I had a rather fascinating conversation today with a friend who is helping me with my French. This friend asked me what I thought about foot washing services. It was sort of a strange and out-of-context question because at the time, he and I weren’t really talking about church or theology at all. Rather, right in the middle of an explanation of when to use “leur” and when to use “eux”, my friend sort of blurted out a question about foot washing services that apparently his church holds with some regularity. He asked me what I thought about these services, and I responded that I needed more information. He then went on to explain that his church has regular foot washing services, because, as he put it, “through foot washing you can get special power.”
I almost choked on a past participle. “What did you say?”
I was stunned and had to investigate this for myself. So, as soon as our language session finished, I went online and did a quick search. Within seconds I found exactly what my friend had described, clearly outlined on one of the church’s blogs. If you would like to see for yourself what I found, you can, here. After reading it, honestly, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Basically the pastor of this church uses the biblical story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet to teach that this was “a mystery” by which Jesus transferred to the disciples things such as “power, wisdom, riches, strength, honor, and glory.” From the Genesis account of the fall, and God’s declaration that the heel of Adam would crush the head of the serpent, the pastor deduces that “dominion is in the feet.” I confess to having no idea what that means.
According to the blog post, the “mystery of foot washing” was supposedly handed on to Jesus’ followers so that they might continue to acquire these things (power, riches, wisdom, etc.). The use of the word “mystery” is meant to highlight a special insight that this pastor has which others do not. The site even states that the reason others have not understood the story in this way is because they supposedly view it as a parable. To quote the website, “To many Christians these Mysteries are Parables and therefore they loss [sic] where they are expected to win.” Ironically, I don’t know of a single pastor or theologian who treats the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet as a “parable” other than the pastor of this church. The fact that he goes on to describe foot washing as a “symbol” seems to indicate that not only is he a terrible exegete, but he also doesn’t know what the word “parable” means.
My language partner in fact, went on to ask me how he could get more wisdom, because when he compared himself to his pastor, he felt that clearly his pastor had insight that he didn’t. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t insight that his pastor had, but an overactive imagination and total disregard for the basic principles of interpretation, but I refrained.
Of course, what is absolutely appalling about all this is that the real point of Jesus washing the disciples feet is exactly opposite of what this pastor claims. The story (John 13) emphasizes the servant role that Jesus took in coming “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). In Luke 22:24 we find that when this event took place, the disciples were arguing about who would be greatest in the Kingdom. In the midst of that, Jesus stoops down and performs a task normally performed by a slave or servant. In other words, it was an act of complete humility, an act of service. Its purpose was to teach that serving one another through simple but practical acts of kindness is fundamental to being a follower of Jesus. In other words, the real meaning of the passage is diametrically opposite the meaning taught at my friends church.
What really bothers me about this, and what bothers me about the prosperity gospel in general (of which this is clearly a variety), is that this teaching takes one of the most important Scriptures calling the church to a life of service and care for one another, and inverts it in favor of self-centered “riches and glory.” It would be one thing if this pastor were merely a poor exegete, and had inadvertently come up with the wrong interpretation. That would be forgivable. But this is clearly not the case, since the pastor claims to have “mysterious” knowledge that others do not. The fact that he makes this claim shows that he knows quite well that he’s gone off the reservation, but wants to justify his departure through having uncovered this secret “mystery.”
Perhaps worst of all, this teaching represents a turn away from the most fundamental aspect of the Gospel, namely the death and resurrection of Christ. In fact, this is the very argument (involving not too different circumstances) that the apostle Paul addresses in his letter to the Colossians. In Colossae too there were teachers claiming special knowledge, claiming visions (2:18) from which they gained knowledge not available to others. And through this supposed special knowledge, the false teachers at Colossae were leading members of the church astray. Paul responds by asking the church, “why are you turning now to religion after you have been given the Gospel?” (my paraphrase; see 2:20-23).
All through chapters 2 and 3 of Colossians Paul keeps coming back again and again to the importance of the resurrection. And he over and over emphasizes that for the Christian there are two aspects of the resurrection that form the foundation of our life in Christ. The first is that we have died with Christ (2:20), and the second is that we are raised with Christ (3:1).
But the main problem with the prosperity gospel folks is that they want to be raised without having died. Because the Bible does indeed teach that there is abundant life for the people of God, and there is even glory for the people of God. Paul says so explicitly in the beginning of chapter 3. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory!” But what the prosperity folks leave out is that you can’t have resurrection without crucifixion and you can’t have glory with out Calvary. And if you really believe the Gospel, if you really want to follow Jesus you have to have both: crucifixion and resurrection.
And if you put crucifixion first, then there’s no room prideful interpretations that take a beautiful example of selflessness and transform it into a monstrosity of self-indulgence. And this is what the prosperity gospel folks consistently (and conveniently) leave out of their message time and time again.