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"Worshipping With All Our Beings!"

MESSAGE FOR APRIL 19, 2009

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Eighth in a brief series on corporate worship

          This week we return to our series on corporate worship where our aim has been for the Word of God to capture our hearts in such a way that our times of corporate worship would more fully honor God.  This morning, we want to speak to an issue that is more narrow in scope than what we have dealt with previously.  Yet, any series of messages on corporate worship in our day and age would be incomplete if it didn’t address this one, because there is in the church much ignorance and some confusion surrounding it.  Ignorance and confusion are breeding grounds for fear and we don’t want to be fearful about God-honoring corporate worship.  The topic we want to address today is:  What is the proper role of physical expression in worship?  Two reasons for confusion on this issue are first, there is not a lot being said this topic from a Biblical point of view within our Baptistic tradition.  Second, there’s confusion because there is such a vast difference in the various degrees of physical expression being manifest in corporate worship within different segments of the North American church today.  It runs the gamut from churches that offer no physical expression of worship, to those churches where the worshippers move around like worms on a hot griddle.

          When it comes to expressing ourselves physically in corporate worship by raising our hands or kneeling, or bowing down or clapping our hands some people in our church culture have some real fears. “Is this Baptist?  Can Baptists do this?  I thought that was the Pentecostal or Charismatic form or worship?  If a person feels a need to raise her hand during a chorus—she must have Assembly of God DNA, right?” If a Minnesota Baptist says “Amen” above a whisper during a message, then that must mean they are a misplaced Southern Baptist who has been sent up North to learn to listen more respectfully to a message.  Those are exaggerations, but there does seem to be the fear among Baptistic types with northern European backgrounds that raising hands during a worship chorus is an ecclesiastical slippery slope.  It almost seems like some think that raising hands in church is a gateway activity that will eventually lead to snake handling. 

