Presbyterian Praise for Feet Washing

W. Jackson Watts

I’ve always chuckled whenever I’ve heard Southern Baptist friends recoil defensively against the practice of feet washing as an ordinance. While there actually are some Southern Baptists here and there who have practiced this biblical rite, they join most other mainstream, larger Protestant denominations in rejecting its literal observance. I chuckle because they often give some of the poorest reasons for rejecting feet washing. (I’ve even heard some Free Will Baptists parrot these reasons now and again.)

One reason cited is the lack of widespread acceptance of the practice among the Christian family throughout Christian history. I sometimes respond, “You do realize that means we probably should give up on believer’s baptism also, if we’re going to defer to strictly historical-majoritarian arguments about what Christ commanded?” Believer’s baptism is a somewhat minority account if you total up the history of observance and adherents of that viewpoint.

Another concern about this type of argumentation against feet washing is that it has a circular, question-begging quality to it. “Most people haven’t thought of this matter in this particular way, so we’re going to not think of it this way either.” Can’t you hear the child saying to his parents, “You know, mom and dad, if more kids had historically felt that corporal punishment were deserved and appropriate, I think I’d be more accepting of this discipline. But since they aren’t, I defer to the majority viewpoint”?

I don’t mean to be facetious (at least not overly so!), but I hope this simply reinforces the notion that exegesis, theological reasoning, and spiritual formation should assume greatest weight in our valuation of practices which might happen to have minority status.

Yet we should even be slow to overstate the “minority status” claim. As Matt Pinson points out in The Washing of the Saints’ Feet, a surprising number of denominations and Christian movements have observed feet washing. While not all have observed it for precisely the same reasons, nor have all viewed it as a sacrament or ordinance, they saw it as biblically warranted, theologically significant, and/or devotionally useful.

Such is the case of Kelly Kapic, a first-rate theologian in the Presbyterian tradition (PCA). Kapic is long-time professor of theological studies at Covenant College, and recent author of You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News (Brazos Press, 2022). I’ve mentioned his book in an earlier post on the Commission’s website, but I wanted to highlight another poignant section of his book.

In a chapter entitled “Why Does Physical Touch Matter?”, Kapic beautifully explains how humans were created by God to relate to him, others, and even the earth “in and through our physicality” (51). He carefully explains the nature and role of touch in the life of God’s people, exhibiting awareness that inappropriate touch has produced trauma for some, and the fact that modern technologies disembody and warp our appreciation for biblical physicality.

Amid this discussion, Kapic highlights feet washing as a powerful and practical picture of Christ’s lordship and love:

How fitting, then, that Jesus displays his lordship when he bends the knee as a servant and takes a towel and a basin with cool water to clean the feet of his disciples, one at a time (John 13:4–5). We wear sneakers and boots, but the disciples’ feet would have been exposed to the muck of the roads even if they were wearing the usual sandals. The roads, especially those of a city, were often a mixture of dust and excrement (both animal and human). This is not like kissing the toes of a freshly washed infant; instead, Jesus’s fingers went over heavily worn heels and misshapen toes, with bony knobs and abundant calluses. “When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You called me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should also do just as I have done to you’” (13:12). Decades later, this foot washing became a mark of a godly saint, modeled by faithful widows (1 Tim. 5:9–10).

Notice three interesting aspects of Kapic’s summation. First, he skillfully illuminates the first century cultural context behind John 13 that gives texture to our appreciation for the earthiness of the incarnate Savior’s ministry. Second, notice the tender and intentional emphasis on touch. Bible teachers and preachers have often emphasized the fact that Jesus touched lepers, and how unnecessary this was to the actual task of healing. Yet it shows so much about Christ’s heart for ailing people. Feet washing, Kapic shows, parallels this servanthood and compassion. Finally, notice that Kapic joins the commentators who have identified another New Testament reference to feet washing in Paul’s definition of true widows. Many have either missed this altogether or assumed that the reference was simply another way of speaking figuratively of hospitality (which obviously raises the question of why Paul mentions feet washing in a sequence of other statements, including a separate reference to hospitality).

Kapic then draws a sensible, pastoral, churchly conclusion from his study:

I suspect we would do well to recapture this ancient public practice in our churches with more regular consistency: it is meant to foster humility, grace, physicality, and service, all realities that we urgently need in our individual and corporate lives … Jesus expresses his lordship not only in words of grace but in a posture of service and healing touch. His act of washing his disciples’ feet reaffirms God’s good work of creating human bodies and the mutual relationships that are meant to occur between people [1].

Let’s not overstate Kapic’s words. He isn’t turning his back on the Westminster Confession of Faith, the PCA Book of Church Order, or any other confessional commitment. He isn’t assigning the same value or meaning to feet washing that he would assign to baptism or the Lord’s Supper. He isn’t even making a more absurd, indefensible claim, such as, “PCA Christians have always done this. We need to return to the old paths!” He is simply moving from exegesis to theology to practice.

Sometimes Christians, Free Will Baptists included, feel as though they need a kind of external justification beyond their own ecclesial tradition to give them cover for certain practices. This tendency should be resisted, even as we acknowledge that we’re obviously not alone in trying to obey the Bible. And even when we are fully committed to our confessional distinctives, it’s encouraging to draw from the larger well of the Christian family to see how God’s Spirit is teaching others besides us to hear the whole counsel of God.

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[1] Pgs. 69-70. Kelly M. Kapic, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, January 18, 2022. Used by permission. Homepage | Baker Publishing Group

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