Another look at the ordinance of humility

Seventh-day Adventists are one of several Christian denominations that practice the Ordinance of Humility, also known as the Ordinance of foot-washing, or the foot-washing service.[i] This Ordinance is based upon Jesus' act, at the last supper, of washing his disciples' feet (See, John 13:2-17).

Although the Ordinance has a firm scriptural foundation and a long tradition within the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, many Adventist churches have noticed that attendance drops on Communion Sabbaths. It is believed that the congregants feel awkward about the foot-washing service, yet are embarrassed to openly evade it by remaining in the sanctuary while it is taking place in the Sabbath School complex, so they simply do not attend church on Communion Sabbaths.

Some churches have responded by holding the foot-washing service in the unstructured, 15-minute free time between Sabbath School and church, when few will notice who is—and who is not—participating. This solves the problem of low attendance, but fosters a concomitant problem of low participation in the foot-washing, typically reducing participation to about 20% of those in attendance. It seems that many congregants arrive only at 11:00 a.m., or choose to socialize during the period between Sabbath School and church.[ii] Relegating the foot-washing ordinance to the time between Sabbath School and church has, in other denominations, been a step toward dispensing with it altogether:

Discourage holding foot washing between Sabbath school and church, relegating it to a minor position. Any de-emphasis of foot washing would gradually lead toward participating in the Lord’s Supper only. This has happened in other churches that once practiced the Ordinance of Humility, but eventually dropped it as being inconvenient.” [iii]

My church, the Vallejo Drive SDA church in Glendale, California, a 1,300 member church located across the street from the Adventist Medical Center, is one that has relegated the Ordinance to this time, with the result that only about 15% of those who attend church participate in the Ordinance. Clearly, holding the foot-washing in the gap between Sabbath School and church is not an acceptable solution to the problem.

The foot-washing ordinance is an historic and deeply meaningful feature of our quarterly communion worship services. It would be unconscionable to allow it to wither away from disuse and neglect. What steps can we take to renew and revive it?

First, we must recognize that some, who are elderly or infirm, have real physical difficulty with the act of washing feet. To make it easier for these folks to participate, the Vallejo Drive Church has installed special furniture adapted to washing feet. The one being served sits on an elevated chair with his feet about a foot above the floor. The wash basin is placed on a foot stool so that the serving partner does not need to kneel on the floor, but may sit comfortably in a regular chair, easily reaching his partner’s feet. The washing partner pours water from a pitcher over his partner's feet, rather than attempting to lift water from the bottom of the basin and splash it on his partner's feet.

The Vallejo Drive Church's special communion furniture has been utilized by about two dozen congregants each Communion Sabbath for the past few quarters. Some who have utilized the special furniture had, because of physical limitations, been forced to forgo the Preparatory Service; they greatly appreciated being able to participate again.

But while special furniture helps some to participate who would otherwise be unable, it is not a panacea. Some are simply too ashamed of their feet to participate, because of deformity, bunions, advanced nail fungus, very rough callouses, or foot odor. Others have had their feet amputated because of diabetes, accident, or other medical reason. Some suffer from such severe paralysis or arthritis that they cannot wash feet even with the special furniture. These congregants are effectively blocked from participation in the Ordinance. We need to provide an alternative for them, an alternative that partakes of the spirit of foot-washing without involving feet.

I believe that the Preparatory Ordinance should include not just foot-washing but also hand-washing, and that it should be left to each congregant to choose which service to perform. The choice should be affirmed by the church, and deacons should stand ready to encourage and assist in both foot-washing and hand-washing. Hand-washing should be added for the following reasons.

