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Foot Washing: Should We Wash Feet as Church Worship Ritual?

Washing of Feet - John 13
Should Churches Practice Foot Washing as Worship Ritual?

Did Jesus teach foot washing as a church ritual in religious worship assemblies? Does washing of feet (footwashing) in modern denominations serve the same purpose and is it done in the same way as Jesus did it?

What did the Lord intend to teach in John 13 when He washed the disciples feet? Did He institute a church religious worship ritual, or did He set an example of individual humble service? Does washing of feet (footwashing) in modern denominations serve the same purpose and is it done in the same way as Christ did it? Do Bible examples show that washing of feet was an individual act of hospitality or personal hygiene? 

Introduction:

Some churches practice washing of feet as a church worship ritual.

foot washing ... - a religious rite practiced by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week (preceding Easter) and by members of some other Christian churches in their worship services. - Encyclopedia Britannica (under "foot washing") at www.britannica.com/eb/

The principal priest or prelate of the church assisted by deacon and subdeacon washes the feet of twelve poor men. The Pope washes the feet of thirteen poor persons, all of whom are priests - Catholic Dictionary, p 404.

In 694 the Seventeenth Synod of Toledo commanded all bishops and priests in a position of superiority under pain of excommunication to wash the feet of those subject to them. - Catholic Encyclopedia (under "Washing of Hands and Feet") via www.newadvent.org/cathen

The purpose of this study is to examine the teaching of Scripture about the practice of foot washing.

What did Jesus do when He washed His disciples feet? Did He intend to institute a ritual to be repeated by Christians in church worship meetings? What lessons did He intend to teach?

Consider the Bible teaching:


I. The Example of Jesus in John 13


The circumstances

Luke 22:14-27 and other accounts show that, on this very occasion (as well as other times), the apostles argued among themselves about which of them was greatest and would have the highest positions in the kingdom. They had a serious problem with pride and self-exaltation. (See also Mark 9:33-36; 10:35-45; Luke 9:46-48; Matthew 20:20-28.)

They may have been especially excited by the great honor the people showed when they entered the city with the Lord in the Triumphal Entry. Like other people, they believed Jesus was ready to announce the beginning of His earthly kingdom. As part of His inner circle, they struggled over who would be greatest in that kingdom. Apparently, no one wanted to accept menial or humble tasks, such as washing one another's feet after their journey.

On such occasions in the past, Jesus had tried to teach the apostles humility, even explaining that He Himself had come to serve and give His life for others (Matthew 20:28). Finally, on this occasion He determined to demonstrate by His own example the humility the apostles needed to learn.

[Cf. Philippians 2:1-8.]

Jesus' action

Note what Jesus did:

Vv 3-5 - He took a towel, poured water in a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet and dry them with the towel.

Vv 6-11 - Peter objected to Jesus' washing His feet. Jesus said Peter could have no part with him if Peter refused. Then Peter wanted his hands and head washed too, but Jesus said these were already clean (he had already bathed) and only his feet needed to be washed.

Vv 12-17 - He asked if they understood what He had done. If He, as the Teacher and Lord, had washed their feet, then they should wash one another's feet. He had given them an example, that they should do as He had done to them. A servant is not greater than His master, so they would be blessed if they did these things.

Observations regarding Jesus' actions

* The disciples must have needed to have their feet washed.

Jesus refused to wash Peter's hands and head, since those had already been bathed. But Jesus' expressly stated that their feet needed to be washed in order to make them completely clean. So, washing their feet met a physical "need." It follows that, just as He did not wash their hands and heads, so He would not have washed their feet if they were already clean. (Presumably, their feet had become dirty on the way to the meeting room.)

* Jesus washed both feet of each disciple.

This expressly follows from the fact that He was washing what needed to be washed. If one foot needed washed, then both feet needed it. He and Peter expressly stated that Jesus washed Peter's "feet" (plural), just as He had also done for the others.

* He said they should wash one another's feet (v14).

This was not something that certain designated foot washers should do for others who don't wash feet. But all were equally responsible to do it.

* But Jesus was teaching also a deeper lesson than just the need for clean feet.

