What About Foot Washing?
by Rick Shrader
It’s not unusual to be asked about baptism or the Lord’s Supper but in conjunction with that the question of foot washing as an ordinance of the church often comes up. I usually reply that I certainly believe in foot washing, especially for boys under ten years old! But why is it that I do not believe in foot washing as an ordinance of the local church?
The central passage in question is John 13:1-17 where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet at the last supper. It is a well-known account of Jesus girding Himself with a towel after supper and washing their feet until Peter stops Him, almost indignant that the Master would take the place of a servant and wash his feet. Peter announces, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me,” Jesus replies. “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head” was Peter’s contrite answer. At the end of the account Jesus said to the disciples, “For I have given you an example that ye should do as I have done to you.”
This custom of washing the feet before a meal was necessary because of the manner in which meals were eaten in a reclined position and due to the foot dress of the day. Homer Kent describes, “What Jesus did had a background in the custom of Palestinian society. Because of dusty roads and the wearing of open sandals, it was normal to wash one’s feet at the door. At a dinner the host provided water for his guests, and either the guest washed his own feet or the host delegated the task to servants.”1 Of course the striking thing about what Jesus did, and why Peter was so upset, is that Jesus assumed the position of such a servant. John the Baptist once said of Jesus, “He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose” (John 1:27). John would surely have been as shocked as Peter at Jesus’ action.
Though the custom of washing feet before a meal was very common, the mention of it in Scripture is not. Abraham offered his angelic guests water to wash their feet before he served them (Gen. 18:4) and Lot did the same when they came to his house (Gen. 19:2). Before David took Abigail to wife she washed his feet (1 Sam. 25:41) and David commanded Uriah to go home and wash his feet when he was brought back from the battle (2 Sam. 11:8). Besides the story of our text, Luke records the meal in a Pharisee’s house when a woman “which was a sinner” washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and Jesus rebuked the host for not offering Him water to do the same (Luke 7:36-50). Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet with costly ointment, but that may have been something separate from the meal. The only other, but significant, mention of washing feet is in 1 Timothy 5:10 when giving the requirements for supporting a widow Paul writes, “if she have washed the saints’ feet.”
The significance of Jesus’ command to His disciples to do as He had done, and the mention of it as a widow’s practice, requires us to give an answer for why we do or do not practice this regularly, or even make it a third ordinance of the church. G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “Now there are certain sections of the Christian Church even today who take that very literally, and observe this ritual as carefully as the Lord’s Supper and baptism. While we may not share their practice, we must at least not lose the significance of it.”2 To this all would agree.
Because this is a common question, I often review my answer as to its validity especially each time I read the gospel of John. Here is a list of reasons why I conclude that this is not intended for regular practice, much less as an ordinance of the church.
A symbol is not an ordinance
There are many things in Scripture which we ought to be doing that do not rise to the level of a regular ordinance of the church. A.H. Strong is regularly referenced in his three-fold division of these things.
A symbol is the sign, or visible representation, of an invisible truth or idea; as for example, the lion is the symbol of strength and courage, the lamb is the symbol of gentleness, the olive branch of peace, the scepter of dominion, the wedding ring of marriage, and the flag of country. Symbols may teach great lessons; as Jesus’ cursing the barren fig tree taught the doom of unfruitful Judaism, and Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet taught his own coming down from heaven to purify and save, and the humble service required of his followers. 2. A rite is a symbol which is employed with regularity and sacred intent. Symbols become rites when thus used. Examples of authorized rites in the Christian Church are the laying on of hands in ordination, and the giving of the right hand of fellowship. An ordinance is a symbolic rite which sets forth the central truths of the Christian faith, and which is of universal and perpetual obligation. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rites which have become ordinances by the specific command of Christ and by their inner relation to the essential truth of his kingdom.3
Even if a church elects to practice foot washing, it does not become an ordinance. There is no universal and perpetual obligation to individuals or to a church.
It is not supported by the New Testament record
In addition to foot washing not being an ordinance by definition, neither does it qualify by New Testament usage. Ordinances were given by Christ in the gospels, practiced by the disciples in the book of Acts, and taught by the apostles in their epistles. Rolland McCune puts this is a four-fold manner: “Sovereign authorization by the Lord Jesus Christ . . . Symbolic of saving faith . . . Specific command for perpetuation . . . Biblical evidence of historic fulfillment.”4 McCune also states, “Accordingly, Baptists assert that only two ordinances fit the biblical criteria—water baptism and communion.5 Of baptism McCune says, “The divine authorization comes from the Great Commission, Christ’s marching orders for the church which can only be carried out properly by a biblically organized New Testament local church.”6
There are some things denominations practice with regularity that still do not rise to the level of ordinance: love feasts, anointing with oil, laying on of hands, and even prayer meetings. These however do not become ordinances simply because they are practiced regularly. Foot washing does not even rise to this level.
It misses the larger point Jesus was making
Jesus was the very Son of God Who came to earth as a Servant to save sinners. In the previous quote, A.H. Strong said, “Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet taught his own coming down from heaven to purify and save.”7 F.B. Meyer said it this way, “He rose from the Throne; laid aside the garments of light which He had worn as his vesture; took up the poor towel of humanity, and wrapped it about his glorious Person; poured his own blood into the basin of the cross; and set Himself to wash away the foul stains of human depravity and guilt.”8
Jesus WAS a servant to us in His substitutionary atonement for mankind. We are to be servants as well, not merely in an act of symbolism, but in actual practice throughout our lives as believers. Peter learned this lesson well for he wrote in his epistle, “Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). To “be clothed” (egkomboomai) is from a Greek word that only appears here in the New Testament. It is from a root word (kombos) meaning a string or band. It means to be girded, or to tie one’s garment about you. It was specifically used of slaves doing menial tasks. Peter still had this image in his mind when he wrote of humility.
