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Is Footwashing Eliminated by Culture?

Jan 10, 2020

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When we think of Jesus’ Passover, or what tradition has called the Last Supper, we generally think of the purpose He shared it with His disciples, the breaking of bread with them, His words of institution of the Eucharist, and the victory of the cross which was to come. Yet Jesus did one more very significant thing besides break bread with His disciplines. He gave one more command besides, “do this in memory of me.” (Luke 22:19) When He ate this supernatural Passover meal, knowing that He was soon going to God, He took a basin of water and started washing His disciples’ feet. He explained to them what He was doing, and then instructed them: “you also ought to wash one another’s feet. “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15) The Lord even went so far as to tell Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” (vs. 8) This is one more command that came just before the cross, which unlike the command to share in Communion, is ignored by the large majority of Bible churches. It is as if Jesus never told His Church to wash each other’s feet.


Several churches still do continue this practice given by the Lord. The Catholic Church practices a foot washing ritual with the Pope washing the feet of priests on Holy Thursday, a day which remembers the Last Supper. Anabaptists, and a few similar churches, practice congregational foot washing just around the time of Resurrection day, as well as once in the middle of the year to make up for anyone who missed it earlier. Those are also the only times they take Communion during the year. In contrast, most regular Bible churches drop the practice entirely, while they still continue the sacrament of Communion, which was given by Jesus on the very same day.


What is the cause for dismissing what appears at least to be an ordinance of the Church, if not a sacrament? The most common reason I have heard is that foot washing is mere ancient culture, and for that reason we don’t need to practice it anymore. If we see a command in that passage from John 13, it is simply the command to practice hospitality. So today we can just be hospitable instead of washing feet. In ancient Israel people walked long distances off of paved roads in sandals and were just dirty-feet people. It was natural then to wash a visitor’s feet to welcome them. Today, without that need, and with modern technology, we can just let them use our shower and give them a bowl of chips and a cold drink. Jesus’ instructions, according to most Bible churches, just got a cultural update.


It is my goal to answer why we cannot dismiss foot washing, and why the argument that it is ancient culture and nothing more is false. No Christian should accept the culture argument as a reason for ignoring this command to the Church. Firstly, we know we cannot dismiss this as mere culture since it is a plain New Testament command and not a mere demonstration of behavior. We do see washing one’s own feet demonstrated as an ancient practice in Genesis 19:2when Lot invites the angels to wash their feet, and we see washing another’s feet demonstrated in Luke 7, with the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears. Yet Jesus’ Passover does not include a mere demonstration of behavior. It includes Jesus’ instruction that we should do this for one another, just as He had done it. He is our example, and we should do what He did at the Last Supper. Moreover, Jesus goes so far as to tell them “you have no part with Me” if you do not wash each other’s feet. That is powerful language that links foot washing to salvation. To have a part in Jesus is to share in eternity with Him. That means similarly to Communion and to Baptism, foot washing is associated with eternal life and being made holy. Jesus also explains the meaning of what He is doing, in verse 10 connecting physical cleansing to spiritual cleansing, pointing out that one among them is not clean in his heart. These are not things that go along with “mere culture.” They are characteristics of things we as Christians must do. Jesus commands the practice, He connects it to our union with Him, and He explains at least some of the meaning.


Notice also that the particular act Jesus does and commands us to do, does not resemble mere hospitality. For example, simply offering a visitor some chips and dip does not involve getting down on your knees, handling what feels like an awkward part of their body, and personally physically serving them. Not even close. Simply allowing a sweaty visitor to use your shower to wash off, because you are a hospitable fellow, does not involve getting down on your knees, dealing with the unpleasant appendage of the feet, and serving them in a hands-on and very personal way. They are radically different experiences. For this reason also we can see that the Christian cannot replace foot washing with general hospitality. They are very different practices. Foot washing is humble; it involves getting down on your knees; it involves doing something unpleasant to most of us; it involves something very personal and relational.


I believe if there is any modern situation similar to foot washing it would be the care giver, who must personally bathe the patient who cannot bathe themselves: the physical touch, the vulnerability, the often unpleasant nature of the act. This is more similar to the kind of service Jesus instructed than showing general hospitality to friends and visitors. There is no meaningful comparison then, between foot washing and hospitality. The culture argument makes void Jesus’ words.


