church of the late first century. The environment of the
home, as well as the small number of people involved, would be
conducive to such mutual confession and intercession.
first century church (as well as that of the Protestant reformers),
baptism and eucharist were regarded as having been established by
Jesus himself, as being directly related to his atoning death, and as
continuing in the worshipping community. In view of these attitudes,
several reasons may be offered in support of the classification of
footwashing as a sacrament for the Johannine community and,
consequently; for the contemporary church.
John’s account of the footwashing is examined, each of the
above characteristics are present 1) There is no question that as
portrayed in the Fourth Gospel the footwashing is instituted by
Jesus. 2) It is clear from a number of literary allusions in John’s
Gospel that the footwashing is viewed as rooted and grounded in
Jesus’ atoning death. 3) On the basis of vv. 14-17 it has been
demonstrated that footwashing is to be continued in the Johannine
community. 4) Vv. 14-17, taken as words of institution, are as
explicit in terms of perpetuation of the practice as the eucharistic
words of institution. If the Johannine community is familiar with the
synoptic traditions, the comparison between the two sets of words of
institution could hardly be missed. 5) Finally, by taking the
traditional place of the eucharist in the passion narrative, the
footwashing appears in a sacramental context There are even some
writers in the early church that use sacramental language in
describing the footwashing.25
conclusion, while there appear to me to be a number of appropriate
contexts for the religious practice of footwashing, I am personally
convinced that with regard to its relationship to the Lord’s
Supper, the Brethren tradition has gotten it just about right Since
the footwashing serves primarily as a sign of the continual
forgiveness of sins available for the believer, its observance just
before the Lord’s Supper is most appropriate.26
J. C. Thomas, Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community
(JSNTS 61; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991).
F. Hauck, ‘opheilo’, TDNT, V, p.563.
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1990), p.497-68.
J. Schultz, The Soul of the Symbols (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
L. Morris, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1971), p.621 n.36.
H. Schlier, ‘hupodeigma’ TDNT, II, p. 33.
Apollonius of Citium uses ‘hupodeigma’ on a number of
occasions with the sense of ‘illustration, (or) picture
showing how something is to be done’ (Liddell-Scott, 1818).
Cf. especially Apollonii Citiensis, In Hippocratio De Articulus
Commentarius (ed. by F. Kudlien; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1965),
pp. 38, 60-64, and 112.
H. Schlier, ‘Amen’, TDNT, I, p.338.
Brown, The Gospel according to John, II, p. 563.
G. Ahr, ‘He Loved Them to Completion?: The Theology of John
13-14’ in Standing Before God: Studies on Prayer in
Scripture and in Tradition with Essays in Honor of John M.
Oestereicher (ed. by A. Finkel and L Frizzell; New York: KTAV
Publishing House, 1981) 77. M. Hengel, Crucifixion (trans. by J.
Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971) 29 n. 21 and 87 notes
that often crucifixion victims died naked.
Brown, The Gospel according to John, II, p. 551.
Despite some strong support for ‘deipnou genomenou’
(‘when supper had ended’) ‘deipnou ginomenou’
is to be preferred as the original reading. This judgment is based
upon (1) slightly better external evidence and (2) internal
coherence, for it is obvious from the context (v. 26) that the meal
continued after the footwashing episode is complete. Cf. Metzger, A
Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, (London: United
Bible Societies, 1971), p. 239. However, either reading demonstrates
the point that Jesus washes the disciples’ feet at an unusual
Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The
Apostolic Fathers I (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press,
1912), pp. 273-75.
Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The
Apostolic Fathers I (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press,
1912), pp. 273-75.
Cf. F. F. Segovia ‘John 13:1-20, The Footwashing in the
Johannine Tradition,’ ZNW 73 (1982), p. 43, ‘an
acceptance of that which the washing symbolizes grants the disciples
continued union with Jesus.’ The context of belief, the Book
of Glory, demonstrates that the footwashing does not initiate
fellowship, but continues it.
J. Owanga-Welo, ‘The Function and Meaning of the Johannine
Passion Narrative: A Structural Approach’, (PhD dissertation,
Emory University, 1980), p. 241.
Cited according to the translation of Gummerie, Seneca:
Epistulae Morales (London:
Heinemann, 1920), II, p.
One or both of the suggested meanings for ‘leloumenos’
are the only viable options for the disciples in the narrative or
the implied readers. However, the author knows of another
possibility which the reader will encounter in 15:3. In this verse
Jesus tells the disciples, ‘Already you are clean (‘katharoi’)
because of the word which I have spoken to you.’ If it were
legitimate to take ‘leloumenos’ in 13:10 as the referent
of ‘ton logon’ in 15:3, then perhaps the difficulty
would be solved. On one occasion in the LXX (Judges 3:19), ‘logos’
does refer to a ‘prophetic’ action, when Ehud told King
Eglon that he had a ‘logos’ for him in private and then
killed the king. However, such a parallel (if it be a parallel) is
far too removed to explain 15:3. In addition, it appears that the
‘logos’ of 15:3 has reference to Jesus’ collective
teaching, not one specific event. Approaching 13:10 in the light of
15:3, Bultmann argues that cleansing comes on the basis of the
Revea1er’s word and on that basis alone. Therefore,
‘leloumenos’ is used to describe the bath in the word
which makes cleansing with water secondary at best.
one of the difficulties in explaining 13:10 on the basis of 15:3 is
the difference in context. While 13:10 speaks of cleansing from some
uncleanness or defilement, 15:3 uses cleansing in the sense of
pruning the branches in order to produce good fruit. Although there
does not seem to be sufficient evidence to demand that 13:10 must be
interpreted by means of 15:3, there may be a deeper connection
between cleansing by means of pruning and cleansing through washing.
Rather than playing 13:10 and 15:3 off against one another, the two
statements about cleansing should be allowed to speak independently,
perhaps at different levels of meaning. Perhaps C. H. Dodd offers
the best analysis through comparison with a similar dilemma found
elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel: ‘The disciples are ‘katharoi’
through washing with water: they are ‘katharoi’ also,
‘dia ton logon’. Similarly, eternal life comes by eating
the flesh and blood of the Son of Man (vi 54) and also, ‘ta
rhemata ha lelaleka humin’ are ‘zoe’ The treatment
of the two sacraments are analogous.’ So, for the evangelist,
cleansing takes place through water and the word, and both are
dependent on the cleansing effects of Jesus’ death.
As P. Grelot concludes, ‘When one gives thought to this
background, it is difficult not to see a baptismal allusion in the
declaration by Jesus…’ P. Grelot,
‘L’interpretation penitentielle du lavement des pieds’,
in L’homme devant Dieu I: mélanges offerts au père
Henri Lubac (Paris: Aubier, 1963) 86. Obviously, there
are other passages which do not equate ‘louo’ with
baptism. For example, cf. Acts 9:37 and 16:33.
C. H. Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1953), p. 401 n. 3.
B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St John (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 191; B. W. Bacon, ‘The Sacrament
of Footwashing,’ ExpT 43 (1931-32), p. 221; O.
Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (ed. A. S. Todd, J. B.
Torrance; London: SCM Press, 1953), pp. 108-10; Dodd, Interpretation
of the Fourth Gospel, p. 401 n. 3; Hauck. ‘katharos’,
TDNT III 426; A. J. B. Higgins, The Lord’s Supper in
the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1952), p. 84; W. L. Knox
‘John 13:1-30’, HTR 43 (1950) 163; G. H. C.
MacGregor, The Gospel of John (London: Harper, 1959), p. 76;
A. Maynard, ‘The Role of Peter in the Fourth Gospel’,
NTS 30 (1984), pp. 534-35; idem., The Function of Apparent
Synonyms and Ambiguous Words in the Fourth Gospel’, (PhD
dissertation, University of Southern California, 1950), pp. 329-30;
A. Oepke, ‘louo’, TDNT IV 306.
Carson (Gospel according to John, pp. 465-66) remarks, ‘In
his first epistle, addressed to Christians, to people who have
already believed (1 John 5:13) and received eternal life (2:25),
John insists that continuing confession of sin is necessary (1:9),
as is continued dependence upon Jesus Christ who is the atoning
sacrifice for our sins (2:1, 2). The thought of Jn. 13:10 is not
J. R. Michaels, John (New York: Harper &: Row, 1984), p.
227. Cf. also G. R. Beasley-Murray, John (Waco: Word, 1987),
p. 235 and DNTT, I, p.154; Brown. The Gospel According to
John, II, p. 586; Bruce, John p. 283; W. K. Grossouw, ‘A
Note on John XIII 1-3’, NovT 8 (1966), pp. 129-30.
Such an interpretation dovetails neatly with the preoccupation with
post-conversion sin in 1 John and the interpretation of footwashing
in the early church. Cf. Thomas, Footwashing in John 13 and the
Johannine Community, pp. 149-72.
Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The Apostolic
Fathers, I, p. 331.
Cf. esp. the remarks of Origen (Genesis Homily 4.2), Ambrose
(Mysteries 6.31), and Augustine (Homilies on John
Dr Ben Witherington has done me the honor of sending a
copy of his paper before the conference, which contained a critique
or my work on footwashing. I appreciate both his courtesy and the
honor of his attention. In this closing footnote I would like to
respond to the several issues he raises in fn. 84 of the draft I
1) While there is room for
disagreement on the issue of intended audience, I must confess that
I am genuinely puzzled by the argument that the Fourth Gospel was
not written primarily for the Christian community but was a
missionary document. Among other things, who would pay for its
production and distribution? 2) To argue that there is no, or
little, connection between Mary’s action in John 12 and the
footwashing in John 13 seems to ignore both the flow or John’s
narrative and the way that footwashings could be quite elaborate in
antiquity. 3) To argue that the disciples are not fully Christian
appears to ignore John’s intention of contrasting the faith of
the disciples with those who have inadequate faith. 4) To say that
footwashing signifies cleansing and forgiveness from Jesus is not to
say that believers have no role to play in signs which convey such
cleansing. While it might be fair to say that one aspect of
footwashing is passive, in that one believer receives from another,
I fail to see the significance of this dimension in that eucharist
and baptism are also rites that are received. 5) To interpret the
meaning of the practice of footwashing solely as an example of
serving others is to ignore the interpretation of the rite which is
provided in John 13 itself. Based on the relevant data, it is still
more likely that the first readers of the Fourth Gospel took John 13
as the institution of a rite of cleansing.
