IS FOOT-WASHING A CHURCH ORDINANCE?
2013 Bob Freeman

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.
John 13:14,15.

     These two verses from the Gospel of John are used by some to substantiate the idea that foot-washing is an ordinance of the church. And, if we ignore several other of the Lord's comments in that same passage, we might be convinced. However, even with only those two verses, we should have reason to doubt. Instead of saying that the disciples were, without qualification, to do what he did, Jesus said that they ought to and should. Those words are in contrast with what he said when instituting the Lord's Supper as an ordinance in Luke 22:19: this do. By saying ought to and should, The Lord also indicated that his followers might be reluctant, in some cases, to follow his example after they understood it.
     While Jesus was washing the disciples' feet, he responded to Simon Peter's protest:

Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.
John 13:8.

The word that is translated part in the Lord's response is the Greek word meros and means portion, not mutual participation. The idea is the same one Jesus expressed in Matthew 7:23 when he told how he will deal with hypocrites in judgement by saying that he never knew them. The word translated example in verse 15 is the Greek word hupodeigma and is used in Hebrews 8:5;9:23 in reference to physical items that represent spiritual realities. So, if Jesus meant only that he was giving a demonstration of proper foot-washing technique, then none of the disciples had anything in common with him until that night. But, if he meant that his actions were only a picture of what he had been doing spiritually for them all along, then his choice of the word hupodeigma is quite instructive.
     Jesus earlier had prepared his disciples somewhat for what he said and did that evening:

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
John 6:53.

It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.
John 6:63,64.

     There is no indication that the disciples mistook the Lord's washing of their feet to be anything other than a physical illustration of something he did for them spiritually. When the Lord answered Peter's protest as he did, Peter didn't ask to have water poured over his whole body, but asked to have his hands and head washed also. That request indicated that he wanted cleansing of his mind for the defilement of his thoughts and cleansing of his hands from the defilement of his actions.
     The Lord answered Peter again:

Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.
John 13:10.

These words tell us for certain that the Lord's example had to do with spiritual cleansing, unless Jesus meant that some of the twelve had body odor that was excessive by the standards of that time. Further, we know that only God can cleanse us and that cleansing involves forgiveness of sins.

continued at top of next column

Foot-washing (cont)

     In verse 5 there is a detail given that should not be considered extraneous:

After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.

By girding himself with the towel, Jesus made the towel part of his clothing. Since there is no indication that he drew fresh water after washing each pair of feet and soap was not in use at the time, that towel had to become dirtier as he proceeded. The soiled towel around the Lord's waist pictures the fact that Jesus took on himself the sins of the disciples when he sacrificed himself. And, since he washed the feet of Judas, it should remind us that salvation is available to every human being. We also should note that the next time the disciples saw Jesus without his outer garment the Lord was suffering the penalty for the sins of the whole world. We cannot pay the penalty for each other's sins against God, but we can offer forgiveness to each other without becoming humble or defiled.
     The occasion that Jesus chose to wash his disciples' feet is significant. When God's people, as a church, observe the Lord's Supper, they glorify God by symbolically identifying with the very body and blood of Christ. In washing the disciples' feet, the Lord symbolized his preparing them spiritually to observe the first Lord's Supper. That preparation included maintaining their cleansed state, just as he has prepared his churches up to this day.
     If we accept the idea that the Lord's example was the establishing of foot-washing as a third church ordinance, we need to decide what it pictures. After all, baptism and the Lord's Supper are to illustrate the believer's identification with Christ and to proclaim the Lord's death. If we literally wash other church members' feet, we could be dramatizing forgiveness or humility. But, if forgiveness is to be pictured, why not just gently let the offending member know that we are offended and see if he is willing to accept forgiveness? Such an approach might restore a relationship where the ritual washing of another member's feet would indicate forgiveness even when there is nothing for the washer to forgive. The ritual just might make the washer feel superior to the washee.
     If foot-washing is to portray humility, then it certainly is not following the example that Jesus set. He said nothing that would indicate that he was acting in humility and, instead, stressed his relationship with the disciples:

Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.
John 13:13,14.

He was their lord and master before, during and after his washing of their feet as his correction of Peter's thinking demonstrated. Forgiveness of our sins is possible not because Jesus humbled himself before any of us:

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8.

The pattern should be obvious by now. Jesus was acting in love, not humility; just as, after Judas had left the supper, he admonished his first disciples, and us, to do:

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
John 13:34,35.

In verse 7,

Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.

In verse 12,

So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?

If the disciples hadn't picked up previously on what the Lord was doing when he washed their feet, the statements in verses 34 and 35 should have removed any doubt that he was giving a physical demonstration of forgiveness in love.

continued at top of next column

Foot-washing (cont)

     The Lord maintained the disciples' spiritual purity by constantly washing their feet spiritually; that is, God constantly forgives us for falling short of his righteous requirement and cleanses us of spiritual defilement. He does what we can't do, but we should forgive each other for offenses committed against ourselves. Even so, Jesus also had previously instructed them as to how a situation should be handled when a believer isn't able to restore a good relationship with a brother that had offended him:

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Matthew 18:15-17.

     The passage from Matthew 18 makes it clear that the forgiveness of a brother should include restoration, not just the good feeling that one might have for being able to forgive another in his mind; or, by performing a foot-washing ritual.
     In verse 17, Jesus said If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. So, it seems that following the example as Jesus intended it is a good idea because it will make the congregation happy. And, if the church ordinances are to make church members happy, then foot-washing as an ordinance makes sense. However, if church ordinances are intended to be a means of worshiping God, then we have much reason to question the practice. We can say for certain, though, that restoring a relationship between members will make them, and, most likely, the rest of the congregation, happier. Worshiping God in spirit and truth will bring a feeling of satisfaction to saved members of a church, but there is no guarantee that they will be "happier".
     In conclusion, if we pay close attention to what Jesus said in this passage, we should be able to say with assurance what lesson is taught. Even though the Lord washed their feet as a servant would, he made it clear that he was at all times their lord and master. So, the idea that he was establishing an ordinance that is to teach humility is far-fetched. And, he made it clear that the washing signified the completeness of his cleansing us of the defilement of our sins. Nothing we can do will cleanse another of his sins, but we can, in love, forgive another for his personal offenses against us and hope to restore the damaged personal relationship.

And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.
Ephesians 5:2.


Bob Freeman

return to index