He stated or implied more than once that they did not understand (or needed to consider carefully so they would understand) what He was doing - vv 7,23. Peter obviously misunderstood. The disciples obviously understood that He was washing their feet, but His statements show that He was teaching a deeper lesson.

* By washing the disciples' feet, Jesus took upon Himself the humblest of duties, generally left to a servant.

None of the other disciples would lower himself to do this for the others, so Jesus did it Himself. Hence, the One, Whom they all knew to be the greatest among them, voluntarily chose to do the humblest task among them. This is exactly what He had taught them in words on other occasions (see the passages above).

* After washing their feet, Jesus said they should wash one another's feet as He had done (v14).

He had given them an example, so they should do as He had done (v15). They would be happy if they did as He had done (v17).

This would sound like a direct command to imitate His example. But the question remains as to exactly what it was that the disciples should imitate. Must they literally wash feet? Did He mean for them to practice a regular church worship ritual, like the Lord's Supper? Or did He set some other example? As already stated, His statements implied a deeper meaning than just washing of feet. What was the lesson to be imitated?


II. Other Bible Passages about Foot Washing


Washing of Feet as an Act of Hospitality

Bible examples

Old Testament examples

Genesis 18:1-5 - Three men (angels) came to Abraham's tent as they traveled to Sodom. He offered water to wash their feet and food to refresh them. It is not clear here who washed the men's feet; but it is clear that, like the offer of food, this was an act of hospitality to provide refreshment for travelers.

A nearly identical event occurred in each of the following cases:

* When the men visited Lot (Genesis 19:1-3)

* When Abraham's servant visited Laban (Genesis 24:17-24,31-33)

* When Joseph's brothers went to Egypt for food (Genesis 43:24,25).

* When an old man in Gibeah provided lodging for a Levite and his concubine who were traveling (Judges 19:16-21). [Note that the old man said he was providing for their "needs."]

* When David's servants visited Abigail to invite her to become David's wife, she said she would be a servant to wash the feet of David's servants (1 Samuel 25:40,41). Note that Abigail stated that washing their feet would be an act of service to them, and she willingly offered to do that service.

In each case, hospitality was shown to travelers by offering food for the people (and perhaps their animals), a place to spend the night (if needed), and washing their feet or at least offering them water to wash their feet.

Two other Bible examples describe people who wash their own feet in their own dwelling as an act of personal refreshment or hygiene (2 Samuel 11:8; Song of Solomon 5:3).

New Testament examples

Luke 7:37,38,44-46 - In the home of Simon the Pharisee, a woman washed Jesus' feet with her tears. When Simon criticized her, Jesus pointed out that, when He entered Simon's house, Simon provided no water for Him to wash His feet, nor had he greeted Him with a kiss, nor anointed His head with oil. All these acts were intended as expressions of hospitality and respect for one who visited. Simon had not done them for Jesus, but the woman had done them for Him.

1 Timothy 5:10 - Paul described a widow indeed as one who lodged strangers, washed the saints feet, relieved the afflicted, and diligently followed every good work. All the other works in the list were acts of service to meet the needs of others. Washing the feet of saints is expressly associated with hospitality in lodging strangers, just as in the Old Testament cases.

Observations

Note the following facts based on these Scriptures.

* Washing feet was an act of hospitality or personal hygiene.

This is the pattern of each of these Scriptures. This makes sense in that land where people often traveled by foot, wearing sandals, walking in hot, dusty sand. Washing the feet was done to comfort guests, meet their needs, and welcome them. When one person did it for others, it was considered a menial task of service.

* It follows that washing of feet was an act of service to meet a need.

It was not a ritual done as an act of worship. People had a physical need, just like they might need food or a place to spend the night. Hospitality involved providing whatever would meet that need.

It also follows that there was no purpose in washing the feet of those whose feet were clean. Such people would not need their feet washed.

* Since the purpose was to meet a need, both feet were washed for those who needed it.

It makes no sense to wash one foot. If people came from a journey, both feet would need to be washed. Meeting their need would require washing both feet.

* In none of these cases was washing of feet a worship ritual done in the context of worship meetings.

It was an individual act done as an act of hospitality to visitors.

