“You’re not one of those foot-washing Baptists, are you?” This sarcastic greeting came from a Mormon in a Salt Lake City neighborhood a few years ago. I had prepared myself spiritually and emotionally for a less than cordial welcome in this door-to-door evangelistic effort. I sort of figured that we had it coming for all the cold receptions some evangelicals have rendered to Mormon missionaries over the years. I still never saw the “foot-washing” comment coming.
Come to think of it, I had never washed anyone’s feet, nor had a desire to. Soon after this encounter, I did a little research and found that there actually are some Baptists who prioritize foot-washing as an act of service and humility. My particular brand of Baptist leans more toward fried chicken and gift cards.
I am open to change; however, so I did a little more research and found that Jesus was not only a foot-washer, but He also required His followers to do the same (John 13). Bummer.
On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus shared the Passover feast with His disciples. As the meal was being served, Jesus took off his outer coat and brought a towel and basin of water to each of the twelve and washed their feet.
Peter’s immediate objections were met with a kind, “What I am doing you don’t understand now.” Peter’s second objection was stronger, as was Jesus’ reply, “I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you. I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master” (vv 15-16).
I reluctantly came to the harsh conclusion that if I’m too good to wash feet, I must think I’m better than Jesus. Not good! I returned from that trip with a resolve to find my first feet-victim, which was my unsuspecting student pastor.
It was awkward for both of us. A few months later I tried it on my deacons. Even more awkward… especially when some started crying. But that awkwardness was part of the deep work of love and humility that Jesus intended his front-line leaders to share with each other. A few years later I began a pastorate in a church with six other pastors on staff. I washed their feet on our first staff retreat, which kicked off one of the most rewarding seasons of my ministry.
Foot washing has become less awkward each time I do it, which is rarely. Although it has obviously lost its original practical benefit, I do see the underlying principle of servant leadership which is as practical as ever. I’ll quickly share a few reasons why:
1 .Servant leaders put their teams before themselves
This supper was just a few hours before an intense night of prayer, followed by a betrayal, several desertions, denials, trials, beatings, and an unthinkable death.
Yet, instead of focusing on Himself, Jesus focuses on the needs of His disciples. Jesus’ leadership team was no dream team as they were soon to fall asleep and fall away in His greatest hours of need. Eventually, their failures would be met by grace instead of guilt, which led to a loyalty that even the threat of certain death could not dissuade.
2. Servant leaders sometimes get their hands dirty
My immediate response to my new Mormon acquaintance was that I had never washed anyone’s feet. Of course this defensive response was self-incriminating testimony against myself.
Long before the days of pavement and closed toed shoes, people’s feet got filthy in the course of the day. Although it was typical for people to wash their own feet, it was not uncommon in more formal or affluent settings to have a servant do it for them. The HCSB and NASB correctly translate “doulos” as “slave” instead of “servant” because there is a big difference. Servants are hired and slaves are owned. Although Greco-Roman slavery was considerably different on many levels than the Colonial era slavery, slavery has always been associated with an absence of rights, dignity, or compassion.
Jesus told Peter and the others (which includes us) to simply do as they are told…serve like a slave.
3. Servant leaders are not too proud to kneel
In Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting, Jesus and His disciples are seated western style, which is unlikely as meals at that time were shared on the floor. Regardless of how they were seated, Jesus was certainly in a prostrate position to not only wash but also dry their feet. They had never seen a Rabbi do that. Have the leaders you serve with seen that level of humility yet?
Since that day, I have presented monogramed hand towels at every ordination service that I have led.
I didn’t convert that sarcastic Mormon; however, he may have inadvertently converted me…to becoming “a foot-washing Baptist.”