“…the first tabernacle… which was a figure for the time then present… which stood only in… carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.”
“And David danced before the Lord with all his might… So David… brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting…”
2 Sam. 6:14-15
“When He had given thanks, He brake it, and said, ‘Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of Me.'”
1 Cor. 11:24
1. Visual Imagery
. Tabernacle, Temple & 2nd Commandment
. New Testament Sacraments
. The Cross
. Preaching & Theology of the Word
. Indifferent Matters
. Pentateuch & Prophets
. New Testament Sacraments
. Solo Performances 1 Cor. 14
. Nature of NT Worship
. At the Red Sea; Golden Calf; Judges 21; David; Psalms 149 & 150
. Not a Means of Grace
Travis Fentiman, MDiv.
Dance, drama, plays, video-clips and a wide spectrum of the visual and performing arts are becoming parts of Christian worship services. If we are to worship God in the way the Bible directs us, our first concern should be to see what the Bible has to say about these things and whether they are pleasing to God as worship to Him.
While advances in technology have raised many new circumstances and questions, fortunately, the Biblical principles of worship which apply remain the same. These are not peripheral issues, but reach to the very heart of the foundations of Scriptural worship. Get ready for a detailed examination of the relevant Scriptural evidence upon these topics and for just as thoroughly and detailed, Scriptural answers, as we examine, ‘What saith the Lord?’
Whatever your opinions are about the matter at present, you are going to learn a lot.
The viewpoint argued here in detail is not novel: it has been the nearly universal practice of the historic, Reformed Church since the Reformation. The worship of the Medieval Church was filled to the brim with religious imagery, drama and dance (see ‘Medieval Church Plays’). When the magisterial Reformers of the reformed wing of the Reformation went back to Sola Scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’) for the rule of their worship, they cleaned God’s House of all such drama, wholesale.
Why? Because any human-added, religious, visual imagery in worship is unwarranted from Scripture and is an affront to the exclusive prerogative of the verbal proclamation of God’s Word and his specifically instituted visual, dramatic signs and seals thereof: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The Scriptural Principle of Worship
There are two sides to the same coin of Biblical worship. There is a broad sense in which all of life is worship (Rom. 12:1; Mk. 12:33; Zech. 14:20-21; Ps. 103:22; Ps. 149:6-9; 1 Sam. 15:22; Rom. 15:16; 2 Tim. 4:6; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; Eph. 5:2; Rev. 1:6; etc.), in that whatever we do, all is to be done unto the glory of God in his service (1 Cor. 10:31; Josh. 24:15; Col. 3:17) and is to praise the Lord (Ps. 150). The most immediate designs, though, of everyday affairs such as washing the dishes, working at our employment, recreating, etc., is to serve our own, lawful, creaturely ends.
Yet there also is, and must be, a narrow sense of worship where other things are put away and one’s full attention is given not to our own ends, but to directly and immediately, worshipping and spiritually communing with the Lord (Gen. 24:26; Ex. 4:21; Ex. 32:8; Josh. 5:14; Mt. 14:13; Mt. 28:9; 1 Cor. 14:25; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:14, etc.) through the means of grace that bear the imprint of his promises (James 1:18,21; Mt. 6:6; Isa. 55:11; 1 Tim. 4:11,16, Jn. 17:17; 2 Chron. 7:14; Matt 7:7-11; 21:22; James 5:15, Eph. 5:18,19; etc.).
This narrow, and proper, sense of worship is regulated by God as only to be done according to his express Will (Dt. 4:2; Lev. 10:1-3; 1 Kings 12:32-33; Jer. 7:31; Mt. 18:19-20; Mk. 7:7; Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:21-23), due to his incomprehensible holiness, authority and sovereignty, we only being able to approach and commune with the One who dwells in inapproachable light as He so wills.
Hence, one could not come and worship God in the Old Testament in the Tabernacle however one wanted (Lev. 10:1-3; Ex. 40), and in the New Testament, adding to God’s ways in which He will be worshipped is termed the ‘traditions of men’ and ‘will-worship’ (Mk. 7:7; Col. 2:21-23).
The principle that we are only to worship God in the way that He prescribes in his Word and no other, derives from the Sufficiency of Scripture for worship and that the principle of Sola Scriptura governs worship. This principle has also been called the Regulative Principle of Worship (see our page on it for a fuller Biblical exposition and defense of it), and is what the rest of this article is based on.
The question before us is whether visual imagery, drama and dance is warranted in Scripture for worship by command, approved example or good and necessary consequence (Westminser Confession of Faith, 1.6). If it is, then we are not to add to what God has prescribed. If it is not, then it has no place in our worship.
The Regulative Principle of Worship only binds or excludes things in worship that have religious or spiritual significance. There are some things concerning worship that are purely circumstantial and morally indifferent, being common to civil society, which need no prescription or warrant from Scripture in that they do not form a spiritually significant part of worship (WCF 1.6), such as whether one sits on chairs or pews, uses a microphone to amplify the voice, uses a pulpit to hold the preacher’s notes, etc.
