In March 2013, the newly elected Pope Francis created a minor controversy when he marked Good Thursday by washing the feet of 12 inmates at a juvenile correctional facility, two of whom were girls. The ritual has traditionally been done with 12 priests and never with women. The incident brought attention to the ancient Christian tradition of foot washing, a practice that is often associated with a group of Protestants known as "foot-washing Baptists."
History of the Ritual
According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, foot washing as a Christian ritual is based on a New Testament description of Jesus washing the feet of the twelve disciples after the Last Supper. At that time, foot washing was a courtesy offered to guests who arrived with tired and dusty feet. Washing someone else's feet was a lowly task performed by servants. Volunteering to do this was considered an act of humility or devotion, and washing his disciples' feet was seen as an example of Christ's humble and selfless devotion to those for whom he sacrificed his life. The early Christians adopted the practice of washing each other's feet as a way to emulate Christ's humility.
Foot-washing Baptists are not a separate sect within the Baptist denomination. The term refers to any Baptists who practice the foot-washing ritual, but it is most often associated with the group known as Primitive Baptists. Primitive Baptists are among the more than 50 types of Baptists, almost all of whom share a belief in two key ordinances: the believer's baptism and the Lord's Supper. Primitive Baptists practice a foot washing as a third ordinance. In this case, the word "ordinance" is used in the way "sacrament" is used by other denominations. They base this ordinance on a passage in the Book of John in which Jesus is quoted as saying, "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you."
Primitive Baptists broke off from other Baptists in the early nineteenth century because of theological disagreements, primarily over the doctrine of predestination. Primitive Baptists held to the Calvinist doctrine that God alone determines who will be saved. They believed that human efforts to bring about salvation, such as missionary work, were not sanctioned by the Bible. They also objected to seminaries, Sunday schools and the use of musical instruments in worship services. Beliefs they have in common with other Baptists include the believer's baptism, the priesthood of the believer and the authority of the Bible.
Divisions developed within Primitive Baptists during the twentieth century, such that some congregations now hold Sunday schools and use musical instruments during worship services. However, most Primitive Baptist congregations continue to practice foot washing. Some include it in every communion service. For those who practice it, it is a cherished spiritual experience that they believe keeps the spirit humble.
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