By Danny Dwyer

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 13:14-17).

I rode the trolley from my hotel to the convention center while attending the Free Will Baptist national convention in Memphis, Tennessee. The car was crowded, and I stood beside a lady who was seated with her two children. She saw my badge and politely asked, “So…what is a Free Will Baptist?”

She said she was a Baptist, too, and wondered about the differences between her church and ours. I have answered that question many times so I shared the usual similarities and differences. After listening thoughtfully, she said, “That’s what I believe.”

I replied, “Then, you really are a Free Will Baptist.”

What we believe is important to all of us. Free Will Baptists differ from most other groups in our belief that Jesus commanded his followers to imitate His example of washing the disciples’ feet as a memorial ritual, an ordinance. But is this really the case?

Phrases

Ultimately, the answer to that question is based on two considerations. The first is how we interpret the scene in John 13:1-17. The wording is specific and boils down to three key phrases.

Joseph Henry Thayer has commented on the phrases. In the phrase, “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (verse 14), the word translated ought means to be under obligation, bound by duty or necessity. It communicates the idea of owing a debt.

In verse 15a, the word that is translated example describes an action to be imitated or followed. As if to underscore his meaning, Jesus added, “…that ye should do as I have done to you” (verse 15b).

The event was so impressive that a great number of Christians from the first century until now have practiced feet washing to remind them of the humility of Christ as the basis of our personal relationships with one another. A.T. Robertson called the episode “an object lesson in humility.”

I do not think any of us would disagree that the meaning behind the picture is the most important issue here. Nor would we argue about the pretentiousness of the ritual without a true servant’s heart. But that is true about all of the Christian life and any ritual performed in the church.

The spiritual truth is greater than the form in which it is presented. However, certain forms or rituals are appropriate reminders of the larger truth they display. That brings us to the second consideration that is usually phrased this way, “Does the event of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet qualify as an ordinance?”

Clear Definition

In my opinion, that is the wrong question to ask. I object to the question because the definition of ordinance is arbitrary, based on one’s particular church tradition. One can consult any number of reference sources to verify this.

Rather, I believe we should ask, “Does the biblical text teach the church to observe the form as well as the meaning?”  With that in mind, consider the following biblical definition of an ordinance.

A biblical ordinance is a practice modeled by Christ as an element of His redemptive work that He commanded His followers to observe themselves as living memorials.

When this criterion is applied, it appears that three acts in the ministry of Jesus fit this definition. The washing of His disciples’ feet depicts the humiliation of Christ in His condescension to become a man (Philippians 2:5-11). The Lord’s Supper (communion) paints a vivid picture of the sacrifice of His blood and body for our sins (1 Corinthians 11:24, 25). Baptism commemorates His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:4).

These are vital symbols of the redemptive role of Christ. They also exemplify the work of Christ within the life of the believer as he identifies with the Lord in salvation and new life. All three are specific acts or forms that represent larger meanings, and in each case, Christ specifically commanded his followers to observe those forms.

None of these examples can be omitted without losing the total picture of the Savior’s work. Throughout the history of the church, those who tried to alter or omit these ordinances undermined biblical truth and balanced theology. What Christian would not want to portray these essential truths as memorials unto “Him Who loved us and gave Himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2)?

Although John Calvin did not believe feet washing should be an ordinance, his words reveal the subtle reason some do not regard the washing of the saints’ feet as an ordinance: “Pride hinders us from fostering the equality which ought to flourish among us.”

God’s Visual Aids

Anyone who has taught knows the importance of visual aids in the learning process. In the Old Testament, the Lord commanded Israel to observe certain rituals and journeys that identified them as His covenant people and portrayed His redemptive plan. As each generation practiced the rituals and answered the questions of their children and foreigners about their meaning (Deuteronomy 6:20-25), they became powerful teaching tools. They illustrated the spiritual truths they represented and became part of their core beliefs and lifestyle.

The Church has also been given examples, albeit fewer than Old Testament Israel. These examples illustrate the foundational pillars of our core beliefs and lifestyle. Baptism usually follows salvation (Acts 2:41). Communion is observed, “…as oft as ye eat” (1 Corinthians 11:26). And because Jesus washed the disciples feet immediately after communion (John 13:4), the ordinance fits well with the observance of communion, summarizing the basis of relationships within the Christian community. These examples are amazing portraits of the redemptive work of the Savior that teach key principles in the life of every believer!

The evidence is overwhelming. Not only is the washing of the saints’ feet an ordinance to be shared among believers, it is a powerful reminder that the humility of Christ should be the essential ingredient in our Christian relationships.

Article adapted from ONE Magazine, June-July 2006.