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Definitions of Doctrine
by C. D. Cole

Volume III- THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH


CHAPTER 7-Footwashing Not A Church Ordinance

1. SHOULD WE WASH FEET IN THE CHURCH?

Many sincere Christians think so. And they point you to the words of Jesus:. “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you,” (John 13:14-15).

The writer faced this question early in his ministry, and decided that if the scriptures taught that we should wash feet as a church ordinance, he would urge his church to do so. I make no claim to infallibility or personal perfection, but I am sensitive to the commands of scripture, and have a heavy conscience when I realize that I have ignored any portion of scripture.

1. ARGUMENT

After a thorough study of the New Testament, I reached the positive conclusion that Jesus did not command us to wash feet in the church. Here is my argument:

 1. There is no mention of footwashing in any of the church epistles, such as Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, etc. The church epistles were written to regulate the faith and practice of the church. There is ample instruction concerning baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the church letters, and one would judge that if footwashing was to be observed as an ordinance, there would be some instruction concerning the when and how it is to be observed.

2. Footwashing was to be practiced in the home and not in the church. The one other place where the washing of feet is mentioned in the New Testament is 1 Timothy 5:9 “Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, 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.”

The early church took care of its poor, especially the widows. And to guard against abuse there were conditions under which church support was to be given. In writing to the Thessalonians, Paul said they were not to feed the man who is too lazy to work. “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat,” (2 Thess. 3:10). And so widows were not to be supported unless they had a record of good works, some of which are enumerated, including the washing of saints feet. Any honest reader will admit that the good works mentioned were to be done in the home, and not as a church ordinance.

3. Footwashing was to be an act of humble service. One must get on his knees to wash anothers feet. But no service is rendered when feet are washed at church. The writer used to go with his father (a very godly man whose memory is cherished) to his church on Footwashing Day. And he observed that his father always washed his own feet before leaving the house for church. His feet were not dirty and no service was rendered by the brother who washed his feet. But in olden times when sandals were worn it was a deed of lowly service to wash the feet of a guest.

If anyone who believes in footwashing as an ordinance to be observed in church, that it is an act of humility to show how humble one is, our reply to that is, that humility is a grace that cannot be paraded, and to attempt to show off humility is spiritual pride; pride of the worst kind.

The writer recalls an incident of many years ago. Bro. Jeff Rogers was a humble country preacher who looked more like a Kentucky colonel, or the proverbial Philadelphia lawyer. Bro. Rogers loved horses and one day as he was riding his favorite steed down the road, he met his neighbor on horseback. They stopped for a friendly chat, and after awhile the conversation was about religion. Finally, the neighbor said, “Bro. Rogers you are not a very humble man, are you?” Bro. Rogers dropped his head and replied, “No, I am not as humble as I ought to be. But I suppose you are a very humble man?” And the neighbor, lifting himself up in the saddle, said, “Yes I am, and I show it!” referring to the fact that he practiced footwashing at church.

4. Footwashing is not needed as a church ordinance. The purpose of the ordinances is to symbolize the gospel: the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Baptism presupposes His death and symbolizes His burial and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper symbolizes and proclaims His death at Calvary. Footwashing does not give us a picture of Calvary. Moreover, it is not needed since baptism and the Lord’s Supper give us a full picture of the gospel facts: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

2. THE FOOTWASHING EPISODE EXAMINED AND EXPLAINED

1. The Occasion. We can do no better than to quote from Halley’s Bible Handbook. “This was occasioned by their contention among themselves as to which of them were to have the chief offices in the Kingdom. That had been one of their standing problems, “Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a child, and set him by him, And said unto them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great,” (Luke 9:46-48). In spite of Jesus repeated statements that He was going to be crucified, “And they departed thence, and passed through Galilee; and he would not that any man should know it. For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day. But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him,” (Mark 9:30-32), on which they somehow, even to the last, took to be parables. They seemed to think that the Triumphal Entry, five days before, portended that it was about time for Him to erect the throne of a world empire in Jerusalem. Jesus finally had to get down on His hands and knees and wash their feet, the menial service of a slave, to burn into their minds that He had called them to serve, and not to rule.”

2. The Conversation. After it became apparent that none of the disciples was going to perform the menial service of washing their feet, Jesus gets up from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. “After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel...Then cometh he to Simon Peter; and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” Peter protested this act of humble service and said, “Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” Still ignorant of what Jesus was teaching, Peter goes to the opposite extreme and says, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus corrects him by saying. “He that is washed (bathed) needeth not save to wash (a different word) his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all,” (John 13:5-11). Here Jesus reminds Peter that when one has had a bath he will not need another bath so soon but will only need to have his feet washed. And then Jesus says that all of them had had a bath save Judas.

