Bible Answers: Explaining the practice of foot washing

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“Some churches still practice ‘old-fashioned’ foot washing. Is this a practice we should add to our modern expressions of faith?” — Jay

This is indeed a very ancient (and typically Middle Eastern) practice. A gesture of hospitality, foot washing was an amenity extended to guests visiting in someone’s home. Often the servant (and sometimes the wife of the home) would perform this service while the guest was reclining at the table (see Gen. 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24).
In the New Testament, we find a similar practice that appears to be common (Lk. 7:44; Mk. 1:7). Foot washing is mentioned in the list of criteria that characterize the faithful, serving widows in the church (I Tim. 5:10).
Perhaps the most striking example of foot washing occurs at the time of the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples. The man who had called this group together and demonstrated his power over nature, disease and life itself, got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples (Jn. 13:4-15).
Jesus indicated he had done this to show them how they were to treat each other. He was not about “lording it over others.” He sought to teach his followers that humility would become them; that true leadership is servant leadership (see Mk. 10:43-44). This selfless love was the heart of Jesus who completed the lesson in self-sacrifice in his humiliation on the cross (Jn. 13:1).
While not seen commonly in western churches, the earliest post-biblical ceremonial washing of feet is found in Augustine (ca. 400 AD) and in connection with Maundy Thursday in a seventh-century liturgy of the church in Spain.
There is no command that we must practice foot washing today. The act, however, may be very meaningful among a community of believers if it is practiced with honesty, gentleness, caring and love.