Servus Servorum Dei
By Kevin Hester
Before he became pope in 590 AD, Gregory the Great served for a time as the apokrisarius or papal legate/representative to the emperor in Constantinople. While there, he found himself embroiled in controversies with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the chief church leader in the Eastern Empire. In one instance, the Patriarch of Constantinople gave himself the title “ecumenical patriarch,” which translates to “Bishop (or Overseer) of the World.”
Gregory reminded the ironically named John the Faster all bishops were equal under the one true Head—Jesus Christ. Gregory believed pride was the enemy of the faith and the tool of the antichrist.
His prescription was humility.
Too often as church leaders, it is easy to let pride creep in. After all, we are the ones who answer theological questions. We are the people to whom our church members come when they have a question about Scripture or about life. People look to us when a question comes up about the direction of the church. The office of the minister is indeed tasked with overseeing God’s people. But the attitude with which we conduct these efforts must always be humility. Jesus demonstrated the humility of a true leader in John 13 when He washed His disciples’ feet. Biblical leaders follow His example in washing the feet of others.
This text expresses several important principles regarding humility and leadership:
Biblical leaders humbly remember their continual need for Christ and His forgiveness (verse 10). The Free Will Baptist Catechism notes the washing of the saint’s feet “teaches humility and reminds the believer of the necessity of a daily cleansing from sin.” Many who reject feet washing as an ordinance do so on the grounds it is unrelated to Christ’s death or our salvation. Where baptism clearly signifies our cleansing by the blood of Christ, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper clearly indicate Christ’s blood and body given for us on the cross, some fail to see how washing feet compares.
I would argue that washing feet is certainly related to our ongoing salvation experience in at least two ways. First, as Christ knelt before His disciples, He portrayed His humbling in the incarnation, becoming one of us so we might have salvation.
The second is clearly indicated in the text itself. In verse 10, Jesus told Peter the person who has been cleansed is clean and does not need to wash except for his feet. The clear implication: though we have been cleansed by the blood of Christ, as we walk through this broken world and wage war against our fallen natures, we perpetually battle sin. The same attitude that acknowledged our sin and our total inability to satisfy God’s law at conversion must continue every day of our lives. We don’t simply trust Christ once for salvation; we trust Him daily. As John reminded us in another passage, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” but “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
Biblical leaders need to be reminded we stand in constant need of Christ’s forgiveness in our lives, along with His power and wisdom in our ministries. As we wash one another’s feet, may we remember Christ has already washed our hearts, and as Peter said, our hands and our heads as well as our feet (John 13:9). Our lives must be bathed continually in grace and our ministry anointed continually by His mercy. Feet washing helps biblical leaders remember their continual need for Christ and His forgiveness.
Biblical leaders remember no one is beneath our service (verses 3-5). The ordinance of feet washing helps us here as well. This principle describes what we usually mean when we refer to humility regarding this ordinance. To be a Christian is to adopt an attitude of humble service. Jesus reminded His disciples (who were constantly jockeying for greater positions in His coming Kingdom) the Kingdom of God is not about being served but about serving. Just as Jesus humbled Himself and gave His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), we are called to humble ourselves before all people and seek to serve them. Biblical leaders serve their whole congregation. This includes those who gossip or speak poorly about us behind our backs. Jesus washed the feet of Peter the denier. He washed the feet of Judas the betrayer. He served everyone.
Biblical leaders also serve the whole community. Feet washing provides a wonderful reminder of Jesus’ entire ministry. No individual was too unholy, too sick, too broken, or too outcast to merit His attention. We all come to Jesus on our knees, and we are expected to make Jesus known on our knees through prayer and service to others. But feet washing doesn’t just remind us to serve others. It helps us see Christians need one another.
Biblical leaders remember we need one another’s help (verse 8). It always surprises me when the most humbling part of a feet washing service is not washing another’s feet but allowing someone else to wash my own feet. Sometimes, we are like Peter—“Lord, you will never wash my feet!”—because we sense our brother is too important to serve us. I still remember the first time my mentor and renowned Free Will Baptist theologian Leroy Forlines offered to wash my feet. I was mortified. Surely, he was too good to wash my feet. But Brother Forlines didn’t think so.
Other times, we get caught up in self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Something about having your feet washed by someone else humbles us. The American mantra of individualism says, “I can do this spiritual thing on my own.” This is unbiblical. Instead, we must draw strength from one another as we hold one another accountable, spurring each other on “unto love and to good works” (Hebrews 10:24). We must not forsake “the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
The author of Hebrews reminded us we are better together. The ordinance makes this clear as well. It is only as we recognize our need for Christ and for one another that we can truly begin to follow Christ’s example.
Biblical leaders remember to follow Christ’s example (verses 12-15). Jesus allowed His feet to be washed by a sinful woman’s tears. He allowed Himself to be anointed with perfume as an act of worship. This same Jesus knelt and washed His disciples’ feet. The ordinance of washing feet is a reminder of our continual need for Christ in salvation and our continual need for one another in the spiritual life. We all need such service, and we are all required to serve those God puts around us, regardless of who they are, what they have done, or what they may do in the future.
Paul said, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,” that is, a mind of humility (Philippians 2:5). Biblical leaders follow Jesus’ example, having hearts of mercy to love what Jesus loved, pursuing purity to live how Jesus lived, and exhibiting obedience to suffer as the Savior suffered. As we obey Christ’s words in fulfilling this ordinance, we remind ourselves we are called to emulate Jesus in all things. He is our example. He is our salvation. He is our one true hope. In this ordinance, Jesus clearly said, “Follow me.”
Gregory chided the patriarch of Constantinople for calling himself the world’s bishop. For his part, Gregory went by a very different name. In letters and official statements, he consistently referred to himself as “servus servorum Dei,” or “servant of the servants of God.” Gregory recognized following Christ’s example begins in humility.
As Christ humbled Himself and wrapped Himself in a towel of human flesh, we also humble ourselves, realizing there is no righteousness or holiness within ourselves. As Christ knelt at the feet of His disciples, we also kneel to request His forgiveness. As Christ ministered to both His friends and His enemies, He shared an example that all are worthy of His love and of our expressions of it. When He commanded us to wash one another’s feet, He reminded us our own strength will be insufficient at times, but in these moments, His strength will be made perfect in us. Most often, He does this through His servants in the church, brothers and sisters in Christ.
When we wash one another’s feet, we unite in humility, remembering Jesus’ example of biblical leadership and committing ourselves to loving service. May this ordinance ever be an expression of our unity with Christ and with one another, of our continual need for Christ and for one another, and of our commitment to serve Christ and His world with humility and sacrifice.
About the Author: Dr. Kevin Hester is senior professor of divinity, dean of the School of Theology, and program coordinator for theological studies at Welch College. He is also a member of the Free Will Baptist Commission for Theological Integrity. Learn more: FWBTheology.com.