The shape of three Christian rituals
Three rituals closely associated with early Christian churches’ practice of Lord’s supper are the bread and cup ceremony, the feet washing service, and the kiss of peace. What do these three have in common? In the first place, they all involve material in some way – people’s physical bodies, water and towels, wine and bread. Second, each one has particular words associated with it: ‘Take and eat’, ‘If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them’, ‘The peace of Christ be with you.’ Third, certain gestures accompany the words: breaking the bread and sharing the cup, kneeling in front of people to wash their feet, exchanging a solemn embrace.
And fourth, the material, the words, and the gestures are bound up with an inward will or disposition which can direct or change lives. This transformation operates in the realm of the imagination, the inner vision. As we take part in the bread-and-cup ritual we experience and pledge ourselves to a closer following of Christ. When we kneel with a towel and a basin we empty ourselves of pride and determine anew to walk the way of Christ’s selfless service. When we take part in a general exchange of peace greetings we grasp the potential beauty of a reconciled and reconciling community where the peace of Christ truly energizes and heals. We commit ourselves to this vision.
These rituals may be relatively empty for a community which performs them in a perfunctory way, perhaps through routine or a sense of duty. The overt patterns of using material, word and gestures are the easiest things to perpetuate. It’s that fourth one, the inward disposition, which is the key to filling up a dry ritual.
A South African friend described the electric moment of seeing a father and daughter, estranged for years, meeting and greeting at ‘the Peace’. Suddenly, the perfunctory words and desultory gesture of an arid communion Service revealed the Spirit’s power to transform, to make a broken relationship whole again.
I have heard people scorn the service of feet washing as culturally repellent, irrelevant, disgusting or meaningless. But when they actually got down on their knees before their brother or sister, and did so in the spirit of Christ himself, it took on a wholly new cast.
A racially mixed church desired to hold a feet washing service. But one African-American brother protested. ‘It is not possible for me, for cultural reasons, to do this. It is too difficult, because of the history of my people, to wash the feet of a white man. Please excuse me.’ Another man, of European descent, nodded his head, hearing and accepting the pain. He said, ‘That’s all right. But will you let me wash your feet anyway?’ Neither man was prepared for the powerful effect of this ritual, for the tears that flowed, or for their new inner grasp of the Christian vision of reconciliation across the barriers of human pain.
‘The servant is not greater than the master. I have set you an example. You are blessed if you do this’ (John 13: 16-17). If we allow Jesus’ words and example to set our inner will and imagination alight, a ‘disgusting and meaningless’, apparently impossible ritual will fill up with truth and meaning, right to the brim. The ritual might draw out repentance and confession. It might call for new recognitions or reconciliation. It might show us a new step of The Way of Jesus.
And so it is with the bread and cup ceremony, too. We can get through it in a few minutes’ time, with our minds a mile away. But the Apostle Paul might say to us, ‘It is not really to eat the Lord’s supper that you come together’ (I Corinthians 11:20). Sometimes we have not just an empty ritual but an abused ritual, one which demonstrates a contradictory significance. Careless of the inequities in the church, unmoved by a lack of love, inattentive to a fragmented congregational life, we can wring an empty ritual dry, and thoroughly abuse the table which our Lord has spread for us.
Four steps in filling up an empty ritual
How do we fill up an empty ritual? We begin with a proper connection with the realities of our community’s circumstances, its inner dynamics and its outer setting.
As we saw in the stories of eucharist in a prison and in a refugee camp, the respective settings made a great difference to the manner and content of the services. Most of us aren’t in either of those situations. But we are always in some situation! Ours might be a small inner city congregation, a retirement home, or perhaps a large and successful suburban church. Wherever we are, the ritual forms and words we use in communion services need to connect with the truth of our community’s life. This may have to do with questions such as excessive mobility and turnover in membership, issues of racism, fear of local crime, bereavements, sensitivity to justice concerns, the pressures of parental responsibility, or incentives toward material prosperity. One role of the leaders of a church is to perceive and name the primary arenas of faith struggle. Through this clear insight the eucharistic ritual can be planned and led. It might become dangerously relevant. Communion Services can become blindingly full of God’s challenging life.
Second, we take up the tradition that is handed down to us. The Christian eucharist has a strong outline structure as well as flexibility to serve us in whatever situation we find ourselves. We can use Scripture, silence, song, ancient words and improvised words. We can move around, use gestures that express what words cannot say. We can use the symbols of materiality: bread and wine, water, cross, offering plate. And we can go on to use other material symbols as well, to express our thanksgiving, puzzlement, or our anguish to God. It is important to create open spaces within the ritual. Evidence from early Christian worship shows that a number of people took part in eucharistic prayers. There was room for the Spirit. There was an interplay of forms with flexibility and freedom. Many denominations have narrowed the great tradition, and in so doing have induced amnesia and have stifled spiritual imagination. The Christian eucharist tradition is rich, and awaits our fuller and more creative appropriation.
A third step is to do what Father Meienberg did in choosing Ezekiel17, the vision of dry bones brought to life, as one of his Scriptures that day in the refugee camp. We need to find the passages that genuinely speak to the circumstances of our life together. Many churches use lectionaries with suggested readings for each Sunday. These often are surprisingly apt, but there is no law against substituting or adding further Scripture readings. It takes time, thought, prayer and imagination to work in a creative way within a tradition. But it is well worth spending time over the choice of Scriptures. In doing this we feed our religious imagination through the rich Biblical materials. Metaphors, visual symbols, parables, testimonies and hymns – all will spring into place. The raw materials, words and gestures of the Biblical tradition are all available for us. But we need to keep feeding our communion rituals with the nourishment of the Bible.
Finally, we enrich and fill up the ritual by the fourth movement, getting in touch with the inner will and imagination. We engage our deepest intentions and promises when we allow the great story of God to grasp us in new ways. Pre-eminently at the communion table we retell that story of God’s creating and redeeming and liberating love. With joy we join the thanksgiving song, and find our places within the people that Jesus calls to his table fellowship. This is the work of the Holy Spirit the one who continuously encourages, enlivens, and unites us together.
(An excerpt from Eleanor Kreider, Communion Shapes Character, Scottdale: Herald, 1997, pp158-60)
By 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.
(For more information or to contact the author, e-mail email@example.com)
by Keith Graber-Miller
Although practiced by about 110 denominations in North America1,
liturgical footwashing – ‘the sacrament that almost made
it’ – remains an enigma to many modern religious
Even among practitioners, the ritual’s meaning is polyvalent at
best, or vacuous at worst, for those uncertain of its significance
for contemporary Christians, who are geographically and
chronologically removed from the bodily practices of first-century
Palestine. This essay explores how the performance of a ritual such
as footwashing can be both a reflection of a religious group’s
identity and identity-conferring. It also attempts to show how the
meaning or content of a ritual ‘remembered’ arid
interpreted more by a bodily practice (sign-act) than a text can be
altered as the practitioners’ identity changes – and how
the bodily practice itself can carry latent meanings. Even though the
structure of a ritual is relatively invariant across centuries3,
its primary meaning may undergo nuanced reinterpretation as a group’s
self-understanding changes, especially when the related rhetoric is
minimal, and the founding biblical text is ambiguous. Given its rich
history, the ‘ordinance’ of footwashing in the Mennonite
Church will serve as the vehicle for this examination.4
their inception in the 16th century, some Anabaptist
groups have practiced footwashing, either as a communal ritual –
the primary interest here – or as a hospitable practice for
visiting church leaders. However, Anabaptists, unlike Catholics and
most Protestants, never articulated a sacramental theology
explicating outer-inner relationships in rituals, ‘and thus
could never completely be at peace with their rites and
Anabaptist-Mennonites also lack any kind of coherent, consistent
liturgy. Because of persecution in the first century of Anabaptism,
the splinter groups worshiped secretly in homes, caves and cellars
and behind hedgerows.6
Frequent location moves and early deaths of church leaders hindered
the development of a liturgy – a tradition about which
sixteenth-century Anabaptists already felt ambivalent because of
their ‘againstness’ toward some of the practices of their
Catholic and reforming peers.
most Mennonites have talked about ‘symbols’ in worship,
calling the Lord’s Supper a ‘remembrance’, but they
have been uncomfortable with the thicker language of ‘sacrament’
or ‘Eucharist’. As one 1929 Mennonite text says,
Christian ordinances or ceremonies are for the Church’s
edification. They ‘bring to our remembrance the vital Christian
principles needed in Christian life and service.’7
Although not exclusive to Anabaptists, this ethical orientation in
worship, rooted in the notion of discipleship, runs throughout
While absent from some of the early Anabaptist interpretations, most
Anabaptist hymns, confessions and narrative accounts of footwashing
make reference to ethical meanings. However, differing emphases on
footwashing’s particular ethical concerns signal an alteration,
or several alterations, in self-understanding during the
denomination’s 466-year history. This essay suggests that the
development in religious meanings attached to footwashing parallels
the Mennonite Church’s general shift from a more passive,
withdrawn orientation – in Ernst Troeltsch’s classic
– to a more active engagement with their surrounding societies.
as Identity-Reflecting, Identity-Conferring
essay’s second major section addresses symbolic meanings
associated with footwashing, and attempts to trace the shifts in
Mennonite emphases from the sixteenth century to contemporary
practice. In this section, however, it is suggested that .the simple
performance of a ritual such as footwashing serves a boundary
defining function, reflecting a group’s self-identity and
conferring identity. What emerges in reviewing scattered sixteenth-
and seventeenth-century Anabaptist references to footwashing is
evidence for how the rite was used among a complex of ordinances to
intentionally differentiate Anabaptists from other Reformers and from
the Roman Church, and to link them, in their own minds, to a faithful
‘remnant’ of the apostolic Church. Here we first will
examine early Anabaptist self-understandings related to the practice
and its significance for identity, then trace briefly the history of
liturgical footwashing in the larger Christian Church.
