Thursday, April 5, 2012

Should Foot Washing Be a Sacrament?

I tend to think so. For the most part, the act of foot washing, which is based on Jesus' actions in John 13, contains every criteria that Christian faith has traditionally used to define the sacraments.

First of all, it involves action. The act of foot washing originates in the action of Jesus and therefore finds its meaning in action. Sacraments must be performed. When they are not performed, sacraments cease to be (i.e. they do not exist outside of their being performed). Like Baptism and Eucharist, the act of foot washing requires our action.

Second, foot washing contains a visible, outward symbol (water, feet, hands, etc.). In The Institutes Calvin writes, "It seems to me that a simple and proper definition is that it is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will towards us..." (IV.xiv.1,3) Hugh of St. Victor defines a sacrament as follows: "A Sacrament is a physical or material element set before the external sense, representing by likeness, signifying by its institution, and containing by sanctification, some invisible and spiritual grace."

Third, the act communicates. Peter Lombard, who solidified the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote that the sacraments are "for the sake of sanctifying, as well as signifying." The act of foot washing unambiguously communicates grace. It is a 'speech-act' that proclaims the gospel in and through action.

Fourth, the act is linked directly to the Word of God. Foot washing finds its origin in the action of the Word-Incarnate, and in Jesus' command to "wash one another's feet." Regarding baptism Martin Luther said that "it is the Word of God with and through the water" that makes it a sacrament. I see no reason that the same cannot be said of foot washing. The fact that the Word of God commanded this act to be repeated suggests that Jesus' own presence might remain in the act of foot washing.

Fifth, like Baptism and Eucharist, foot washing is a unique and repeatable act. Like other traditional sacraments, foot washing has its origin in a unique, historical event and possesses the potential to be repeated in the ritual of faith.

The only reason that I can imagine to disqualify foot washing from being a sacrament is that the presence of God is located in the human being rather than the element. That is, unlike Baptism and Eucharist where the presence of God is located in the elements, the presence of the divine in the act of foot washing seems to be located in the person washing the feet. For some, this might seem to put human beings in the place of God.

But doesn't Jesus command his disciples to become means of God's grace when he tells them to "do as I have done to you." And what about in John 20:21 when Jesus says, "Just as the Father sent me, I send you"? And doesn't Paul proclaim the idea that Christians are ambassadors on Christ's behalf, carrying out the ministry of grace? (2 Cor. 5:19-20)

That the act of foot washing might convey human beings as the means of God's grace does not disturb me for a second; not when Jesus asks his followers to become agents of grace and "do as I have done to you."

Yes, I think that foot washing could and should be a sacrament in the Christian Church. Like marriage, foot washing is scandalously relational and cannot be watered down into an inward, individualistic ritual (as the Eucharist so often has). In an age where we all struggle to build loving relationships, perhaps the washing of feet is a way to living relationships in the Way of Christ. But if foot washing is to have any meaning at all, it must be performed in the context of the community of faith; that is, in the Church. And there's really no better way to do this than to make it a sacrament rather than a once-a-year ritual.


  1. josh,

    i see your point here. great thinking and great writing... but I do have an issue:

    some people got stank feet

    so, before we go making this a sacrament and all, maybe we should do a little foot hygiene promotion?

    just think about it...

  2. Hi Josh, I've thought a bit about this blog entry. I cannot say I agree with you; indeed, I emphatically do not. It seems to me that a basic difference between the moments in Jesus' life that became sacraments and those that did not was the occasion and what that occasion, coupled with other teachings and subsequent practices, indicated about Jesus' intentions. For example: Jesus used baptism, which was, as you know, an already existing initiation rite. In doing so, he follows John the Baptizer's example, and then, when leading his own disciples, Jesus makes Baptism their initiation rite. And, of course, later a command was added that, combined with the occasion of Jesus' Baptism and his use of the rite in his own ministry through the agency of his disciples, led naturally to sacramental thinking and status for Baptism.

    As for the Eucharist: Jesus prepared carefully for the Supper, and says much in the course of it about its meaning reified through his own actions and purposes. Then Paul refers to Communion/Eucharist as central tradition as he refers to no other act of the Church (I Corinthians 11). So it is not surprising that sacramental status and thinking again flowed naturally from Communion.

    I think your seeing sacramental aspects in the foot washing wrests it out of context. The foot washing was an accidental moment occasioned by Jesus' disciples' pride, which Jesus merely turned into an object lesson – a very important one, but an object lesson and no more. If it has the sacramental elements you refer to, they are not made use of by Jesus the way "the elements" are by his intention and interpretation and uses of the two, bona fide, sacraments.

    As always, your essay is well written and carefully reasoned; but in this case, I must disagree.

  3. Thanks, Brescia. I was hoping to get some push back from someone because I intentionally took an unorthodox stance on this matter. I find that simply learning to see from a different angle helps me consider matters afresh. This is more of a thought experiment than a propositional truth claim! (isn't all theology?:) )

    That said, I would have to agree with some of your insights, but not all. Your strongest point, in my opinion, is that the early church (a la Paul) did not take up foot-washing as a rite or sacrament. I think this merits attention and is probably the strongest evidence for following the tradition.

    I also agree that Jesus seems to encourage the sacramentality of the Last Supper: "Do this in remembrance of me." The Eucharist is no doubt the strongest example of sacrament.

    Nevertheless, I still struggle with understanding the difference between the scene in John 13 and the two bona fide sacraments. Like Baptism, foot washing was also a custom in that culture - perhaps not as explicit as the initiation rite of baptism, but a custom no less. Was Jesus radicalizing that custom? And like Jesus' command at the Last Supper, he also commands his disciples to continue the practice of foot-washing, albeit as an "example" and not in remembrance of Jesus. Perhaps this small difference is significant.

    But I also find John 13:7 very interesting. Jesus indicates that what he is doing the disciples do not yet understand, but will later (implying his death?). Is this not more than object lesson on humility?

    As always, I love the dialogue. I won't be authoring a tome on foot-washing as a sacrament anytime soon, but it is a good topic to take seriously. My own experiences of washing or being washed have been quite moving and I do wish that Christians practiced the act more often.