First, hand-washing is more appropriate to our culture. In ancient times, almost everyone wore open-toed sandals; feet were exposed to dust, dirt, mud, and even human and animal dung in the streets. Hence, foot-washing was a necessity. It was also a dirty job, usually assigned to slaves, if any were available. It was such a messy job that Jesus had to remove his outer garments before he washed his disciples’ feet. (John 13:4) In our culture, by contrast, we wear socks and shoes, and walk only indoors or on paved surfaces, so that our feet remain basically clean. Our dirtiest extremities are our hands, which are constantly exposed to germ-filled surfaces, such as door knobs, telephones, computer keyboards, automobiles, remote controls, household pets, other parts of our bodies, and the hands of others through handshaking. Unless we frequently wash our hands, they accumulate dirt and bacteria throughout the day.

Second, ritual hand-washing is very much a part of our religious patrimony. Aaron and the priests of the sanctuary would wash their hands and feet in the laver. (Ex. 40:31) “They shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.” (Ex. 30:21) In 2 Kings 3:11, we learn that Elisha, when he was the assistant to the Prophet Elijah, poured water on Elijah's hands, perhaps in a ritual hand-washing.

Clean hands are a symbol of moral purity. “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.” (Psalm 24:4; see, also, Psalm 73:13) Pilate washed his hands to symbolize his attempt to cleanse himself from the unjust ruling demanded by the mob. (Mat. 27:24) James uses hand-washing as a metaphor for repentance from sin: “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:8-10) (Note how James associates hand-washing/repentance with humility.)[iv]

Some feel that the heart of the Ordinance of Humility is kneeling on the floor before the partner, and that if this can no longer be physically accomplished, the congregant should stop participating. But Ellen White never used the term “Ordinance of Humility.” She used the term “Preparatory Service.” The focus of the service isn't just humility, but also a symbolic purification by washing. I would argue for using the term Ellen White used. So named, the ordinance is clearly seen as preparation for the Lord's Supper, with its emblems of the body of Christ broken on our behalf, and blood of Christ shed for the remission of our sins.

That said, it should be clear that hand-washing also has an element of humility. Anyone who cleans for a living—a custodian, a janitor, a maid, a dish-washer—is generally seen as having a humble, low-level job. The rich, the powerful, and the elite are not expected to clean anything. Thus, the act of humbly washing a fellow-believer's hands is also an act of humility.

I have been working with the pastoral staff of the Vallejo Drive Church, and with the officers of the Southern California Conference (SCC), to gain acceptance for hand-washing as an alternative to foot-washing. We have done this with the full permission of the conference, which consulted with the General Conference before giving its permission to offer hand-washing for the disabled. The General Conference stated that it would like to see this implemented gradually. Before a church in another conference adds optional hand-washing to the foot-washing ordinance, they should seek the approval of their conference leadership. An ordinance that the church has practiced for over a century should only be added to after much study and prayer, and with the knowledge and consent of church leadership.

The Vallejo Drive Church produced a 3 1/2 minute video showing and explaining our innovations titled, “The Ordinance of Humility” by A.J. Martinson.

In this video, paraplegic SDA physician Dr. Glenn Reynolds, who practiced medicine from a wheel chair and was on Ronald Reagan's presidential committee that helped develop the Americans with Disabilities Act, explains the hand-washing concept. Dr. Reynolds immediately recognized the value and importance of adding hand-washing to the Preparatory Service. Steve Wirsz, who also speaks in the video, is a 34 year-old quadriplegic who has limited shoulder and finger motion; he was able to hook the pitcher of water over his fingers and pour the water over his partner’s hands. He expressed much appreciation that he could now participate in the Preparatory Service.

The Vallejo Drive Church's innovative additions to the Preparatory Service have also been reported in the Pacific Union Recorder, under the title, “Church Initiates Ordinance of Humility Alternatives.”

Although hand-washing has been considered primarily for the physically handicapped, the church should not restrict the practice to those with a certified physical disability. The choice should be given to the individual congregant, with no questions asked as to why he or she might choose to hand-wash rather than foot-wash. Again, people may be embarrassed or self-conscious about foot deformities, bunions, rough callouses, fungal infections, corns, foot odor, etc., and may not wish to state exactly why they choose to participate in hand-washing rather than foot-washing.