It is evident from this dialogue, that Jesus was teaching something more than a lesson in humility. We may think of this episode as an illustrated lecture on spiritual footwashing. When it was over, Jesus returned to the table and “said unto them Know ye what I have done to you?” (v. 12). They certainly knew that He had done them a menial service, but they did not get the spiritual meaning of what He had done. He then goes on to say, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (vv. 14-15).

3. Lessons To Be Learned.

3a) A lesson On Humility. He set them an example of lowly service to one another. We follow this example when we are willing to render humble service to one another. The writer is reminded of an experience he had several years ago. He was conducting a revival meeting and being entertained in a certain home. One night after he retired, some member of the family came and took his shoes and polished them and returned them. He never found out who did it, but whoever did it was following the example Jesus gave. That was a deed of humble service, for my shoes needed a shine. But there is a deeper lesson than this.

3b) A Lesson In Spiritual Cleansing. Peter was going to deny Jesus and would need to be restored before he could have part WITH Christ in blessing to others. It was not a question of salvation but of service. Peter did not lose his salvation, but he lost fellowship with Christ in service. Peter did not get the spiritual meaning of the incident at the time, but Jesus said that he would understand it later. And now we are to see Peter as he gets the deeper meaning.

Our Lord’s prediction that Peter would deny Him had come true. “Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice,” (John 13:38). Jesus had been denied by Peter (a saved man), betrayed by Judas (a lost man), and crucified. The disciples had returned to their nets, thinking their cause was lost through the death of their Master. But Jesus is alive and will fulfill His promise to Peter. Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to the disciples after they had fished all night and caught nothing. Jesus tells them where to cast the net, resulting in a large catch. Then He serves them, giving them bread and fish. Now it was time to wash Peter’s feet in the true spiritual sense. Behold how He does it.

“Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (the strong word) thou me more than these? Simon answered He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (weaker word) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (strong word) thou me? Peter replies He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (weaker word) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (Peter’s weaker word) thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest (weaker word) thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love (weaker word) thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep,” (John 21:15-17).

And now Peter’s feet are washed; he is restored to fellowship with his Lord in service. He now has a part WITH Christ. Peter was no longer a boaster; he had learned that he did not love Christ as he had boasted. But he does stick to his claim to love Jesus a little. And this is all the writer can claim, and like Peter he insists that he loves Jesus a little. His prayer is that he may love Him more, even with a dying love.

Jesus told His disciples to wash one another’s feet. This, too, has a double application: physical and spiritual. We should follow His example in stooping to serve our brethren in their physical and material needs. And we should also serve them in spiritual things. In Galatians 6:1 we are told how to do it. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” Here we have spiritual footwashing.

If a brother is caught in some sin, it is our duty to restore him. We must wash his feet, provided our own feet are clean. A sinning brother must not be left in his sins. He must not be neglected on the one hand nor dealt with harshly on the other hand. He must be brought to face his sin, repent of and turn from it. He must not be dealt with in a holier than thou spirit, but in meekness, remembering that we, too, might be tempted and fall into sin. There are two difficulties in restoring a sinning brother. It is often difficult to get the sinning brother to acknowledge his wrong doing. It is also difficult to get the one who attempts the restoration to do it in a spirit of humility.

3. THE HISTORY OF FOOTWASHING AS AN ORDINANCE

It is sincerely believed by many that footing as an ordinance is an ancient practice. History seems to disprove this.

ARGUMENT:

 1. From Church History. Dr. E. J. Daniels, Florida evangelist, has searched here and there for information on the custom of footwashing, and found that footwashing was not practiced by any group of Christians prior to the fourth century. He quotes from the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and also from Dr. A. H. Newman’s Manual of Church History.

2. Confessions of Faith. The Philadelphia Confession (1742) based upon the London Confession (1689) makes no mention of footwashing. Nor do we know of any old confessions of faith that speaks of footwashing as a church ordinance.

The Bible is not much concerned about people’s feet in the physical sense. Feet are used in the Bible to represent moral conduct. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” (Ps. 1:1). “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord,” (Ps. 37:23). “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom. 10:15).

There are many dirty feet among God’s children, and so few who ever make any effort to wash them. God has made provision for sinning saints, and so we read, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:8-9).

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