Is Footwashing An Ordinance Of Public Worship?
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.”
II Thessalonians 3:6
Ordinances for Public Worship Must Be Specifically Defined for New Testament Churches.
- The churches of Christ must look to the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s epistles for instruction as to ordinances of public worship binding local churches of the N.T.
- Paul made quite clear his role as giver of the ordinances to Gentiles and churches (Romans 16:17-18; I Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 11:1-2; Gal 1:8-9; I Thess 4:1-2; II Thess 2: 15; 3:6; etc.).
- Instructions given by Jesus must be understood generally in one of four senses.
- Apostolic ordinances from Christ are for apostles only (Mark 16:14-20).
- Ministerial ordinances from Christ are for apostles and ministers (Matt 28: 19-20).
- Jewish ordinances from Christ are for the Jews (Matthew 23:1-3; Romans 15:8).
- General ordinances from Christ are to be generally received (Matthew 18:15-17).
- The rest of the New Testament will confirm the sense of most, if not all, of Christ’s ordinances as to their proper application for Gentiles in New Testament churches.
- Jesus exemplified (Matt 3:15-16; John 3:22) and taught (Matt 28:19-20) baptism, and Peter (Acts 2:38; I Peter 3:21) and Paul (Acts 19:5; Rom 6:3-5) confirmed it.
- Jesus taught communion (Matt 26:26-28), and Paul confirmed it (I Cor 11:20-26).
- Jesus taught church judgment (Mat 18:15-17), and Paul confirmed it (I Cor 6:1-8).
- Jesus exemplified church singing (Matt 26:30), and Paul confirmed it (Col 3:16).
- Paul established ordinances that Jesus Christ did not teach during His ministry.
- Paul commanded rules regarding mixed marriages with unbelievers (I Cor 7:12-17).
- Paul taught rules regarding the use of tongues in local churches (I Cor 14:33-40).
- We have no instruction by either Jesus Christ or the apostles as to footwashing being an ordinance of public worship for New Testament churches.
- Jesus washed the apostles’ feet and told them to follow His example, but where is any evidence that such a lesson was to become an ordinance of public worship required of all the members of all local churches?
- We do not even have any evidence that the apostles ever literally washed each other’s feet. To assume from John 13:14 that they did do it literally at a later date requires the further assumption that Jesus intended the lesson there literally. If they did do it, did they pair off and trade pretend washings? or did they choose one apostle by lot who washed the feet of all the rest? or did they choose one apostle by lot who had his feet washed by all the rest? did they wash the women’s feet? did the women wash their feet? when did they instruct the churches that the domestic custom was now an ordinance of public worship to be done in an assembly?
- Since Acts records the history of the early churches and the epistles were written to those churches, why is there a very conspicuous silence as to this “ordinance”?
- If it is an ordinance that church members must practice in public worship, where is it ordained? and where are the rules of its observance?
- For any man or church to make ceremonial footwashing in public a requirement for fellowship is to go beyond the scriptures and add to the word of God.
- For any man or church to condemn any and all footwashing is to deny the example of our Lord in His example and the mark of humility expected of widows indeed.
- Roman Catholicism does practice footwashing as a literal ordinance of public worship, and it is important to remember her role in religious abominations (Revelation 17:1-6). While connection with Rome is not always proof of error, it is scripturally and statistically a significant warning.
- My Catholic Faith states, “During the Supper, Our Lord washed the feet of the Apostles. He did this to teach us humility. In commemoration, the celebrant of Holy Thursday Mass today washes the feet of twelve men, after the Gospel. After the washing of feet, Our Lord instituted the Blessed Eucharist, offered the first Mass, and gave His Apostles their first Holy Communion.”
- The Catholic Encyclopedia states, “The action of Christ after the Last Supper (John, xiii, 1-15) must also have invested it with a deep religious significance, and in fact down to the time of St. Bernard we find ecclesiastical writers, at least occasionally, applying to this ceremony the term Sacramentum in its wider sense, by which they no doubt meant that it possessed the virtue of what we now call a sacramental…. 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…. In the latter half of the twelfth century the pope washed the feet of twelve sub-deacons after his Mass and of thirteen poor men after his dinner. The ‘Caeremoniale episcoporum’ directs that the bishop is to wash the feet either of thirteen poor men or of thirteen of his canons. The prelate and his assistants are vested and the Gospel ‘Ante diem festum paschae’ is ceremonially sung with incense and lights at the beginning of the function. Most of the sovereigns of Europe used also formerly to perform the maundy.”
