Q: #72. I recently visited a church that practices foot-washing, and they believe it is an ordinance Jesus commanded us to do. Is this true?
A: While the vast majority of Christians today see Jesus’ act of foot-washing (Jn 13:1-15) as symbolic, there are some that believe that Jesus literally meant to wash the feet of each other. Some have even made it an ordinance on equal footing with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I hold the symbolic view. Let me explain my reasoning.
People in Bible times generally wore sandals, or sometimes just went barefoot, and their feet became very dirty when walking from place to place because the roads were unpaved and dusty. When someone was visiting a house as a guest, it was customary, and considered polite, for the host to offer the guest a basin of water in which to wash their feet (Gen 18:4)(Gen 19:2)(Gen 24:32)(Gen 43:24). In many homes, they actually had servants who washed the feet of the master and the guests. Because this was a job done by servants, it was considered a lowly, menial task.
When Jesus (the master) was willing to wash the feet of the disciples (the servants), He was giving the disciples an “example” (Jn 13:15) of humility and humbling oneself.
In (Mk 9:35) Jesus said, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” In addition, He said in (Mt 20:26-28), “… whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; (27) and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: (28) even as the Son of man came not to be ministered (served) unto, but to minister (serve)…”
Jesus was modeling this when He took the servant’s role of washing the disciples feet.
There are three other reasons I consider Jesus foot-washing to be symbolic, and not literal.
First, as we mentioned above, this was a custom in Bible times. It is not a custom in our world today, nor is it needed any longer. We do not generally walk around in sandals or bare feet, and when we do, we have paved roads and walkways on which to walk. Plus, we rarely even WALK anywhere now to get from place to place, we drive or take some other mode of transportation.
Second, we see no examples of this being practiced anywhere else in the New Testament. The only other place it is even mentioned in the New Testament is in (1 Tim 5:10), in relation to widows.
Finally, I find making this an ordinance a serious mistake. Whether one sees this as symbolic or literal, I think we agree that it is a picture of humility and being humble. If we make this an ordinance, and label one who does not follow it as disobeying God (a sinner), then we are saying “You must MAKE yourself humble when we decide to practice foot-washing in our church…” Can we MAKE someone humble themselves? Isn’t humility something that comes from a work of God inside of us? Do we REALLY want to make an ordinance that forces people into humility, and label them disobedient if they don’t?
I would add here, however, that if you somehow think it is BENEATH you to wash the feet of someone else, you might want to consider why. The servant should NEVER consider themselves too good to perform any task or job.