More Than Money
Do Free Will Baptists Still Wash Feet?
By Danny Baer
Although I have known The Washing of the Saints’ Feet is listed as one of our ordinances, I have also been aware that not all of us follow the practice. If you’re like me, you’ve wondered if feet washing—foot washing, for some—is dying in our ranks.
To find the answer, I sent a survey invitation to the approximately 760 pastors whose email addresses are listed in the Free Will Baptist Church Directory. Of those who received the email, 366 completed the survey. This means that based on over 2,200 churches in our denomination, the survey has a margin of error of less than 5%.
Churches That Practice Feet Washing
The first question was simple and straightforward: “Does the church you now pastor practice feet washing?” Over 84% of the pastors responded yes. This means approximately 1,800 Free Will Baptist churches have feet washing services at least once a year. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised.
To learn the frequency of those services, I asked, “How many times a year does your church practice feet washing?” The results (Figure 1, below) show that almost half of the churches that practice feet washing do so once a year, about a fourth practice it twice a year and roughly a fourth, four times a year.
The average is two times per year. In my next question, I discovered that churches practice the Lord’s Supper an average of three times per year. By the way, over half of churches that conduct feet washing do so each time they have the Lord’s Supper.
Next I asked, “What percentage of the adults who attend your church (for Sunday morning worship) participate in a typical feet washing service.” Because the responses were in ranges, the results (Figure 2, below) are hard to average. However, you can see that in the majority of our churches, only a minority of adults participate.
In fact, taking into account that 16% of Free Will Baptist churches do not practice feet washing at all, it appears that less than 30% of all Free Will Baptist adults practice this ordinance.
Churches That Do Not Practice Feet Washing
I asked this group if their church ever practiced feet washing and, if so, how long ago they dropped the practice. The results were interesting. More than half of the churches that do not practice feet washing did so at one time (It could be more since 22% of the pastors were not sure). Of the churches that have stopped the practice, over 60% of them have dropped it in the past 15 years.
Is the Washing of the Saints’ Feet an Ordinance?
While over 84% of Free Will Baptist churches practice feet washing, only 75% of FWB pastors feel it should be an ordinance. The comment section of the survey seems to indicate many of them believe feet washing should be practiced, but it does not rise to the level of an ordinance. Some felt feet washing is part of The Lord’s Supper and not a separate ordinance.
The practice of feet washing is alive. Some pastors took objection to the survey, thinking it was part of some effort to remove feet washing as an ordinance. To you, I say first of all, I had no such intention. Second, you can breathe easy. With 84% of Free Will Baptist churches practicing feet washing, and 75% of our pastors believing it is indeed an ordinance, The Washing of the Saints’ Feet is firmly established in our ranks. Still, the practice of feet washing is not well. Fewer than 30% of Free Will Baptist adults participate in the ordinance.
What about the future? The survey results indicate a decline in the practice, but only a slight one since the practice of Feet Washing has dropped by only about 5% in the last 15 years.
A final thought. The ordinance of The Washing of the Saints’ Feet is a practice that is clearly established in our Treatise and tradition. However, based on this survey, it would behoove us as Free Will Baptists to revisit John 13, and, with an honest and receptive heart, ask God to teach us again what Jesus taught His disciples the night before He gave His life for us all.
About the Writer: Dr. Danny Baer has been an ordained Free Will Baptist minister for over 40 years. He is academic dean at Southeastern FWB College and serves on the Board of Directors for the FWB Board of Retirement. His message on feet washing, “Following the Example of Christ,” which was presented at the National Association in July, can be read on his blog, and heard at www.nafwb.org.