Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Foot Washing - Symbolism over Substance

Recently the Adventist Review dealt with the issue of foot washing, that tradition found in the Adventist church and a few others. The Review begins its article How to End your Fear of Foot Washing by Ed Christiansen by saying:

Ask any deacon. It's a well known fact that on Communion Sabbath perhaps only about half the regular members of most congregations will show up. Some slip away after Sabbath school. Others satisfy a longstanding desire to visit the church in the next town. There's something about Communion Sabbath that breeds colds, flu, bronchitis, and gout.

Why is that? I don't think it's because the day is so boring. I don't think it's because people are against celebrating Communion. Frankly, I think it's because many people think of what we call "the ordinance of humility" as an ordeal of humility: they suffer from fear of foot washing.

We call this the Ordinance of Humility though it is more likely an ordinance in stupidity. Jesus washed dirty feet, He was offering to do a real service to His disciples and asking them to be of real service to each other. In our Ordinance of Humility we wash clean feet and pretend that we are doing a service by washing the feet of people who don’t even have dirty feet. We have elevated the meaning of Jesus’s act to a symbolism and the importance of the act, though often addressed is never addressed practically. We don’t offer to help other church members clean their flower beds or paint their house or work on their car or bicycles. We create an Ordinance of Humility as our official declaration of symbolism over substance.

The article later says:

Because this humility is both hard to attain and hard to retain, the ordinance of humility is a precious opportunity for us to humble ourselves as we ought, and its value is inestimable. As Ellen White writes: "Whenever this ordinance is rightly celebrated, the children of God are brought into a holy relationship, to help and bless each other."2

No! a thousand times no, it is a regular opportunity, that is what Christianity should be about, the willingness to be a friend and a service to others even when it is inconvenient to do so. It is not about playing that this is the way we are in a once a quarter pretend to be humble service inside a church.

As we practice the ordinance of humility it is not only the washing of the feet of others that embarrasses us, but, perhaps more so, having our own feet washed. There's something private about the washing of feet, quite different from the washing of hands. Like certain medical examinations, it can seem an invasion of something that is ours alone.

No, it is not the washing that embarrasses us it is that it is needless and pointless. How many of us would be really embarrassed to clean the wound on someone’s foot say they had a cut and needed it cleaned and disinfected, I am not talking a disgusting wound that might make some weaker stomachs sick. We would not feel that is an embarrassment and if it was our own foot that needed tending we may be embarrassed by our need of help but we would not be embarrassed for having a real need. We are most embarrassed by having no need of something and pretending that the ceremony does anything. That is the reality of why foot washing is so ill attended. Because we make it a stupid ritual, we can serve other people all the time. It is wrong to insert the foot washing into the communion service. The foot washing of the disciples was a practical example of serving others. The rest of the communion, the wine and the bread are totally symbolic it is a shared experience with history and the God of that history.

We have made foot washing as meaningless as Maundy Thursday and just as traditional. Another sad part of this is that we don’t even ask the people in the church why they avoid this meaningless ritual, instead like the author of the above article the leadership simply assumes they know why. Telling them if the reader could only understand the deep significance of this insignificant activity it would be embraced. With a few anecdotes thrown in to make the event seem meaningful as if relationships were created by foot washing ceremonies.


Anonymous said...

My, you seem to feel quite stongly about this. Can't say I am in disagreement.

Problem with changing the teaching: We do foot washing on Sabath. If we did a service type humilty symbol we probably would have to have Communion on another day as it might possibly involve work.

Dick Larsen

Ron Corson said...

Not so hard; remove the foot-washing tradition, the New Testament accounts of celebrating the Lord's Supper does not include an ordinance of humility. We don't need it either.

So instead of a ceremony, people can go out and help other people and they don't have to worry about messing up their rest day. There are still 6 days of the week for such work.

But since I realize practical Christianity is still unacceptable to many people we could just have the few who want to continue to wash feet come in on a Friday evening and conduct their ceremony. It has to be a Friday because of course they would not do it on any day as their time is too valuable. So the ordinance of humility can only be religiously celebrated within the hours of the sabbath.

At least this way we would not be chasing people away from church and celebrating the Lord's supper. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best.

Anonymous said...

A separate service would make sense but then who would come.

A few years back we were doing a Friday night Lord's Supper but it seamed a few people had to have it during church also. I guess incase the "unorthodox" service didn't take.

We also had a pastor that preached that there was no forgiveness for forgotten sins if you didn't go through with the foot washing. The argument was along the lines that you had to have every sin forgiven to be saved. Seeing as to how it would be hard to remember every sin it would follow that you could ask forgiveness for every one. Foot washing, according to him, was God's plan to renew the forgetful sinner by being a mini baptism that would periodically wipe the slate clean. When I would ask around the church if it didn't bother people that we were being taught a type of salvation by sacrament, I was told to quit being so picky.

Dick Larsen

Mark said...

I went back to the Church Manual to see what it said about all this. The impression I got was that according to the book, somehow the forms of the ceremony itself are sacred, and that churches are strongly, strongly discouraged from making any changes. It might as well be called a sacrament along the lines of Roman Catholic ones, because in effect, that is how it is officially explained.

Anonymous said...

The only real foot washing is Christ shed blood my friend,and that faith in that renews a man or woman by regeneration of the heart,and given to each man as he trusts that Christs merits on the cross,what he did,and what happened there