J. Matthew Pinson, The Washing of the Saints’ Feet. Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2007.
Pieter Post is a Mennonite theologian in the Netherlands. He has recently taught worship and hymnology at the Mennonite Seminary in Amsterdam and the Free University of Amsterdam. Review translated by Linda Penner.
In The Washing of the Saints’ Feet, J. Matthew Pinson, a member of the Free Will Baptists, makes a case for practicing foot washing on a regular basis. The book is a compilation of various lectures, sermons, and talks he has recently given. It does not have the pretension of an academic study: “Rather, it is a series of lectures designed for college students and edited for print” (xv). A particularly interesting facet of this volume is that each chapter is followed by a hymn about foot washing. In this way the author connects theology and congregational practice.
Pinson has experienced much resistance with respect to foot washing. The ritual is not considered “seekers sensitive.” Ministers who make this argument “minimize or diminish the ritual” (8). Besides, many say that Jesus did not intend the institution of foot washing to be taken literally but saw it as a daily exercise in humility (39). Pinson wants to try to persuade pastors and priests as well to look at arguments in favor of foot washing.
The author regards foot washing as an ordinance. Mennonites speak of an ordinance, too. Baptists distinguish themselves in this from, among others, Lutherans and Roman Catholics, who use the word “sacrament”. Pinson finds the definitions for ordinance rather arbitrary. In his view questions must be asked in order to learn what an ordinance actually is: “Did God explicitly ordain the practice?” “Did God intend the practice to be literal?” “Is it to be perpetuated by God’s people?” The definition Pinson offers is that “a Christian ordinance is a practice that God ordained for literal perpetuation by the New Covenant People of God” (28).
Pinson tries to track down the motivation for foot washing by means of argument. If it were only about washing some dust off the feet, why is so much attention given to it? And if Jesus says, “You, too, ought to do it” (John 13:14,15), it means the disciples are obligated to carry it out. In fact, “You ought to do it” is far more emphatic than the instruction to celebrate communion or to baptize, namely “This do” (41 and 42).
The purpose of Pinson's plea for foot washing is to establish that it and communion together complete the meaning of the Gospel, whose meaning is, after all, redemption. In this argument, baptism symbolizes Christ’s death and resurrection, being dead to sin and a new life, justification and sanctification, and the objective and subjective aspects of unity in Christ. Baptism symbolizes the whole purpose of the Gospel. But communion concerns only our justification: “The Lord’s Supper is an incomplete picture of our redemption in Christ. It represents the objective aspects of the work of Christ for us” (84).
To do justice to the whole purpose of the Gospel, foot washing should always follow communion. In communion the issue is “what God in Christ has done for us”; in foot washing it is “what He is doing in us.” Communion concerns justification; and foot washing, sanctification (85-86).
Pinson approaches the relationship between communion and foot washing from a dogmatic point of view. This is praiseworthy, for by doing this he gives biblical rituals a deeper meaning than they appear to have on the surface. In my view we do not need more rites than these, because they provide the basis for our relationship to God and neighbor. Practice will show whether this makes Pinson’s approach more “seekers sensitive.” Openness to conversion and baptism can be expected even of the “seekers” of the 21st century in order for them to become “finders.” If baptism is adequately explained as the disjunction between the old man and the new man, then it is easier to explain communion and foot washing.
However, I would like to hear more about the meaning of baptism and of the church in the world, and about the diaconal aspects of foot washing. What could be the contribution of foot washing to the congregation as peace church and in the area of mediation? Perhaps foot washing could become more “seekers sensitive” in this way.