It destroys the unique symbolism of the ordinances
Foot washing, and other symbols like it, cannot rise to the level of ordinance because it does not carry a vicarious symbolism. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are indeed done with symbols and object lessons (water, bread, juice), but they uniquely symbolize something that was done for us in salvation. We cannot give our body or blood for sin. We cannot die, be buried, and rise again the third day. The symbolism of these ordinances is of something we cannot do, something that was done for us.
Foot washing, laying on of hands, fasting, etc., are symbols of things we are commanded to do. And as Peter wrote, we should be clothed with humility, hospitable, serving one another. Ryrie, in his chapter on church ordinances writes about foot washing,
Those who focus on cleansing find ground for continuing the observance of this as an ordinance today. Those who emphasize the example or forgiveness aspects do not feel it is necessary to perform the ritual but rather to practice the spiritual truths the ritual illustrated. It is true that the exhortation to follow Christ’s example in verses 14 and 15 related to forgiving one another in humility, rather than to God’s forgiving our missteps in life. This, then, would argue against considering foot-washing as an ordinance.9
Baptism can be used as a prerequisite to membership because it pictures one’s salvation, i.e., belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wayne Grudem, in arguing for having only two ordinances, writes, “The position advocated in this chapter is ‘Baptistic’ —namely, that baptism is appropriately administered only to those who give a believable profession of faith in Jesus Christ.”10 Baptism is used this way because it pictures salvation. The Lord’s Supper also pictures the effects of the body and blood of Jesus Christ upon our souls. Foot washing is not in this category.
It gives an “example” of a unique kind
In John 13:15 Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” This word “example” is not the ordinary word tupos, meaning figure to copy (Acts 7:43-44) or example to follow (Phil. 3:17). It is upodeigma, an unusual word used only here in the gospels and five other times in the New Testament including by Peter describing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, “making them an example unto those that after should live ungodly” (2 Pet. 2:6).
Lenski, in discussing this word writes,
This shows that ‘to be washing each others’ feet’ is figurative and means literally, ‘that you keep doing, even as I did do to you,’ kathos, not ho, ‘in like manner,’ not ‘the same identical thing.’ The example of Jesus is to guide them in what they do for each other; it is not for mere mechanical repetition in washing of feet. This answers the question as to whether Jesus intends to institute a symbolical rite or an actual sacrament, which his disciples are to repeat formally by actually washing each others’ feet. Such rites belong to the Old Testament only, they have disappeared from the New. The shadows are gone, the substance has come.11
This is simply a grammatical way of saying that actually washing one another’s feet does not necessarily fulfill Christ’s command as an “example” to follow. We could be doing that every week, but if we are not serving one another in some helpful way, we are not keeping His example.
It contradicts the humility which it is supposed to demonstrate
I mean by this that the desire to do this action (of washing someone’s feet) can easily be a show of piety in itself. Is this why we never find the apostles doing this in the New Testament? We find them serving one another and others, but not doing this physical act. The widows of 1 Timothy 5 were supposed to be “reported of for good works, if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work’ (1 Tim. 5:10). A symbolic show of piety certainly does not belong in that list.
F.B. Meyer wrote, “There was no aiming at effect, no thought of the beauty or humility of the act, as there is when the Pope yearly washes the feet of twelve beggars, from a golden basin, wiping them with a towel of rarest fabric! Christ did not act thus for show or pretence.”12 It is for this reason that I think we should not do this practice in the churches.
We should rather do as Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:1-4). He said the same thing about prayer and fasting in the same context.
And so . . .
A.W. Pink wrote a good four-fold summary to this discussion from the verses in our text, “First, the vital need of placing our feet in the hands of Christ for cleansing (13:8). Second, the owning of Christ as ‘Master and Lord’ (13:13). Third, the need of washing one another’s feet (13:14). Fourth, the performing of this ministry as Christ performed it—in lowly love (13:15).”13 And yet, like many of us, he did not advocate the practice of foot washing as an ordinance. He also wrote,
It is well known that not a few regarded this as a command from Christ for His followers not to practice literal foot-washing, yea, some have exalted it into a ‘Church ordinance.’ While we cannot but respect and admire their desire to obey Christ, especially in a day when laxity and self-pleasing is so rife, yet we are fully satisfied that they have mistaken our Lord’s meaning here. Surely to insist upon literal foot-washing from this verse is to miss the meaning as well as the spirit of the whole passage. It is not with literal water (any more than the ‘water’ is literal in john 3:5; 4:14; 7:38) that the Lord would have us wash one another. It is the Word (of which ‘water’ is the emblem) He would have us apply to our fellow-disciples’ walk.14
I would hope with confidence that as brethren disagree in this matter of foot-washing we would respect one another’s desire to obey our Lord’s commands in every respect. At the same time, when we disagree as to the application of our beliefs and desires, we would do so charitably yet firmly. I have never seen, nor do I now see, the need at all to wash one another’s feet in a literal way. But I would join with brethren in the desperate need to serve one another in love.
- Homer Kent, Jr., Light in the Darkness: Studies in the Gospel of John (Winona Lake: BMH books, 2005) 184.
- G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, nd) 233.
- A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1970) 930.
- Rolland McCune, Systematic Theology (Detroit: DBTS, 2010) 270.
- Strong, Ibid.
- F.B. Meyer, Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, nd) 199.
- Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor books, 1986) 427.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) 967.
- R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1943) 926-927.
- F.B. Meyer, Ibid.
- A.W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971) 319-320.
- 14. Ibid, 317.