The use of such circumstantial and indifferent things is for better facilitating the administration of the exercise of the spiritual elements of worship themselves, is to be kept to a minimum so as not to detract or crowd out the elements of worship, and such indifferent matters are to be governed by Christian prudence.
For more instruction in Biblical and natural principles from reformed history (Gillespie, Bannerman, Cunningham, etc.) which define what circumstances and indifferent things are, and how they are to be governed, see ‘On Circumstances in General’.
Idolatry by the 2nd Commandment, ‘You shall make no graven image, etc.’, is any worshipping of the eternal and infinite, sovereign, Creator by any method devised by man’s heart or hands which God has not appointed. This is the fundamental principle that is the root of the 2nd Commandment.
Hence, idolatry includes adding any spiritual significance to anything in or about worship that God has not placed upon it. Only God can sanctify a means for Himself (Gen. 2:3, etc.).
To give an example, a candle that serves either a functional or secular, decorational use in the place of worship is indifferent. However, if a candle is placed prominently and is given a spiritual, symbolic meaning where God has not given any to it, then one has added to the spiritual worship that God has prescribed and is in part worshipping God through the means and spiritual significance of the candle. God, however, regulated and prescribed how He wanted worshippers to approach Him through the God-given religious symbolism of a candle on the table of showbread in the Tabernacle in the Old Testament, and has since abolished those ceremonies in the book of Hebrews, and has not given candles any spiritual significance in worship in the New Testament.
When any circumstance takes on any spiritual significance or purpose in the worship of God, or becomes de facto a part of worship due to its prominence therein, it is no longer morally indifferent and has become a man-made, additional, creaturely religious rite, formed of man’s own will to worship God with, which is idolatry. See the Westminster divine George Gillespie argue this point in English-Popish Ceremonies, Part 3, Ch. 5, pp. 84-91.
The Detail of the Regulative Principle of Worship
If we are to worship God in the way that He sets forth in Scripture, then we must worship Him in as much spiritually significant detail as is found in Scripture (for, as the puritans used to say, God prescribed the very number of the tent-pegs of the Tabernacle).
Hence, if something is determinable in Scripture about worship, then it is morally obligatory for our worship, and by definition, falls under the Regulative Principle of Worship. If something falls under the Regulative Principle of Worship, then it cannot be considered indifferent in God’s eyes, and hence it is not something for us to make-up in worship. All human additions of that same kind are forbidden to us in that God has specially selected from that kind of thing how He will be worshipped, and only that. His choice therein excludes all of that which He has not chosen which does not bear his sovereign pleasure or authority.
Hence indifferent things that we have liberty over and which may be used or not used in our worship, can only ‘be such as are not determinable by Scripture.’ (Gillespie) If something is determinable by Scripture as spiritually significant, then God’s Will has marked it off as ‘holy unto the Lord’.
It will be seen in thorough detail that visual imagery and drama ARE spiritually significant in worship in Scripture, ARE regulated by God’s Word in detail, and hence all man-made additions relating thereto are forbidden. It will also be seen that there is no instance of dance in the regular, public worship of God in Scripture, and hence dance is not warranted by God’s will for Christian, public worship and therefore is divinely excluded from it.
Visual Imagery in Worship
Religious, symbolic, visual imagery in worship has always been regulated by God in Scripture, and, as God considers it to be religiously significant, man-added religious, symbolic, visual imagery in worship cannot be neutral, indifferent or used for a claimed beneficial purpose.
All of the visual imagery in the Tabernacle was spiritually significant and specifically appointed by God.
God dwelling in the midst of the saints of the Old Testament was conditioned upon them making the Tabernacle exactly as God showed Moses the details thereof in the mount (Ex. 25:8-9). For this purpose God immediately inspired with his Spirit Bezaleel and Aholiab to direct the construction work according to every detail that God had told Moses, and probably also the further, necessary minutia for the project that are not recorded in Scripture (Ex. 36:1).
The only visual imagery prescribed for the Tabernacle that was open to the sight of the congregated worshippers, was nothing in or upon the architecture itself, but were the pictures of pomegranates sewn into the robes of Aaron’s family, which alternated with small, golden metal bells (Ex. 28:33-34; 39:24-25). This visual and sensory imagery symbolized the favorable acceptance of the high priestly family as representatives of the people, and their fruitful and joyful walk before the Lord.
The only other imagery in the Tabernacle was (1) the table that was to have newly baked bread put on it everyday, (2) the 7 branched, oil candlestick that was to be perpetually lit (both of these things were in the Holy Place which was only accessible and visible to the priests, not to the common people), and (3) the two cherubim-angels whose wings covered the mercy seat of the ark in the Holy of Holies to protect the High Priest from the awesome, revealed presence of God.
These God given, religious symbols represented: our familiar, table-fellowship with God; the bread, that He provides for us and his presence is food and life to us; and the perpetual, oil filled light symbolized his presence being an inexhaustible light to our souls and path.
Now imagine if the Israelites took the liberty that many protestants take who find such conditions too bare. What if the saints of old put up pictures of angels on the walls of the Tabernacle, or an image of the Bible and two stone tables of commandments at the altar where the priest officiated to remind them of the fundamentals of their religion?