- How can you quickly prove that footwashing advocates are simply holding to tradition rather than obeying scripture? Ask when they had their last kissing service!
- Kissing each other is taught expressly to churches in the New Testament (Rom 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12; I Thessalonians 5:26; I Peter 5: 14).
- But the very ones who want to take John 13 literally and stick it into public worship of the New Testament and make the requirement of the widow in I Timothy 5:10 an act of public worship will quickly acknowledge that kisses of greeting were a custom of that day not binding on New Testament churches today.
- If Christ’s example to His apostles is an ordinance of public worship required of all church members, why not the kisses commanded by Paul of local churches?
- If the limiting factor of footwashing for a widow can be misconstrued to require footwashing of all church members, why not the order of Paul and Peter expressly given to church members?
Footwashing Was a Popular Custom Among the Jews and Their Neighbors in the Middle East.
- Abraham gave water for the Lord and Those with Him to wash their feet (Genesis 18:4). Observe that Abraham calls himself a servant in context of this event (18:3,5).
- Lot gave water to the angels that visited him in Sodom (Genesis 19:2). Observe that Lot calls himself a servant and the angels his lords in the context.
- Laban gave water for Abraham’s servant and his men to wash their feet (Genesis 24:32).
- Joseph’s steward gave water to his brethren to wash their feet (Genesis 43:24).
- Abigail offered herself as a humble servant to David by offering to wash his servants’ feet (I Samuel 25:41).
- David told Uriah to wash his feet after his trip from the battle (II Samuel 11:8).
- Simon the Pharisee did not give water for Jesus to wash His feet, but a woman of the city washed them with her tears; and Jesus rebuked Simon for his lack of affection and service (Luke 7:36-47).
- Washing feet is set forth by Paul to Timothy as a private and individual duty of widows to evidence good character (I Timothy 5:9-10).
- The purpose of this custom should be obvious. The Middle East has a very dry climate with much dust. Since they did not enclose their feet in shoes as we do – they either used sandals or went barefoot, traveling by foot meant that their feet would become quite dirty rather quickly. Prior to a meal it was a custom to wash one’s feet as a means of relaxation, refreshment, comfort, and cleanliness. Shoes in scripture are sometimes sandals (Matthew 10:9-10 cp Mark 6:7-9).
- Kissing was also a popular custom among the same peoples. Consider Gen 29:13; 33:4; 45:15; 50:1; Exodus 4:27; 18:7; I Sam 10:l; 20:41; II Sam 19:39; Luke 7:45; Acts 20:37. But we apply the kiss to other forms of physical affection and greeting acceptable in our society.
- Observe that the custom of the time and area was providing water for guests to wash their own feet. Abigail offered David more than this to show extraordinary humility and submission (I Sam 25:41 cp I Tim 5:10). A woman washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and wiped them with her hair to show her great humility and appreciation and affection (Luke 7:37-38). And Jesus washed His disciples’ feet to provide a supreme example of the humble service toward one another that He expected (John 13:13-16).
Footwashing Can Be Proven from Scripture to Not Be an Ordinance of Public Worship.
- Paul denies footwashing as a public ordinance by his rules for widows (I Timothy 5:3-16).
- These verses establish the rules ministers should follow in regulating the conduct of widows and their care by the churches of Christ (I Timothy 3:14-15 cp Acts 6:1).
- Paul draws an important distinction between widows and widows indeed (5:3,5,16).
- Children and other relatives are bound to provide for any family widows (5:4,8, 16).
- A widow indeed that does not have family to support her will give herself to trust in God and continual exercise in private worship (5:5-7,11-13; Luke 2:36-37).
- Paul establishes the criteria for a widow indeed by defining several qualifications that will distinguish her from the rest of the widows in the congregation.
