By Mark Dance
“You’re not one of those foot-washing Baptists, are you?”
This sarcastic greeting came from behind a screen door in a Salt Lake City neighborhood several years ago.
I’d prepared myself for a less than cordial welcome in this door-to-door evangelistic effort. I figured I had it coming for all the cold receptions some evangelicals have rendered to Mormon missionaries over the years.
Still, I never saw the “foot-washing” comment coming. Come to think of it, I’d never washed anyone’s feet, nor had I a desire to.
There are some Baptists who prioritize foot-washing as an act of service and humility. My particular “brand” of Baptists leans more toward fried chicken and gift cards.
I’m open to change, however, so I did a little more research and found Jesus was not only a foot washer, but He also required His leaders to do the same (John 13).
On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus shared the Passover feast with His disciples. As the meal was served, Jesus took off His outer coat and brought a towel and basin of water to the twelve disciples 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” (verses 15-16).
Am I Better Than Jesus?
I reluctantly came to a harsh conclusion. If I’m too good to wash feet, I must think I’m better than Jesus.
A few months later I tried it on my deacons, which, honestly, was awkward… especially when some started crying. But that awkwardness was part of the deep work of love and humility Jesus intended His front-line leaders to experience.
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 becomes less awkward each time I do it, which is rarely. Although it’s lost its original practical benefit, the underlying principle of servant leadership is as practical as ever.
Servant leaders put others 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. However, instead of focusing on Himself, Jesus focused on the needs of His disciples.
Jesus’ leadership team was no dream team as they would soon fall asleep or run away in His greatest hours of need. Eventually, their failures were met with grace instead of guilt, which led to a loyalty that even the threat of certain death couldn’t dissuade.
Servant leaders will get their hands dirty
My immediate response to my new Mormon acquaintance was that I’d never washed anyone’s feet. Of course, this defensive response was a self-incriminating testimony against myself.
Long before the days of pavement and closed-toe shoes, people’s feet got filthy as they walked. It was typical for people to wash their own feet. However, it was common in more formal or affluent settings to have a servant do it for them.
Jesus told the apostles to serve like slaves. Paul intentionally referred to himself as a “slave.”
Servant leaders are not too proud to kneel
In Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” painting, Jesus and His disciples are seated western style. This is unlikely since meals at that time were shared on the floor.
Regardless of how they were seated, Jesus was certainly in a prostrated position to not only wash but also dry the disciples’ feet. They’d never seen a rabbi do that.
Have the leaders you serve with seen that level of humility yet?
Since that day, I’ve presented monogrammed hand towels at every ordination service I’ve led. This reminds deacons and pastors alike that we’re humble servants of the Lord and His bride, the Church.
I was recently blessed to hear that deacons from one of my former churches had turned a regular deacons’ meeting into a foot-washing service. I guess we really are “foot-washing Baptists” after all.
MARK DANCE (@markdance) serves as Director of LifeWay Pastors. He speaks at churches, conferences, and retreats – often with his wife Janet. Mark has contributed to several books and offers weekly encouragement at markdance.net.