Baptist History Homepage
Is Foot-Washing A Church Ordinance?
C. D. Cole, Titusville, FL
Associate Editor,
The Baptist Examiner, 1931

      Is the washing of the saint's feet a church ordinance? On that memorable and portentous occasion, when our Lord washed His disciples' feet, saying: "If I then your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye ought also to wash one another's feet" (John 13:14), was He instituting an ordinance to be observed by His churches during his absence? In reply to this question, human opinion is divided. The anti-missionary denomination, the General Baptists, and some Missionary Baptists believe in and practice "foot-washing" as a church ordinance. The writer distinctly recalls having read in the Illinois Baptist a few years ago that the Concord Baptist Church had observed the ordinance of washing the saints' feet. And, no doubt, there are many individual members of Baptist churches who wonder why their church does not observe foot-washing. The writer, early in his ministry, faced this question with the resolve that, if the Scriptures so taught, he would recommend its observance to his church. In this article we give a "reason for the hope that is in us" in the hope that others may come to have a scriptural motive for their attitude toward foot-washing as a church ordinance. We contend that foot-washing is not a church ordinance for the following reasons:

      1. Nothing is said about foot-washing as a church ordinance in any of the church epistles.
      Surely if foot-washing was meant to be observed as a church ordinance, there would have been something said in the church epistles concerning its observance. We find ample instructions in the epistles to the churches relative to the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper, but not a word do we find about foot-washing.

      2. It is not needed to picture the gospel of a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour.
     Baptism and the Lord's supper preach the gospel. Baptism is a picture of the burial and resurrection of our Lord, while the supper shows his death till he comes. These set forth a full gospel, and there is no need for a third ordinance.

      3. Where the washing of feet is mentioned in the New Testament it is an example of lowly service, but this is not true when it is practiced as a church ordinance.
      Where foot-washing is observed as a church ordinance, no service is rendered; for those who practice it are careful to see that their feet are clean before going to observe the ordinance. So, whatever the motive may be, it is a mere ceremony, and no service is rendered.

      4. In 1 Timothy 5:10 shows that foot-washing was not practiced as a church ordinance.
      This Scripture gives the qualifications necessary for a widow in order that she might be placed on the charity roll of the church. These qualifications require that she must have washed the saints' feet. Now if foot-washing had been observed as a church ordinance, every member would have practiced it; and it would have been superfluous to specify it as a qualification for support from the church. This passage makes it clear that foot-washing was ONLY an act of humble service in the home. And again we remind our readers that no service is done when foot-washing is observed as an ordinance in the church.

      We come now to notice the thirteenth chapter of John, where we have the record of Christ washing the disciples' feet; after which he said to them: "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." To prepare us for all understanding of this passage we want to notice the use of the word "water" throughout John's gospel. In the third chapter, where we have our Lord's conversation with Nichodemus [Nicodemus], we read: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Water is here used in a figurative sense, referring to a spiritual birth. In the fourth chapter we have Christ's words to the woman at the well. There Christ said: "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst . . . ." (V. 14). Here it is evident that water is used to represent that which is spiritual, and is not to be taken literally. In the seventh chapter we have the recorded utterance of Christ at the feast of the passover. Here we read: "In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture bath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive . . . . )" (Vv. 37-39). Here it is expressly stated that water is a figure of the Holy Spirit. In the fifteenth chapter and third verse our Lord told His disciples that they were clean through the word. The water that had cleansed them was the word of God. Now, a careful reading of the thirteenth chapter will show that its use there is in harmony with the way it is used in every other place in John's gospel. Jesus Christ is giving, as it were, an illustrated address on the necessity of spiritual cleansing for His disciples. But the disciples were dull of comprehension, and did not get the intended lesson. When Peter expressed surprise that his Lord should wash his feet, Christ said: "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter" (V. 7). Peter did know that Christ proposed to render lowly and menial service. but he did not understand the spiritual significance of His action. Peter said: "Thou shalt never wash my feet" (V. 8). To which Christ replied: "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me." In these words Christ was emphasizing a need deeper than mere physical cleanliness. He was referring to the need of spiritual cleansing in order that Peter might have part with Him (not in Him). To have part in Christ is to receive the legal benefits of His shed blood. Every believer has this once for all. To have a part with Him is to have fellowship with Him in service. To have this, we must take care of our walk in this world, and provision must be made for our failure as we contract defilement in the way. In many passages, both in the Old and in the New Testaments, our feet are made to stand for our conduct. Take the following for examples: "The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord; and He delighteth in his way" (Psalm 37:23). "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" (Psalm 119:105). ''If we live in the Spirt, let us walk in the Spirit" (Galatians 5:25).