The availability of a hand-washing option at the Vallejo Drive Church has not led to a mass abandonment of foot-washing in favor of hand-washing. Most of the congregants who participate in the Preparatory Service continue to choose the traditional foot-washing ritual. Only a few have opted for hand-washing. Churches should not fear that the introduction of hand-washing will cause most congregants to forsake the traditional foot-washing service.

I presented the hand-washing option to the SDA Church in Tujunga, California, which has a member whose feet were amputated because of diabetes. The pastor had heard of hand-washing, and asked that I come and explain it to a group of concerned members who were unsure whether hand-washing was a Biblical alternative. After my presentation, the congregation voted to implement hand-washing in addition to foot-washing. The elderly double amputee was once again able to experience the blessings of participating in the Preparatory Service, feeling that through this ritual Jesus was continuing to cleanse her of sin.

The concept of hand-washing is especially important to persons who are immobile and dying, and who wish to be baptized before death. Seventh-day Adventist chaplains have responded to this situation in different ways. One reported sprinkling the person to be baptized, while another said she washed the face of the candidate. Much preferable is the method of Pastor Tim Maynes, of Oregon, who takes the candidate's hands and immerses them in a bowl of water. The immersion of the hands, which stand in for the whole body, symbolizes burial and resurrection into new life with Christ, in a way that sprinkling or wiping does not.

We are in danger of losing the ordinance that is designed to prepare our hearts to receive the symbols of salvation. We need to re-study and re-evaluate the Preparatory Service, and adapt it to the needs of the infirm and the realities of our culture. If we continue down the path that many churches are now following—relegating the Preparatory Service to the unstructured time between Sabbath School and church—we will gradually lose the ordinance through disuse and neglect. Rather than see continued neglect, it would be better to expand the ordinance by adding a type of washing that is both biblically and culturally appropriate.

I would like to thank Pastor Mark Papendick of the Vallejo Drive Church and Elder Larry Caviness, Southern California Conference President, who have been supportive of the new adaptations.


[i]    The Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Byzantine Catholics practice foot-washing in association with the Holy Thursday Mass (Maundy Thursday), as do Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists, on the Protestant side. Other groups who practice foot-washing include Anabaptists, some types of Baptists, and some Pentecostals.

[ii]   See, Ed Christian, “How to End Your Fear of Foot Washing,” Adventist Review, 2000.

[iii]         SDA Ministerial Handbook, 1997 Edition, p 226. It should be noted that this statement, which appeared in the 1997 edition, is not in the 2009 edition.

[iv]         The Pharisees complained that Jesus' disciples did not wash their hands “according to the tradition of the elders.” (Mark 7:2) But the Pharisees' tradition was to carry a 2 to 3 ounce vial of water (too little to effectively clean their hands), which they poured over their fingers and let run down to their wrists, allowing them to lift “holy hands” when giving the blessing. This tradition, like much the Pharisees did, was a display of legalistic righteousness.

            Some might argue that Jesus' reply to Peter when Peter asked Jesus to wash not only his feet but also his hands and head: “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean” (John 13:9-10) indicates that foot-washing is critical and hand-washing is unnecessary. But the Hebrew religious background is important here, and precludes such an interpretation. Peter is suggesting a sponge Mikveh bath such as that undergone by initiates into the priesthood in the desert tabernacle (before the permanent Temple and Mikveh pool were built). (Ex 29:4) But the Mikveh bath was a one-time ritual, at the consecration of the priest. Thereafter the priests washed only hands and feet in the laver. (Ex 40:31; 30:21) Jesus reminded Peter that once you have had the Mikveh bath of initiation only the laver washing is necessary. The modern-day application is that since Christian believers are now a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) who have undergone a symbolic Mikveh bath with our baptism by immersion, we need only a laver cleansing (hands and feet) before participating in the symbolic sacrifice of Christ in the emblems of his body and blood.


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