- A widow indeed must be at least sixty years of age. Younger widows ( 1) will have the desire and need to remarry, (2) could more easily support themselves, (3) will have a greater temptation to abuse their time, and (4) have not had as long to establish a good reputation. Consider the warning of 5:11-13.
- A widow indeed must have had only one husband. A second marriage gave evidence of her need for marriage rather than Christian service and gave greater opportunity to secure her own support.
- The language used by the Spirit and the contextual characteristics of a widow indeed require this application rather than a condemnation of polyandry, which was unknown in Jewish and Roman society. Compare the present tense in the requirement for bishops and deacons (I Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6), which is a condemnation of polygamy on the part of leaders.
- A widow that remains unmarried after the death of her husband receives a greater degree of respect and honor (Luke 2:36-37; I Cor 7:39-40). This greater respect and esteem is both scriptural and natural. Roman history shows such differentiation in public honor given to widows.
- Excluding a woman that has had two husbands from the number is no worse than excluding a woman who has never had a husband. The honor granted by the church assumes careful conduct by a woman under an act of God.
- Paul argues here for young widows to remarry (5:14) due to his description of their temptations in the flesh (5:11-13). Paul suggests the single state for widows in I Corinthians 7:40 for the present distress (7:26) and distraction (7:35). A widow is at liberty to remarry in the Lord; and a young widow with temptations in the flesh should remarry; but remaining single reserves greater honor for those women that can show such fidelity and service. There is obviously no such comparable suggestion or requirement for men.
- A widow indeed must have a reputation of good works. Since the church would be supporting such a widow, it is fitting that she have a reputation among the members as one deserving of such charity. Many witnesses confirm character (Prov 22:1; Acts 6:3; II Cor 13:1; I Tim 3:7).
- A widow indeed must have brought up children. Any woman without character can bear children: but few women can bring up children. Proper child training is obviously intended here as an example of her character (Prov 22:6; Eph 6:4 cp Prov 6:20). Any woman with a closed womb has the opportunity to bring up the children of others. The apostle does not require childbirth, but a woman that lives for herself without caring for children shows a spirit contrary to nature.
- A widow indeed must have lodged strangers. She must have been given to hospitality, which is one of the duties of charity (Rom 12:13; I Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8; I Pet 4:9) and opportunities for women (II Kgs 4:8-1 O; Acts 16:15). Observe that this hospitality is shown to strangers (Heb 13:2 cp Luke 14:12-14). Having your friends over for dinner would not count (Luke 6:32-34).
- A widow indeed must have washed the saints’ feet. She must have shown her humility and submissive service to Christ’s saints by performing this lowly service in a custom of their day.
- It was a service of great humility (I Sam 25:41) and submission (John 13:16) and affection (Luke 7:44-47). Simon the Pharisee gave the example of forsaking it.
- While the custom of the day was providing water for a guest to wash their own feet, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to show greater humility and service than commonly expected.
- Familiarity often breeds contempt, but widows indeed were to have shown this service to the saints – her brothers and sisters in Christ – just as her Lord had shown it to His disciples.
- A widow “too good” for washing the feet of the saints in her church did not deserve receiving their support. She did not have Christ’s spirit of humility and service.
- A widow indeed must have relieved the afflicted. Pure religion and righteous character is shown by charity to those deserving it (Matt 25:34-40; Acts 9:36-39; II Corinthians 9:9; James 1:27).
- A widow indeed must have diligently followed every good work. Her reputation of virtue must include both diligent application of herself to good works and that application to every good work. A widow indeed is known for more than diligence in one or two areas: she applies herself to every good work.
- These restrictive criteria could not be true of the rest of the widows in a church or their function as limiting qualifications is made void.
- The churches of Christ have always had and will always have spiritual members and carnal members, diligent members and lazy members, and so forth (Romans 15:1; I Cor 12:22-23; Galatians 6:1; I Thess 5:14).
- A sixty-five year old widow that had been married to only one man could be a fine church member but may not qualify for support by the church in the number of widows indeed.
