Does Foot Washing Indicate Acceptance?

by Doy Moyer

Much has been made over the recent “He gets us” ads depicting various scenes of different kinds of people washing their feet and having their feet washed. The debate is over what this means. Is it a good illustration of what Jesus would do? Does it accurately convey who Jesus is or what He wants from followers? Whatever your conclusion, I hope all could agree that it is, at best, an incomplete picture. I can appreciate what it may be trying to do, though I wonder what else is happening.

I suspect that what lies behind much of this is the idea of acceptance. If we aren’t careful, we may conflate those who may be poor with those whose actions, lifestyles, and religions run contrary to Scripture. Yet I have no problem with the notion of Jesus washing the feet of those who would act contrary to His will. After all, He did die for them (which is greater than washing feet), and, as is often pointed out, He washed Judas' feet, knowing that Judas would betray Him. Yet here is precisely where we need to be careful. While Jesus washed Judas’ feet, His actions did not convey acceptance of how Judas would act. Washing feet was not a sign that condoned bad behavior of those whom He washed.

In the same passage in which Jesus washed Judas’ feet, He also said, “Not all of you are clean” (John 13:11). He wanted the disciples to learn to act this way toward one another. Still, Jesus was clear about the situation with Judas: “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me” (John 13:18), and “one of you will betray me” (John 13:21). Later, in His prayer for the disciples, Jesus referred to him as the “son of destruction” or perdition (John 17:12). He washed his feet, but He didn’t condone the betrayal. He washed Peter’s feet but didn’t condone his denials.

If the message of washing feet is not about acceptance, I wonder how some would react if the depictions included washing the feet of Hitler or a hooded klansman. No doubt that would be considered going too far for many. Yet Jesus died for those whose actions are abhorrent and evil, too, and no one should accept their behavior. The point is that in Scripture, foot-washing, while an act of humble service, is not meant to convey acceptance of one’s actions that are contrary to His teachings. We can show love and serve others without condoning sinful behavior.

Jesus’ actions and words of love were accompanied by a message of repentance: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). No efforts to reach the world can be complete without this. So yes, go ahead and wash the feet of whoever is in need. Yet, I do not think that this action is, in itself, a full enough presentation of the gospel message. People need the greater cleansing that can only come through the blood of Jesus, and this message is integrally tied to a message of repentance.

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