Rather, we worship with the angels in heaven unseen (Heb. 12:22-23). The written Scriptures and the two tablets of stone were not to be reduplicated in image form in the tabernacle, but they were kept hidden in the ark of God’s imminent presence, as those things were a transcript of God’s nature. Now in the New Testament the Word is engrafted in our hearts (James 1:21) as we are the temple of God, God dwelling in us (1 Cor. 6:9).
Any man-made, visually symbolic, religious additions to the visible signs of promised grace that God has given to us can only compete, obscure, hinder and detract from the spiritual lessons God would teach us through his ordinances. Such inventions of men not only add to God’s Commandments, but usually contradict them as well, making God’s Commandments of no effect. (Mt. 15:3-6)
In time when God would have, of his own will, a temple built for Himself, He inspired David with all of the specific details thereof ‘by the Spirit’ (1 Chron. 28:11-12). “‘All this’, said David, ‘the Lord made me understand in writing by his hand upon me, even all the works of this pattern.'” (1 Chron. 28:19). David then charged these details to Solomon who built it accordingly.
God did not direct the saints of old to hang national flags from every nation, or portraits of persons therefrom in the temple (involving the glory of man) as do many churches. Nor did He direct them to make stained-glass windows picturing Bible stories to instruct those who couldn’t read (which was almost everyone in the days of the Temple). Instead the teaching priests were to verbally instruct the people, and the people were to tell their children of the works of God, Ps. 78:1-5).
For his own purposes and wisdom, God directed that the only visual imagery amongst the bare walls, outside of the Holy Place and Holy of Holies, was to be:
(1) images of palm trees (a symbol of Israel and flourishing) and chain work upon the ceiling of the outer porch (2 Chron. 3:4-6),
(2) chain work and 200 pomeganates upon the tops of each of the two pillars at the entrance of the Temple (2 Chron. 4:12-13), and
(3) the 12 molten brass statues of oxen bearing up the square brazen altar, 3 oxen on each 20 cubit side. These oxen were the only visual imagery before the worshippers in the Temple itself.
Now, given that God regulated religious visual imagery in worship, and hence held it not to be indifferent, yet imagine if the Old Testament priests taught that such imagery was indifferent, and constructed their own religiously significant visual images to adorn the walls of the meeting place or to be used in the worship service itself? If they had only deviated by making 201 pomegranates on one of the pillars, it would have been sinful, God having said otherwise.
Or what if the priests taught, as many reformed teachers do today, that the element of teaching can go under any number of forms which use visual imagery? Such, in its human-wisdom, would effectively crowd out the visual imagery that God had instituted, adding thereto, which God said specifically not to do (Dt. 4:2).
The Moral 2nd Commandment
A common response to the Tabernacle and Temple data is the claim that such restrictions on worship were peculiar to the Tabernacle and Temple. This, however, is not true. The source for the Tabernacle and Temple restrictions flowed out of the 2nd Commandment of the Moral Law of God (before there was a tabernacle or temple, which command is just as applicable to the gentiles as the Jews):
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God…” – Ex. 20:4-5
As God is spiritual, and hence his Moral Law is spiritual (Rom. 7:14; Mt. 5:22,28; etc.; WLC #99), this command prohibits all forms that break its principle: namely any man-made religious image used in, for, or about worship which God has not sovereignly appointed. Hence, the commandment not only prohibits images of God, but making a revelation of God which He has not appointed, or worshipping Him through any such image He has not appointed (see Gillespie cite Amandus Polanus and the Leiden Synopsis to this effect in English-Popish, p. 84, bot.).
(Ex. 32:8; The golden calf was understood to be the ‘gods’, or ‘Elohim’, which is plural in Hebrew but usually understood as singular of the true God, it being his common name, that brought the Israelites out of Egypt, under the figure of a calf. Hence the sin was not that they were worshipping a different god, but that they were worshipping the true God who brought them out of Egypt in a creaturely devised way that He had not appointed.)
Ex. 20:25 further confirms this understanding of the 2nd Commandment. It says:
“And if thou wilt make Me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.”
The Israelites, when constructing altars through their history, were not even to use stones chiseled evenly by men’s hands, but simply to use uneven and bald rocks from the ground as they were. Oh how God loves his unadorned and humble worship ordinances without the embellishments of man! Any tampering with them to make them look better in human eyes is a polluting of it, Ex. 20:25 says!
The reason such restrictions of worship are part of the Moral Law, and hence are universally applicable in all time, is because the principle does not derive from the circumstances of the Tabernacle, or the dispensation of God’s ways in the Old Testament, but from the very nature of our spiritual and unseen God, how his knowledge must be communicated to his creatures for they to perceive Him rightly, and from his absolute holiness, power, authority and sovereignty. He will be worshipped in the way, and only in the way, that He, Infinite-Wisdom, has condescended to reveal to his subordinate and dependent creatures.
The New Testament Sacraments
The New Testament further confirms the Regulative Principle of Worship in Mk. 7:7; Col. 2:21-23 & Gal. 4:9-11 and teaches that God has abolished the Old Testament Temple ceremonies (Heb. 8-10) with Jesus’s atonement and the consequent destruction of the Temple.
