The Neglected Practice of Foot-washing

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.

Communion Service with Feetwashing (Grace Brethren)

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)

Feetwashing in the Church of the Brethren

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.

General Considerations

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.


John 13:1-17


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,
Tired feet.
Jesus cared
About feet.
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
Messiahs around
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.

O Lord,
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 (Mennonite Encyclopaedia)

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.

Anabaptist-Mennonite Practice

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.

North America

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).

Footwashing - a practical note from the Wood Green Mennonite Church

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.

Footwashing and Church Renewal

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)

Footwashing within the Context of the Lord's Supper

By John
Christopher Thomas

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’.

But still
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.”

While it
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.

As such,
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.

When the
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…’

In the
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

Here, the
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.

The force
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

Third, the
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

In sum,
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

When the
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

If there
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

A variety
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

Mention of
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

The reader
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
unusual placement.

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
the Father.

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.

Yet, this
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
and servants.’12

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
Holy Spirit.’13

If anyone
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).

Such a
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.

First, the
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

Without a
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.

It should
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

Owanga-Welo affirms15
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.’

There can
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

It would
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

More than
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

While the
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.

1) Because
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.

In 1
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

If the
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
clear conscience.

3) More
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.


In the
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

Foot Notes

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,
1966), p.62.

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
(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.
(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

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
, 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
, 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.

Footwashing, Communion and the Kiss of Peace

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)

Footwashing: A Personal Perspective

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

Mennonite Footwashing: Identity Reflections and Altered Meanings

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
Anabaptist history.8
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
‘sectarian’ sense9
– 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
same fashion.10
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
baptism feasts.22
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
possibly Syria.23
‘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
the practice.34
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

described here37
is relatively typical and is usually associated with the twice-yearly
communion service.

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
Christian groups.

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
another person.

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
and reconsideration.

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:
Harper, 1919).

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.

Horsch, 135.

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
1937) 22-24.

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.

Yarnold, 123.

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.

Knight, 816-21.

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.

Hiebert, 33-34.

Vedder, 112.

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.

Goodhue, 128-29.

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.

Yarnold, 123.

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.

Weiss, 300.

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.

Connerton, 102.

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
contemporary sign-act.

Connerton, 70.

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
church bodies.

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
highlights serving.

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).

Whose Feet are in Your Basin?

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)