Anabaptist history: Footwashing


The picture above is from my wedding. I washed my wife’s feet as an act of love and service.

3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

– John 13:3-11 (ESV)

Should footwashing be a sacrament/ordinance? Jesus did it, though it is questionable whether he meant it to be something that was to be repeated throughout time like Baptism and the Eucharist.

A little Anabaptist history according to From Anabaptist Seed, by C.A. Snyder:
The ordinance of foot washing was not practiced in all the earthly Anabaptist congregations. The South German Anabaptist leader Pilgram Marpeck (d. 1556) spoke of foot washing as a church ordinance, but the practice became most widespread in The Netherlands, where it entered the confession that were produced in late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The practice of footwashing was considered to be an “ordinance” primarily because Jesus “instituted and commanded” the practice. Its symbolic meaning relating to humility and continued purification was explained best by Dirk Philips, bishop and co-worker in The Netherlands with Menno Simons. Late in the seventeenth century, the adoption of the Dordrecht Confession by Swiss Brethren included also the adoption of footwashing as an ordinance, and the practice became accepted in the South as well.

We also confess a washing of the feet of the saints . . . as a sign of true humiliation; but yet more particularly as a sign to remind us of the true washing – the washing and purification of the soul in the blood of Christ
– Dordrecht Confession, article XI, 1632

Also, consider 1 Timothy 5:10
9 No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband,a 10 and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.

Should footwashing be (re)instituted as a sacrament/ordinance? Does your church practice it?

4 thoughts on “Anabaptist history: Footwashing

  1. The church we currently attend does not practice it as a matter of course for the formal church services… but it is expressed and occasionally practiced as a needed reminder… did so in a men’s group I was a part of last year.

    The church we used to attend practiced it with every communion service. It was not a requirement for members and room was made for those who did not wish to practice.

    I’m ambivalent. I think it has room and meaning as a ritual… but it is not a necessity. I think, in context, Jesus was more on the lines of saying “serve each other”… and elevate each other. As Jesus elevated his disciples to a place of honor at least at equal with Jesus (the incarnate God), so should we do to our brothers and sisters in the church. This was actually the sermon topic this past Sunday.

  2. At a friend’s wedding a week before my own they washed each other’s feet and then took communion together. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it should be a regular ordinance but it is definitely powerful to do it occasionally.

  3. I’ve often thought of footwashing as a “Mennonite sacrament”, and in practice it really does seem to function that way: as a ritual act that signifies something beyond itself and perhaps even makes Christ present. I dare say it has taken on a powerful sacramental quality among the Mennonites and Catholics who gather as Bridgefolk, especially because it is as yet the closest we can come to being in communion.

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