Boundaries, Making Connections. Clearly not all
Anabaptist-Mennonite groups practiced footwashing with any
regularity, nor did those incorporating the rite practice it in the
The first extant record of an Anabaptist footwashing, which occurred
in Waldshut, South Germany, dates to 1525, the year some Anabaptist
groups made formal breaks with other Reformers. On Easter day the
newly committed Balthasar Hubmaier (1481-1528) baptized three hundred
persons out of a milk pail filled with water. On the following Monday
and Tuesday, Hubmaier baptized another seventy or eighty followers,
and then gave them ‘the bread of heaven’ and washed their
feet. ‘From this and like references to contemporary
chronicles,’ said historian Henry C. Vedder, ‘it should
seem that the practice of feetwashing in connection with the Supper
had been previously introduced at Waldshut, and was still retained.’11
Marpeck (c. 1495-1556), a mining engineer who was influential in the
Swiss and South German churches, makes more mention of footwashing in
his writings than any other early Anabaptist leader. Among his (at
least) seven references to footwashing in five tracts and letters
written between 1531 and 1547 are repeated citations of the founding
John 13 passage and admonitions to practice footwashing. Marpeck
ranks footwashing with baptism, forgiveness of sins, teaching, the
Lord’s Supper, and the laying on of hands, noting that ‘we
receive these external things through those who truly believe they
are His own and through the love of Christ.’12
Elsewhere he writes: ‘The church of Christ is standing yet on
the same foundation as the apostolic church…How can it be
asserted then that at the present time no one has authority and power
to assemble a people of Christ, baptize them into one body, and carry
out all His commands, such as baptism, communion, laying on of hands,
feet washing, teaching, admonishing, reproving, excommunication and
all that is serviceable and salutary for ... the Church.’13
remarks, found in an elaborate document titled Verantwortung, are a
response to Caspar Schwenckfeld’s Criticism (Judicium)
of the New Book of the Anabaptists, in which Schwenckfeld said
no divinely authorized church existed al that time, nor was anyone
called to organize a ‘true church’.14
Simons (c. 1496-1561), likely the best-known Anabaptist leader, makes
only two oblique references to footwashing in his voluminous
writings, and these are likely disconnected from the communal,
liturgical footwashings with which this paper is concerned. In one
tract Simons simply urges his readers to ‘wash the feet of your
beloved brethren and sisters who are come to you from a distance,
tired.’ Later he uses footwashing figuratively, saying that ‘we
must be prepared to wash the defiled feet of our human tendencies and
affections in the spiritual basin of Jesus Christ.’15
The silence on liturgical footwashing following the Lord’s
Supper is particularly striking, given Simons’ close
relationship to fellow Dutch Anabaptist leader Dietrich Philips
(1504-1568), who wrote the most extensive early treatment on the
ordinance of footwashing.
his Enchiridion (c. 1560), which is divided into three
suggestively titled sections, beginning with ‘The Origin and
Primordial Fall and Restoration of the Church’, Philips
outlines ‘The Seven Ordinances of the True Church’.
Alongside ‘evangelical separation’, the proper,
Scriptural use of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, ‘the
command of love’, and other somewhat unusually categorized
‘ordinances’ is footwashing. In a later section, we
return to Philips’ reasons ‘why Jesus instituted’
the ritual, but here want to note his concluding remarks regarding
ordinances: ‘I have now briefly pointed out and discussed what
the congregation of God is, how and by what means it is built up,
what ordinances are included, by what symbols it is portrayed, how it
may be recognized, and how distinguished from all sects; for in all
false and anti-Christian congregations these things are not found;
namely: no real new birth… no Christian washing of the feet of
the saints (John 13:5-17) in the quietness of true humility…All
these ordinances and evidences of true Christianity are found in no
anti-Christian congregations in correct form, but everywhere the
reverse and opposite, as may be clearly seen in these days, if so be
that a man has eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart…to
wants to differentiate the ‘true church’ from other
‘anti-Christian congregations’, and places footwashing
within this larger complex of identity-conferring ordinances.
Footwashing was a sociological tool in the hands of Philips and some
other Anabaptists, drawing boundaries between insiders and outsiders,
between those carrying on the memories and practices of the early
church, and the ‘unfaithful’. In modified Durkheimian
terms, the ritual was a system of ideas which represented the
Anabaptists’ relation to their society.
influence in establishing footwashing as one of the ordinances of the
Mennonite Church cannot be underestimated. None of the three European
Anabaptist-Mennonite confessions of faith written prior to the
publication of Enchiridion mentioned the ordinance of
footwashing, but twelve written afterward did include the ritual.17
It is important to recognize that, from Philips’ writings and
other extant references, it cannot be ascertained whether footwashing
remained a home ceremony, or whether it was attached to the Lord’s
Supper – although the latter may be implied by the context of
Philips’ comments. By 1588, however, Dutch Mennonites
definitely did include footwashing as a religious rite in connection
with the Supper.18
Also, a multi-stanza footwashing hymn is part of the 1564 edition of
the Ausbund, the first Anabaptist hymnal, and this would
suggest that even earlier the ritual was a communal practice in
and Subsequent Liturgical Footwashing. Whether Anabaptist
footwashing was practiced in the home or in public worship, its
inclusion was intended to identify practicing groups as members of
‘the true church’, tracing their origin back to the
biblical, apostolic Church – a church based in the teachings of
Jesus. Before examining the John 13 passage on which the ordinance is
based, and the symbolic meanings derived from it and from the bodily
practice itself, it may be helpful to take a cursory glance at the
practice in the larger Christian Church over the last twenty
bodily practice of washing another person’s feet has its
origins in the Eastern custom of hospitality, and was practiced
throughout most of the ancient world. In warm, oriental climates
cleanliness was thought necessary to avoid leprosy, and ‘what,
therefore, the health demands, religion is at hand to sanction’.20
Hebrew Scriptures speak oft this original practice of sanitary
self-cleansing (for example, Gen 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; Judg 19:21) and
of washing by a host (1 Sam 25:41), as well as the religious
requirement of ritual footwashing for priests (Exod 30:18-21,
40:30-32; 2 Chr 4:6).
references to footwashing can be found in canonized Christian
writings of the first century, including two in the Gospels –
the account of the delinquent host and gracious woman in Luke
7:36-50, and, more important for our later purposes, John 13:1-20.
The third mention of footwashing is in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, and is
explained as a qualification for a widow’s enrolment into the
care of the church – she must have ‘washed the feet of
the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good
in every way.’ Based on the 1 Timothy and John passages, most
scholars agree that footwashing was practiced at least in Ephesus and
in the Johannine community of the first century.
second- and third-century Church theologians – including
lrenaeus (120-202), Clement (‘The Disciple of Peter the
Apost1e’), Cyprian (100-158), Clement of Alexandria (c.
153-193) and Tertullian (145-100)21
– mention concepts which might imply the liturgical practice of
footwashing in their time, but these comments do not confirm the
practice. Athanasius (c. 296-373) charges bishops to wash the feet of
weak priests three times yearly following Paschal, Pentecost and
Ambrose (340-397) makes it evident the practice was used as a
postbaptismal ceremony in some areas. While not practiced in the
Roman church, some bishops and clergy washed neophytes’ feet in
Ambrose’s time, especially in Turin, Gaul, North Africa, and
‘I am simply recommending our own rite,’ says Ambrose
about footwashing. ‘I wish to follow the Roman church in
everything: but we too are not devoid of common sense.’24
Other church fathers indicating some ritual footwashing include
Augustine (354-430) and Chrysostom (347-407).25
full history of the subsequent sixteen centuries cannot be traced
here, but several sweeping remarks are merited before returning to
Anabaptist practice. By the ninth century, postbaptismal footwashing
was virtually extinct26,
but it took on new life in medieval monasteries. Benedict’s
Rule (529) made provision for communal washing for humility as well
as hospitable footwashing for visitors, and later Bernard of
Clairvaux (1090-1153) touted the sacrament in a sermon to monastics.27
Gradually the practice became used by members of the ecclesiastical
and political hierarchy for coronations of kings and emperors, and
installations of popes and other leaders. In these ceremonies, the
one about to be crowned or installed publicly washed the feet of
twelve old, usually poor lay persons or priests as a sign of
In the Church and in the courts, it gradually also became associated
with Maundy Thursday observances, celebrated by leaders washing the
feet of poor persons.29
Today footwashing remains a ‘local’ practice in both
Catholic and mainline Protestant religious communities. Where it is
practiced, the ritual usually is part of Maundy Thursday
Anabaptist leaders were likely aware of these ceremonial and monastic
footwashing practices, and perhaps also knew of the footwashing
rituals of pre-Reformation predecessor groups such as the Albigenses
and Waldenses, eleventh and twelfth century sects in southern France.
The former group practiced footwashing following the Lord’s
Supper as a response to Jesus’ example. Itinerant preachers
among the Waldenses washed each other’s feet upon arrival at
congregations as a gesture of humility and hospitality.31
some Mennonite scholars earlier suggested that the Anabaptists were
attempting to trace a line of apostolic succession back through these
‘faithful’, schismatic groups, sixteenth-century writings
would indicate instead that, on the issue of footwashing at least,
they were leaping over the previous fifteen centuries and attaching
themselves directly to the Johannine community. No doubt they were
influenced by their links with monasticism, but what was most
important for the Anabaptists practicing footwashing was rooting
themselves as a ‘true church’ in Christian Scripture.
