Dear Brother Beebe: - I have received a great deal of comfort and satisfaction in reading your editorials in the Signs of the Times, on different portions of the scriptures, and if it is not asking too much, I would like to have you give your views in full on John 13:14,15, and its connection. By doing so you will greatly oblige a well wisher to the truth, though an unworthy sister, if a sister at all.
REPLY: The text on which this sister desires our views reads thus: “If I then, your lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one anothers feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.”
We have on former occasions given our views on this subject, but we have given them only as our views, desiring our readers to compare them carefully and prayerfully with the scriptures as the infallible standard of truth. Fallible and imperfect as our views are, either in our own estimation, or as they may be regarded by others, we do not feel at liberty to withhold them when called for by our kindred in Christ, on any part of Divine revelation. All the gifts in the church are the common property of the church; for we are members one of another.
We have more delicacy in attempting to repeat our views on this than on other portions of the word, because we are conscious that some of our most highly esteemed brethren differ in their understanding of it; and until it shall please the Lord to give a clearer light on the subject, an agitation may produce discord and darken counsel by words without knowledge. Many of our churches, especially in the South and Southwestern parts of our country, understand and practice the washing of each other’s feet as a church ordinance, to be literally performed at some of their social meetings. While other churches understand the subject as having a figurative or emblematical signification to be observed in a metaphorical sense. But by a mutual understanding those churches agree to bear with each other, and do not make this difference of their understanding of this subject a bar of fellowship or communion. Still the advocates of both views appear to be somewhat sensitive on the subject, and so much so that an argument on the one side seldom fails to elicit a reply from the other. We have thought that under existing circumstances it were better for us either to let the matter rest until the Lord shall give us clearer light on the subject, or if impressed to discuss the subject, let the discussion be so conducted as to avoid saying or writing anything that can be construed to the disparagement of each other’s sincerity or laudable motives.
The argument of brethren who practice washing each other’s feet literally is that the words of our Lord to his disciples in our text and its connection seem clear, pointed, and emphatic. “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.” This seems at least to them to be a sufficient authority to practice literally according to the example; and they cannot see how their brethren whom they love and fellowship can view it in any other light.
On the other hand, it is argued that the performance had a mystical or figurative significance which Jesus himself told the apostles that they did not at that time understand, which should afterwards be made known unto them. The apostles most certainly knew what he had done literally, for the custom of washing feet as an act of hospitality, kindness, and humility had prevailed for ages, both among Jews and Gentiles. What was it then that they did not at that time comprehend or know in this example and precept which he had so positively enjoined on the apostles: for they were all apostles whose feet Jesus had washed? Can any of the brethren discover anything in the literal observance of washing feet which the apostles at that time could not understand? Why could they not understand the literal performance as well, if not better, than we can? But we must not dispute that there was something in and about this example and precept which even the apostles did not then understand, for to doubt this would be to doubt the plain words of Christ. What they did know was what was literally performed, that they were accustomed to, as a common practice already existing among them; but what they did not know was the figurative or spiritual application of the subject. This they should afterward know, for it was of the most vital importance to them and to the church of God that they should know, and fully comprehend, because they were very soon to receive from him the commission to “Go teach all nations, baptizing them,” etc. ‘Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Matt. 28:19,20) The instructions given in our text were certainly among the things which the apostles were commissioned to teach the baptized believers to observe. And to teach them to observe them was not merely to teach them that they were required, but how, or in what way they were to be observed or obeyed. Therefore, although they did not at that time understand them, when they should be endowed with power from on high, when baptized with the Holy Ghost and fire, when they should sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, then the Holy Comforter, even the Spirit of truth, would bring all these things whatsoever Christ had commanded them to their remembrance, and qualify them to teach all the spiritual tribes how to observe them. So it was certain they should know the true meaning of the example and precept in our text in good time to teach it to the Gentile churches, and how to observe it. The importance of this lesson to the apostles, and through them to the churches, or baptized believers, may be inferred by Christ’s words to Peter, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” Can it be possible that the literal washing of Peter’s feet in water was what secured to him an interest in Jesus? Or, does not this expression clearly imply a washing of which this literal washing was but a figure? All who have a part with Jesus are said to be washed by him in his own blood, from all iniquity; that he hath washed and cleansed them to himself as a peculiar people; that he hath saved them by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost. In this cleansing all who are washed by him are cleansed every whit. If this is fairly implied, then that which the apostles were afterwards to know and teach had a deeper and more important signification than the mere washing of each other’s feet literally in water.