In their place, Jesus has instituted for the New Testament era, the visual imagery of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, only. These are visible signs, that, when constituted by the authority of the Word and prayer, and explained by the Word, are means of grace through faith to the worshippers. Any visual imagery added thereto in Christian worship is simply obstructive chaff that derogates from the sufficient, solely God-ordained imagery of salvation in the sacraments. See William Ames, Ch. 3, Section 5, ‘Concerning the Wrong, that is Done to God’s Sacraments by Human Significant Ceremonies’ in A Fresh Suit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship, 1633.
The sacraments show us how the Christian is washed in the Holy Spirit and feeds upon Christ as his heavenly bread, drink and sustenance through this life. One can see, feel and hear the water, smell the bread and wine, and taste it. All five senses are experientially involved.
But again, as Protestants are not satisfied solely with what God has provided as good for us in his Word, meeting places for worship are often adorned with the elegant, centrally placed, cross, sometimes kept rugged for effect. The cross, of course, is not simply two pieces of wood randomly stuck together, but is objectively, a society-wide, universal symbol for Christianity. As such it is a religious image that man has willed in his wisdom to add to God’s worship.
This has not always been the case in Protestantism. The mid-1600’s Scot, George Gillespie argues against crosses in worship in English-Popish Ceremonies, pp. 51, 81-82, 96-98.
Having come out of the Romanist Church, many reformers and puritans understood that standing before images and giving worship to God before them, sometimes involving kneeling, involves one in objectively kneeling and giving divine worship before graven images, which is exactly what the 2nd Commandment prohibits: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them.”
Modern Protestants, who do not usually kneel in worship or read God’s Word as much, have missed the numerous passages of Scripture which speak of standing as a religiously significant action of giving homage in worship before what one stands before (Dt. 10:8; 18:7; 29:10,15; 2 Kings 3:14; 5:16; Job 41:10; Jer. 7:9-11; 15:9; 35:19; Eze. 44:15; Zech. 3:1; 6:5; Lk. 21:36; Rom. 14:10; Rev. 11:4; 20:12), both God, and, consequently, the graven images lining the place of worship.
For New Testament worship God has commissioned his ministers to preach (2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 20:7-11; Titus 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:11; 2:7; Rom. 10:13-15), it being the prescribed way for the saints of God to be instructed and taught in the faith and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. 1 Tim. 4:2 delineates what preaching consists of:
“Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.”
Note that none of these things involves visual imagery.
The root Greek word for ‘preach’ is κηρυξ ‘kerux’. This and related cognates are defined in standard Greek lexicons as meaning an ‘authoritative, verbal heralding of a message’, usually by one commissioned from the person they represent (Thayer, Lexicon, p. 346).
This can be confirmed by the English reader, as this is the way it is used in the 134 times that ‘preach’ or ‘preacher’ is mentioned in the King James Version New Testament. That this was the common meaning of the term in both classical and secular usage as well, see the 34 pages of documentation in ed. Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, pp. 683-717.
While preaching may incidentally use limited dramatic aspects and visual illustrations from things at hand, such as in Jesus’ parables while He was preaching in the open air outside and as He was walking in the way, yet notice that in the regular ministry of the Word in the synagogue, Jesus used no such physical props, but solely the verbal proclamation of the Word (Lk. 4:15-20).
Those who use all manner of visual methods for teaching in worship often argue that ‘teaching’ is the element of worship that Scripture prescribes. Teaching is then understood to encompass all the methods that our current culture uses for it. However, notice that in the New Testament, the preacher’s delegated task of ‘preaching’, an authoritative verbal proclamation, according to 2 Tim. 4:2, includes as an aspect of it ‘teaching’. That is, the preacher’s responsibility for teaching in worship is qualified by, and limited to the nature of his delegated task of ‘preaching’, which is verbal proclamation.
Hence, the Westminster Standards, which teach that God’s worship is limited to what He has prescribed for it, in following Scripture, do not speak of the element as ‘teaching’, but of ‘preaching’, and consistently and only describe preaching as verbal proclamation and instruction (LC #155,158-159; WCF 21:5; DPW ‘Of the Preaching of the Word’).
Thus, when Paul tells the Galatians that before their eyes he set forth Jesus Christ crucified among them (Gal. 3:1), it was not through the visual arts, but through his verbal preaching (Gal. 4:13; 1:8-9,11;16; etc.).
The Theology of the Word
While man may have his reasons for integrating other forms of communication into the Lord’s ordinance of preaching, Omniscience Himself also has his reasons for limiting the communication of his truth in worship to verbal preaching.
It is fitting, is it not, that the eternal Word should be revealed through verbal words and apprehended through faith by the hearers, according to the nature of God which cannot be seen (Dt. 4:15-16)? Did not God Himself, when revealing his covenant, speak audibly to the people at Mt. Sinai (Dt. 4:12-13; Ex. 20:1-2)? And are not ministers the heirs of the ministry of Moses, who was appointed by God to speak to the people for God (Dt. 5:22-28; Ex. 20:18-22)? If so, ought they not to reveal the entirety of God’s Covenant by verbal proclamation as well?
