Foot Washing: an Irrelevant and Antiquated Ritual?
by Cindy Tutsch
Speaking hither and yon on behalf of the White Estate, I’ve noticed some trends in youth ministry. Indeed, some of these trends extend beyond youth ministry. One such new wrinkle in Adventism is to conduct Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, without the formerly requisite washing of each other’s feet.
So, what gives? Is foot washing before Communion optional for Adventists? Is it just an archaic, old-fangled practice, inconvenient to old and young alike, and wholly irrelevant as a precursor to partaking in the symbols of Christ’s death? Or is the foot washing an essential and biblical practice?
Foot washing history in a nutshell: The night before Christ’s crucifixion He and His disciples celebrated the Passover in an upper chamber of a dwelling in Jerusalem. Undoubtedly, Jesus was hoping to share words of warning and comfort about the events soon to transpire so that His friends would not be devastated by His imminent trial and untimely death. But the soon-to-be church leaders were embroiled in a serious power struggle and were in no frame of mind to listen to spiritual realities, even from the Savior.
The protocol at such an occasion was a servant should wash the feet of the guests. The disciples were well aware of this custom, and in fact, the pitcher, basin, and towel had already been laid out. Everyone knew that someone should do it, yet everyone pretended that nothing was amiss.
Everyone, that is, except Jesus.
In my mind’s eye, I see Jesus waiting to see what His friends, so close and dear to His heart, would do. When it became apparent that no one, not even John, was about to lift a finger, Jesus must have sighed. Taking off his long robe, He tucks the towel around His waist. In stunned silence, the disciples watch Jesus pour water in the basin, kneel in front of one of the disciples, and begin washing his feet.
As Jesus moved from disciple to disciple, I can imagine how utterly ashamed they must have felt. This was Jesus — Creator of the world, their Master, their Lord, their Redeemer, their God! Why was HE washing THEIR feet? In the palpable silence of the ‘aha’ moment, Christ’s example of servant leadership sweeps away their selfish ambitions, greed, political posturing and dissention. Only Judas is disgusted by what he perceives as a degrading and unessential act. Christ’s foot washing service is deemed unnecessary humiliation by Judas, and he is confirmed in his purpose to disown his Lord.
Lest believers in the future should consider themselves untempted by selfish ambitions, greed, political posturing and dissention and feel no need of a similar service of humility, Christ gave specific instruction about the perpetuity of the foot washing service.
“After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, ‘Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because it is true. And since I, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. How true it is that a servant is not greater than the master. Nor are messengers more important that the one who sends them. You know these things — now do them! That is the path of blessing.” John 13:10-17 NLT
Pretty straight-forward injunction, it seems to me. But could it be that in our too-cool-for-school egotism, we want to do stuff ‘our way,’ with little regard to whether our choices are rooted in Scripture? Unfortunately, ‘our way’ may be just another evidence of a heart unwilling to give up works’ righteousness in exchange for accepting the righteousness of Christ alone. Because in disregarding Christ’s instructions, we are in reality rejecting Christ and His atoning sacrifice on our behalf.
Except Judas, the disciples had committed themselves to Jesus long before that fateful night in the upper room. Christ had accepted them as His, and they had been “washed in the great fountain opened for sin and uncleanness.” But even after choosing to serve Him, His disciples struggled with alienation, jealousy, and pride. The foot washing that night was not only a symbol of loving service to others, essential as that is. The disciples had ‘fallen away’ from their first love, and the foot washing also represented Christ’s willingness to restore them to relational community with Him, to wash away their sins by His cleansing grace. Their hearts must be cleansed before they could benefit spiritually from the symbols of His death.
Are we any less in need of Christ’s cleansing grace today? Or in our arrogance, do we feel no need of the symbol of Christ’s renewal before the Communion and thus trust in our own goodness, heedless of Jesus' instructions to wash each other’s feet in remembrance of how we are saved?
It was Jesus Himself who instituted the religious ritual of the foot washing. And Jesus says, “If you know these things, happy are you if you do them.”