Aside, however, from all speculation or conjecture as to what was designed to be signified by the washing of the apostles’ feet, it must be conceded that the true import was finally perfectly understood by the apostles, and as they were expressly commanded to teach the baptized nations to observe all things whatsoever Christ had commanded them, we must either conclude that they have taught the true and proper import of washing feet, or that they have proved disobedient to their high vocation. To admit that they have withheld any instruction which they were commissioned to give would be to question their infallibility as inspired apostles, and, therefore, shake our confidence in them in the instructions which they have given. Though as men they were but men, and compassed about with all the infirmities common to the saints; yet, as apostles they were inspired by the Holy Ghost, so that what they bound on earth is bound in heaven, and what they loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. As princes they rule in judgment, and their decisions on all subjects are final and conclusive, binding on all saints on earth what God has ratified in heaven, and loosing the saints from all obligations, religiously, that are not embraced in their instructions to the churches of the saints. If this conclusion be incorrect, what safety is there in relying on their decisions and instructions, as to the ordinances and order of the church of God? And if we regard the inspired apostles as the infallible exponents of all the laws and institutions of Christ which are binding on the saints; then we enquire how have they enjoined on us the obligation to wash one another’s feet? Have they anywhere in the “Acts of the Apostles” or in their Epistles to the churches, by precept or by example, enjoined the literal washing of each other’s feet? No instance of the kind is found in their practice among themselves, nor in the instructions to the saints. Shall we then conclude that they have disobeyed their commission? - that there is anything which Christ commanded them which they have failed to teach us to observe? None, we trust, will take that position. Better then for us to conclude that they have taught us to observe this instruction of our Lord as they understood it when its true import was made plain to them. We have seen that Christ in washing his disciples has made them clean every whit. Is there any sense in which the apostles have taught the saints to imitate the work of the Redeemer in what he has done to cleanse and purify them? We certainly are not taught that we can expiate sin, or that, our works, or even our blood, could purge the conscience of men from dead works to serve the living God; but we are frequently admonished to imitate the example of our Lord in watching over each other - in exhorting - admonishing, and praying for one another - not to suffer the defilement of disorder, or disobedience, or transgression of any of the laws of Christ as interpreted and expounded by his apostles to rest upon one another. The unparalleled love which Christ has manifested for his people in putting away their sins by the sacrifice of himself has been clearly pointed out as an example to be copied by all the saints. We were told to love one another even as Christ has loved us and given himself for us; to forgive one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven us. Husbands love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water, by the word. that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.
This washing of water, by the word, is not water literally, but by the word. A close and circumspect adherence to the word, both in regard to each of us individually, and to our brethren relatively, is cleansing in its nature, as water literally is cleansing as an element to natural things. Peter says, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth, through the Spirit, unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently.” The word of truth, and obedience to the truth purifies the souls from error as water cleanseth things which are washed in it. Hence it is called the washing of water by the word. The feet are those members of the body by which we walk, and which in walking come continually in contact with the earth, and are therefore most exposed to defilement. So in our spiritual travel the saints are in conflict with the defilement of the earth, the world, etc.; and the care which Christ did so fully manifest for the purity of his disciples should be imitated by all his children, one to another. Now if the apostles were made to understand the lesson in our text to signify that the saints were to watch over one another in love, to bear each other’s burdens, to exhort and admonish each other in love, to endeavor to reclaim an erring brother or sister in the spirit of meekness and humility, each considering himself, that he is also liable to become defiled, by instructing one another, teaching each other the way of the Lord more perfectly, each esteeming others better than himself, in sacrificing our own personal comfort or accommodation for the benefit of the saints, with a readiness to lay down even our lives, if need be, for the promotion of the purity and comfort of the saints, then they have not failed to teach us by their examples, (for we have them for examples) and by their doctrine, to wash one another’s feet in a spiritual sense. This course is washing, as it cleanseth from defilement, and as the washing of the weary wayworn traveler’s feet in water is refreshing and healthy, so these services duly rendered, in the spirit of christian humility, are truly refreshing and comforting to those whose feet shall stand on Zion’s hill. Beholding them, we may exclaim, “How beautiful are the feet of them who publish peace,” etc.
“As through this wilderness we roam
And onward march toward heaven our home,
No not the filth of sin or earth
Defile our feet, or shame our birth.
Our feet with gospel grace well shod,
Dress’d in the armor of our God,
In all our walks let us be seen,
With hearts, and hands, and feet all clean.”
August 1, 1862.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 5
Pages 222 – 227