- The use of these limiting criteria assumes that some widows might not be sixty, not have been married only once, not have a great reputation, not have trained children well, not have lodged strangers, not have washed the saints’ feet, not have relieved the afflicted, and not been diligent in pursuing every good work.
- Observe that none of the qualifications are things implicit in all church members without exception. For instance, there is no requirement for repentance, faith in Christ, water baptism, hymn singing, the Lord’s Supper, church judgment, and so forth, since all widows would have satisfied such a requirement. Paul here is not dealing with aspects of public and corporate worship that would be necessarily true of all church members: he is dealing with private and domestic and individual good works that may or may not be done by different church members and when done will be performed with varying degrees of diligence.
- Consider the qualifications for bishops and deacons (3:1-13). They are limiting qualifications that separate a man from the rest of the men in the congregation.
- Observe that Paul says nothing of public duties incumbent upon all church members. As with the widow, he does not mention repentance, faith, and baptism. Such qualifications would not serve the purpose of identifying special grace upon a limited number of men called by God to these offices.
- What Paul does require of these men are private works evident of good character i.e. vigilance, sobriety, hospitality, family rule, patience temperance, and so forth. While every church member ought to have these marks, most church members will be deficient in one or more of them.
- If any one of these requirements was necessary for membership in a church of Christ, then it could not and would not serve its purpose of identification.
- Paul’s inclusion of washing the saints’ feet in the list of limiting qualifications for widows indeed is proof that it was not a public ordinance binding all church members like the Lord’s Supper. While this text is often used to support footwashing as a public ordinance of Christ’s churches by some, it actually condemns it.
- Since the domestic practice has ceased for many years due to our differences in climate from the Middle East and the ease of obtaining enclosed shoes, a widow indeed must only show the character of the act.
- Paul assumes a domestic duty of his day that Christ used as a great example of service without any basis for it being an act of worship obligatory of all church members. It provided an obviously clear indication of servitude and affection (I Samuel 25:41; Luke 7:44-47).
- Consider the other subjective judgments that must be made by ministers. Barren women can bring up the children of others. Mothers must not only bring up their children, but they must bring them up well in the way they should go. Widows without housing or room could lodge strangers at an inn. Relieving the afflicted could be everything from United Fund contributions to visiting an orphanage with clothing to sending food to saints in prison.
- Consider other commandments of scripture that must be understood in the context of our society. We honor the king (I Peter 2:17) by honoring our Constitution, President, Congress, and Supreme Court. We obey the precepts governing servants and masters by applying them to employers and employees. We apply the rules regarding the eating of meat offered to idols to various issues of offence in our society.
- There is not one example of any church washing feet as a symbolic ordinance of worship.
- There is not even the slightest hint that the apostles ever washed each other’s feet.
- The Bible does leave examples of churches breaking bread (Acts 20:7; I Cor 10:16), but why the complete silence as to this important ordinance?
- Where are the traditions governing this ordinance to be found? Should men wash the feet of women? Should women wash the feet of men? Should one member wash all the feet of the rest of the congregation as our Lord did? Should all the members take turns washing the feet of one member selected by lot? Should we pair off and do unto others as they do unto us?
Jesus Washed the Feet of the Disciples to Exemplify Humility and Christian Service.
- This event occurred at the house of Simon in Bethany two days before the Passover Feast (John 12:1-8 cp 13:1 cp Matthew 26:6-13 cp Mark 14:1-9).
- It was at this supper that Jesus was anointed with ointment by Mary (John 12:3).
- Judas was angry with the expense since he missed a chance for theft (John 12:4-6).
- Satan used this offence with Christ to move Judas to conspire with the Jews to betray Him (Matthew 26:14-16 cp Luke 22:3-6 cp John 13:2).
- There are two suppers in John 13 by virtue of supper ending (13:2) and supper still being eaten (13:26). The first supper is that at Simon’s house and is described through 13:17. The second supper is the Passover and is described through 14:31.
- There are two suppers in John 13 by virtue of one supper being before the Passover (13:1-2), and the other supper including events occurring at the Passover (13:21-26).