If God beseeches you through his ministers, who are the ambassador’s of Christ in his stead, ought they not to do it through verbal preaching as the Son of God preached while here on earth? Verbal communication is peculiarly fitting for transmitting the faith of Christ whom we have not seen, we only having believed the apostolic accounts of:
‘Though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory’ – 1 Pet. 1:8
The foolishness of bare, verbal, unembellished preaching instituted by God for his gospel is not only in contrast to the sophistic rhetoric of the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:17-25), but also to all the other forms of communication and drama practiced amongst the Greeks and society at large in the first century, and all centuries.
Circumstances and Indifferent Matters Concerning Worship
Circumstances and other indifferent matters concerning worship that bear no religious or symbolic meaning but retain their natural use and meaning and are ‘common to human actions and societies’ (WCF 1.6), do not fall under the restrictions of the Regulative Principle of Worship. However, this does not mean that there are no governing, moral, principles that apply to them, precisely because otherwise they could, and often do in many churches, detract from and alter the worship that God has instituted.
The very specific language of the Westminster Confession speaks of circumstances ‘concerning’ worship, but not circumstances ‘in’ worship (WCF 1.6). This is because circumstances are necessarily about the worship that we offer God, but in no way form part of the spiritual worship itself. Thus if a circumstance or indifferent matter becomes a *part* of worship or the worship service, it has been elevated to the significance of the elements of worship (WCF 21.3,5,6 uses ‘parts’ as synonymous with the elements of worship).
Circumstances in the Confession, and as classically defined by historic, reformed theologians such as Gillespie (see English-Popish, Part 3, Ch. 7), have generally been things necessary to the very performance of the spiritual elements of worship themselves, such as a time of meeting, where to meet, having an order to performing the elements of worship, etc. Such necessary things, of course, never pose a problem to the elements of worship, as they are necessary for their very exercise.
Another category is of things purely indifferent, which simply do not matter. For instance, if one worships in a home or a school classroom, whether there is floral wallpaper or benign cultural decorations about the room, or school related visual-posters, these things simply do not bear any significance upon the spiritual worship taking place, which is oblivious to them.
Where problematic issues sometimes arise are over things that are not necessary, but are otherwise indifferent and may be used for a helpful purpose in the administering of the elements of worship. Gillespie discusses this category of indifferent matters, and the principles that apply to them, in English-Popish, Part 4.
Things that legitimately fall under this category and can be profitably ‘ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence’ (WCF 1.6), are things like a bulletin for the order of worship which may contain a sermon outline, using microphones for amplification, using a pulpit to hold the minister’s notes, using psalters or a projection screen with the words of the psalm and the musical notation of the tune on them, etc.
A main principle that applies to such expedient, indifferent matters, is that one must be ‘able to give a sufficient reason and warrant’ for the use of each of them (Gillespie) and that they are to be kept to a minimum, lest they obscure or draw away the focus from the elements of worship, detract from them, interrupt them, or become a part of worship itself.
Hence, the incidental and infrequent use in preaching of an educational image (say of the Tabernacle, for the purpose of instruction) and other possible like examples (both current and future possibilities) may fall in this category (though the Biblical writers simply described the Tabernacle in words, a good precedent for preachers). Yet video clips, inspirational images and similar things often interrupt, over-shadow, add-to or take away from preaching as verbal proclamation, or worse, become a means for a greater heightened experience through which one worships, also known as worshipping God through a creaturely means that He has not instituted, which is idolatry.
Sadly, such ‘indifferent means’ are often intentionally multiplied for the very purpose for their attracting attention and for their emotional draw (the calf sparkled with gold! Only the best for God!), instead of letting the bare, spiritual beauty and uprightness of the Word, with no human artifice, lift up Christ in order to draw all men to Himself (Jn. 12:32).
While there is much gray area in these matters, and there will be more as the future progresses, a church’s purpose should not be to get as close to the line as possible, overstepping it often in doing so, but to aim at holding forth the Biblical elements of worship purely. If this is done, much of the gray area will be seen to be black and white. God’s house is a house of prayer, Jesus said, not of coffee and videos.
The pretense of most of these innovations in worship is to make the preaching or worship more relational, powerful and effective. But are they? The apostles had no videos, sound systems, light-shows or stadiums, and yet they ‘turned the world upside-down.’ (Acts 17:6) How? They had nothing to trust in but the power of the Word of God:
“Is not my Word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”
Hence when the reformed wing of the Reformation went back to Sola Scriptura as its first and most powerful principle of worship, the magisterial reformers, with lawful authority, cleaned out their meeting places for worship from any and all religious imagery, symbolism, pictures of Christ and crosses, that the glory of God through his Word might be supreme in all.
