In John 13:13–15 Jesus said, “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.” Some churches practice footwashing today as an ordinance. Others do not. Do these verses teach that footwashing is a perpetually-binding ordinance, like the Lord’s Supper?
I don’t believe so. First Corinthians 11:26 says, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.” The Lord’s Supper is to be done “in remembrance” of the Lord Jesus “till he come.” However, there is no such command with regard to footwashing.
The original setting of John 13—the Passover meal—was an old covenant ceremony. The Lord’s Supper has replaced the Passover meal. The Passover meal is now spiritualized, according to 1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “… For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The Passover is spiritualized. We don’t literally observe Passover.
The incident in John 13 is not, properly speaking, a worship service but a Passover meal. In order to follow this literally, we should not just practice footwashing but also the observing of the Passover meal. But is observing the Passover meal and footwashing mandated by the Scripture? You can see where all of this is leading.
Footwashing in the first century was necessitated by first-century circumstances. In the ancient world, men wore sandals fastened with leather thongs. The highway system was primitive, meaning dusty in dry weather and muddy in wet. Their feet were often covered with dust and mud, and with the result of animal traffic, i.e., dung. They ate in a semicircle in a reclining position. One person’s feet would be near another person’s face. We really don’t have that situation today.
Are you saying that there are things in the Bible that have to be understood in light of ancient practices and the ancient cultural setting?
Yes, indeed. In 1 Corinthians 8–10, the apostle is speaking about food offered to idols. There are some important principles that can be applied to today’s setting, but the passage only makes sense in terms of the cultural setting. Scripture may be defined as “the Word of God given in the words of men.” Scripture is inerrant and infallible, yet it bears marks of humanity, but without error. It was given in the languages of the day. Paul wrote to Timothy and said: “The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). We don’t generally wear clokes or use parchments.
The import of our Lord’s teaching in John 13 is humility. What matters is that Christians practice humility that shows itself in love and Christian service. Jesus was giving an example that they would never forget. True greatness shows itself by serving others in ways that far exceed the washing of someone’s feet.