          Thankfully, we don’t have to be held hostage to fear or ignorance on this topic because the Bible is far from silent here.  This morning, we want to peer into the pages of Scripture to see the Biblical witness on this topic.  Before I begin, I want to say two things that I hope will allay any fears about where we are headed.  First, the clear implication of the Bible is that showing physical expression in worship does not equate to spiritual maturity.  What I mean by that is this—if you were to notice in a typical evangelical worship service that 25% of the church raised their hands during the choruses, or 30% clapped or 5% showed some other form of physical expression—it does not follow that THOSE people are the most spiritual, the most Spirit-filled, spiritually sensitive or the most in love with God in the place.
          Physical expression in worship should never be seen as an emblem of spiritual intimacy with God because of what God tells Samuel in First Samuel 16:7.  Samuel is looking at David’s oldest brother, Eliab and is certain that he is standing before the next king of Israel.  God tells him, “… Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  In our context this morning, that tells us that we should never make the same mistake Samuel did by judging a person’s heart by their outward appearance or expression.  It’s possible to be very expressive in worship and be living in great wickedness--even be an apostate.  God tells the Jews in Isaiah 1:15, “When you spread out your hands,  I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”  God was not impressed by the physical expressions of prayer and worship the Jews were offering to him because he knew their hearts were opposed to him.  It’s clear from Scripture that it is possible to be very overt in your outward expression of worship to God, while at the same time living a life he hates.    
          Second, it’s clear that no worshipper should be pressured to show physical expression in corporate worship.  The way some worship leaders minister—yelling commands to raise hands or clap, you might be tempted to wonder whether they are leading in worship or teaching an aerobics class.  The ultimate Biblical goal in worship is NOT to be outwardly expressive—it is to honor God.  Our goal is to have a Biblically informed worship environment where worshippers are free to express themselves in a manner, appropriate to the context, in the liberty of the Holy Spirit.  What I mean by “appropriate to the context” is simply this—in churches where there is a lot of physical expression in worship, you will probably feel freedom to be more demonstrative than in churches where there is less physical expression.  The goal is personal and corporate freedom to worship God in way that for us most honors him.  Paul says in Second Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 
           That’s the goal—that worshippers would honor God by being free in the Holy Spirit to sincerely express their love to God in ways that are sensitive to the context.  Here’s what I mean by freedom:  For a person who is naturally not very physically expressive, they should not be pressured to show physical expressions of worship, when that is not liberating to them.  Likewise, for a person who is more inclined to express their passion outwardly, that person should feel the liberty to do so in worship without fear of raising eyebrows if they slip a hand into the air during a hymn or worship chorus.  We will further clarify and underscore that broad principle as we continue. However, having said that by way of preface, we must also know that the Bible gives abundant testimony to the fact that expressing ourselves physically in worship is not only permitted, it is encouraged.  I want to give two lines of evidence from the Bible to support that—first, by providing Biblical truths that implicitly affirm outward expressions of worship and second, by citing truths that explicitly affirm them. 
          What does the Bible have to say broadly about our physical bodies and the implications that has for our worship?  First, the Bible teaches that human beings should be regarded as having what Millard Erickson calls a “conditional unity.”[1]  That simply means that though the New Testament does teach that humans have both a body and a soul, the Bible pictures humans as fundamentally unitary beings.  That is--it doesn’t speak of Paul’s spirit going to Antioch—it talks about Paul—body and soul going to Antioch.  The body and soul are parts of a unified whole.  We know from our own experience that our bodies and souls are unified because of the impact they have on each other.  When we are hearts are sad, that can impact our bodies—we become tired more easily.  When we are stressed emotionally, we are more likely to get a headache.  It also works in the opposite direction--the health of our bodies impact our souls.  No one has a good quiet time when they are stricken with the stomach flu.  If you wake up with a temperature of 103, your prayer life is not going to be as vibrant that day.  We are unified in our make up in the sense that what impacts our body will impact our soul and vice versa and that unity of the body and soul has implications for our worship.  We cannot and should not divorce our physical, outward expressions from our worship to God.  To do that is to deny the unity God has programmed into us as humans.  Second, the body is not seen to be spiritually inferior to the soul in Christianity as it was in some early competitors of Christianity.  When Jesus came to earth, he had a body—he was not a disembodied spirit.  When he did ministry, he did it within his body.  When he rose, he had a body and Paul teaches a future bodily resurrection for all people.  There will be physical bodies in heaven, though they will be imperishable and incorruptible, unlike these fallen things we drag around now.  That means that the body as well as the soul was created to offer acceptable worship to God.
              The Bible teaches this.  As we have said before, the main words translated “worship” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament both literally mean, “to bow down.”  There is a physical element embedded in the very etymology of the main Biblical words for “worship.”  Also, listen to these Biblical texts where the authors clearly do not see our bodies as irrelevant to how we relate to God.  In First Corinthians 6:20, Paul says, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”  There, Paul teaches that these physical bodies were created for the glory of God.  It seems a stretch to agree with that, but then deny that they should never be involved in God-glorifying worship.  Likewise in Philippians 1:20 where he says,  20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”  More directly related to worship is Romans 12:1 where Paul says, I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” 