Samuel Rutherford, in defending the theology and practice of the Church of Scotland during the Westminster era, said:
“We acknowledge the Scriptures of God contained in the Old and New Testament to contain the whole doctrine of faith and good manners; our [National] Covenant [of 1580 & 1638] rejects all traditions contrary, without and beside the Word of God, and so it rejects all religious observances, all human Ceremonies, all religious symbolical signs, all new means of worshipping God, all images, positive rites which have any influence in God’s worship as will-worship, and
impious additions to God’s Word.” (Peaceable & Temperate Plea, 1642, pp. 308-9)
See also the New England puritan William Ames argue against all man-made religious imagery in worship in Ch. 3, Section 7, ‘Concerning Images’ of A Fresh Suit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship, 1633. Buy and read Carlos Eire’s historical account of all religious images being removed from places of worship in the reformed wing of the Reformation: War Against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin Buy For more historic, reformed resources, see Religious Images in Worship.
Drama in Worship
Drama in worship has always been regulated by God in Scripture, and, as God considers it to be religiously significant, adding it where God has not prescribed it is not recommended.
In the Pentateuch
From the Fall, God made it clear that the acceptable way of approaching Him was through the slaughter and offering of an animal sacrifice (Gen. 4:2-5; Heb. 11:4). These sacrifices were sustained, visual, participatory experiences symbolizing, teaching, and sealing the life-and-death lessons of the gospel.
Holding life in one’s hands, the bleating sounds, cutting the animal’s throat, the stench of burning flesh and old blood on the altar, while seeing your innocent substitute go up in flames in your place as you are forgiven for your sins and accepted into God’s favor, was a greater and more effectual, divinely conceived liturgical drama than anything added to God’s worship by human wisdom today.
By the fear of God, which is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7), the saints of old did not dare to add any further rite to God’s worship until God directed them in his own time, in detail (in every detail that was religiously significant) in the Passover (Ex. 12:1-14). Upon the set date of the Church calendar that God alone had prescribed, the 14th day of the 1st month, the head of the house was to kill a lamb without blemish, strike its blood upon one’s doorposts, roast the lamb and eat it with one’s family with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They were to eat it in haste with their sandals on and staves in hand, and repeat every year.
Here was an intimate evening of drama directed by God, a means of grace through faith to remember how He had delivered them from Egypt (Ex. 12:14,26-27) and had promised a coming deliverance to them through the Messiah from Satan (Gen. 3:15). Every detail of the Passover abounds with God-appointed spiritual teaching for those who have eyes to see.
In Leviticus 23 God further provided for and closely regulated the religious, dramatic acts of his Old Testament Church through 6 further yearly festivals: the Week of Unleavened Bread (fasting from leaven), the Feast of Firstfruits (including the regulated, lifting-up of the wave-offering, Lev. 23:11-12), the Feast of Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement (including watching the drama of a goat bearing your sins being exiled into the wilderness to die) and the Feast of Tabernacles (which involved the mandated, real-life experience of camping in a tent in the street for a week to re-enact the wilderness experience).
What would have happened if an Israelite, or a court of their elders, not being satisfied with the sufficiency of the drama that God had appointed, thought it would have been edifying to add their own dramatic rites to God’s? One can only surmise that they would have met the same fate as Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-3).
(The later Feast of Purim, was simply a lawfully appointed, civil, day of thanksgiving for the deliverance recorded in the Book of Ether, as WCF 21.5 rightly interprets it in the proof-texts. Hanuka was likewise, initially, a civil day of thanksgiving for a military deliverance of the Jews in the mid-second century B.C. Jesus going up to Jerusalem at the time of that feast for evangelism, Jn. 5:1, does not imply his participation in any possible man-made religious rites that the Jews may have invented for it. Jesus, was in every way opposed to the Jews’ man-made, religious traditions, Mt. 15:9)
Other closely regulated, dramatic rituals prescribed in the Pentateuch include: Moses sprinkling the sacrificial blood upon the people of Israel, when entering into covenant with God (Ex. 25:4-8), the high priest sprinkling blood seven times towards the mercy seat of the ark in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:12-14), the detailed and profound prescriptions of the sacrifice of the Red Heifer (Num. 19), the events involved in the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:1-17) and many others.
In the Prophets
A noteworthy example of drama in worship is the story of the false prophets of Baal in contest with Elijah. The very deeply sincere, experiential and intense drama of the prophets of Baal for most of the day form a stark contrast to the simple and sole action of Elijah (1 Kings 18:26,28,36,38):
“And they… called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made… and they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them…
And it came to pass… that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, ‘Lord God… let it be known this day that Thou art God in Israel…’… Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice…”
Prayer is authorized by God’s Will; hence Elijah’s prayer was accepted. The 450 prophets of Baal were systematically killed (1 Kings 18:39-40). While these prophets worshipped false gods, yet note the contrast between the religious rite that the true God had prescribed and the anarchic, man-devised drama common amongst the heathen culture of their day.
However note that none of these actions were done in congregational worship, nor was anything like unto them done in the regular worship of the temple, and Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s actions were prescribed and given their explicit spiritual significance, verbally, by God, in detail, which inspired verbal message God commanded the prophet to be told to the people to go along with the dramatic action, in explanation of it.
This is in part the reason for the reformed teaching that the Word must always go along with the visible sign (see the excellent Biblical exposition of this in Calvin, Institutes, Book 4, Ch. 14, Sections 3-5), lest the unexplained drama (in contemporary churches, for instance) be unintelligible.