Mennonite social memory has depended in part on the social embodiment
of this identity-conferring practice. The ritual confers and
actualizes social memory, making connections with the founding
memories of the early Christian Church and with their own founding
practice – one which they saw as distinct from other
‘outsiders’ and which linked them to the ‘true
of the direct origins of footwashing as a liturgical practice in
Anabaptist churches, marking boundaries by including the practice was
effective in distinguishing early Mennonites from other groups –
although not always in flattering ways. Historian Henry Vedder
writes: ‘In an attempt to reproduce the exact order of the New
Testament churches, there were certain to be some extravagances,
resulting from a hasty and unwise literalism.’32
Sebastian Franck (1499-1533), a South German Reformation historian,
considered the Anabaptist practice of footwashing, among others,
‘ridiculous inventions of man’.33
Although his reference is more likely to the ecclesiastical and court
hierarchies’ footwashing ceremonies, Martin Luther denounced
As is evident from other Reformers’ few scattered comments
about liturgical footwashing, not only did Mennonites use the
practice as a boundary marking their identity as the ‘true
church’, but also others saw the practice as
identity-conferring – distinguishing a kind of fanaticism or
Identity-Confusion and Footwashing Practice. Many contemporary
Mennonite congregations, uncomfortable with the cultural and
liturgical peculiarity of footwashing, have been dropping the
practice from their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Mergers
of European and North American Mennonite churches have affected the
cessation of ritual footwashing, but acculturation is likely the
primary factor. ‘As groups which have been marked by
ethnic-exclusivity, language barriers, poverty, or isolation from
others become more prosperous and more integrated into the dominant
culture, they often begin to feel embarrassed about clinging to
customs which others find peculiar,’ said one contemporary
writer, reflecting the influence of the Troeltschian school.35
surveys of precise practices are unavailable, it is known that many
Mennonite Church congregations have discontinued ritual footwashing
in the last half-century. Only a smattering of congregations in the
General Conference Mennonite Church, the second-largest Mennonite
body, practice footwashing.36
However, the second section of this essay examines the meanings
associated with footwashing where it is being practiced or has been
practiced, noting the sources of polyvalence and attempting to trace
the shift in emphasis from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.
There we leap not quite as quickly over the three centuries between
the founding of Anabaptism and the contemporary era, although
greatest attention will again be given to early and late symbolic
meanings. We return to the issue of footwashing and Mennonite
identity at the close of the essay.
Practices and Shifting Interpretations
far we have dealt primarily with the context of footwashing
and the simple performance of the ritual, avoiding discussion
of content. Here we examine interpretations of symbolic
meanings of communal footwashing, noting the ambiguity of the
Johannine passage, later understandings of Jesus’ act and its
relevance for Christian bodies, and the shift in interpretive
emphases in the Mennonite Church. Since Mennonite footwashing is
interpreted more by a bodily practice than by the text (which is
ambiguous) or the liturgical rhetoric (which is generally minimal),
it has undergone a nuanced reinterpretation, making it relevant and
meaningful for some modem Mennonites seeking to understand themselves
and their faith. With the burden on the sign-act, footwashing’s
meaning has evolved in significant ways – especially in this
century – as Mennonite identity has developed.
Ritual in Mennonite Congregations. Before moving into the texts
and interpretations, a brief outline of how the ritual is enacted in
Mennonite congregations may be helpful. Practice varies, but what is
is relatively typical and is usually associated with the twice-yearly
After the taking of the bread and the cup, church
leaders (often elders) and young people take basins and towels to
public locations around the church auditorium, and to more private
spaces in the back ante-rooms. This usually happens while the
congregation sings hymns, among which may be one of the Mennonite
Hymnal’s two footwashing hymns. Then the pastor or another
church leader reads John 13:1-17, makes a brief comment on the
passage, prays, and dismisses the congregation to .the footwashing
locations. Generally men and women separate themselves, washing only
the feet of same-sex partners.38
People pair off by nodding to each other, tapping
another on the shoulder, or asking quietly if they can wash feet with
another. Most of the ritual takes place in silence or in hushed
voices. Participants take turns at the basins. The washer stoops in
front of the other person, takes her foot in her hand, and rinses it
with the water, drying it with a towel. After both feet are washed,
the two switch positions, and the washer becomes the washee.39
After both have washed, they stand and hug, exchange a handshake or
the ‘holy kiss’40,
and say ‘God bless you’. Others, including unbaptized
children and adults, remain in the benches during this time, but are
clearly able to observe the ritual. Observation, and initial
participation with an experienced member, are the only ways the
ritual is ‘taught’.41
will be suggested here is that this bodily practice, coupled with
some text and rhetoric and with modem Mennonite practitioners’
self-understanding, projects a trajectory of meaning slightly
different from that of earlier Anabaptists.
in the Institution. While the scope of this paper does not allow
for a full exegetical analysis of the footwashing ‘institution’
passage in John 13:1-2042,
a survey of interpretations is necessary. It is noteworthy, first of
all, that no account of footwashing is included with the Corinthian
or synoptic Gospels’ narrative accounts of the Lord’s
Supper. Nor, inexplicably, is the institution of the Supper included
in the Johannine passage. This lack of a consistent textual witness
is among the reasons for ambivalence about the literal practice of
footwashing, both within the Mennonite Church and among other
most scholars believe the John 13 passage itself represents a
combination of two different Johannine traditions. ‘Verses
14-11 state explicitly that what Jesus did in washing the feet of his
disciples was an example of self-sacrificing humility to be imitated
by them,’ said Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown. He
continues: ‘Yet there are difficulties. Verses 6-10 indicate
that what Jesus has done in the footwashing is essential if the
disciples are to gain a heritage with him (v. 8) and apparently this
action cleanses them of sin (10)…Moreover, there is a lack of
harmony in the narrative: v.7 states that understanding will come
only afterwards, i.e., seemingly, after the resurrection; but vv.12
and 17 imply that understanding is possible now, as it should have
been if only an example of humility were involved.’43
at least two quite different interpretations are possible: the need
for regular spiritual cleansing, and the admonition to be humble.
Also, one is left with the difficulty as to whether the act’s
meaning was to be apparent then (the call for humility) or whether
understanding would come only later.
a provocative reconstruction of the passage, Oscar Cullmann suggests
that the footwashing refers both to baptism and the Eucharist.44
In religious history, water is usually symbolically associated with
spiritual cleansing or, in Christian contexts, baptism.
Ambrose, footwashing was linked with the baptism of neophytes as a
‘special help of sanctification’, even though ‘in
baptism all guilt is washed away’.45
Led by Augustine, many Latin writers since the fourth century,
including a few modern Roman Catholic scholars, see a reference to
penance in verse 10: ‘The one who has bathed does not need to
wash, except for his feet.’46
footwashing practice among the ecclesiastical and political
hierarchy, and in Benedictine monasticism, the ‘humility’
strand is the most obvious one. With the exception of Cullmann and
one or two other scholars, most modern commentators see no
sacramental significance in the footwashing, but consider it a
‘lesson in humility’.47
These commentators usually believe the footwashing story and Jesus’
injunction to ‘wash one another’s feet’ is to be
taken figuratively rather than literally.
the Mennonite Church, several scholars recently have offered other
creative interpretations of the footwashing story. Arland J. Hultgren
focuses on the original use of manual ablutions as an act of
hospitality, and considers it ‘a symbolic act of eschatological
hospitality’ – Jesus was receiving the disciples into the
place where he was going.48
Herold Weiss sees the Johannine community’s footwashing as a
preparation for the martyrdom members were willing to face, analogous
to the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary.49
Using hermeneutical presuppositions of Paul Ricoeur and H-G Gadamer,
Sandra M. Schneiders views the footwashing as a prophetic action
distinguishing ‘the community which Jesus calls into existence
from the power structures so universal in human society’
through ‘the love of friendship expressing itself in joyful
mutual service for which rank is irrelevant.’50
We return to Schneiders’ work in the following section.
in Mennonite Emphases. As should be clear from the various
interpretations, footwashing’s founding passage is ambiguous,
and that ambiguity is significant since it leaves practitioners with
the burden of ‘remembering’ without any certainty as to
what is remembered. No Mennonite scholarly journals in this century
devote an article-length treatment to the Johannine narrative, nor to
the practice of footwashing, leading one observer to remark that the
ritual has ‘suffered from mental neglect’.51
Some interpretive texts, confessions and hymns are available,
however, and these evidence the shift in Mennonite interpretations.
We will note the available Anabaptist-Mennonite texts, weaving into
the comments a discussion of the bodily practice itself. The
sign-act, it seems, serves in part as a vehicle for the ‘memories’
associated with footwashing today.
addition to the previously examined emphasis on practicing
footwashing simply because it was ‘instituted’ by Jesus,
and was a mark of the ‘true Church’, most Mennonite
writings have attached symbolic meanings to the ritual.52
These meanings, as has been mentioned, are generally ethical in
nature – for example, humility, discipleship, reconciliation,
fellowship and service – but some are also theological –
that is, cleansing. Of greatest interest here is that what is
commonly ‘remembered’ in Mennonite footwashing during
this century is more closely related to active service than to
the previous stresses on passive cleansing (purification) or
equally passive humility. This is a nuanced shift away from
agent-centeredness in the ritual and toward other- or
act-centeredness. This reflects the denomination’s
twentieth-century movement toward engagement with its world rather
than withdrawal into pure communities.