           We are called to present our bodies as living sacrifices.  It seems very unlikely that Paul would command us to present our bodies as living sacrifices using this rich, Old Testament worship language, but deny any connection between our bodies and corporate worship.  Other, more explicit worship texts make the same point.  The Psalmist says in Psalm 16:9, 9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.”  Expressing gladness is an expression not just of the soul, but of the body and soul—the whole being.  Again in Psalm 108:1 we read, 1 My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being!”  Singing and making melody in worship to God can be a total person endeavor.  This is a comprehensive expression of praise to God—he is worthy of a person’s entire being in worship.
          Now, let’s get even more specific and spend some time looking at Biblical texts that speak directly to physical expressions of worship.  First, let’s look at some of the examples of worshippers in the Bible expressing themselves physically in public worship.  First, in Nehemiah chapter eight, after Ezra had opened the book of the law and read it for several hours we read this in verse six, 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”  They say “Amen, Amen,” lift up their hands and bow their heads with their faces to the ground.  From the text, it seems to be a spontaneous response to the reading and preaching of the word.  If I preached for seven hours, I think there would be a physical response as well, but I doubt if it would be worship! 
            In chapter nine, during a solemn assembly for the confession of sin we read in verse five, “5 Then the Levites… said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.”  Standing up can be an expression of worship.  In Exodus 12, where Moses is giving the instructions to celebrate the first Passover, he told the Jews in verse 27, 27 you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’ ” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.”  Finally, in Revelation chapter 4:9 in that great throne room of heaven with all the assembled worshippers standing around God’s throne we read, 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. This practice of the 24 elders falling down on their faces and worshipping God is not a one time occurrence.  It’s repeated almost verbatim five other times in the Revelation. 
          Those are texts where physical expressions are exemplified.  Next, let’s look at some texts where physical expressions of worship are actually encouraged and in one case, commanded.  In Psalm 47:1 we read, 1 Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!”  The inspired psalmist summons all people groups to clap their hands and shout in worship of the great King.  Psalm 95:6 says, “6 Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”  The context is corporate worship and again, we are called to show the wonder and humility[2] that is appropriate before our King and our Maker and that has a physical component to it.  Psalm 134:2 is interesting because it actually commands physically expressive worship.  It says, 2 Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!”   Lift your hands” is an imperative in the Hebrew there--a command to lift your hands in worship.  How are we to interpret that?  It seems best not to get hung up on one command in the Psalms, but at least it implies that our desire should be to worship in a way that reflects the general teaching of Scripture.[3]  Finally, in the New Testament in First Timothy 2:8 Paul tells Timothy, 8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;”  There are several places in the Bible where prayer is accompanied by the lifting up of hands.  Paul’s main point here is that these be holy hands.  Lifting up hands in prayer that are filled with sin is clearly not pleasing to God.
            The Bible repeatedly encourages us to express our love for God in worship, not only with our hearts and minds, but also with our bodies.  Some believers think there are some valid reasons why these texts should have very limited, if any influence on us in this area of worship and we need to consider some of those objections.  Some hold that this is a matter of cultural expression and say things like, “The Bible was written out of a culture that was much more physically expressive than ours.  Therefore, we in the more reserved west must interpret them in the light of our culture.  First, it’s certainly valid to observe that the Middle Eastern culture was and is generally more physically expressive than our culture and those cultural differences are not irrelevant in our attempts to apply these texts today in our context.  The weakness of this objection is that it ends up rendering these and many other Biblical texts meaningless and that is not valid because of something we said earlier.
          We mustn’t forget about what the Bible teaches about our unified nature as human beings.  God made our bodies in part to express what our souls are experiencing in all cultures, not just the Middle East.  The Middle East’s cultural forms of expression are surely more overt than ours, but that’s a matter of degree, not kind. Because we are unified in body and soul, the body should express what is going on in the soul.  For example, if you were to attend a soccer game in the Middle East and one team scores the winning goal in the final seconds, you may very well find yourself being hugged by a complete stranger who is very demonstrative in his Middle Eastern expression of joy.  That is not nearly as likely to happen at the Metrodome if a Minnesota Twin belts a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth.  But arms will go up in the air; shouting and physical expressions will nonetheless abound because the bodies in Minnesota are just as connected to the souls as they are in Israel. 
          The point of application is that although the intensity of physical expression will vary from culture to culture and person to person, because God has wired all of humanity so that the soul and body are connected and the body reflects the soul, it is simply not right to say on the basis of culture we are free to ignore some clear Biblical truths.  Second, on this cultural issue--we mustn’t forget the witness of the Revelation.  In the vision of heaven, John reports people repeatedly falling down on their faces before God.  That means we can’t press the cultural argument too far when these physical expressions in worship transcend all earthly cultures.  There will be falling down worship in heaven.  The point is not to say that we must be falling down here.  The point is simply that you can’t press the cultural issue too far when the Bible records physical expressions of worship in heaven, which is a totally redeemed, perfected culture and where the actions there are not necessarily dictated by earthly culture.
