Foot Washing: Command or Convention?
by Steven Siciliano | 30 January 2020 |
I joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church about forty years ago, as a young person with little knowledge of the Bible. Among other things, I was told that Jesus had instituted foot washing as an “ordinance” that we should literally reenact. I remember thinking that the custom was somewhat strange and anachronistic, but I accepted it in the spirit of an open-hearted learner.
Years later I heard someone say it was wrong to think that Jesus was establishing a religious ritual, that He instead washed his disciples feet to illustrate and inculcate the spirit of selfless service—an idea that made good sense to me then, and now. It was the conclusion I would have arrived at myself if I hadn’t been taught otherwise.
In spite of that leaning, I have continued to participate in the foot washing ceremony and have rarely discussed the topic, principally because I’ve seen little harm in the practice. It’s part of Adventist church custom and, for many, conveys a palpable lesson of service.
Unfortunately, the practice seems to be having the opposite effect on others these days. Some of my fellow ministers lament that it actually drives members away from celebrating the Lord’s Supper. They note that many who attend Sabbath services on communion day choose to leave right after the sermon, while others avoid going to church altogether! And even for those who stay, the amount of time and energy invested in washing feet seems to overshadow the sharing of bread and wine.
With these observations in mind, it seems worthwhile to revisit the issue. Is foot-washing something we should continue? Did Jesus really intend to establish an “ordinance” or simply convey the principle of humble service? And how can we determine that? Neither John 13 nor the Bible as a whole stipulate whether we should understand Jesus’ comments literally or figuratively. Does the story itself provide any clues? Can other passages or church history inform us?
What the Text Says
John 13 depicts Jesus getting up from supper to wash His disciples feet and having a short but significant exchange with Peter. The decision about whether Jesus intended to institute an ordinance revolves around two sentences in verses 14 and 15. “If I, then, the Lord and the teacher, washed your feet, you ought also to wash each other’s feet. For I gave you an example that you should also do as I did to you (NASB).”
Linguistically, these two sentences are simple and clear, but their interpretation is not. Those who believe that contemporary Christians should practice foot washing as an ordinance seem to rely on a straightforward, “matter-of-fact” reading of the saying: “Well, Jesus said we should wash each other’s feet and so we should. That’s that.” Those who do not believe He was ordaining a ceremonial practice point out that Jesus lived in a culture in which foot washing was an ordinary function, often performed by those of lower status. His action conveyed its shocking lesson not because it was an alien ritual, but a common, somewhat menial task that met a real need, kind of like taking out the garbage or cleaning the toilet.
In other words, the meaning of Jesus’ action in that setting was plain: He wanted his followers to stop vying for position, adopt a spirit of service, and take care of each other even if it meant performing humble gestures. And unlike us, they would likely be called upon to literally wash feet on occasion. There was no need to prescribe a new religious ritual to get the point across.
On the other hand, the passage indicates that Jesus got up to wash feet after the supper had begun, which may suggest He intended His act to carry a symbolic rather than merely practical meaning (John 13:2). These two interpretations of the story are not mutually exclusive. Even if all parties were to agree that Jesus primarily aimed to inculcate a principle, the argument could still be made that we can both practice ceremonial foot-washing and derive the lesson of humility. In fact, far from obstructing or displacing the intended meaning, our willingness to reproduce the scene can actually advance and intensify the meaning.
But that just brings us back to where we started. There are credible arguments on both sides of the issue, so how can we determine what Jesus really had in mind? John 13 is the only instance in the Bible in which foot-washing is called an example to follow. All of the other foot-washing incidents can be read as culturally congruent acts that met a need, conveyed honor or, in the case of widows dependent on the church, demonstrated sincere Christian devotion (1 Timothy 5:10). Admittedly, the ancient practice did convey a symbolic, inter-relational message, but even that doesn’t mean Jesus intended it to become a liturgical rite.
The point is, none of the accounts of foot washing in the Bible help to clarify whether Jesus washed feet for the sake of communicating a principle only, or to institute a ritual as well?
Early Church Practice
Having read a few scholarly articles and the relevant parts of a lengthy dissertation about foot washing in the early centuries after Christ (see bibliography, below) it seems clear that ritualistic foot washing was practiced in numerous places, but was neither universal nor carried out in a consistent manner. At times, women and others would visit and wash the feet of those imprisoned for the faith, perhaps to share in the merit accruing to these soon-to-be martyrs. Priests and deacons also performed the service, often as a sign of hospitality to visitors. In addition, a few church fathers stated their belief that Jesus instituted foot washing as a ritual ceremony, but that position does not seem to have been widespread. The practice doesn’t appear in the Didache, for instance. Even more telling, only one of the four gospels even mentions it, so I don’t think we’ll find a definitive answer in early church practice.
Besides that, Seventh-day Adventists claim to derive their beliefs from the Bible alone, and typically dismiss traditions that developed after the apostolic era. It would therefore seem inconsistent and somewhat opportunistic to cherry-pick quotes from early Christian writers in this case.
And that last statement should clue us in that the issue of foot washing does not involve interpretation only, but authority. It forces us to think about how we decide which interpretation is right, and whether or not we should adopt a practice now.
What About Ellen White?
Since I just mentioned the topic of authority I can’t help but acknowledge that many, if not most, Seventh-day Adventists around the world would defer to the position of Ellen White, who plainly said that Jesus instituted an ordinance. At the same time, the decision to rely on her statements for closure raises its own set of issues and questions. The first and perhaps most obvious is that deferring to her statements puts us in the position of relying on an extra-biblical source.
Second, it’s not clear that everything she wrote was given by direct inspiration. I don’t claim to be an expert on the theory of how to read Ellen White, but I’m pretty sure the Adventist church doesn’t hold the position that everything she wrote was given by direct inspiration. Rather, it seems likely that in many cases she reported on or incorporated the conclusions of her contemporaries who, presumably, had already done the interpretive work.
Further, while Ellen White statements may serve to settle the minds of many church members, they do not necessarily explicate how we could or should arrive at her conclusions. That is, they may declare an outcome (i.e. that Jesus established foot washing as an ordinance) but they do not always trace out how that outcome was reached. So all of this brings us back to the same place where we started: trying to figure out what to make of the biblical story in itself.
Even a cursory online search will show that some commentators say one thing and some the other. Plus, among those groups who do practice foot washing, their ways of doing it have varied: men washing feet with men, women with women, women with martyrs, popes with priests and, in the case of the current pope, with Muslims and women! If anything, this diversity should suggest that the decision is more convention than clear command.
And that, to me, is the operative concept. I’ve written down these reflections principally to restart a conversation about foot washing and highlight how the topic involves us in a discussion of hermeneutics and authority. But if I were pressed to render an opinion on the matter, I would say that foot washing is not a mandate but a convention. Christian history and contemporary practice attest to that fact. And if it is indeed a convention rather than a command then that means denominations and congregations have the freedom to decide whether, when, and how to perform it.
Online articles about foot washing
- https://archaia.yale.edu/event/andrew-mcgowan-missing-sacrament-footwashing-ancient-christianity (This links to the abstract but the article is available in its entirety on SCRIBD.) ↑
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights and Hartsdale churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University.