Enchiridion, Dietrich Philips presents two reasons why ‘Jesus
Christ commanded his disciples to observe’ footwashing: so that
followers would recognize the need for Christ’s inner
cleansing, and so they would humble themselves toward one another.53
These, obviously, were the two primary available interpretations,
both in the Johannine text and in scattered sixteenth-century
practices in the Roman Church and schismatic sects. Later Mennonite
confessions, which built partly on Philips’ text, echoed
similar themes. Nine of the twelve relevant European Mennonite
confessions written between 1577 and 1874 offered some interpretation
of the ritual. Of these, the dominant emphasis in four confessions
was on hospitable rather than communal washing. In the remaining five
confessions, which dealt with liturgical washing, two emphasized
humility, one stressed humility and sanctification, and one
emphasized equality. Secondary emphases in two of the
confessions included servitude.54
The Dordrecht Confession of 1632, which greatly influenced North
American Mennonitism, stressed both sanctification and humility.
How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton says groups will
entrust to bodily automatisms the values and categories they are most
anxious to conserve, knowing ‘how well the past can be kept in
mind by a habitual memory sedimented in the body’.55
While here Connerton is referring to day-to-day bodily practices
rather than commemorative rituals, his understanding of memory being
passed on in non-textual and non-cognitive ways is applicable for
Mennonite footwashing ceremonies. In its communal form, even with
texts referring to sanctification, Mennonite footwashing has
different meaning from early Christian initiation rites.
initial Mennonite interpretations of the ritual included references
to sanctification and cleansing – and, to a lesser degree, some
contemporary interpretations still do so because of the influence of
the Dordrecht Confession56
– such a meaning makes less sense in Mennonite practice. In the
early Christian Church’s footwashing rites, bishops washed the
feet of neophytes. Because of the hierarchy’s apostolic
continuity, the notion of Christ’s continual cleansing made
sense in the ritual. In the Mennonite Church, with one lay member
washing another lay member’ feet, such an interpretation –
even if in the text – makes considerably less sense, since
members have no calling to ‘perform’ inner cleansing on
another. Likewise, removed from the dusty climate of Palestine and
generally provided with closed shoes, twentieth century worshipers
aren’t accustomed to washing their feet as they move from place
to place, so the notion of having feet cleansed seems less relevant.
medieval and later coronations and political celebrations, humility
was dramatized in the ceremony as one of superior rank washed the
feet of poor priests or subjects. As has been suggested,
agent-centered humility also was historically the primary thrust of
the Mennonite ritual. In Mennonite communities, the commemorative
ritual of footwashing was a reminder of the group’s identity as
a humble people.57
However, because of the already egalitarian nature of Mennonite
social structures, the corporate ceremony was perhaps less
dramatically a symbol of humility than it may have been for other
persons or groups. The ritual’s symbolic meaning was not
radically discontinuous with existing relationships among washers and
washees, as it was for kings and princes.
bodily practice of stooping, touching the feet of another, and
kneeling before another, continues to indicate a kind of passive
humbling of oneself. In this century the theme humility often still
is present in Mennonite references to footwashing, but increasingly
the more act- and other-centered term ‘service’ has been
used. Although not a Mennonite, Sandra Schneiders’
interpretation of John 13 illuminates changing Mennonite
understandings. Schneiders notes that what Jesus does in the passage
is an act of serving, but then she calls for a phenomenology of
service. Here she delineates three models: one person serving another
because of some right or power the latter possesses; or because of
some perceived need in the latter which the former has the power to
meet; or for mutual service in friendship.58
The final model is the only egalitarian one, whereas the other two
continue systems of power or domination. It also most nearly
resembles the Mennonite sign-act of footwashing, and is in contrast
to some traditional ecclesiastical and political models. The
Mennonite bodily practice itself has carried with it not only the
sense of humbling oneself, but humbling oneself for mutual service to
better represented Mennonite identity during the sixteenth to
nineteenth centuries, when Mennonites were sometimes known as the
‘quiet in the land’. Within the last one hundred years,
Mennonite mission organizations have proliferated, giving Mennonite
congregations a greater awareness of the world in which they live.
Recent Mennonite self-interpretations acknowledge this identity: ‘As
a distinctive community created and sustained by God’s grace,
the Church is called “out of the world” in order to carry
out a missionary and servant ministry “in the world”.’59
in Mennonite articles or text chapters about service, footwashing is
alluded to, at least in a figurative sense. In a Mennonite
Quarterly Review issue recognizing the fiftieth anniversary of
Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonites’ largest relief
organization, Peter J. Dyck writes: ‘Matthew states that Jesus
“came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28),
which was clearly borne out by his life and teaching, symbolized by
the washing of the disciples’ feet and supremely dramatized on
the cross. Neither the washing of the feet nor the cross was a mere
object lesson in humility; they were powerful demonstrations of how
God works in history.’60
The Politics of Jesus, Mennonite, theologian John H. Yoder
attaches footwashing directly with servanthood, concluding by saying
there is ‘but one realm in which the concept of imitation
holds…servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs
Another text used in introductory courses in Mennonite colleges
similarly links footwashing with service.62
significant is the fact that two recent Mennonite texts –
designed for persons about to become newly baptized Mennonite Church
members – stress the service aspect of footwashing. One
instructional book emphasizes servanthood in the symbol, but makes a
secondary, passing reference to cleansing. By the time of the 1980s
manual, service is the only symbolic meaning associated with the,
Another 1971 booklet titled ‘What Mennonites Believe’
says: ‘This ceremony is still a powerful object lesson today of
equality and servanthood in a world where people have largely
forgotten to serve each other.’64
we have turned to numerous ‘texts’ in this passage, it
should be restated that these are intended to provide background for
Mennonite self-understanding, especially as that identity relates to
footwashing. During the ritual itself, rhetoric – other than
the ambiguous Johannine passage – is minimal. The only other
‘text’ used during some Mennonite footwashing services is
the Mennonite Hymnal.65
Both available hymns, ‘Extol the Love of Christ’ and
‘Love Consecrates the Humblest Act’ highlight service.
The latter’s final verse says:
Love serves, yet willing stoops to serve,
What Christ in love so true,
Hath freely done for one and all,
Shall we not gladly do?
such prods toward thinking about service, the identity
predispositions of modern Mennonites, and the bodily practice itself,
footwashing becomes an act- and other-centered ritual, symbolizing
the participants’ willingness to serve human needs.
and Future Research Directions
sign-act of footwashing, symbolizing something slightly different in
early Anabaptist history, has carried with it latent meanings which
allow it to represent the altered identity of twentieth-century
Mennonites. While the ritual has remained relatively invariant, the
practice allows for a shift in symbolic meaning. As Mennonites have
encountered modernity and moved out of contained communities, their
has changed. As a denomination, the Church is considerably less
passive than it was a century ago. Congregations often are actively
engaged in social service, political action and mission work.
Ironically, the ancient practice of footwashing continues to reflect
and form the denomination’s identity, although not in the
polemical manner it did in the sixteenth century. As Mennonite
self-understanding has changed, so have interpretations of
thorough research is needed on specific meanings of ‘service’
within the denomination. An unexplained transformation in symbolic
meanings associated with footwashing is the broadened understanding
of whom is to be served. Footwashing descriptions within the last
several decades moved its other-centeredness beyond the egalitarian
but narrow church fellowship and spoke, instead, of meeting human
needs. This is consistent with Mennonite mission/service
understandings, but is not as clearly present in the bodily practice
itself. Also, more analysis of practitioners’ perceptions is
needed. This is especially necessary given the dramatic decrease in
congregations practicing the ritual since 1965.67
Since footwashing’s symbo1ic flexibility has allowed for
reinterpretation alongside this century’s Mennonite identity
reinterpretations, it may be a sign-act meriting greater attention
The reference to the 110 denominations practicing footwashing is
from Thomas W. Goodhue, ‘Do We Have to Lose Our Uniqueness
When We Merge?’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 22:1
(Winter 1985) 127-30.
The phrase ‘the sacrament that almost made it’ is from
Robert M. Herhold, ‘Footwashing and Last things’,
Christian Century, 100:7 (9 March 1983) 205.
Paul Connerton says that in comparison with myths, the structure
of rituals has significantly less potential for variance. This is
true regarding the structure of footwashing in Mennonite churches,
although meanings have changed. See Connerton’s How
Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)
Under the larger umbrella ‘Mennonites’ are more than 20
sects or denominations. The most sectarian of these are the
Hutterites and Amish. In 19th and 10th century references here, the
religious body discussed is the Mennonite Church (formerly known as
Old Mennonites), the largest and likely the second-most ‘liberal’
of the Anabaptist groups. In North America, the Mennonite Church now
numbers 102,296 members (baptized adults) in 1,145 congregations.
Worldwide, 154,439 persons are members of the Mennonite Church.
Statistics from Table 5 in James B. Horsch, editor, Mennonite
Yearbook & Directory, 1991 (Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing
House 1990) 200.
Dennis D. Martin, ‘Catholic Spirituality and Anabaptist and
Mennonite Discipleship," Mennonite Quarterly Review,
62:1 (January 1988) 11. In this article, Martin seeks to show the
similarities between Catholic and Mennonite spirituality and
discipleship. Sixteenth-century Anabaptism also has a clear
inner-centeredness, but the fact ‘that the external sacraments
and liturgical worship could be filled with inner, dynamic Spirit
has for the most part escaped Mennonite awareness, even while
informing Mennonite intuitions.’
Paul M. Miller, ‘Worship Among the Early Anabaptists’,
Mennonite Quarterly Review, 30:4 (October 1956) 235.
Daniel Kauffman (ed.), Doctrines of the Bible (Scottdale:
Mennonite Publishing House, 1919) 378. For a related orientation in
Judaism, see Max Kadushin, Worship and Ethics: A Study in
Rabbinic Judaism (Evanston: Northwestern University Press,
On discipleship, see J. Denny Weaver, ‘Discipleship Redefined:
Four Sixteenth Century Anabaptists’, Mennonite Quarterly
Review, 54:4 (October 1980) 255-79.
