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Shoes Stay On for Maundy Thursday

Few Protestant traditions continue the footwashing that Jesus did at the Last Supper. Some want a revival of the practice.
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Shoes Stay On for Maundy Thursday
Image: Matt McClain / Getty Images
An Ethiopian Orthodox Church leader in Denver, Colorado washes feet as part of a Maundy Thursday service.

Americans get cold feet when it comes to footwashing, experts say.

Maundy Thursday is a Holy Week service marking the Last Supper. In some faith traditions, that service has included footwashing from the example in John 13, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet during the supper and says, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (v. 14).

According to interviews with theologians and pastors, footwashing is now a rare practice even in churches that consider it a part of Maundy Thursday or regular worship. There do not appear to be recent surveys of how often US churches participate in the ritual. A 2009 survey found a decline in footwashing in one Anabaptist denomination, despite the tradition’s high view of the practice.

Most evangelical traditions have historically embraced John 13 as an example of sacrificial love rather than as a specific commandment for a worship ritual. That approach was clear in a widely discussed Super Bowl ad this year from the He Gets Us campaign featuring footwashing. Other traditions like Pentecostalism that do include footwashing in church services don’t practice it very often.

“Other than Maundy Thursday service, the practice is few and far between,” said Lisa Stephenson, a theologian at Lee University who has done research on footwashing, especially among Pentecostal churches.

Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, does footwashing in church every few years.

It can be a “a visible sign of an invisible grace,” said Ben Sloan, the pastor of missions at Eastminster. But he added with a laugh, “I don’t want my feet washed every week.”

Sloan remembered that in his ordination process, his examiners asked him how many sacraments there were. He said two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The examiners asked him, “What about footwashing?”

“I was stumped!” he said. “I said, ‘Well, I think it’s because in that passage in John 13 [Jesus] says, A new commandment I give you is to love one another. It’s about love rather than physically washing the feet. It’s about serving other people.’”

Roughly speaking, Catholics (though only recently allowing women to have their feet washed), Episcopals, Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans carry out Maundy Thursday service footwashing, but participating is optional.

Another group of traditions consider footwashing a ritual Christians should do throughout the year: Pentecostals, Anabaptists, and Primitive Baptists. Seventh-day Adventists are perhaps the most committed to its practice, usually bundling footwashing together with monthly Communion in church services.

One 500-year-old Anabaptist hymnal still in use among the Amish has a footwashing hymn that is 25 stanzas.

But many traditions with a history of ritual footwashing hold it loosely and may not practice it at all.

“Among our congregations, some practice footwashing, while others have discontinued the practice or have never observed it,” says the Mennonite Church USA’s website. “Congregations are encouraged to practice foot washing when it is a meaningful symbol of service and love for each other.”

The 2009 survey on footwashing published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review found that the three churches with the highest frequency of footwashing services were Hispanic congregations in New York, New Jersey, and Texas.

But overall, the survey found a decline in footwashing among Mennonites.

“Worried that younger members or new members feel uncomfortable with the rite, many pastors have moved the footwashing service from its more traditional positioning within the Lord’s Supper celebration on Sunday morning to an evening service or another less conspicuous moment in the liturgy,” wrote researcher Bob Brenneman.

Early Protestant statements of faith like the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith assert there are only two sacraments: the Lord’s Supper and baptism.

John Calvin considered footwashing in church services a practice for “Papists,” and in his commentary on John he called it an “idle and unmeaning ceremony” and a “display of buffoonery.” He was concerned that the annual ceremony would let participants feel “at liberty to despise their brethren during the rest of the year.”

Reformed theologian R. Scott Clark has argued in his history of the practice that it was not done as a ritual in the apostolic period. Others like Stephenson argue it was a practice of the early church.

“Footwashing was observed in a variety of places in the early Church, over a widespread geographical distance,” she wrote in her 2014 paper, “Getting Our Feet Wet: The Politics of Footwashing.”

William Seymour, one of the fathers of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement, argued in the newspaper The Apostolic Faith that there are three sacraments: footwashing, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism.

Stephenson said her experience is that Pentecostals do not practice it regularly despite Seymour’s argument that it is a sacrament. She sees the decline as both theological—with people believing Jesus’ example wasn’t a literal one to follow—and sociological.

Stephenson is part of the Church of God, a Tennessee-based denomination that practices footwashing as a sacrament. Historically these churches were in Southern Appalachia and poor. But she has noticed that footwashing doesn’t happen often now.

“As our tradition has become more middle-class and gained more social standing and moved up economically speaking, it’s become a more uncomfortable practice,” she said.

In her classes at Lee University, which is affiliated with the Church of God, she notices that students like the idea of footwashing but feel awkward about doing it. In general, she also thinks the rise of megachurches makes footwashing more difficult to carry out.

“It’s usually a very moving component of a service,” she said. “It works in people’s lives in ways that are unanticipated.”

In interviews, people shared those kinds of experiences.

Richard England remembered when he was a chaplain for adults with special needs in the county of Kent, United Kingdom. During Holy Week, footwashing was too sensitive for the adults, so they washed each other’s hands in a bowl. England remembered being paired with a woman with Down syndrome.

“I cried like a baby,” said England. “It was the closest I have felt to the footwashing recorded in John and it was far more moving than any of the actual footwashing services I’ve been part of.”

Churches that wash feet are doing it in more creative ways.

In South Carolina, Eastminster Presbyterian Church does wash feet every week, but not in a church service setting. It has a “footcare” ministry that a podiatrist in the church started years ago after people who couldn’t afford to pay kept coming to him. The church joined up with a local ministry that was already providing lunch for the homeless and offered to give pedicures and new shoes to anyone who wanted them. The idea, according to missions pastor Sloan, is that the homeless are on their feet more than others and don’t have as much access to showers. A number of doctors volunteer in the ministry, and guests can also get free medical care if needed.

“It’s a vulnerable thing,” said Sloan. “It allows you to open up to people in different ways. It’s a humbling thing to have somebody wash your feet—it’s a humbling thing to wash feet.”

Lib Foster has been volunteering in the footcare ministry for more than a decade. Recently she was washing the feet of one man who refused to speak to her, but then he allowed her to pray for him and he began to cry. The footcare process is about half an hour, so it gives the guests and volunteers a chance to talk.

“It’s amazing to see the Holy Spirit work in that room, and we’re stuffy old Presbyterians,” Foster said. She said people have a “fear of the uncomfortable or awkward,” but getting past that awkwardness is rewarding. Foster’s daughter does a similar footcare ministry at an Episcopal church in downtown Atlanta.

But even in Maundy Thursday services, the way liturgical churches do footwashing can vary.

HopePointe Anglican Church in Woodlands, Texas, does footwashing on Maundy Thursday but has footwashing stations set up around the sanctuary so parishioners can wash each other’s feet, according to member Katie Grosskopf.

In practice, that meant heads of households washed their household members’ feet. Grosskopf is single, and so she mentioned to the clergy that she felt isolated in the footwashing setup.

“After that, the clergy made a point of mentioning in the service to the whole church that we needed to be mindful of the whole family of God and not just our nuclear families in the footwashing,” Grosskopf said. “Later, an older woman grabbed me and another single woman and washed our feet while crying and praying. It was very moving.”

Stephenson argues for the renewal of the practice.

“Evangelical Christians don’t appreciate liturgy as much; we tend to be Word and worship congregations,” she said. “But that doesn’t engage our whole body. These practices are ways to engage our whole body in ways that worship and Word don’t, and invite us to live out the story in ways that Word and worship don’t always do. … They identify us and mark us and reorient us at times to what matters, to what we are to be about.”

April
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