Washing the Feet of Priests in the Tabernacle

Passages

Exodus 30:19-21; 40:30-32 - God commanded Moses to make a laver to place outside the tabernacle where the priests could wash their hands and feet before entering the tabernacle or offering sacrifices. They were commanded to do this on penalty of death.

Observations

This was done in religious worship, but note its characteristics:

* The priests washed, not just their feet, but also their hands.

* The priests were to wash their own hands and feet, not the feet of others.

* This was done by priests in the tabernacle. There is no evidence the people in general were commanded to wash the feet of others or to have their own feet washed.

* The time, place, and occasion was specifically stated: when they went into the tabernacle and when they offered sacrifices. There is no evidence it was done to other people in the midst of a worship assembly.

* Specific penalty was stated for failure: death.

* This pertained entirely to the Old Testament tabernacle and animal sacrifices, none of which is part of the New Testament church.

These examples of the priests in the tabernacle are included in this study simply for completeness. It should be quite obvious that Jesus' act in John 13 is not at all the same. He was not a priest under the Old Law (those priests had to be of the tribe of Levi), He did not wash the disciples' feet at the tabernacle, nor was He offering animal sacrifices, He washed other people's feet rather than His own hands and feet, etc. The example of the priests does not in any way explain what Jesus did, nor does it authorize a church foot washing ritual.


III. Foot Washing as a Modern Church Worship Ritual


As quoted in our introduction, churches that practice foot washing do so as a religious ritual in their worship assemblies, like the Lord's Supper (in fact, it is often associated with the Lord's Supper). Did Jesus intend to institute foot washing as a church worship ritual (or even like the priest's washing before entering the tabernacle), or should His example be associated with hospitality and serving others as an individual act?

Consider the differences between what Jesus did and church worship rituals:

1. John 13 nowhere states this should be a ritual of worship done in the assemblies of the church.

Where does the passage say feet should be washed in a worship meeting or as an act of worship? Nothing is the passage so states. Any such conclusion is an assumption.

2. No other passage gives any example or any indication that Christians did this in church worship assemblies.

If the Lord intended this to be a religious ritual done in their assemblies, would we not find examples of it being done, like we find examples of the Lord's Supper being done in assemblies?

3. The only passage after this that even mentions feet washing is 1 Timothy 5:10.

The context there shows that the act is a personal, individual act done as one has the opportunity, like other qualities listed in that context. The widow indeed is hospitable to strangers, washes feet of the saints, and relieves the afflicted. There is no indication of church assemblies or church action of any kind.

4. No passage anywhere states when or how often this ritual should be practiced or what purpose it would serve.

It is true that Jesus at this time instituted the Lord's Supper. But when the Lord instituted a religious rite, we would expect Him to give us the necessary information to carry it out. So, we have other Scriptures that teach Christians to have the Lord's Supper in their worship assemblies (1 Corinthians 11:17ff). The time and frequency when it should be done are also taught (Acts 20:7). The meaning and purpose of the Lord's Supper is also clearly stated several times (1 Corinthians 11:17ff; 10:16f; Matthew 26:26-28; etc.).

What the Old Testament priests did when they washed their hands and feet was different from what Jesus taught. But it too illustrates that the Lord gave all necessary instructions for religious rites. He said exactly who should do it, where it should be done, when it should be done, and what the penalty would be for failure.

Regarding foot washing, we have no instruction to do it as a church function, no instruction to do it in the worship assembly, we are never told what purpose any such act might serve, nor are we told when or how often to do it. Washing of feet lacks every essential element of a church ritual.

5. Other Old and New Testaments passages regarding washing of feet generally view it as an act of hospitality and service done by individuals to meet people's needs.

See the references already studied.

Even when the priests washed in tabernacle service, they did not wash the feet of others, nor did they do so in a congregational worship assembly.

There is simply no evidence that foot washing is a church worship ritual.

6. When modern denominations attempt to practice "foot-washing," that which they do is surely not what the Scriptures describe.

"How to Conduct a Foot Washing Service," by Ken Collins, says:

"For the people whose feet are being washed: Instruct them to come to the service with clean feet in clean footgear ... Each person removes the footgear from one foot. It doesn't matter which foot. The foot-washer places the bowl under the person's bare foot, pours water on the foot, and dries it with the towel." [emphasis added]

In denominations people know ahead of time their feet will be washed, so they make sure they are clean!

