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
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
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.” 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
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
When we are hearts are sad, that can impact our bodies—we become tired more
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
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.
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
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
hands. And they bowed
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
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,
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!”
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 that is appropriate before our King and our Maker and that has a physical component to
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. 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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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.