           A second grouping of objections to allowing the Bible to have significant influence in this are often stated this way--“This physical expression in worship is purely carnal emotionalism with no engagement of the mind at all.”  Or, “When people express themselves physically in worship, they are just drawing attention to themselves—it makes worship all about them.”  Even though those statements hardly represent charitable judgments and as stated are clearly judgmental, they are also true at times.  However, we must remember a very helpful axiom you have heard many times from this pulpit—abuse does not bar use.  Just because a clearly stated, repeatedly mentioned Biblical practice is open to abuse, that does not mean that it should be forbidden or discouraged.  Any spiritual activity from prayer, to sharing your faith, to Bible reading can be done to the extreme or for the wrong reason, but no believer would be justified in saying, “Because some people pray incessantly about an issue when they should be doing something, praying should be banned.”  Or, “Because some people share their faith in a manner that is obnoxious and unloving, therefore I will never witness.”  That’s hardly compelling.
          There are unfortunately people and certain traditions where emotion, not truth is often driving the worship and that is godless.  We must be driven by truth that inflames our hearts, which brings on whatever level of physical expression is consistent with the context and our personality. But as we saw in the message on music, one of the reasons God commands singing instead of just reciting Biblical truth is because music excites the affections.  The underlying presupposition here that is flawed seems to be:  it’s wrong to show emotion in public worship.  That cannot possibly be supported by Scripture and as we have seen, emotion is at times very consistent with Biblical worship. When we sense someone is being carried away with emotion in worship--not a big problem here in my 19 years—then the pastors or mature believers in the congregation need to address that person.  But we mustn’t in our corporate worship as a church be held hostage to the possibility that someone may take things a bit too far.  When churches operate that way, who’s controlling that context?  The immature people.  We must allow the Holy Spirit to have more influence in corporate worship than a few spiritually uninformed or immature people. 
            It’s surely true that some people will raise their hands or bow or kneel with the motive of drawing attention to themselves.  So, do we allow their sin to keep us as a church from practicing something in our corporate worship that is Biblical?  There’s another flaw in that argument within our church culture, however.  That is—if it were more common for people to give Biblical physical expression to what they feel for God in their hearts in worship, it would be far less potentially distracting when someone does that.  If the worship context is one where there is little or no liberty to give Biblical physical expression to our love for God in worship, but one person goes ahead and offers some physical worship, they’re not the problem!  If a monastery decrees that all the monks must be silent for six months and one monk wakes up one morning three months into this wretched, unbiblical discipline and gets in trouble because he can’t control himself and bursts into the doxology—the singing monk is not the problem. The surrounding unbiblical environment is the problem.
          Let’s bring this full circle as we conclude.  As we said earlier, we must not view physical expressions of worship as a mark of spiritual maturity.  The body can be used sinfully in worship as well as to honor God.  Also, the appropriateness of physical expressions of worship depends not only on our different personalities, but also on the context.  If you are in an African worship service and during the singing, you burst into an animated dance, that may be a very appropriate expression within corporate worship.  But in Northern Minnesota, if you start whirling around in the aisles—when no sane person ever does that in any public setting—then you are just plain wrong and you are clearly making a spectacle of yourself.  It’s also wrong for anyone to pressure a worshipper to express themselves physically in worship and our desire is not to pressure or manipulate anyone into doing anything that is inconsistent with who God made them to be in their personality. 
          But, in light of the clear Biblical encouragement to express ourselves physically in worship, it’s good to ask ourselves, “Why don’t I do that?”  It may be because you are simply a very reserved person and scarcely show any physical expressions of exuberance or delight or passion or celebration in any situation.  If that is who you are, then it would probably be inappropriate for you to do those things in corporate worship.  However, if you physically emote when your team wins or your kid wins a race or a spelling bee or belts a base hit—if you jump up and down when you get a pay raise, or shoot a 12 point buck—if you are physically demonstrative in your love for other people, then why doesn’t that part of who you are make it into the worship of God who has done things for you that make all of those other things we celebrate look totally insignificant by comparison? 
           If you don’t show physical expression in worship, it may be because you’re not wired that way, but it may be because you are afraid of what others will think and that’s sin—the fear of man.  It may be because you don’t want anyone to see you overtly express love for God.  It may be because you are lazy.  It may be because what was on the television last night kept you up too late and you frankly are too tired to worship God with any exuberance.  Finally, it may be because you don’t love God at all and that’s the most serious sin of all because it means you don’t have a personal, life-changing relationship with him through Christ.  You need to place your trust in Christ today and become a true worshipper. The goal is not physical expressiveness in worship—it’s liberty in the Holy Spirit to express our love to God in ways that are Biblical.  May God give us the grace so that our worship to him is driven by the truth of the Bible and offered in the freedom of the Holy Spirit.


[1]  Erickson, Systematic Theology, p. 537

[2] ESV Study Bible notes—p.1059

[3] Kauflin, Physical Expression in Worship Part Five, http://www.worshipmatters.com/2006/06how-do-we-grow-in-physical-expressiveness-in-worship-part-5/

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