Last week, I happened across a great deal on a volume in a very scholarly series (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplements) on feetwashing in John 13 by John Christopher Thomas. I bought the book and found out that Thomas studied at Princeton under Bruce Metzger and that this study came to completion at the University of Sheffield under A.T. Lincoln. I also discovered that Thomas is a professor at Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland Tennessee, a school with which I would have some affinity in terms of our mutual Arminianism (though I might not quite fit in on other issues).
As it turns out, Chris Thomas has just arrived here at Tyndale House for some intensive reseach at our wonderful biblical studies library. We had an enlightening discussion yesterday.
The book is entitled Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community. Skimming through it, the point was emphasized that feetwashing was not just a one time event which happened during Holy Week. We must assume that John included this story in his gospel to argue that feetwashing was to be normative within the church life. We might also assume that the Johannine churches (if we are permitted to use such terminology!) practiced feetwashing as an act of worship, closely connected with confession of sin.
Chris made the point in our discussion (perhaps also in his book) that nowhere else in all of antiquity is there any example of a social superior stooping to wash a socially subordinant or inferior person's feet. This makes Jesus' use of the towel and basin a shocking feat (sorry about that).
This has two implications. First, the historicity of this event cannot be doubted, for in accordance to the standard liberal scholarly criterion of dissimilarity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Jesus), a gospel writer nor the Church would have ever invented such a strikingly unusual event (Chris attributed this argument to another scholar whose name escapes me). Secondly, feetwashing in the Johannine Community was practiced in such a way as to supercede any mundane cultural practice; it was done as an act of worship.
This last implication then has a consequent implication. If the early Church practiced feet washing as an act of worship intricately connected with confession of sin, and in such a way as to transcend their culture rather than of practical necessity, doesn't this oblige the modern Church to do the same?
It seems that most Christians--even those who are very deeply submitted to the Bible--look at me with the strangest of expressions when I tell them that I practice feetwashing, as if the concept were akin to snake-handling! One gets the impression that Christians automatically dismiss feetwashing without giving it the first serious consideration. This reaction is all the more striking seeing how emphatic John's portrayal is of Jesus' insistence that the disciples wash one another's feet, and how John obliged his churces to do the same fifty years or so later
I should note that my friend J. Matthew Pinson (President, Free Will Baptist Bible College) who is well qualified by any standard to say so, has told me that Baptists in North America typically practiced feetwashing until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One must surmise that the demise of the practice is hardly due to biblical considerations. While the practice may not be esteemed in Western Christianity, I suspect that the more newly established churches in the developing world may in fact practice it more regularly.
In addition to the scholarly exegesis found in Chris Thomas' book, Pinson's work, The Washing of the Saints Feet (156 pages) is a good start toward a biblical reintroduction of feetwashing as an act of worship into our modern churches: http://randallhouse.langineer.net/details.asp?product=1479
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