By Monte Sahlin, January 22, 2016: It comes as a surprise to many Adventists because it is commonly believed that “only Adventists observe foot washing.” Pope Francis has changed the rules for the ordinance as practiced by Roman Catholics, announced Religion News Service (RNS) yesterday.
In fact, many Christian denominations continue to have some version of foot washing “in memory” of Christ and His mission of humble, compassionate service. It is most often done on the Thursday before Easter or “Maundy Thursday,” Maundy actually being the received version of an old word that evidently means “foot washing” or “service of humility.”
The source of the concept is found in John 13:14-17 in the story of the “last supper” the Thursday before Christ’s crucifixion on Friday and resurrection on the Sunday most Christians now call Easter. Early Christian writers Tertullian and Augustine mention the practice, and it is included in “Saint Benedict’s Rule” for the Catholic order named after him. The Waldenses, Albigenses and Hussites carried on the practice.
It was included in the Roman Catholic worship book from 1570 and revised a little in the 1955 edition which has been used up to the present day. The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches have retained it also, as have the Coptic and Syrian Christians.
A number of Pentecostal and Pietistic groups practice foot washing, as do some Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist congregations. The Grace Brethren, Church of the Brethren, Old German Baptist Brethren, the Amish and some Mennonites also continue the practice, as do Separate Baptists in Christ, General Association of Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Union Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Christian Baptist Church of God and Brethren in Christ. Also an unknown number of the many thousands of smaller denominations.
The particular ritual that Seventh-day Adventists have brought to foot washing seems to be the schedule of once a quarter. Most other groups also associate it with communion, but only once a year.
Pope Francis has now instituted a change in who may be involved in having their feet washed. It has always been limited to men and to Catholics. He has included women and non-Catholics in the practice.
This will “upset many traditionalists,” RNS reports, because Catholic tradition associates the foot washing in John 13 with “the formal institution of the all-male priesthood.” The Pope’s new rules “could raise questions about ordination” and “is likely to further inflame those debates,” according to RNS.
It appears that this step taken by Pope Francis moves the symbolism of foot washing away from ordination to Christ’s example of a humble life of practical mercy for all of humanity. It is ironic that the Adventist denomination, critical of Catholic tradition and papal authority since its founding, is currently embroiled in parallel issues about ordination and the role of women.
Many Adventist traditionalists say that the foot washing is intended to wash away sin as something akin to rebaptism. Like the Catholic tradition, there is really no hint of this view of the ordinance in Scripture. Both are human creations. Both cry out for a more authentic understanding.
The RNS bulletin states that Pope Francis wrote a letter in December 2014 requesting the change so that foot washing for Catholics “might fully express the significance of the gesture preformed by Jesus at the Last Supper.” Do the leaders of the Adventist denomination need to make a similar move in order to bring Adventist tradition into line with Bible principles?
Monte Sahlin is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church who, during his 44 years as a denominational employee, served at all levels of the organization from local churches to the General Conference. He is the author of 26 books and 118 research monographs and currently the executive director of Adventist Today.