Feet-washing as an ordinance is not generally observed by professing Christians; in fact, by many the doctrine is spurned, misrepresented, and ridiculed as is no other teaching of Christ recorded in the gospel history. Notwithstanding the fact that Christ said we “should” do it, that we “ought to wash one another’s feet,” they never observe it, either as a public ordinance or as a private duty. If those who do not observe feet-washing as a church ordinance were observing it as a private duty, their attitude would appear less inconsistent; but not to observe it in any form shows either a lack of information on the subject or a disposition to reject the plain word of Christ. Jesus says, “Observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Now, if it can be shown that feet-washing was established as an ordinance, then we must “observe” it as an ordinance. We shall appeal to the Scriptures.
“And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; he riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments: and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Then Peter said unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith unto him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. 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? 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. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his Lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:2-17).
Before proceeding to show why this is an ordinance of the church, we will observe that it is here expressly commanded; and this fact shows at the very least that it must be practiced in some form. “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, … If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (verses 14-15, 17).
Many attempt to evade this part of the Word by saying that it does not assert that we must do it, but merely that we should or ought. Now, the New Testament law of liberty does not consist of “thou shalt,” as did the Mosaic law, but is, instead, a law of love, and Jesus says, “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (John 14:23). The true, humble-hearted Christian needs no further coercion than the simple knowledge that he “ought” to do a thing, yea, “should” do it. These are the strongest words in our language expressing moral obligation or duty, as every one must admit. Their true application and force is admitted in every other case where they are employed; for examples: “Men ought always to pray” (Luke 18:1). “We ought to obey God” (Acts 5:29). “So ought men to love their wives as their own body” (Eph. 5:28). “We ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
“And this is his commandment that we should believe on the name of the Son Jesus Christ, and love one another” (1 John 3:23). “Ye should do as I have done to you,” that is, “wash one another’s feet” (John 13:15). The commandment is clearly stated: “Wash one another’s feet.” Men may reject these words of Christ; they may try to explain them away; they may substitute something else for this ordinance or call it non-essential: but still the scripture remains: “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet”; “do as I have done to you.”
A Church Ordinance
The reason why the act described in John 13:2-17 is to be regarded as a church ordinance is so well set forth by H. M. Riggle in his book “Christian Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Feet-Washing” that I will simply quote, at some length, his own words
“We have here every essential to an ordinance—
“1. The acknowledged authority of him who delivered it, our ‘Master and Lord.’
“2. His example. After washing their feet he said to them, ‘I have given you an example.’ Example means model, pattern, or copy. This is so simple and plain that we can not mistake it. He washed the disciples’ feet with literal water and wiped them with a literal towel. This is the copy, pattern, or model that we are to follow.
“3. Jesus gave this observance a religious character. He made it a test of fellowship between him and a beloved apostle. If Peter had continued his refusal to let Jesus wash his (Peter’s) feet, he would have cut himself off from fellowship with his Master. ‘If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.’
“4. An observance commanded. While Christ himself was washing his disciples’ feet, they did not understand the nature and the purpose of the act (verse 7). But he told them they should understand it later (verse 7). So after washing their feet he asked them, ‘Know ye what I have done to you?’ Do you understand the purpose for which I have washed your feet? Then he proceeds at once to tell them. ‘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.… If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. In washing your feet, I have given you an example, model, pattern, or copy; and now I enjoin upon you to ‘wash one another’s feet.’
5. The good to be derived from the observance not a literal benefit, but a spiritual blessing. ‘Happy are ye if ye do them.’
“The five foregoing facts, when carefully considered, prove beyond question that feet-washing as performed by Christ is a rite, or ordinance, of the New Testament. If language is of any use at all, the words of Christ clearly show that feet-washing is a thing to be observed by Christians. The fact that he called it an example proves that he intended it for imitation. It rests upon the same foundation with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. All three are established by the precept and the example of the Savior. All three were instituted from elements and practices common to all. From time immemorial it has been the custom of all cleanly people to bathe their bodies frequently in water. In olden times people wore loose garments, and consequently it was necessary to bathe their bodies in water very often. This was usually done by going down into pools or streams and dipping themselves in the water. Now, as far as mode is concerned, there was some similarity between this custom and baptism. But who will say that baptism is simply the perpetuating of this custom? No one. When Jesus instituted Christian baptism, he took the element water and a practice common to all, and connected his word with them, thus instituting one of the sacred rites of the gospel. In this ordinance the element and the practice are elevated to a place where, in their application, they assume a religious character. The benefits derived and the lessons taught are conducive to our spiritual welfare.
