Foot Washing And Sola Scriptura

I look back with fond memories of growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

I started out pretty small and the first days of my church life aren’t part of my childhood memories at all.  But I do remember scenes from kindergarten class on up through the divisions.  I was soon into primary and then juniors.

In my progression upward  through the Sabbath School departments there was a level of church involvement I looked forward to, as I watched church members take part in the Communion Service.  That longing was acted on in 3rd grade at a week of prayer in the SDA church school I attended.   I was probably 8 yrs old.  I remember that day, that moment in my life very well, almost like it happened yesterday.  At the end of the morning presentation as all my classmates exited the chapel I stayed in my seat.  I just sat there, even the teacher left.  There was just me and the pastor.

He just stood quietly in the front of the chapel until everyone was gone and then he came  and sat down next to me and in a very sincere voice, he asked me if I wanted to say something to him.  I did.  “Yes,” I said.  “I want to be baptized.”  I don’t remember any appeal that morning, only a conviction that came over me as I listened to the pastor.  And the pastor recognized that conviction.  “What a wonderful decision that is,” he told me.  “But before you can be baptized you will need to study the Bible by completing a set of Bible Study lessons.”  He had a Bible enrollment card for Faith for Today Bible school in his inside pocket.    He told me to fill it out, send it in and then when the lessons were completed, we could make plans for baptism and then he prayed for me, a dumb  little 3rd grader with messy red hair and freckles  I was about as much a boy as a boy can be!

It took me 3 years to finish those lessons.  During that time, I would watch the church calendar move through the quarters and at the end of each quarter, there was communion service.  But I was never invited to take part in those services.  In those days church members understood that the Ordinance of Foot Washing had great meaning and played an important part in one’s Christian experience that I had not yet arrived at, even though I was going to church every week, loved Jesus, and was enrolled in a Bible correspondence course.  It was a long 3-year engagement for me as the conviction grew and settled into my being.  When I was 12, probably in the 6th grade, I was ready, and was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Melvindale, Michigan, and into what I believed was truly an SDA heritage: Sola Scriptura, the Bible only. 

A simple definition of sola scriptura is:   “Sola scriptura (Latin ablative, "by Scripture alone") is the Christian doctrine that the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice.”  But I need to continue….

I remember this as vividly as if it happened yesterday.  The first communion after my baptism, Mr. Haug, an elder in the church, a man I looked up to and respected, came up to me and said, “Doug, may I wash your feet today.”  And after the Ordinance of Foot Washing I took my first taste of communion bread and juice.   And thus I was initiated into full membership into the SDA church- an experience that was opened to me through baptism.  

I am sharing this with you because in the 50’s and 60’s, in a century long ago, it seems, church members understood the importance of “sola scriptura” and did not add to it the modifiers “feelings” and “culture” and “inclusiveness” that are being used today.  It was the Bible alone!

Today communion, and especially the Ordinance of Foot Washing is losing its significance.  And I believe that is because we are losing a sense of order in our church and a sense of The Bible Only.  Consider this from The Church Manual, p. 126 (2015 edition) on the Communion Service.

Who May Participate—“The church practices open communion.  All who have committed their lives to the Savior may participate.”  Now follow this closely….  “Children learn the significance of the service by observing others participating.  After receiving formal instruction in baptismal classes and making their commitment (emphases supplied) to Jesus in baptism, they are thereby prepared to partake in the service themselves.” 

We should expect no less from visitors walking into our churches on Communion Sabbath then we expect of our children.  We are not a church of double standards, of two laws, like dispensationalists who have two standards- one for the Jew and another for the non-Jew. 

Here in this paragraph from The Church Manual we see two things.  The term “open communion” is limited to those who have made a commitment to Jesus, and that commitment is defined as happening only through baptism.  Those from other denominations, our children, who have made that commitment to Jesus through baptism are welcome to partake with us.   That is the meaning  of “open communion.”  