Moreover, if we could turn a command into mere culture, we could completely rewrite the Christian faith, as many of course have already done. It’s a favorite tactic of the liberals. If a command in the New Testament can be dismissed that way without real proof, then the sky’s the limit. Perhaps the bread and wine of Communion are mere ancient Hebrew culture. We could then update Communion to make it appropriate to OUR culture. We could replace the bread and wine with pizza and beer, and still say we were obeying Christ. Should the Church do that? How about the teaching that sodomy is unnatural in Romans 1? Perhaps Paul was speaking only for the view of ancient Hebrews, and now that we have a different concept of nature, the modern westerner can practice sodomy and does not violate natural law. We could do the same thing with moral commands in both Old and New Testament. People in that day were poorer and had fewer luxuries. That is why the Bible commands not to steal. Possessions were rare indeed and more vital than today. Since we live in a wealthier time, when people own more possessions including more luxuries, “you shall not steal” does not apply anymore. You see, anyone can point at a passage, and without any proof call it mere culture. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. To claim a command is only culture actually demands some proof, something those making the claim rarely have, especially for those New Testament commands or moral law from the Old Testament. They rely on their claim, but they don’t provide proof.


Foot washing, if we accept plain New Testament teaching, is similar to other ordinances or sacraments of the Church. It is a regular practice among the brethren, it is a unique way of uniting us with Christ, and it brings grace in our Christian walk and fellowship with one another. I would call it a sacrament, but if you wish to call it an ordinance that’s fine too. There is no way to read the Bible consistently, and ignore Jesus’ command to wash feet. There is no reason to accept the instruction to “do this in memory of me,” but ignore the instruction given at the very same time that “you should do as I have done to you.” I believe most Christians ignore this second teaching because it doesn’t seem very important to them, and because washing feet is not a pleasant thing to do. In the mind of the complacent Christian, listening to a long sermon is hard enough. Who wants to get down on their knees and wash feet? People stay away from this practice for mostly selfish reasons. We do this to our great harm. We also miss out on the blessing Jesus promised at Passover: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:17)


While I hope you can see now how foot washing is clearly taught in Scripture, there is some reasonable debate in how it should be practiced, and churches can reasonably have differences in how they apply the teaching. Considering that Jesus’ command is given to the apostles, it is reasonable to see it practiced by ministers, perhaps during the ordination of new ministers. Yet considering we also see the whole Church involved in the practice of ministers elsewhere, it is reasonable to see foot washing practiced congregationally. One could also differ on how often to do it, as churches differ on how often to practice Communion. It may be practiced once a year at the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, or more regularly as the elders see fit. Brethren may wish to practice it in their homes among one another. I have heard of certain churches that wash the feet of the poor, and while I am not against this, it seems outside of the scriptural teaching, since it takes foot washing outside of the Church. We are instructed to care for the poor by feeding, clothing, and housing them. We are never instructed to wash their feet as a general kind of service. However, if the brethren wished to do this, it should simply be distinguished from the Church ordinance as a more general kind of service to others. Foot washing in the Church is an ordinance, and in my understanding a sacrament which unites the believer to Christ. It is not interchangeable with washing feet for other reasons.


The ultimate question for humanity is this: how will you respond to Jesus? Will you respond with belief, with love, with obedience? Or will the promises of this life and the pleasures of it drown out the call of salvation? For the believer, those whom God had graced to receive the call, our response must be with love and obedience to Christ. We are not called to practice every single commandment of the Torah, but we are called to obey Jesus, as He commanded obedience of us, and as He himself obeyed the Father. As the Church joins in with Christ in faith and obedience, we share in His life. We share in His perfect example of obedience to the Father. In this example of foot washing, we share in His example of serving His own disciples by washing their feet. Jesus commanded in the very same chapter, “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) Washing the feet of the brethren is part of that love. When we do it we share in the life of Jesus, and when we refuse, we have not part in Him.




By: Thomas Ackerman


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