See Ernst Troeltsch, Social Teachings of the Christian Churches
(New York: Macmillan, 1949), and the later work of H. Richard
Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York:
Although some historical records were not available at the time, the
most complete documentation of early Anabaptist practice and
writings regarding footwashing is in a thesis by Clarence R.
Hiebert. See his ‘The History of the Ordinance of Feet-Washing
in the Mennonite Churches with a Survey of the Pre-Reformation
Evidences of this Practice’, unpublished B.S.T. thesis at The
Biblical Seminary of New York (April 1954). See especially pp. 47-56
for his accounts of early writings The fact that not all Anabaptist
groups practiced footwashing is in contradiction to William Gay’s
undocumented – and incorrect – assertion that among
Anabaptists footwashing was practiced ‘almost universally at
one time or another’. See ‘The Origin and Historical
Practice of Footwashing as a Religious Rile in the Christian
Church’, unpublished M.A. thesis at Columbia University under
the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary, New York (1947) 63.
Henry C. Vedder, Balthasar Hubmaier, The Leader of the
Anabaptists (New York: The AMS Press, 1971), 112.
William Klassen and Waiter Klassen, trans. and eds., The Writings
of Pilgram Marpeck (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1978) 318. Other
references to footwashing are on pp. 51, 79, 98, 264-65, 340,
453-54. As did other early Anabaptists, Marpeck encouraged
footwashing largely because it was a ‘command of the Lord’.
However, in his later work Marpeck a1so stresses the service
aspect of footwashing to a greater extent than his contemporaries
(pp. 453-54), although his sense of the term ‘service’
is too broad to contribute to this study. Also, on Marpeck and
footwashing, see especially pp. 250-51 of J. C. Wenger, ‘The
Theology of Pilgram Marpeck’, Mennonite Quarterly Review,
12:4 (October 1938) 204-56.
John Horsch, Mennonites in Europe (Scottdale: Mennonite
Publishing House, 1971), 136.
J. C. Wenger, ed., The Complete Writings of Menno Simons
(Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956) 417, 1063.
George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal (eds.), Spiritual and
Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957)
254-55. Although first published in Dutch, Enchiridion has
been translated into German, French and English in about l5
different editions. The text is still popular with the Amish because
of its rigid teaching on the ban and avoidance. See Hiebert, 52.
Hiebert, 54, 58. It should also be noted that six Post-Enchiridion
confessions did not make reference to footwashing; Among other
reasons, Hiebert says this may be because the teaching was never
universally accepted among Mennonites, and because some of the
confessions were written for conciliatory purposes, and therefore
wouldn't have inc1uded ‘questionable’ doctrines.
J. C. Wenger (ed.), Introduction to Theology (Scottdale:
Herald Press, 1966) 230. See also Christian Neff, ‘Fusswaschung’,
Mennonitisches Lexicon, edited by Christian Hege and
Christian Neff (Frankfurt-am-Main und Weierhof: Friedrich-Mahren
The Ausbund is still used by the Amish Church. One modern
reprint which includes two footwashing hymns, including a 25-stanza
one found on pp. 692-700, is Ausbund, Das ist: Etliche schone
Christliche Lieder (Amsterdam: Frits Knuf; Niewkoop, B. de Graaf,
John McClintock and James Strong, editors, Cyclopaedia of
Biblical Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. 3
(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969) 615. The best encyclopaedic
resource on footwashing is G. A. Frank Knight, ‘Feet-Washing’,
Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 5, edited by James
Hastings (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1912) 814-23.
These writings are in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo: Christian
Literature Publishing Co., 1885). On Irenaeus, vol. 1, p. 493;
Clement, vol. 8; p. 62; Cyprian, vol. 5, pp. 283, 545; Clement of
Alexandria, vol. 2, p. 435; and Tertullian, vol. 3, pp. 98, 47. The
second Tertullian reference is more likely to handwashing. On
handwashing, see also Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy
(New York: Seabury, 1983) 124-25.
Cited in Hiebert, 19. Athanasius of Alexandria, Canons, The
Arabic and Coptic Versions, edited and translated by Wilhelm
Riedel and W. E. Crum (London: Williams & Norgate 1904) 43.
.J Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rite of Initiation:
Baptismal Homilies of the Fourth Century (Slough, Great Britain:
St Paul Publications, 1971) 37.
For Augustine’s writings, see Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers, vol. 1, First Series (New York: Charles Scribners’
Sons, 1903) 314, and his more extensive treatment of John’s
Gospel in the same series: vol.7, pp. 300-07. For Chrysostom’s
less definitive but relevant writings, see Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers, vol. 14, pp. 256-62.
The 48th canon of the Synod of Elvira (306) in Spain forbids the
practice of footwashing following baptism. Knight, p. 816. Oddly
enough, the 17th Synod of Toledo (694) in Spain said ‘washing
of feet at the feast of Coena Domini which has fallen into
disuse in some places must be observed everywhere.’ Hiebert,
Hiebert, 24, 27-30.
The term ‘Maundy’ is most likely derived from the Middle
English maundee which is from Old French mandé
and that from the Latin mandatum, ‘a command’ (Jn
13:34). Less likely is the suggestion that ‘Maundy’
stems from the French maundier (‘to beg’:
‘mendicant’ – a beggar), which would make the day
‘the poor people’s Thursday’. Knight, 818.
On contemporary Maundy Thursday services, see R. F. Buxton, ‘Maundy
Thursday’, The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and
Worship, ed. by J. C. Davies (Philadelphia: The Westminster
Press, 1986) 366-67.
Cited in Hiebert, 50. On Franck and Heinrich Bullinger’s
criticism of Anabaptist practices, see also E. Belfort Bax, Rise
and Fall of the Anabaptists (New York: American Scholar
Publications, Inc., 1966) 31-13. Another later historical reference
to the ‘rigid anabaptists’ who ‘wash the feet of
their guests as a token of brotherly love and affection’ is in
John Lawrence Mosheim, An Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and
Modern, From the Birth of Christ, to the Beginning of the Present
Century, in Which the Rise, Progress, and Variations of Church Power
Are Considered in Connection with the State of Learning and the
Political History of Europe, During That Period, vol. 3 (New York:
Evert Duyckinck, Collins &: Hannay 1824) 344-45.
For Luther, the ceremony was one ‘in which the superior washes
the feet of his inferior, who, the ceremony over, will have to act
all the more humbly towards him, while Christ had made it an emblem
of true humility and abnegation…If you wish to wash your
neighbour’s feet, see that your heart is really humble, and
help every one in becoming better.’ From Samtliche Schriften,
pt. xiii (Magdeburg 1743) col. 680, as cited in Knight, 821.
The relevance of mentioning the General Conference Mennonite Church
in this context is that the two largest Mennonite denominations are
considering a merger. The GCMC has not historically emphasized
footwashing, while the Mennonite Church in North America has sought
to retain the practice. This potential merger was the impetus for
Goodhue’s article, ‘Do We Have to Lose Our Uniqueness
When We Merge?’
The description here is mine, based on footwashing experiences in
several Mennonite congregations, but other similar descriptions can
be found in Haro1d S. Bender, ‘Footwashing’, Mennonite
Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing House
1955) 347, and Hiebert 87-88. Hiebert’s description is from a
1952 Mennonite Minister’s Manual. In some conferences
(Franconia Conference, especially) and congregations, footwashing is
attached to the preparatory service the day before communion.
It has happened, but only rarely, that men and women have washed
each other’s feet in Mennonite liturgical footwashing. In some
settings, members are admonished not to choose their partners,
apparently washing with the closest same-sex person near them.
Daniel J. Graber, ‘The History of the Ordinance of Feetwashing
as Observed by the Mennonites’, unpublished paper at Mennonite
Biblical Seminary in Chicago (1952), 15. For an argument supporting
women in inclusion in Roman Catholic Maundy Thursday celebrations,
see Peter Jeffery, ‘Mandatum Novum Do Vobis: Toward a Renewal
of the Holy Thursday Footwashing Rite’, Worship, 64:2
(March 1990) 107-41.
While footwashing is usually done in pairs, sometimes row-washing is
done instead, says Bender, 347. In row-washing, ‘each person
washes the feet of his right-hand neighbour in turn in a continuous
Because of the limited scope of this essay, I unfortunately will not
be able to give attention to the holy kiss in the footwashing
This ‘teaching’ could be the subject of a more extensive
treatment, but cannot be developed here. The point is the contrast
between this method of learning the practice and that in some other
contemporary settings, where footwashing is being introduced. For
example, a 1991 Maundy Thursday chapel service at Candler School of
Theology in Atlanta featured a bulletin with details about when
one’s footwear should be removed and replaced, when and how
one washed and dried another’s feet, and when one should be
A recent, thorough, technical analysis of the passage is Jean
Owanga-Welo’s ‘The Function and Meaning of Footwashing
in the Johannine Passion Narrative: A Structural Approach’,
unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, Atlanta (1980).
Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Garden City:
Doubleday, 1970) 558.
Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (London: SCM Press,
1953) 46-55, 105-10. Cullmann speaks at length about the Fourth
Gospel’s emphasis on ‘remembering’ as remembering
not just facts, but the Holy Spirit’s granting of
understanding of those facts. Cullmann suggests that in baptism the
individual receives once-for-all part with Christ, and in the
Eucharist the community receives part and that again and again. In
John 13, the writer is focusing on the ‘fellowship of love’
dimension of the Eucharist, whereas in chapter 2 he brought out the
atoning death of Christ and in chapter 6 the lifegiving,
resurrecting power of the Lord’s Supper.
Brown, 559. This is a disputed clause, and its inclusion or
exclusion greatly colors possible interpretations. A recent study
arguing for the clause’s inclusion is John Christopher Thomas,
‘A Note on the Text of John 13:l0’, Novum
Testamentum, 29:1 January 1987) 46-52.
