John 13: Is foot washing a religious ordinance?

John 13: Is foot washing a religious ordinance?

Here in northwest Alabama there are a number of fine religious folk who practice foot washing as a religious ordinance, or at least profess to do so. Shortly after I moved to this area, and not being particularly familiar with this group, I inquired of one their preachers concerning the doctrines that set them apart from other groups of the same general persuasion. He told me they believed in foot washing, but he couldn’t remember the last time his church had observed it. Turning to a group of male congregants, he asked, “When was the last time we had a foot washing service?” Not one of them could come up with a time frame regarding the last such service. Not so much as a guesstimate. I thought to myself, “If it’s been so long that no one can remember it, you must not believe in it much!”

The verse most commonly cited in defense of foot washing as a religious ordinance is John 13:14, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

However, as is often the case, we one reads the verse before or after, he finds information and/or clarification that helps with a proper understanding. In this case, the verse after, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” And then the next, “Most assuredly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, not is he who is sent greater that he who sent him.”

Thus, we find Jesus is not enjoining foot washing as an ordinance, but rather as an example of achieving true greatness by serving others. The disciples inquired as to who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:1). They argued among themselves as to who would be the greatest (Mark 9:34). James and John sent their mother to Jesus to request a special place of greatness (Matt 20:20-22). This, after they were rebuked three times by Jesus in short order when they argued about who should be the greatest (Luke 9:46-48), rebuked a man for working miracles “because he does not follow us” (Luke 9:49-50), and asked if they should call fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans (Luke 9:51-56). Jesus held up humility as the standard of greatness in his final discourses (Matt 23:11).

The matter of import is not the washing of feet, but the attitude of a willingness to set aside and deny self that one might serve others. This can be done through any act whereby one shows himself as a servant in the image of Jesus Christ.

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