In Jesus' day, the job of washing the feet of guests was given to the lowliest servants.
In Jesus' day, the job of washing the feet of guests was given to the lowliest servants.

Some Christians practice foot washing as an exercise in humility and servant-hood, teaching that Jesus instructed his disciples that they should wash the feet of each other. Some consider this practice an ordinance, putting it on par in importance with baptism and communion. Others who practice foot washing consider it an important practice that helps them maintain humility before God and man but do not elevate it to the status of an actual ordinance.

Foot Washing in New Testament Times

In the Judean culture of New Testament times, foot washing was a practical necessity. Most people wore open sandals and their feet would become dirty when they were outside, whether in the open fields or traveling dusty streets. Even the poorest homes provided some means for visitors to wash their feet when they entered the household. In wealthier homes, servants were appointed to wash the feet of both the master of the home and any guests. This job was typically given to servants of low standing in the household.

Biblical Examples

The Bible gives us a few examples of foot washing. The first is recounted in Luke 7, in which a woman of questionable character washed Jesus' feet with her tears and her hair. When the man who had invited Jesus complained that he was allowing an unclean woman to touch him, Jesus rebuked him for not having common hospitality. He then told the woman that her sins were forgiven because of her faith. In the example cited by most who practice foot washing, in John 13, Jesus washed His disciples' feet, teaching them that everyone, including leaders, must be servants.

Foot Washing as an Ordinance

Some churches, such as the Church of God International, the United Pentecostal Church and many Anabaptist churches, teach that foot washing is an ordinance. According to this belief, foot washing is an integral part of church practice and should be practiced by every believer periodically. Most churches that practice foot washing leave the frequency and times for foot washing to the discretion of the local churches.

Some churches practice foot washing at regularly appointed times. Some Orthodox churches practice foot washing on Maundy Thursday, which is is observed on the Thursday before Easter. Many Pentecostal churches include foot washing in an annual "Watchnight" service held on New Year's Eve.

Foot Washing as a Christian Practice

Many churches that don't regard foot washing as an actual ordinance still encourage it as a Christian practice it. An example of this thinking is found in the Pentecostal Church of God's Constitution: "Foot washing is recognized among many believers as a Christian practice, and the time, manner and frequency of its observance is left to the discretion of each local congregation (John 13)."

Some believe that foot washing should be done as needed. The Amish, for example, use foot washing as a sign of forgiveness.

Most Christians who don't practice foot washing in the church setting don't object to it being practiced privately. Some point out that the practice has lost much of its cultural relevance since most people today are not aware of its relation to servant-hood.