Adventist Church: Yes
Biblical Teaching: No
There have been various groups through the centuries who have felt compelled to practice foot washing. In this respect, the Adventist Church isn’t unique nor is the practice heretical. However, not all of those groups profess to have a divinely inspired messenger who corrects inaccurate interpretations of scripture that then adds to and expounds upon what all foot washing is and supposedly symbolizes. The scripture always referenced is John 13:1-20.
In her book, Early Writings, Ellen G. White claimed to have a vision regarding the practice of foot washing (as well as practicing the holy kiss that they no longer recognize). She says she was shown that the Lord’s Supper and foot washing should be practiced as frequently as possible with Jesus’s example from scripture followed exactly (John 13:15). How exact that is to be is up in the air.
She supposedly received further revelation that there is no example of brothers washing sisters feet, but there is example of the reverse—and that it was according to the gospel order for it to be this way. She also claimed to be shown that foot washing was to keep members from backsliding. Nowhere does scripture say this. How many Adventist’s had their feet washed and backslid? This is a major problem when claiming this came from God.
It should be pointed out that in Ellen’s “vision” she said this was to be practiced with exactness. Which means that everyone should be following Jesus’s example in dress and taking on the garments of a bondservant when practicing this—but they don’t. On top of that, Jesus was the superior washing the feet of the inferiors. He reversed the customary roles. Adventist’s don’t practice this. Especially considering the vision also said women were to wash mens feet, but not the other way around. Jesus is unique in this case because he is a true Superior. All humanity is equal in this regard—male or female, black, white, rich or poor, we are all equals in Christ (Galatians 3:28; Luke 22:26-8).
In John 13:1-3 we read that this took place shortly before Christ’s Passion, right before the Passover. Because of this, various groups in history have had the impulse to make foot washing into a sacrament. By the late 5th century it was a ritual in places like North Africa. In the modern Roman Catholic communion it is a ritual associated with Maundy Thursday which takes place just before Good Friday. Outside of Roman Catholicism, the Moravian Brethren, Anabaptist Mennonites and Seventh-Day Adventist’s have also adopted this practice sacramentally.
Foot washing was an act of hospitality in the ancient world. And was necessary due to the culture regarding sandals, dirty feet, and hygiene. For example, when the “three men” appeared to Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18:4, he invited them in and called for water to be brought and for their feet to be washed. This was an act of cultural hospitality.
John’s accounting of this in John 13:1-20 is an act to foreshadow Jesus’s coming death where His blood would be shed for the washing of regeneration and the forgiveness of sins (Titus 3:5, 1 John 1:7). We know this because of his rebuke of Peter (John 13:8), who sees what is about to happen and is reluctant. Peter was familiar with the cultural custom and that was Jesus was proposing was opposite of that. Jesus was their leader, their rabbi, their superior, their master. It was not for him to wash feet but for his followers to wash his feet. But to this Jesus says, “if I do not wash you, you have no part in me”—showing a deeper significance to what’s going on than merely the washing of feet.
He laid aside His garments, assuming this role, which was a sign of Him taking the position of a slave or bondservant (John 13:4).
The SDA Bible Commentary, Vol. V, on pg. 1028,—by way of Ellen G. White—comments on the setting aside of Jesus’s garments and completely miss what this customarily represented. They claim it was so that his movements wouldn’t be impeeded. This act was highly symbolic, not merely a feature of comfort. If anything, had He been more inconvenienced by the garments, His posture as a servant would seem to align more with Him remaining inconvenienced.
In the next paragraph on the same page they correctly state what Jesus’s act of washing the disciples feet symbolized—which is an example of humble, unselfish service.
Jesus did this to set an example for His church of humble servitude. If God incarnate is willing to gird himself with a towel and to perform the most menial act of hospitality, to wash the dirty, stinky feet of his disciples, then how much more ought we be willing to subordinate ourselves to our brothers and sisters for whom Christ died? Believers are to go and do likewise, not by literally washing people’s feet, but by serving one another (Romans 12:13, Galatians 5:13-14). This is what is meant by John 13:14-15.
But if Jesus did this to set an example for the church, then why hasn’t the church adopted this practice as a ordinance/sacrament then? The question assumes that sacraments are created by the church versus instituted by Christ. During the Middle Ages, the church did create five sacraments and seek to impose them on believers despite the fact that they were not instituted as sacraments by the Lord himself. They hold that the church has the authority to institute sacraments not instituted by Jesus Christ. Such authority, however, was never given to the church by Christ himself. The early church recognized this and only observed two sacraments. The five additional Middle Ages sacraments were not even officially recognized as sacraments until the late 13th century. Even then, foot washing was not among them.
Not every symbolic act of Jesus is a sacrament. For example, Jesus picked grain on the old creation, Jewish Sabbath which was to make a point about the Sabbath. This does not mean that we now have a sacrament of grain picking on the Sabbath. He did many things to make a point but none of them are sacraments. Only two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These two he intentionally gave to the church as abiding practices in order to signify his death (Lord’s Supper) and to serve as a sign of initiation into the visible covenant community (baptism). These serve as signs and seals of nourishment for those in the the visible church.
In the institution of the Supper, Christ commanded us to perform the ritual of drinking the cup and eating the bread (Matthew 26:26-9). He also commanded the church to baptize the nations (Matthew 28:19).
While the ritual foot washing of the disciples may share some of the characteristics of a sacrament (e.g. it is a ritual that points to Christ’s death), it does not share all of them. It was not instituted as a perpetual ritual. It was not imposed on the church by Christ nor is it mentioned as a sacramental practice by the apostles. The only time foot washing is mentioned after John is in 1 Timothy 5:10 and there it is an indicator that a widow has been hospitable, not a universal sacrament for the church. It was simply practiced in the apostolic period as a private matter of hospitality, kindness, and hygiene.
It’s important to recognize that we do not live in 1st century Judea. Most today have showers in their homes and do not walk everywhere, let alone on dusty, dirty roads, and most of us wear shoes. This was a cultural custom, practiced by the religious and non-religious alike, that Jesus used to make a practical point—serve one another in love and humility (Galatians 5:13-14).