Q.

Why don’t Baptists practice the washing of one another’s feet? John 13:2–17 seems to indicate this was Jesus’ intention for us.

A.
When we compare the overwhelming support in Scripture for the two ordinances Baptists believe the local church should teach and observe, foot washing as a practice (let alone as an ordinance) is on extremely shaky ground.

Perhaps we should define the word “ordinance.” It is simply a rite having great and solemn value and lessons. As Bible-believing Christians we use the term “ordinance” rather than “sacrament” for an important reason. The term “sacrament” implies saving merit in the observance of these rites. Scripture references to support this concept are taken out of context; in addition, countless passages of Scripture teach that a person is saved by grace through faith only, not by observing these rites. John 3:16 is undoubtedly the most familiar of these references, followed by such passages as Acts 16:30 and 31 and Ephesians 2:8 and 9.

We use a special test to determine the validity of an ordinance: Was it taught and commanded by Jesus Christ in the Gospels and confirmed by the apostles in the Epistles?

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper meet this test. Matthew 28:19 and 20 record Jesus’ command concerning baptism:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.

It is obvious that this ordinance, “Go, and baptize,” was carried out in the New Testament church. We read of people being baptized throughout the book of Acts.

Concerning the Lord’s Supper, we find Jesus’ command in Luke 22:17–20:

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

The apostle Paul confirmed Christ’s command (“This do till I come”) when he paraphrased Christ’s words in his letter to the Corinthian believers (1 Cor. 11:23–32). Note that Paul received instruction in the mechanics of the Lord’s Table directly from the Lord. We are not sure just how Paul received this instruction, but perhaps he received it through the apostles.

No similar linkage exists between the Gospels and the Epistles when it comes to foot washing. One passage in 1 Timothy reads,

Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work (5:10).

This verse refers to the marks of a godly widow in a local church. One of her marks is showing hospitality to strangers. Here the washing of strangers’ feet may have been literal, or it may have been a spiritual cleansing through her use of the Word. It does not refer to a local church practice or ordinance. Only centuries later did certain believers come up with the idea that this practice is on par with the other two ordinances. A few groups today still have the practice “on their books,” but relatively few of them practice it on a regular basis.

Besides this verse in 1 Timothy, the Scripture passage that proponents of foot washing use is the one you cited. At first glance, verses 15 and 17 of John 13 might indicate that Christ was commanding foot washing:

For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. . . . If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.

But if we look at the occasion and context carefully, we discover that Christ wasn’t referring to the foot washing itself as the example He commands us to follow. Foot washing was just His object lesson. Remember the incident that occurred at the same time: “And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest” (Luke 22:24).

So amid that rivalry Jesus demonstrated in a visible way the life that should characterize us: servanthood and humility. Christ taught humility and servanthood in attitude. If it meant washing feet (in those days of dusty roads and sandals), so be it. But service and humility would never cease to be necessary regardless of people’s customs. Today our feet are undoubtedly clean in comparison to feet in those days, and Jesus did not command to wash what is already clean.

Peter requested this cleansing (of not only his feet but also of his hands and head), and Jesus refused (see John 13:8–10). Peter had a bout with human reasoning, and he certainly showed the folly of human reasoning over Scripture. Human reasoning told Peter that Jesus as Master shouldn’t serve them. But Christ rebuked Peter, for Peter did not understand certain things regarding His death. Peter was thinking only about the physical act of washing.

Jesus’ refusal to comply with Peter’s request shows the real issue here: fellowship with the Lord, plus the heart attitude that should characterize the follower of the Lord who is in fellowship with Him. The outward practice of foot washing is incidental and is likely unnecessary. Thus verse 17, which reads, “Happy are ye if ye do them,” has far more implications than washing feet. Perhaps we can exercise servanthood in another practical way. Maybe we need to demonstrate humility in still another way. The believer’s responsibilities of servanthood and humility are numerous. But as we obey, we will emulate Christ, Who the night He was betrayed washed His disciples’ feet. Christ, the coming King and Judge, was indeed the perfect servant (see Philippians 2:1–11).

Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to nolson@garbc.org or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.

Reprinted from the Baptist Bulletin (June 1996).
© 1996 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.