12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
– John 13:12-15
I grew up in a Free Will Baptist church, specifically, the Original Free Will Baptist (OFWB) of North Carolina. And though I now attend a United Methodist Church, I am eternally grateful for the religious and spiritual heritage I received from the OFWB, of which I remain an ordained minister.
As Free Will Baptists, we would often practice the Washing of the Saints’ feet or “foot washing” after communion. Free Will Baptists consider foot washing as a third “ordinance” after Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To this day, I remember vividly how I would join the men after communion (the men and the women would separate to wash feet), take off my socks and shoes, and allow someone to wash my feet. And I would do the same in return. At the time, I never thought of this as unusual or strange.
It wasn’t until I attended Divinity school that I learned that most Christians don’t follow this practice. Which is of course fine, but it did make me think about the uniqueness of foot washing and the way it molded my faith identity. Later, I made foot washing the subject of my doctoral dissertation and book. In that work, I had the opportunity to interview OFWB pastors and laypeople about their views and beliefs on foot washing.
From that experience, I learned how important foot washing was to their identity and how it taught them servant leadership through “ritual action.” Meaning that the action itself, foot washing, imparted a way of knowing about the person and work of Christ that they could not have gained without participating in the action itself. The action of washing, and allowing oneself to be washed, was a kind of learning using physical movement. And the physicality of this practice served as a continual reminder of how Christians are meant to live—as living embodiments of Christ in community.
Of course, each Christian tradition carries its own practices, actions, and customs. I’m not arguing here that churches should practice foot washing. Rather, what I want you to consider is how rituals and actions “speak” and that the best way of learning something is by doing. As Christians, I believe we are called to be physical and living reminders of Christ’s radically open love and acceptance for all people. Becoming Christ-like isn’t a matter of what we believe, read, or confess. It is a matter of doing, of living, and loving like Christ.
You can learn more about foot washing in my book A Postmodern Theology of Ritual Action: An Exploration of Foot Washing Among the Original Free Will Baptist Community.