- There are two suppers in John 13 by virtue of Satan having entered Judas during the first supper (13:2) and yet still entered him after a sop (13:27). The first entering led him to conspire with the Jews (Luke 22:3-6), and the second entering led him to gather the Jews to betray Him in Gethsemane (13:30-33 cp 18:1-3).
- After supper at Simon’s, Jesus prepared Himself and washed the disciples’ feet (13:2-17).
- The washing of their feet was an example of the love that had characterized His relationship with His disciples (13: l).
- The washing of their feet was based on the appointment of His kingdom power and knowledge that He was soon to return to God (13:3 cp Luke 22:29 cp Matt 28:18).
- Upon coming to Peter, Jesus must explain to him the importance of this event (13:5-11).
- He has already washed the feet of some disciples before coming to Peter (13:5).
- Peter is appalled at the thought of his Lord washing his feet as a servant, so he asks Christ whether or not he actually intended to wash his feet (13:6).
- Jesus tells Peter he did not understand the lesson now, but he would soon (13:7).
- Obviously Peter knew that Jesus was washing feet and drying them with a towel.
- Jesus intended later to make application of the footwashing so that they would know what He was truly trying to communicate.
- Peter ignores the Lord’s explanation and refuses to let Him wash his feet (13:8).
- Jesus responds to the refusal by stating (1) the importance of what He was doing and (2) the effect of Peter’s refusal (13:8). Jesus as Lord intended to wash Peter’s feet: a refusal would be rebellion on the part of Peter. Jesus intended to communicate an important lesson to the apostles: a refusal of the lesson would disqualify Peter.
- Peter then, characteristic of his temperament and seeing the importance of the thing considered, suggests that the Lord wash his hands and head also (13:9).
- Jesus then reminds Peter that a bathed man needed only to have his feet washed, since the rest of him is already clean (13: 10-11).
- Responsibility for bathing the rest of the body was that of the individual, but a true servant would wash the feet of guests at supper, since even traveling from the bath would dirty the feet.
- Making quick application to the cleanliness of the group, Jesus speaks of Judas.
- Some would take the exchange between Jesus and Peter and make it a theological review of legal justification and practical sanctification. While such themes are true according to the testimony of scripture, there is no evidence of them here.
- The lesson taught by the washing of their feet was not related to their legal or vital or practical salvation – it was a lesson in humility and service (13:12-17).
- There is an obvious and plain and simple application of the words naturally.
- The Spirit explains the figurative sense of Christ’s final words, but He does not give any support to a figurative sense of His previous words.
- If Peter understood a spiritual sense in the words, why did he mention his hands and his head along with his feet?
- The hands and the head are the other parts of the body susceptible to dirt.
- Peter’s response is totally void of any spiritual understanding or application.
- The shift to a figurative application occurred when Jesus moved from the singular pronoun “thou” to the plural pronoun “ye.”
- Upon finishing the washing of their feet, Jesus explained to them the lesson (13:12-17).
- When He had completely finished the washing and was returned to His seat, He asked them if they understood the significance of what He had just done (13:12).
- If the washing of feet was all He intended, any young child would have known. But they would have especially known, since they had received it often.
- He obviously intended something further, as He had already intimated (13:7).
- What did He do? He gave them a supreme object lesson as to the way they were to serve each other rather than arguing as to whom should be the greatest.
- He bases His application of the lesson on the relationship He had to His apostles of Lord and Master (13:13-14).
- He reminded them that they knew and recognized Him as their Lord and Master.
- He reasoned thus: if I am your Lord and Master, and I have just performed the ultimate role of a Servant to you by washing your feet, then you ought to perform the same role to each other.
- He is not pressing for a literal repetition of footwashing, since His words must be modified by their connection with the next verse stating it was an example. Note the connecting conjunctive “for.” They didn’t need an example of washing feet, but they did need one of humble service.
- He obviously intended something more than the washing of feet, for they knew when He began that He their Lord and Master was washing their feet (13:5-8).
- He is establishing the great mark of His religion (Matt 20:20-28; Luke 22:24-27).
- Remember how the literalists will modify the ordinance of greeting by kissing.
- He told them plainly that He gave them an example by washing their feet; that is, He gave them a real illustration of service, as He explains in the following verse.
