think I was 7 or 8 years old when I first attended a foot-washing ceremony. I was allowed to join about three dozen, mostly elderly, men in a small back room in the building where our church met. It was the time when sock suspenders and long johns were still in abundant use and the custom of the “brotherly kiss” was still widely observed. I remember experiencing it as a rather odd ritual.
I have a suspicion that my youthful feelings of embarrassment are still shared by quite a few people in the Adventist Church today. Yet it seems that at times people outside our faith community are impressed with the fact that we have retained this meaningful service. When I lived in England years ago, a member of our local church told me that the manager of the bank where he worked had voiced his interest in attending an Adventist worship service, and that he wanted to attend the following Sabbath. Our brother wondered whether this was a good idea, since it was going to be “Communion Sabbath.” How would his non-Adventist supervisor react to our “service of humility,” the foot-washing exercise?
As it happened, the man was much impressed. “This is one of the most moving experiences I have ever had,” he commented the following Monday morning.
An Ancient Custom
Early on in my theological training I wrote a paper on the topic of foot washing in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Later on, my first (more or less scholarly) article in Ministry (July 1966) dealt with the topic. And ever since, the subject has fascinated me. In medieval monasteries monks washed the feet of weary travelers who wanted a bed for the night. In many royal courts in Europe the monarch would wash the feet of a number of their subjects during a special ceremony on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). The British Queen continues to donate commemorative coins on that same day to a few of her subjects in a ritual that has its roots in the royal foot-washing ceremony.
Through the ages foot washing has been practiced at various occasions in the Roman Catholic Church. The New Testament practice of foot washing as an introduction to the Lord’s Supper, however, was found exclusively in Protestant circles. The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century rediscovered it as a biblical custom, and several Protestant churches followed their example—the Adventist Church becoming the largest of the foot-washing denominations.
Most churches that at one time practiced foot washing as a prelude to the Communion service have stopped doing so. In most cases the tradition disappeared gradually as more and more people felt uncomfortable participating, viewing the custom as archaic.
Is this understandable and acceptable? Or is there a reason why Adventists should jealously guard this part of their heritage? Is the practice doomed to disappear in a decade or two, or should it remain a meaningful part of our worship tradition?
Washing people’s feet was a common practice in biblical times. People walked on dusty roads with their bare feet in open sandals. Those who have been in the slums of certain cities of the world will know what the streets in Jesus’ time were like. In the first century washing the feet of your guests was no luxury, considering the fact that during a meal people would stretch out around low tables and one might have the feet of another come into contact with one’s own person. On the other hand, washing the feet of guests was generally considered as slave labor. Just as we do not expect to be asked to clean the toilet or put out the garbage when we visit the home of a friend, Jesus’ contemporaries would not expect to be invited to assume the role of a slave and wash the feet of the dinner guests.
In the John 13:1-17 story Jesus is celebrating the Passover with His small circle of disciples. Having the feet of the guests washed upon arrival would normally be part of the catering package.* Unfortunately in this instance, that service was not available; and none of the guests were inclined to offer it. The only One willing to kneel down and provide this lowly service was the Master.
In giving this unforgettable example of true servant leadership, Jesus made it clear to the disciples that this was not to be a one-off event. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (verse 15). In response to this instruction, Adventist believers continue to serve each other prior to the Lord’s Supper by washing each other’s feet.
Full of Meaning
Let’s make sure that in our church we do not lose this rite, which is so full of meaning. It would be to our spiritual detriment, I believe, if slowly we would allow this biblical injunction, so full of spiritual lessons, to disappear.
Let me mention four aspects of this service of which we should not lose sight:
1. It’s about acceptance of all, without preconditions. Jesus had been through all kinds of experiences with His disciples. He knew them better than they knew themselves. He was aware of their strengths and their weaknesses. Yet He made no distinctions. He washed the feet of all of them, not hesitating to wash the feet of Peter, even though He knew that just a few hours later Peter would vehemently deny Him. He knelt down in front of Judas Iscariot, fully aware that the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Him (verse 2).
Does this not surpass anything we can imagine? In the institution of foot washing as a religious rite, Jesus tells us that we must be willing to accept all people, without any preconditions, as fellow human beings. Even when we feel they do not conform to our standards, we must not reject them, but continue to reach out to them.
2. It’s about true service, which ennobles rather than degrades. Jesus did not mind taking on a servant role. He was not so status-conscious that He considers any task beneath His dignity. It is not that Jesus doubted who He was, or that He was insecure about His position. He “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (verse 3). A little later in the story, He says: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am” (verse 13).
So there is no question that He knew He ranked as number one. Yet He stood willing to serve.
Service is not the natural desire of most of us. We prefer to be in charge. And Jesus admits that this is how things tend to operate in the world. “But,” He stresses, “you are not to be like that” (Luke 22:25, 26). That is, indeed, a powerful lesson for many of us, especially when local church elections or conference, union, or General Conference sessions are on the horizon—or even when we are at home playing our specific role in our family. The story of the washing of the disciples’ feet is a sublime lesson about how to serve.
3. It’s about our need for regular refreshment. The exchange between Jesus and Peter is instructive. At first Peter refuses to have his feet washed by the Master. But when Jesus tells him the significance of the exercise, he changes 180 degrees. “Lord,” he says, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus replies, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean” (verses 8-10).
In the Greek text of the Gospel story the word for taking a bath, louo, differs from the word used to refer to the refreshing of the feet—nipto. This is not a coincidence, and the difference is intentional. “You are clean,” Jesus says to His disciples (except the one who has consciously decided to betray Me; in fact he is no longer with Me). You are baptized and you are a child of God. Baptism does not need to be repeated at regular intervals. But you do need a regular refreshing that reminds you of the choice you made when you were baptized. This is a key meaning of our foot-washing practice. It’s a vivid reminder of the covenant we concluded with our Lord when we decided to be baptized.
4. It’s about connecting the horizontal with the vertical dimension of our faith. Religion has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension. Often people miss the sound balance between those two aspects. They suggest that the core of being religious is being a decent human being. Others say, “No, being a good human being is the domain of the secular humanist; religion is only about a relationship with God.”
Jesus wants us to understand that both ideas are wrong. The horizontal and the vertical belong together. He tells us that if we love Him, we will also love one another. We meet Him when we truly meet another human being. If we are prepared to serve our brothers and sisters, He regards it as a service to Him (see Matthew 25:31-46). He says to us, in effect: “If you make up your differences with other people as you kneel down to wash the feet of your fellow believer, if you extend and accept forgiveness and reconciliation at the interhuman level, I extend my unlimited forgiveness and love to you!”
I can only hope that with these insights any dormant embarrassment about foot washing might evaporate. Let’s not miss this regular refreshing of our commitment to our Lord.
*Though the King James Version gives the impression that the foot washing came at the end of the meal, many other (more recent) translations suggest it came earlier, perhaps as the group got ready to settle down for the supper. John 13:21-26 seems to support this sequence.—Editors.
Reinder Bruinsma is a retired (longtime) administrator who serves as coordinator for Publishing in the Netherlands. This article was published October 22, 2009.