Who wants everybody in a church assembly seeing and smelling your dirty feet? But this defeats the whole purpose of the washing, which was to meet a need as an act of hospitality. Jesus clearly said that what was already clean did not "need" to be washed. The feet washed in ritual ceremonies today are clean; therefore, by Jesus' own statement they need not be washed. His act was intended to meet a "need." Modern denominational ritual foot washing involves just the opposite: Feet are washed that do not need to be washed.

Denominations wash only one foot of each person who is washed, because it is only a ritual: people don't need both feet washed.

But Jesus washed both feet (plural), because if a man had one foot dirty the other would be too. But the same reasoning that leads people to leave one foot unwashed would likewise tell them to not wash either foot. Neither foot really needs to be washed; so as Jesus explained, there is no purpose in washing either one!

Nor can they appeal to the Old Testament example of the priests, since they washed both their feet and their hands.

Jesus said that the disciples should wash one another's feet, not just that certain designated leaders (priests or Pope) should wash the feet of others.

It was a responsibility of all to do.

And again, they cannot appeal to the Old Testament priests, since they washed their own feet and hands.

Further, the main lesson Jesus was trying to teach His apostles was humility.

But the modern denominational ritual involves making show and pomp of ones humility! One who is truly humble does not seek or deliberately set up rituals by which he can demonstrate his humility!

So the modern denominational ritual violates both aspects of what the Lord intended: It is not really an act of humility, and it does not really meet a need. It is nothing like what the Lord really did.

7. The fact Jesus said more than once that the disciples did not understand what He was doing, indicates that simply washing feet was not the real point of the lesson.

They could clearly see He was doing that (note John 13:7,12).


III. The Lesson Jesus Intended to Teach


If Jesus did not intend to institute a church worship ritual, what lesson did He intend to teach?

Jesus example had all the characteristics of an act of hospitality and humble service to meet the needs of others.

Perhaps there is even more to it than this, but at least this much seems to be involved: The 12 had disputed among themselves about which of them would have the greatest place of honor in Jesus' kingdom (see notes above). Jesus' act showed that what is important is service, not authority or greatness in man's ways of looking at greatness. (Cf. Matthew 20:20-28.)

The disciples needed a lesson on having the humility to serve one another with kindness, rather than competing with one another to see who can excel others in honor and power. The 12 refused to humble themselves to serve one another in this way. So, Jesus took the opportunity to serve them and thereby teach them the lesson of humble service to meet the needs of others. If the Lord performed this kind of humble service, surely the disciples should do the same. To make this a ritual in the church assembly misses the point.

Compare this to Luke 10:37.

Here Jesus plainly described how a Samaritan helped a needy Jew, who had been beaten and robbed. Then Jesus commanded us to "go and do likewise" -- just like in John 13. Was Jesus here making a church ritual out of helping people beaten by robbers! Obviously, not. He was illustrating love for our neighbor, teaching us to show care and kindness to help people in whatever their need.

The application to today would be that anytime others really need our help, we should be humble and kind enough to willingly serve in whatever capacity they need. We must not think we are too good to do certain tasks.

Some people today may actually need their feet washed (such as elderly people, sick people, or children who cannot bathe themselves, etc.), though this would be much less common in our society than in theirs. But it is done to meet a genuine need, not as a church ritual for people whose feet are already clean.

And there are plenty of other opportunities to serve. The lesson to be learned is that every Christian should be humble enough to do for others what they need someone to do for them. When we understand that this is the example Jesus set, then we should do as He did.

Note: If you would like to study further about related Bible topics, we have a number of other study materials on our web site that should interest you. Please see the links listed below.

(C) Copyright 2007, David E. Pratte
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Topics for further Bible study

The Day for Partaking of the Lord's Supper
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
Divine Authority vs. Human Authority in Religion
What Does God Think about Denominationalism?
Must We Keep the Law of Moses and the Sabbath Today?
How Many True Churches Are There?
How Can You Find & Identify Jesus' Church?

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