The New Testament Sacraments
The Bible continues to specifically regulate drama in the New Testament through Jesus’ institution of two, and only two, religiously significant, symbolic and dramatic actions for New Testament worship: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
While Baptism is generally recognized by Christians to be a dramatic action regulated in detail by Scripture whereby God’s promises are physically sealed to the one baptized before the eyes of onlookers, yet, the significance of the Lord’s Supper has largely been reduced in modern Christianity to the bare notion that only the bread and wine are visible, static symbols.
Rather, in the midst of the many spiritually significant actions instituted by Christ at the Last Supper, He says, “**This do** in remembrance of Me.” (Lk. 22:19) Hence, protestants at the Reformation and in the puritan era understood rightly that the Lord’s Supper was a participatory, regulated, God appointed, spiritually and symbolically rich, liturgical drama involving many, morally necessary, details of spiritual significance, all for the encouragement to faith for the believer.
The early-1700’s Scottish minister, Thomas Boston, expounds ‘The Signifying Actions’ of the Lord’s Supper in ‘The Nature of the Lord’s Supper’, Works, vol. 2, pp. 484-7. In it he delineates several morally necessary, distinct appointed actions to be done in the Lord’s Supper, including:
1. The minister taking the bread and the cup into which the wine has been poured, into his hand;
2. Consecrating the bread and wine by the words of institution and prayer;
3. Breaking the bread;
4. Giving the bread, and then the wine, to the people;
If we are to worship according to the pattern found in Scripture, if these details can be derived from Scripture, and if these details are found to be religiously significant in Scripture, then these these details, by definition, cannot be indifferent.
Gillespie also argued from Scripture, rightly, that the religiously significant details of this sacramental drama include using a Table of familiar fellowship, a whole loaf of common bread, a common cup, that the breaking of bread is before, and a distinct action from, the pouring out of the wine, that the minister is to use the plural in saying ‘take ye’, ‘drink ye’ (as Christ did, as opposed to churches where the minister says it singularly to each individual), and that the cup and loaf is to be passed around from believer to believer (as Christ says, “divide it among yourselves”) in familiar fellowship amongst the saints.
While persons, in their wisdom (usually ministers), immediately object that it would be very hard to accommodate all of these spiritually significant, dramatic, details given in Scripture in the circumstances of how we do things in churches today, yet in better and more faithful times in the Church, such as in Scotland during the days of the Westminster Assembly, the Church of Scotland did all of these things to the last detail for thousands of persons seeking, finding and communing with Christ in the Lord’s Supper. For an account of a typical communion service in the historic Church of Scotland, faithful to Scripture, see the account by Samuel Rutherford.
Thomas Boston and John Willison also, perceptively, expound how the use of alcoholic wine, as Christ instituted it, is spiritually significant in the Lord’s Supper, and hence not a matter of indifferency.
For more historic, reformed resources on this topic, see The Sacramentally Significant Actions of the Supper. If you desire to celebrate the drama of the Lord’s Supper in America as Christ instituted it in his Word (without any human additions thereto), find a church of The Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) or the Presbyterian Reformed Church in your area.
The New Testament also has something to say about solo performances in worship. 1 Cor. 14 describes singers in congregational worship that sung independently while the rest of the Christians heard and responded with an ‘Amen’ (vv. 13-16).
However, notice in this account that:
It does not involve any and every performance in the visual or auditory arts (no musical instruments, dances, plays, puppet shows, etc.), but only an act of singing, which otherwise is a warranted element of worship.
The focus was not upon the musical ability of the singer, but on the prophetic, verbal content of the song, to which hearers consented to with their ‘Amen’.
This inspired singing (1 Cor. 14:15) was a distinct gift of the Holy Spirit, and was in worship precisely because it was one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit poured out on the apostolic Church. Hence, this passage is not warrant for other dramatic arts in worship, which are not charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit and nowhere recorded in Scripture as occurring in the apostolic Church.
While this passage is warrant for inspired, prophetic solos in worship, it is not warrant for non-inspired solos in worship. Not anyone was allowed to sing with authority in front of the congregation for all to listen to in the first century, but only those prophetically inspired by the Spirit.
Inerrant prophecy, the only kind found in the Bible, ceased with the sealing up of Redemption at the first Coming of Christ, the apostles laying the foundation of the Church in revealing to us the Word of God, and the Canon being filled up and closed, it being a more sure and sufficient Word of prophecy to us than any voice from Heaven (Isa. 8:14-20; Dan. 9:27; Zech. 13:1-5; 1 Cor. 13:8-13; Eph. 2:19-20; Heb. 1:1-2; 2 Pet. 1:19-21).
Hence 1 Cor. 14 is no warrant for solo performances in the regular, continuing, public worship of the Church. Rather, all Christians are instructed in the New Testament to sing to Lord (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), not to listen to other persons sing or to have other persons praise God on their behalf. This is the reason why the Reformation instituted congregational singing in opposition to the Medieval, Romanist practice of choral and instrumental solo performances.