- Example. 1. A typical instance; a fact, incident, quotation, etc. that illustrates, or forms a particular case of, a general principle, rule, state of things, etc.; a person or thing that may be taken as an illustration of a certain quality.
- Consider the Bible use of the words example, examples, ensample, and ensamples (Matthew 1:19; I Corinthians 10:6,11; Phil 3:17; I Thessalonians 1:7; II Thess 3:9; I Timothy 4:12; Hebrews 4:11; 8:5; James 5:10; I Peter 2:21; 5:3; Jude 1:7). God’s use of the word does not indicate “a precise thing that you ought to do literally as an ordinance.”
- When you find an advocate of literal footwashing as an ordinance of public worship, ask them how often they repeat the Lord’s prayer as an ordinance of public worship (Luke 11:1-4 cp Matt 6:9-13). And remember that there is a “church” that does practice both as ordinances of public worship. Ask them if they pray in closets (Matt 6:6) or in mountains (Matt 14:23). Go get ’em!
- Consider that the feet of the disciples needed washing (13:10 cp Luke 7:44). It is a farce to think that pairing off and washing each other’s washed feet is what Christ did or commanded.
- If the “example” here is not an example in principle, then it must be a literal example. But how often have you seen one wash the feet of all? The pope washes the feet of thirteen to prove superiority to Christ. So much for humility.
- Jesus argues from the relative position of lords and servants to bring greater force to His example. If He could wash the feet of men as a servant, then certainly it was not beneath them to do it.
- Remember that the Spirit told us of Christ’s knowledge of His departure (13:3).
- Luke records the same lesson about humility and service without recording the footwashing (Luke 22:24-27). Consider carefully the context of Christ’s lesson as recorded by Luke.
- The disciples had shown this disposition before (Mark 9:34-35; Luke 9:46-48), and Jesus had dealt with this issue before (Matthew 10:24; Mark 9:35).
- Since Christ was about to depart and leave His kingdom in the hands of these men, it was important for Him to give them an example of humble service and warn them against the evils of pride and lordship. The affects on the establishment of His kingdom would have been dreadful without this preparation.
- Jesus concludes by promising happiness to the knowledgeable and obedient (13:17).
- Why did Christ ask them if they knew these things? They certainly knew about washing feet. What else did He have in mind?
- Why does He refer to plural “things”? Was He speaking of humility, service, submission, and related things?
- If ye do “them” is the condition for happiness. And the plural “them” is by this text alone more than just footwashing.
- Footwashing considered simply in a public ceremony can be performed without any humility, as the pope does every Holy Thursday.
- Jesus did not institute a symbolic act for public worship. Some will argue for a symbolic act to teach both the figurative, pretended event and the intended lesson.
- Footwashing is not a symbol of service: it is a veritable act of service.
- Jesus did not call anything here a symbol – a figurative picture of deep meaning.
- Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are expressly stated as figurative ordinances.
- A moment under water is not a true burial and resurrection – it is figurative.
- A thimble of wine and a one inch square of bread are not a literal supper.
- But a basin of water, a towel, and two feet are definitely a real act of humility and service, especially when the feet are washed by another as a servant.
- Pairing off and washing the clean feet of a person who is expected to then wash your clean feet is not at all what Jesus did. It appears a symbolic farce of the real thing. But Jesus never made footwashing symbolical. He made it a real act evident of the attitude of humility and service necessary of His disciples.
- Most honest footwashing advocates realize their weakness with John 13 alone, so they raise I Timothy 5:10 as a further positive witness. But as we have seen, the text written by Paul denies rather than supports footwashing as an ordinance of public worship in the churches of Christ.
- When He had completely finished the washing and was returned to His seat, He asked them if they understood the significance of what He had just done (13:12).
Footwashing Should Provoke Us to Emulate the Submissive Service of Our Lord and Master.
- We should willingly serve one another (I Sam 25:41; Mat 20:20-28; Rom 15:1-2; Gal 5:13).
- We should love one another enough to serve one another (John 13:1,34-35 cp Heb 13:1).
- We should willingly submit to one another (Luke 22:24-27; Ephesians 5:21; Phil 2:1-4).