Herold Weiss, ‘Footwashing in the Johannine Community’,
Novum Testamentum, 21 (October 1979) 299. Brown suggests,
contrarily, ‘where footwashing has been a part of the liturgy,
it has generally been understood as sacramental rather than as a
sacrament, understood, that is, as a sacred rite of lesser
importance.’ Brown, 558.
Arland J. Hultgren, ‘The Johannine Footwashing (I3:1-11) as a
Symbol of Eschatological Hospitality’, New Testament
Studies, 28:4 (October 1982) 539-46.
Sandra M. Schneiders, ‘The Foot Washing (John 13: l-20): An
Experiment in Hermeneutics’, The Catholic Biblical
Quarterly, .43:1 January (1981) 76-92.
Goodhue, 129. Denominational exceptions to the scholarly silence
about footwashing are the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and the
Church of the Brethren.
During the Mennonite Church’s early Fundamentalist period in
the first half of this century, it would seem that the injunction to
wash one another’s feet was the primary reason for
footwashing, regardless of what symbolic meanings might have been
attached to the ritual. Evidence for this are two tracts written
between 1900 and 1910: A.S., ‘Feet-Washing’, tract no.
44 (Elkhart: Mennonite Publishing Co.), and E. J. Berkey, ‘Is
Feet Washing a Command?’ tract no. 47 (Scottdale: Mennonite
Publishing House). These tracts are available from the Mennonite
Historical Library, Goshen (Ind.) College.
Williams and Mergal, 244-45.
See Hiebert’s synopsis of these confessions, pp. 57-61. In
North America, the most influential of these confessions is the
Dordrecht Confession written by Dutch Anabaptists in 1632, which
emphasized both humility and sanctification in the footwashing
ceremony. The Confession is reprinted in full in Wenger,
Introduction, 375-85. See also Gerald C. Studer, ‘The
Dordrecht Confession of Faith, 1632-1982’, Mennonite
Quarterly Review, 58:4 (October 1984), 503-19.
I would suggest that had it not been for Philips’ Enchiridion
and the later, influential Dordrecht Confession, the theme of
sanctification or cleansing would have dropped out completely from
Mennonite understandings of footwashing. A germ of the idea is in
the John 13 passage, but it is clearly overshadowed by the alternate
themes of humility or, now, service in the
Schneiders, 81, 84-87.
The statement is from Marlin Miller, ‘The Church in the World:
A Mennonite Perspective’, The Covenant Quarterly, 41:3
(August 1983), 50. Miller i president of Associated Mennonite
Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana, and one of the Mennonite
Church’ main theologians. His remark is from the 1979-81
dialogue meetings between Lutheran and Conservative/Evangelical
P. J. Dyck, ‘ Theology of Service’, Mennonite
Quarterly Review 44:3 (July 1970), 263.
John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1971) 122, 126, 134. On p. 126, Yoder draws the parallel between
John 13 and the post-Supper conversation in Luke 11:14-27, which
Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Scottdale:
Herald Press, 1978) 291-96. ‘Footwashing is not the most
pleasant task’, Kraybill writes. ‘It means bending over
and looking down to the bottom of the person. The bending over
symbolizes humble and obedient service…’
Paul Erb, We Believe (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1969), 55-59.
Bruce Yoder, Choose Life (Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing
House, 1984) 99-101.
J. C. Wenger, What Mennonites Believe (Scottdale:
Herald Press, 1977), 38.
The Mennonite Hymnal (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1969) 410,
411. Two other liturgical resources (on footwashing) among the
limited ones available in the Mennonite Church are: Edwin W. Epp,
Henry V. Friesen and Henry Peters, The Celebration of the Lord’s
Supper (Newton: Faith and Life Press, 1979); and Heinz and
Dorothea Janzen, (eds.), Minister’s Manual (Newton:
Faith and Life Press, 1983). These were both joint projects
published by the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite
Church. The former contains two paragraphs on footwashing, and the
latter a page. Both mention cleansing and service as themes. In my
experience, the resources are rarely used in footwashing ceremonies.
I recognize that, sociologically, I have been assuming far too much
by speaking of modern Mennonites as though their primary Identity
were still in their denominational affiliation. For many Mennonites,
this is not so. However, to the extent that Mennonitism remains
ethnically and culturally as well as religiously defined (and this
is true for some congregations), ‘being Mennonite’ is
identity-establishing. In any event, my intent here is to speak more
about the denomination’s identity.
One possible avenue for exploration would be the possibility that
the Mennonite Church is corporately going through James Fowler’s
fourth faith stage (‘Individuative-reflective faith’) –
a critique of religious symbols, and a questioning of traditional
authorities and foundations. This explanation could have something
to do with the decrease in the practice of footwashing. As one
Mennonite voluntary service worker put it, ‘Why should we
practice this ritual? Service is what we’re doing everyday.’
If the collective church were moved to Fowler’s fifth stage
(‘Conjunctive faith’) – which resembles Ricoeur’s
second naiveté – meaning may return to footwashing’s
bodily enactment of service in worship. See James W. Fowler, Stages
of Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).
by Vernard Eller
In the Gospels we are told of two kingdoms, each represented by its king. These two come into a confrontation that focuses upon their respective basins. The issue between them centres on freedom, power, and security; and thus the incident can speak to us in our world of military madness.
The kingdoms are ‘the kingdom of God’ on the one hand, and ‘the kingdom of this world’ on the other. The respective kings are Jesus and Pilate. Of course, Pilate was only a military governor and thus a deputy of the actual king, Caesar. Yet just so, Jesus claimed to have been anointed (deputized) by the one for whom the kingdom of God is named; so the parallel is closer than we might think. In any case, in their confrontation, each filled the function of king.
In the context of a dispute among the disciples, the Gospel of Mark has King Jesus defining the difference between the two kingdoms some days before the confrontation itself takes place:
"You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great men make them feel the weight of authority. That is not the way with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many."
Jesus, of course, here has spotted the world just exactly right; and Pilate well fills the bill as a ‘recognized ruler’. He had a reputation for handing down cruel and arbitrary decrees. He had made efforts to suppress the worship of the Jews and desecrate their holy places. In consequence, he had to put down insurrections and had proved wholly competent in doing so. He had the POWER to lord it over his subjects and make them feel the weight of his authority. This gained him the FREEDOM to have things pretty much his own way. And his way was to maintain rather tight SECURITY regarding his own position and that of the Empire.
Jesus, then, proceeds to describe his own kingdom in completely different terms: ‘This is not the way with you’. The principles of his regime are serving rather than being served, the giving up of one’s life, being a willing slave of all. There’s nothing here of POWER. FREEDOM is nonexistent (unless one chooses to credit the word ‘a willing slave of all’ – and some freedom that!). And SECURITY…?
Jesus’ statement makes it plain that, in his kingdom, the behaviour of the citizenry is to be modelled after that of their head. Perhaps it goes without saying that the principle holds in Pilate’s kingdom as well: people are out after all the freedom, power, and security they can get; the king is the one who has best succeeded and so takes it upon himself to administer these things for the rest.
The lines are drawn; and the advantage is on Pilate’s side all the way!
On the way to the great Kingdom Confrontation, Jesus took up the basin that was to signify and demonstrate the quality of his Kingship: "Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash his disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel" (John 13:5).
Now things were getting serious. Earlier, all Jesus had done was say words; here he is doing them. Washing feet was the most menial of services; in fact, it was slave labour, nothing else. Peter knew this and made the proper response: ‘I will never let you wash my feet. That is no way for a king to act; so get off your knees and quit making a fool of yourself and of us. Kingdoms are not built that way.’
But Jesus did wash the feet of Peter and the others. And then he said, ‘You call me “Master” and “Lord”, and rightly so.’ He was not about to let his action be taken as a denial of his kingly status and authority. Further, he said, ‘I have set you an example; you are to do as I have done for you.’ The way of the king is meant to be followed.
John’s is, of course, the only Gospel to describe the basin and feetwashing. However, in Luke’s account of the Lord’s supper, there is a passage which can be understood as nothing other than a verbal equivalent. It shows some relationship to our earlier text from Mark but is different enough to command separate consideration:
"Then a jealous dispute broke out: who among them should rank highest? But he said, ‘In the world kings lord it over their subjects: and those in authority are called their country’s “Benefactors”. Not so with you: on the contrary, the highest among you must bear himself like the youngest, the chief of you like a servant. For who is greater – the one who sits at table or the servant who waits on him? Surely the one who sits at table. Yet here am I among you like a servant. You are the men who have stood firmly by me in my times of trial; and now I vest in you the kingship which my Father vested in me; you shall eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luke 22:24-30).
This kingdom of Jesus is not only different; it’s just plain weird: ‘In the world, kings lord it (naturally)…Not so with you (obviously)…I am among you like a slave (washing feet)…And now (not then; now on my knees) I vest in you the KINGSHIP which my Father vested in me.’ Weird is the only word for it.
As we move to the confrontation that entails Pilate’s basin, we are going to be free to pick and choose verses from several of the Gospels. We are not claiming, thus, to be doing an historical reconstruction; we are doing a theological construction.
Thursday, with its basin, was Jesus’ day. Friday, with its, was Pilate’s. And as Jesus was arrested and tried, Luke tells us: ‘That same day Herod and Pilate became friends; till then there had been a standing feud between them’ (23:12). The character of worldly regiment is inevitably marked by feuding. But Jesus’ kingdom is radically at odds with the world’s. So the worldly kingdom is quick to overlook its own differences in order to oppose his. Such is the cruciality of this confrontation.
