Following in the First Christians’ Footsteps

MANY WORSHIP PRACTICES that meet us in the pages of the New Testament and early Christianity are tantalizingly obscure: Why were Christians being baptized for the dead? Why were women required to wear coverings on their heads? Why did believers wash one another’s feet?

What do we make today of these and other practices? Should we continue them?

Many are clearly mandated, or fully described and valued, in the New Testament. Yet we find many of them difficult to fit into our contemporary worship.

Sometimes our problem is lack of knowledge. Much description of worship in the New Testament gives the impression that worship practices were developed ad hoc—occasioned by the needs of the hour. Sometimes we do not know the intended significance of various worship settings and occasions.

But often we can read the texts only too clearly. The question is, what principle is being illustrated and enforced? So we continue genuinely to puzzle over why early Christians practiced certain rites—and whether and how we should follow their lead.

Washing Feet

We might take as a helpful case study the practice of foot washing. The practice is prescribed in the New Testament and was observed in the early Christian communities. Yet it has been both practiced and neglected by churches in our day. Should foot washing be part of our worship?

The New Testament support for foot washing is found in John 13:4–5, 12–15: [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. . . .

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 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. ”

Washing the disciples’ feet reflects a civilization that knew only unpaved roads, open—toed sandals or bare feet, and a hot climate to tax the weary foot traveler. Bathing feet was a mark of hospitality for visitors in both Israel and Greco-Roman society (Luke 7:44; 1 Tim 5:10).

Early Christians preserved the practice as part of baptism or even as the manner of baptism itself. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (about A.D. 380), taught that just as a person’s sins were washed away in baptism, so foot washing removed the hereditary sins from Adam. The Roman Catholic church (with other liturgical churches) has preserved foot washing, with modified meaning, in its observance of Maundy Thursday.

Though Protestants reject a sacramental reasoning, foot washing has continued among German Pietist groups and Anabaptist denominations like the Church of the Brethren, as well as some Adventist, Holiness, and Pentecostal churches. These take their stand on the plain directive of the Lord: “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Foot washing to them is both obedience and a lesson in humility.

What is puzzling, though, is not that many Christians continue this practice but that it has never become as prominent in the church as has Communion. Foot washing is commanded by the Lord, perhaps even more strongly than is Communion. On grounds of logic and clarity the case is apparently irrefutable. Why then do the majority of Christians observe the command to break bread and take the cup in the Supper, yet regard the foot-washing directive as nonbinding?

Cultural Background

First, there is a unique cultural setting to the foot—washing ceremony—our feet do not get soiled and stained in modern road conditions. The same does not hold for the Eucharist, since taking bread and wine, or eating and drinking, are universal across cultures. For some, the bread and cup are dubbed “elements” because they are elemental to all life.

Second, many believe that what Jesus intended by “example” signifies for later disciples more than water ablutions in a church service. He was dramatically symbolizing the spirit that prompted such an act, namely a disposition to serve those who need assistance. They would equate Jesus’ command to wash one another’s feet with Paul’s words about showing kindness to others with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:8) and performing “humble duties for fellow Christians” (1 Tim. 5:10, GNB).

We may cull from the New Testament various puzzling practices. Many carry an element of prescription; New Testament texts indicate they should or must be done. And in each one there are vital issues at stake.

At the same time, for each practice there is a cultural background that needs to be respected. The directives were particularly necessary and intelligible in that age when the church was launched.

Today, churches will debate when and how such practices should be observed. Some Christians will follow the form of early worship practices; others will seek a universal underlying meaning. In either approach, the principles remain and are as valid and obligatory as ever. CH

By Ralph P. Martin

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #37 in 1993]

Dr. Ralph P. Martin is professor of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield in England and author of Worship in the Early Church (Eerdmans, 1974).
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