“The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. It has been customary, as far as we know, for people of all lands to eat supper. Bread and the fruit of the vine have always been considered common articles of food. In instituting the sacred ordinance of the communion supper, Jesus did not go out of the ordinary. He selected common articles of food. With these he connected his word and established a divine ordinance. Although he selected common articles of food, he elevated the practice above the eating of a common meal. He first broke bread himself, and gave to his disciples of the bread and of the cup, then commanded them thus: ‘This do in remembrance of me.’ What he did was ‘an observance commanded’—an ordinance. The lesson that it teaches, gives to the observance a religious character.
“Now, what is true of the two rites mentioned above is also true of feet-washing. Among all people of all nations, in all ages, it has been customary to wash feet for cleanliness; at least, this has been the custom of all cleanly people. This was true in ancient times, and it is true yet today. As with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus selected something common to all—washing feet with literal water—connected his word with the same, washed his disciples’ feet, and then commanded them to ‘wash one another’s feet.’ Thus he elevated it above the common custom into a religious rite. In the same prepared room and on the same night in which he instituted the communion supper, he washed his disciples’ feet and then commanded them to wash one another’s feet. ‘Happy are ye if ye do them,’ he added.
“Note carefully the analogy. Christ set before us the ordinance of baptism by both precept and example. He first instituted and practiced it himself (John 3:22, 26-30; 4:1); then he commanded the church to observe it (Matt. 28:19-20). He did the same with the communion supper: he first instituted and observed it himself (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25); then he commanded the church to observe it (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). The same thing is true of feet-washing: he first instituted and performed it himself (John 13:2-7); then he commanded the church to practice it (John 13:12-16; Matt. 28:20).
“In baptism Jesus did not invent a mode entirely different from the common custom of the people, nor select an uncommon element. This is also true of the communion and of feet-washing. Literal water is used in two of these rites; the other consists in the eating of bread and the supping of wine. Yet a religious significance is attached to the rite of baptism (see Mark 16:16; 1 Pet. 3:21); likewise to the observance of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:26-29); and the same is true of feet-washing (John 13:8-9, 16-17). Feet-washing rests upon the same foundation with baptism and the communion supper. All three are observances commanded, established rites of the gospel of Christ. Webster says that an ordinance is ‘an observance commanded.’ Feet-washing, then, is an ordinance.
“Another thought. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He did not wash strangers’ feet; nor have we a single hint that previous to this time he was in the habit of washing anybody’s feet.… The very fact of Peter’s refusal, astonishment, and ignorance of the purpose Christ had in view (verses 6-9), proves that Christ had never done this before. So it was not a mere custom with the Savior. Neither did he wash their feet for cleanliness; for that would have been done before entering the house. They had already entered the house and had seated themselves around the table in the very room prepared for the occasion. In this room he broke the communion bread with his disciples and washed their feet. In this room he commanded them to break the bread and also commanded them to wash one another’s feet. These commands were given to his disciples—yes, his disciples.” pp. 196-201.
Practiced in the Apostolic Church
First, Christ himself set the example, instituted the practice, and then commanded its observance. That is sufficient to establish it. It is not mentioned many times in the New Testament, but why should it be? Must the command of Christ be repeated over and over in order to make it authoritative? The new birth is set forth clearly only in the same Gospel, that of John, in the conversation Christ held with Nicodemus; yet this doctrine is all-important—the very foundation of true Christianity itself. So also the communion service, observed in some form by nearly all Christians, is mentioned only twice in the Epistles (1 Corinthians 11:20-34; 10:16); yet no one denies that it was generally practiced in the apostolic church.
The apostles preached the whole gospel message in the churches that they raised up; hence when they wrote epistles to them afterwards, they had no special reason for setting forth doctrine specifically, unless some special conditions required it. It will be seen, therefore, that the doctrine set forth in these epistles occurs rather by accident, one might say—the result of circumstances. It is not at all likely that Paul would have mentioned the communion in his letter to the Corinthians had it not been for the misunderstanding and perversion of the ordinance that existed there. So also feet-washing is mentioned in the same casual way—but it is mentioned. Writing to Timothy relatively to certain conditions under which widows should be taken under the financial care of the church and provided for, he says she should be “well 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).
The fact that this service was extended only to “the saints” is evidence that it was no ordinary act of regular duty or hospitality, but that it possessed a religious and churchly significance.
Let us connect this fact with the circumstances under which the practice was instituted. On the same night and on the same occasion when, and in the same room where, Christ instituted the ordinance of the communion, himself setting the example and then commanding its observance, he also instituted feet-washing, himself setting the example and then commanding its observance. But who were to observe it? The disciples. They were to “wash one another’s feet”; not the feet of strangers or sinners, but “one another’s feet.” How clear! So also Paul mentions the ordinance in connection with the widow—”if she have washed the saints’ feet.” This ordinance was not limited to widows, however, though they are here mentioned accidentally, as it were; but Christ said to his apostles, all of whom were men, “Ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”
The idea that feet-washing as an ordinance was practiced in the apostolic church gains further support from the fact that the oldest churches, such as the Greek, the Roman Catholic, and the Gregorian (Armenian), have retained the rite in their religious systems until the present day. There is no reasonable way to account for the origin of this practice among these old and independent sects except by acknowledging that it was the practice of the original church. True, they have peculiar ways of observing it, but they have perverted the other ordinances as well; yet they keep them all in some form or other. It has remained for Protestants, who profess to believe the Bible, to discard this sacred ordinance of the gospel.