As much as Jesus is willing to say to Pilate is: ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world. If it did, my followers would be fighting…My kingly authority comes from elsewhere’ (John 18:36). Jesus’ kingdom is different from Pilate’s; yet he is willing to pit the one against the other in direct showdown. However, the showdown will not be that of military power, because Jesus’ kingdom does not recognize or practice such. Nevertheless, Jesus does claim ‘authority’. Pilate will claim his in a bit.
"Then Pilate said to him. ‘Do you not hear all this evidence that is brought against you?’; but (Jesus) still refused to answer one word, to the Governor’s great astonishment." (Matt. 27:13-14).
Although it may not be apparent, the battle has been joined. What Pilate’s freedom amounts to will become clear shortly; Jesus’ becomes clear now. The way of the world dictates that, when one is accused or attacked, one must defend oneself.
That is an aspect of what Jacques Ellul calls the world’s ‘order of necessity’; the world has no choice; responding in kind constitutes its only means of accomplishment. But Jesus is of ‘the order of freedom’; he doesn’t have to fight, and he doesn’t have to respond. He can afford to remain both defenceless and silent. And that, my friends, is a freedom of such quality that the world has not even comprehended it.
But shouldn’t he have taken the occasion to witness to his kingdom, win some converts, and tell the world where to go? Our strategies would seem to say ‘yes’; Jesus is free, and he says ‘no’. He understands the mindset of Pilate and his ilk. Any comprehension of the kingdom of God is simply beyond them, After all, how long did it take Jesus to get those teachings through the thick skulls of even his own disciples?
Jesus is free; and he doesn’t have to cast his pearls before swine. He is freer than we are. He knows that ‘getting the world changed’ does not depend upon him. The world – and Pilate – are in good hands and will be taken care of in due course.
"‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ said Pilate. ‘Surely you know that I have authority to release you, and I have authority to crucify you?’ ‘You would have no authority at all over me,’ Jesus replied, ‘if it had not been granted you from above’" (John 19:10-11).
Jesus had claimed a kingly authority; and although nowhere apparent, it is in process of carrying the day. Pilate now claims his authority; but he’s just batting the air. And it is not simply, as Jesus suggests, that he has only as much authority as God grants to him. It soon will become evident that Pilate does not actually have any choice. Authority or not, he can’t release Jesus; his authority is bound hand and foot by the world’s order of necessity.
In the face of the facts, now, Pilate finally has to say, ‘I find no case against him’ (John 18:39). And the text tells us that ‘from that moment Pilate tried hard to release him’ (John 19:12). This free, secure, powerful ruler was used to lording it over his subjects. But was he able to bring off the action he tried? Not for a moment.
"Pilate could see that nothing was being gained, and a riot was starting; so he took water and washed his hands in full view of the people, saying, ‘My hands are clean of this man’s blood; see to that yourselves’" (Matt. 27:24-25).
Here, then, on Friday, is Pilate’s basin. What does it represent? Let’s put it over against Jesus’ Thursday basin.
At the outset we made light of Jesus’ call to be ‘the willing slave of all’. That was a deliberate deception, because the word willing is indeed the very key to the kingship of Jesus. Voluntarily to take on the role of a slave is perhaps the freest action a person can take. One obviously is not being driven by any natural impulses.
Only a free person can afford to do that. And it is plain that the kingdom of the world does not and cannot provide either its citizens or its kings that degree of freedom. Jesus’ taking up the basin and towel (as a prefiguring of his taking up the cross) is the very paradigm of what freedom can be. And he offers the same freedom to those who will volunteer to wash feet and bear crosses with him.
Pilate’s basin, quite the contrary, was a public admission that he was not free to follow even his own conscience and understanding of the truth. The authority he boasted against Jesus had come to nothing. With his basin, Jesus had accepted responsibility – responsibility not only for his own action but for the welfare and healing of those he washed. Pilate tried to use his basin as an evasion of responsibility, but he has not sufficient freedom to succeed even in that. His hands did not come clean; and the blood of Jesus has continued to be upon him as much as upon anyone.
The basin of Jesus, perhaps, does not in itself show much POWER; its main point is powerlessness. Even so, it shows forth the considerable power of forgiveness and cleansing. Still, it was the powerlessness of that basin (and cross) that opened the way for the powerful action of God. God raised Jesus from the dead. Now he is King of kings and Lord of lords, and he will reign forever and ever.
But what could be a weaker, more powerless action than trying to wash one’s hands of a matter – and not succeeding? Yes, against Jesus, Pilate had all the show of power; but what did it come to? True, he managed to get Jesus killed; but where was the victory in that? Where is the victory ever in that? Is not the killing of one’s enemy always the admission that one is caught in necessity and powerless to do anything good or constructive? And for that matter, who gets hurt worse in such an encounter, the victim or the killer?
And SECURITY? Jesus’ basin does represent security, because his basin-action was in the will of God. And to be in the will of God is the only true security in time or eternity. ‘Now I vest in you the kingship which my Father vested in me’ – and such kingship is ever secure.
Pilate’s basin, on the other hand, was a clear indicator that he was losing his grip. When a ruler has to go against his better judgment in order to placate the riotous mob, he’s on his way out. Pilate gave the crowd what they wanted and turned over Jesus; but not long thereafter, under the complaints of the Jews, Pilate was recalled to Rome. There he got caught in a change of administration; and tradition has it variously that he committed suicide, was banished to the boondocks, or had his head cut off. It matters not which; this, in any case, is about as much as the world has to offer in the way of SECURITY, even to its ‘Benefactors’.
So take your pick: either Thursday’s basin or Friday’s!
And now the moral of the story (which was our only reason for telling it).
The two basins make clear the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. With Jesus lies the FREEDOM that is far beyond the freedom of the world. The world can’t even appreciate it as freedom. It’s the freedom in which we can voluntarily give ourselves as slaves in the service of our Lord and refuse to fight and to remain defenceless. It’s the freedom to keep silent when others dictate that we must talk back. It’s the freedom to let our very personhood be lost for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s, knowing that we then are safe.
With Jesus lies POWER. It’s not the gross, visible, person-centred power which is limited by the wisdom and character of its wielder. No, Jesus does not give us any power that we can control. He gives a power that controls us. ‘And how vast (are) the resources of power open to us who trust in him. They are measured by his strength and the might which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead’ (Eph. 1:19-20).
With Jesus, in the will of God, lies SECURITY. ‘Do not fear those (like Pilate) who kill the body…As for you, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So have no fear; you are worth more than any number of sparrows’ (Matt. 10:28-31).
On the other hand, the basin of Pilate shows up the truth regarding the vaunted freedom, power, and security which is offered by the world. A world that knows not God must labour under an order of necessity. This order of necessity strictly limits its freedom, power, and security.
Pilate had all the advantages the world had to offer, but in the one official act left open to him, he took a basin and confessed that he was not FREE to release an innocent man. He lacked the POWER to govern the people under his charge. He could not maintain himself in the SECURITY of his own office.
In the basins, then, is demonstrated the truth of Jesus’ observation that no servant can be the slave of two masters. Therefore, choose this day whom you will serve. Above all, we Christians dare not let ourselves be duped into buying what the world calls freedom, power, and security.
Nor does it follow that we should be out railing at the world for not being the kingdom of God. Yet that’s what we so often do. No, remember always that these people are sheep without a shepherd. In spite of their best efforts, they are enmeshed in the order of necessity. As Ellul has observed, given the circumstances, the world probably does about as well as anyone would have a right to expect.
Yes, of course, the world does have to face the judgment of God but in God’s way and in his time, with or without our help. As we have been told, judgment begins with the household of God. Our first calling is to get ourselves, the church, conformed to the kingdom of God rather than demanding that the world show such conformity.
Scripture does talk about our making a witness in the world and to the world. It even gives some instruction on how to speak before magistrates and rulers. (We must be careful, however, not to let the world become merely a synonym for the state; the world includes the state but much more.) Yet we dare not use such texts to obscure the thrust of our Jesus-Pilate lesson.
Jesus showed no desire and made no effort to seek out a confrontation with the world. His emphasis was wholly on being who he was called to be, being the kingdom of God. The world, it turns out, could not help noticing the presence of this different kingdom. Nor could it overlook the implication that that presence was a challenge to the world’s own kingdom. The confrontation came surely enough and Scripture suggests that our practice of kingdom faithfulness will bring it about just as surely.
In the confrontation, Jesus made his kingdom witness. But his very defencelessness kept the confrontation from becoming a ‘confrontation’.
Jesus’ silence is not a law that prohibits Christians from addressing government. Yet that silence should alert us to a consideration we have tended to ignore. When, as is our wont, we are so very quick to berate government, lecture it, prescribe the ‘Christian’ actions it ought to take – when we do this we do not take into account the world’s order of necessity. We see Pilate as only a ‘bad character’. We assume he could be different and could do differently – if only he would listen to and heed the advice of the ‘good’ Jesus.
But this is not at all the way in which Scripture presents Pilate. He comes through as a person no better nor worse than the common run of humankind. Yet he was a guy caught in a bind. Precious few moves were open and none of them good.
Yes, the account does place Pilate under judgment, but it expresses a real sympathy for him at the same time. Jesus declines to talk kingdom to Pilate. He knows that Pilate is not free to hear kingdom. The racket of the world (the only voice he has ever heard) already has battered him into deafness. And for Jesus to enter into argument with him would only be to forfeit his own freedom and join the world’s necessary way of doing things.
Yet we commonly confront government and the world, addressing ourselves to a freedom and capability of response that simply isn’t there. And then we get all hot and bothered. We slip out of our proper feet-washing role because the world won’t (actually, can’t) hear and heed our good advice.
No, the only proper witness to the world is one that itself demonstrates our freedom from the world. And that, Jesus’ example would indicate, may at times dictate that we quit talking and simply be the defenceless, suffering servants we are called to be.
So take your pick: it’s either Thursday’s basin or Friday’s.
(Reprinted from The Other Side July 1977, pp20-30)