      "Simon Peter saith unto Him, Lord not my feet only, but also my hands and my head" (V. 9). This is further proof of Peter's dullness, and of the truth of our Lord's assertion that he would not understand his action. "Jesus saith to him, He that is washed [Gr. louo] needeth not save to wash [Gr. nipto] his feet, but is clean every whit; and ye are clean, but not all. For He knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean" (Vv. 10, 11). It is clear that the ultimate reference in these verses is to spiritual cleansing. Christ was saying, metaphorically, that he that has had the bath of regeneration will only need to have his walk cleansed, and that all of them are clean, in respect to regeneration, save one. As to physical cleanliness, no doubt, Judas [was] as immaculate as the others. How obviously plain it is, then, that Christ was illustrating their need of spiritual restoration by washing the feet that had become soiled since they last bathed. The incident is Prophetic of a fall and a failure, and of the gracious provision made therefor.

      Let us now compare the passage that has been before us with Luke 22:31-34, which reads: "And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. And he said unto Him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death. And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me." Thus, in plain words, the Lord Jesus prophesied Peter's fall and restoration; and urges him, when he is converted (restored)—that is, when he has his feet washed spiritually, to strengthen his brethren. How soon the words of our Lord came true. Peter sinned grievously [sic]. Communion between him and his Lord was broken. He goes back to his old trade, as do the others (John 21:3). They now have no part with Him. But grace will not let them go. That power and love that effected their salvation, will also accomplish their restoration. Peter must learn the meaning of the foot-washing incident.

      "Thou shalt know hereafter." In spite of his sad failure. Peter was to have part with his Lord in the blessing of others. He was to be converted (restored to fellowship with Christ), and then was to strengthen his brethren. When we find him in the twenty-first chapter of John, he is about to have his feet washed spiritually. After returning to their nets, they fished all night and caught nothing. On the following morning, Jesus appears to them and proceeds with the blessed work of restoration, which had been so strikingly illustrated by the washing of their feet.

      "Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith unto him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17). How unspeakably blessed is all this our Lord had said: "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me." Here he washes Peter's feet, and give him part with him. Let us note two or three things in connection with the above passage:

      First, restoration to fellowship with Christ involves grief and confession. Our Lord brought Peter face to face with his sin and proud boast. He was grieved and humbled, and filled with the spirit of confession. And such a spirit is essential to every restoration after a fall. This is strikingly exemplified in the case of David, when he said: "I have sinned." "If we confess cur sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1 :8).

      Second, there is a play in the use of the word "love." In the heart-searching question Christ put to Peter, he first used the strong word for love (Gr. agapao), the word used in John 3:16. In Peter's reply, he used the weaker word for love (Gr. phileo). He no longer boasted of his superior love for his Master, but he did insist that he loved him a little. The third time Christ put the question to him, he comes down to Peter's word for love, and asks if he really loves him a little. And then, with a consciousness that he could not impose upon his Lord, he said: "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee." Peter would not boast, but he would stick to it that he did love his Lord and Master. May grace be given to both writer and reader to do the same.

      Now, let us, in concluding, return to John 13. "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). Christ set an example of lowly service that should be followed by his people. And we are following his example when we stoop to do menial service for one another. But, this does not exhaust the meaning of his command. We are to seek the restoration of a fallen brother. As Paul says in Galatians 6:1: "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." But alas! how few undertake such service in behalf of a sinning brother. How sadly the erring one is neglected! How few are qualified to perform such a work—"ye which are spiritual." Still fewer go at it in the divinely specified way—"in the spirit of meekness." To wash a brother's feet we must get down on our knees. No holier-than-thou spirit will do. Oh that our Lord and Master may wash our feet daily, and give us part with Him in washing the feet of our brethren. And may the erring brother be "easy to be entreated" (James 3:17). Oh! the dirty feet that need to be washed. It is the source from which all our troubles come. No child of God can be happy with dirty feet. Lord, restore unto thy people the joy of thy salvation.


[From: T. P. Simmons, editor, The Baptist Examiner, Marion, KY, May 1, 1931. pp. 5-7. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall]

More on Baptists: Various Subjects
Baptist History Homepage