Foot-washing and the New Covenant
It was my understanding of the new covenant which made me first began to question the place of foot washing during 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. The only exception to the rule appears to be baptism and the communion service, but note I said, “appears to be,” because in fact, I don’t think either baptism or the communion service are intended to be types, illustrations, or simply ceremonials.
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 some future reality. The system of the law was wholly focused on future good things (Heb 10:1; Col 2:17). 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. Baptism focuses on the experience of receiving the life of Christ, while the communion service focuses on the experience of feeding on the life of Christ. In other words these two services, serve as portals or doorways into the experience of receiving the life of Christ. They are not simply symbols, representations or types, they are intended to be points of contact during which our faith may take hold of the reality. They are not symbols pointing to the future, but doorways to a present blessing.
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 understanding, 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. 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.
It is typical of the strong emphasis which the Catholic church has, on ceremonial religion. The present Pope, for example, has made headlines by washing the feet of beggars and prison inmates. This is an outward act which has the effect of impressing people, but as we all know, true religion does not consist of outward ceremonies and rituals. This act is no indication that the Pope is either a Christian, or that he is a humble person, it is just a ritual.
According to the Mennonite Encyclopedia “St. Benedict’s Rule (A.D. 529) for the Benedictine Order prescribed hospitality feetwashing in addition to a communal feetwashing for humility”; a statement confirmed by the Catholic Encyclopedia. It apparently was established in the Roman church, though not in connection with baptism.
However, there is an attempt to establish a biblical basis for including foot washing in the communion service. The reason given is that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the last supper and stated that they ought to wash one another’s feet.
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)
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 by 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, Luke nor Paul,even mention it.
However, Luke mentions something which neither Matthew nor Mark mention, 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 immortalized, 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 who was apparently either 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.
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: Restoration Ministry)