What It Teaches Us
The ordinance of feet-washing, like the other ordinances, is intended to teach us some important lessons. In the first place, it teaches a real lesson of humility, made very clear to us when we undertake to practice it. It sets forth our position of equality in the church, showing that we all, as brethren and sisters, belong on the same common level. Jesus himself, our Lord and Master, humbled himself and washed the feet of his disciples; therefore how much more reasonable it is that we should wash one another’s feet. And it also shows that we are properly servants of each other, that we must minister to the good of each other. In practicing it, however, we must observe the proper sex distinctions, as recognized by society. “Let everything be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).
Oh, how real this all becomes when we humbly obey the Word! “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” In the last great day our Lord will say, “As ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Some Objections Considered
When people are unwilling to obey any part of the teaching of the Book, they offer all sorts of objections. One of the leading objections to feet-washing is offered in the form of the “sandal” theory, according to which Christ washed the disciples’ feet for the purpose of cleanliness because they wore sandals and had been traveling a dusty road. But the custom of sandal-wearing is still in existence in the Orient, and while personally engaged in missionary work there I have been unable to find that it is a custom for the natives to “wash one another’s feet.” Furthermore, I have observed that those religious people who claim that Christ washed the disciples’ feet because their wearing sandals made cleansing necessary, do not obey the injunction, “Wash one another’s feet,” when engaged in missionary work among these sandal-wearing natives. If the feet-washing that Christ performed and commanded was founded on sandal-wearing, why do they not obey it, at least in the same country and under the same conditions
A true sister in Christ of my acquaintance was once visited by a preacher who asked why she did not attend his meetings, and she replied that it was because his church did not believe and practice all the Word of God. He insisted that it did. She then asked about the ordinances; and he began, in the usual manner, to attempt to explain it away. First he brought up this old sandal theory; but the sister knew the truth and was able to refute it by the Scriptures. He then shifted to the substitution theory—that Christ intended to teach merely that we should perform good works; and he explained that if we give assistance to the ministers of Christ, or if we visit the sick and suffering, or take food or a basket of fruit to some poor person, we are thereby obeying this scripture. The sister admitted that these good works were a necessary accompaniment of pure religion; but she also said, “Jesus did not say, ‘If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to give to the preacher, visit the sick and suffering, or take a basket of fruit to a poor person’; but he said, ‘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’ “The truth made the preacher uncomfortable; so he shifted to another position, and said that Christ did this in order to rebuke the spirit of strife and exaltation that existed among the apostles, and to show them their true position with reference to each other. He proceeded to cite from the Gospels examples of the manifestation of a desire for preeminence on the part of certain of the apostles, and concluded with the assertion that Christ chose this admirable method of bringing them down to one common level, where they belonged. The sister then replied: “If feet-washing was such a good thing in those days, in order to bring the apostles to one common level, I should think it would be a very good thing for you preachers today; for when you are a pastor, you seek to become a presiding elder; and the presiding elder seeks to become a bishop the form of organization in that sect—all for the purpose of securing preeminence and authority over the rest.” Then the preacher was ready to say good-by. Such ministers do not want this humble equality.
Some years ago I read in an antiordinance paper an article against feet-washing. The writer first attempted to weaken it as a command by saying that we simply “should” or “ought” to do it—that is all. Then he proceeded to produce what he regarded as a most powerful argument against the ordinance: he said that the only reason for its observance was the one word “if,” and that it was indeed a precarious situation for a great church ordinance to be suspended on such a little, insignificant word as “if.” He argued that “if” implied doubt and uncertainty; therefore no such thing as a church ordinance could be established upon it. But this writer did not notice that in this case “if” is altogether positive. “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The “if” refers to the fact of Christ’s performing the act. Now, did Christ really wash their feet? Every one admits that he did. Therefore, since it is unquestionably a fact that he did wash their feet, it is unquestionably a fact that we “ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Let us notice another great doctrine of the Word that is hinged on the same kind of an “if,” in language almost identical with that just considered. “Beloved, if God so loved us we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11). If God has loved us, then we ought to love one another. Now, is it a settled fact that God has loved us? Yes, for he has proved it. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Since it is a positive fact that God has loved us, then it is a positive fact that we “ought to love one another.”
“If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.”