Foot-Washing and the New Covenant

In the year 2005, the Lord brought me to a clear understanding of the reality that Christ is our righteousness. Though I had vaguely understood this truth before, my new perspective could be compared to a person stepping out of darkness into the light of day. With this new understanding of the ways and the purposes of God, many of my old ideas had to be revised and I came to a clearer and more beautiful understanding of truth in many areas. One of these areas in which I came to a better understanding was in the doctrine of the New Covenant.

It was this understanding of the new covenant which made me first began to question the place of the foot washing in the communion service. One of the major differences between both covenants is that the old covenant is full of ceremonies and rituals, types and illustrations, while the new covenant is the exact opposite. The New Testament consists of real things, not symbols and representations and it is essentially a non-ceremonial religion. Baptism and the communion service appear to be exceptions to this rule, but note I said, “appears to be,” because in fact, neither baptism nor the communion service are intended to be types, illustrations, or simply ceremonials.

Let us note that all the Old Testament rituals and ceremonies pointed towards some future reality. As far as I can see, there was not a single ceremony practiced under the law which focused on some present blessing available to the Israelites. Everything pointed to something in the future. As Paul expressed it in Hebrews 10:1,

….the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things …. (Heb 10:1)

But is this true of the communion service and baptism? No, there is a significant difference. Both baptism and the communion service focus on something which is presently available, not to future events. Baptism focuses on the experience of receiving the life of Christ now, while the communion service focuses on the experience of feeding on the life of Christ right now, at the present time. In other words these two services, are doorways by which we can enter right now, into the experience of receiving the life of Christ. They are not simply symbols, representations or types of future things, they are intended to be points of contact during which our faith may take hold of the reality.

So it is important to consider that the two ceremonies established in the Christian faith have entirely to do with the one single element which is necessary in Christianity, that is, the life of Christ in the believer. In addition to this they are not merely symbolic or typical ceremonies, but actually doorways into the experience itself!

So then, with this background we ask ourselves the question, where does foot washing fit into this picture? Immediately it seems out of place. The great center, in fact the entirety of the Christian faith is the life of Christ in the believer, but the foot washing ceremony is not focused on either Christ or his life and this makes it stand out as being out of place. In fact, in the Adventist church it is referred to as, “The ordinance of humility,” and is understood to focus on the virtue of humility. Incidentally, this foot-washing ceremony is also very strongly emphasized in the Catholic Church where it seems very much at home, in the midst of all the other rituals which typify that system of worship. The question comes to mind, why is humility considered so important as to merit a place in this most important service? Why not love? Why not joy? Why not gentleness? This would suggest that humility is on an equal footing with the life of Christ in the believer, and yet, as we know, humility is only one of the blessings which come as a part of the package of the life of Christ. It does not make sense to single it out as being more important than the other virtues.

The main reason why foot washing has found a place in the communion service, is because Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the last supper and stated that they ought to wash one another’s feet. The question is, was this intended to be a command, establishing a ritual to be practiced by believers in all ages? The washing of the disciples’ feet is mentioned only in the book of John, yet the communion service is recorded by all four gospel writers. None of the other three mention foot washing. Similarly when Paul speaks about the communion in 1 Corinthians 11, there is no mention of foot washing. It seems a bit odd that if the foot washing were intended to be such a significant part of the service, neither Matthew, Mark nor Luke even mention it.

However, Luke mentions something which seems to be very significant in connection with the footwashing; he tells us:

And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. (Luke 22:24)

In light of this, the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus now makes perfect sense and in fact, this is how Jesus explained his actions to the disciples:

Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. 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. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. (John 13:13-17)

It seems evident then, that the foot washing was not a part of the service which Jesus intended to be practiced through the ages, but was something focused on a particular problem which existed among the disciples. Jesus was focusing on the strife which existed among them as to who should be greatest. He gave them a graphic lesson which they would never forget and which would help them to see true greatness from a different perspective. This is a valuable lesson and one which all Christians should take to heart, but it is not qualified to be immortalized on the same level as something which is a doorway to the receiving of the life of Christ, and it is clear to me that Christ did not intend it to be so immortalized.

Foot washing as a ceremony does not promote humility, it is nothing more than a ritual, even though some people find that it encourages good feelings among brethren. Sometimes it does the opposite. I remember once feeling acute embarrassment for a man in the USA who was apparently too scornful or proud to wash my feet and who simply sprinkled the water over my feet and dabbed at them with the towel, refusing to let his hands touch my feet. It was especially odd since I had thoroughly washed his feet. My point is, ritualism and ceremonialism do not produce changes in the hearts of people, they can only induce outward form, something which belongs to a former age, not to the age of the new covenant which focuses on worshiping in spirit and in truth.

Ritualism should be avoided like the plague under the New Covenant. It encourages a bond with the Old Covenant and obscures the great principle that the New Covenant is a religion of real things and not symbols. This is ultimately the greatest reason why the communion and baptism should be divorced from the idea that they are mere rituals, and why foot washing should be eliminated from the communion service.

(Source: David Clayton - Restoration Ministry)