The Apostle John teaches us that after the Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper (cf. Jn 13:1–2; Lk 22:15–20), He washed the feet of His disciples (Jn 13:4–12), and 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” (Jn 13:14–15). My question is: In view of such clear teaching from the Scripture, why do we not practice feet-washing as the early church did and some churches still do?
It is true that feet-washing was practised as a rite in some sectors of the early church, though it should be noted that the practice never gained universal acceptance, and soon died out. It is also true that feet-washing is practised by some groups, such as some Brethren churches, the Mennonites and Seventh-Day Adventists, but I think it is fair to say that no mainline Protestant or Reformed church today practises it.
The question we must ask ourselves, however, is not so much whether it is being practised any where, as whether the Lord does command us to practise it as a religious ritual. I do not think He does!
When the Lord washed His disciples’ feet, He was not instituting an ordinance as He did with the Lord’s Supper. No, He was doing something practical and using it to teach some important principles to His disciples. You see, in those days, the people generally wore sandals and had to walk on dusty, dirt roads (no bitumen roads in those days). This made it necessary that when a person entered a house that he should wash his feet. Usually, the host of a house would either provide water for the guests to wash in (cf. Gen 18:4, 19:2; Lk 7:44) or get a servant to wash the feet of his guest (cf. 1 Sam 25:41). In that day after the Passover, what the Lord did was essentially to humble Himself to wash the feet of His disciples as a slave would. In so doing, He teaches them a very powerful lesson that they ought to serve one another rather than lording over one another. But take careful note that what the Lord was doing was practical rather than symbolic. Today, when we talk about washing one another’s feet we generally think about what the term symbolises. But remember that it was what the Lord did that gives the term its symbolic meaning. It is anachronistic to think that the Lord did what He did because of its symbolic meaning. In other words, the Lord was setting a practical example of servanthood to His disciples, rather than instituting a symbolic rite.
That this was the case is confirmed by the fact that nowhere in the epistles are we told to imitate what the Lord did literally (as Paul did for the Lord’s Supper). The only reference to feet-washing in the epistles is found in 1 Timothy 5:10, where the Apostle Paul lists among the qualifications for enrolment as a widow that she must have “washed the saints’ feet.” Quite obviously, Paul could not be referring to ritual washing of feet. He could be referring to literal washing of feet, but that is only because it was still a necessary task then. In other words, Paul’s emphasis is really on showing hospitality and kindness towards others, which in those times is appropriately represented by feet-washing because feet-washing was still a necessary task which would be included in acts of hospitality.
We conclude, then, that when the Lord teaches us to wash one another’s feet, He does not mean that we must ritually or literally wash one another’s feet (seeing it is no longer a necessary task). We ought rather to humble ourselves to consider others better than ourselves and to serve one another in practical ways.