This follows the biblical example we have in John 13.  Jesus only washed the feet of baptized persons in that upper room.  To Peter’s sudden exclamatory demand to be washed all over, “not just my feet” Jesus replied “he who has been washed only needs to have his feet washed and he is clean all over.”

Throughout the NT, the sacred Communion service was only shared among baptized believers as part of a close and endearing reminder of their fellowship together.  Like us, they were united in their love and faithfulness to Jesus--cemented through baptism. 

Of the significance of The Ordinance of Foot Washing we read in Seventh-day Adventists Believe…  in  chapter 16 on “The Lord’s Supper” these words, “The foot washing did more than clean feet.  It represented a higher purification—a cleansing of the heart…..

“Like the disciples, when we have accepted Christ and been baptized, we have been cleansed by His blood.  But as we walk the Christian life, we fail.  Our feet become dusty.  We must come to Christ again and let His cleansing grace wash away the defilement.  However, we do not need to be baptized again, for “he who has bathed needs only to wash his feet.” (John 13:10).”   Pages 227- 228.   Bathed, washed are NT terms for baptism. 

There is a footnote at the end of the chapter on this last quote that reads,

“There is a relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Baptism precedes church membership, while the foot washing serves those who already are church members.  During this ordinance we may appropriately mediate on our baptismal vows.”  Ibid. p. 234.

This is a biblical position set forth and endorsed in the book Seventh-day Adventists Believe.

I understood this position from my baptism as a youth.  Growing up through my teens and on into my early adult life from time to time I would be outright ashamed of something in my life.  But I had hope.  I understood that “If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to CLEANSE us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Let any troubled mind grasp that thought for a while.  And then, if you have faltered in your walk with Jesus, in humiliation and repentance come to the Ordinance of Foot Washing and be renewed in your baptismal experience.  What a refreshing joy it can be to have your feet washed then! 

Often, when I wash someone’s feet I begin with these words, “Now, in remembrance of your baptism, I now renew that experience in the name of the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit.”  And I wash their feet.  If they have  not been baptized, I would not wash their feet. 

But brothers and sisters, the power and the sanctity of the Ordinance is being muted and destroyed by those who have added to Sola Scriptura the modifiers “feelings” and “culture” and “inclusiveness.”  Many pastors use the communion to promote a “warm renewing of relationships” but the Ordinance of Foot Washing was not designed to heal broken marriages, or bind families together.  It was designed to renew those who have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in their faith experience and it is impossible for anyone who has not been baptized to be renewed in an experience they have never known.  Why, it would be like trying to celebrate a wedding anniversary without a wedding! Impossible! 

I was 12 years old when I was baptized.  As I climbed up the homemade baptistry made out of 2 x 4s and canvass in the church basement the choir sang, “Just as I am without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come.”

I have never taken part in the Ordinance of Foot Washing without singing that song in my head, without remembering stepping down into the water, seeing the pastor raise his arm and hearing those words, “Douglas, because you have decided to follow Jesus as your Lord and Savior, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  I felt the water rushing over me and I was under and I came up and the choir sang, and I was different. 

And that is what the Ordinance of Foot Washing is about.  We as members faithful to the Word of God, cannot let those who want to modify Scripture with outside considerations destroy this most meaningful post-baptism ordinance.  Let us hold fast the faith of our Fathers in all things, and especially in this sacred ordinance of foot washing.

I am going to add this.  Over the years I have watched some pastors push the communion service to the back of their regular church service.  The Church Manual recognizes the importance of the communion service and recommends that on communion Sabbath, the order of service be modified so everything on that Sabbath is directed towards this important service.  I wish all pastors followed The Church Manual on this point.

I also recognize there are secondary lessons to be learned from washing one another’s feet, but those considerations are always secondary.  The primary purpose for washing feet is so that “you may be clean.”  



Douglas Carlson is a retired SDA pastor.  After serving in Michigan for many years, Douglas now lives in Arizona.