The Nature and Simplicity of New Testament Worship
It is undeniable that New Testament worship, especially in the book of Acts, is simple, in fact far more simple than the worship of most churches today.
The reason for this, according to Gal. 3:23-25; 4:1-11 and the whole book of Hebrews, is that under the Old Testament, the people of God newly called out from the world in their spiritual youth, were instructed through the God-appointed, visible, physical, worship ceremonies with sights, sounds, smells and showy displays of the five senses, just as we use such things for the instruction of youth. All of these things, especially in their detailed and lengthy dramas, were outward, shadowy symbols of the Messiah and his redeeming grace.
Naturally, when God in the flesh came, and the reality of which those things spoke was accomplished, this outward, external chaff fell away (Heb. 12:26-28):
“Whose voice then shook the earth: but now He hath promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven.’ And this word, ‘Yet once more’, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we, receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace…”
Hence what we are left with in the New Testament is the simple, moral fundamentals of spiritual worship, as Jesus said, ‘God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth.’ (Jn. 4:24)
While New Testament worship, such as preaching, hearing the Word read, singing and praying necessarily makes subordinate use of the body, yet this worship is primarily directed through the activity and comprehension of one’s spirit in faith, communion and expression.
Consequently, the physically-sealing sacraments of the New Testament are much more simple than that of the Old, fewer and have greater, abundant, spiritual promises that are apprehended and sealed through them.
Martin Chemnitz (†1586) observes (quoted by Gillespie, p. 83):
“But, whereas it is pretended that by those rites of men’s addition, many things are probably signified, admonished and taught, hereto it may be answered, that figures do properly belong to the Old Testament, but those things which Christ would have be taught in the New Testament, He would have them delivered and propounded, not by shadows, but by the light of the word; and we have a promise of the efficacy of the Word, but not of figures invented by men.”
Thus, any addition of uninstituted, religious, visual imagery or outward, bodily, showy drama, with all the sights and sounds thereof, in God’s worship, is not only an affront upon the sacraments of salvation, but is a regression to the carnal, immature, temporary and ceased worship of the Old Testament. Gillespie observes (p. 83):
“…to introduce significant ceremonies into the New Testament other than the holy sacraments of God’s own institution, were to reduce [restore] Judaism, and to impose upon us again the yoke of a ceremonial law, which Christ has taken off.”
For more resources to grow in your love for God’s spiritual and simple New Testament worship, the Word of God laid bare, see the profound quotes in The Simplicity of Worship, the articles of the puritans Matthew Poole and John Wilson, and the rightly foundational section of John Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, Ch. 11, ‘The Difference Between the Two Testaments’, Sections 1-11.
Dancing in Worship
Dancing, as will be shown, has never been in the regular public worship of God, in the Old Testament or New Testament, nor does it have the nature of being a means of grace through faith.
Let it be known at the outset that we are not against dancing itself, its use in social life or dancing as an expression of our greatest impulses to joy in the Lord. We heartily concur with Charles Spurgeon (on Ps. 149:3):
“There are unusual seasons which call for unusual expressions of joy. When the Lord saves a soul, its holy joy overflows, and it cannot find channels enough for its exceeding gratitude: if the man does not leap, or play, or sing, at any rate he praises God, and wishes for a thousand tongues with which to magnify his Savior. Who would wish it to be otherwise?… Let us give the utmost liberty to joy… if any ought to be glad it is the children of Zion.” (see also on Ps. 150:4)
The only question at hand is whether it is God’s revealed will for dancing to be a part of the regular worship of God.
Besides multiple instances of secular/social dancing in Scripture (Jud. 11:34; 1 Sam. 21:11; 29:5; 30:16; Job 21:11; Eccl. 3:4; Mt. 11:17; 14:6; etc.), and dancing being used metaphorically (Ps. 30:11; Jer. 31:4,13), possible religious dancing is only found in 6 places in the Old Testament, with no instances or references to it in the New Testament.
1. At the Red Sea, Ex. 15:20
After the miraculous deliverance of passing through the Red Sea in the Exodus, Moses, a prophet, sings with Israel the inspired song recounted in Ex. 15. Moses’ sister, Miriam, also a prophet (Ex. 15:20), and the Israelite ladies, took up timbrels (something similar to tambourines) and danced while singing an inspired refrain.
1. This was an extraordinary, one time event, after a miraculous deliverance, overseen by prophets, which was not repeated in Scripture and was not in the regular, public worship of God. When God did establish the regular public worship shortly thereafter in setting up the Tabernacle services in the wilderness, dancers and dancing were not a part of it.
2. This event was more particularly a national, social, celebratory procession, or parade. Hence not everyone but only women were dancing, and that with timbrels, which instruments were common to their social, civil dancing (Jud. 11:34; Job 21:11-12; Ps. 68:18,25; 149:3,6-8). The timbrel was not an appointed instrument for Temple worship and was not used in it.
Such outdoor, processional events did recur through Israel’s history (2 Sam. 6:16), especially in the people coming back from a victory in war (1 Sam. 18:6; 21:11; 30:16), parading through the street on their way to gather in the Temple for thanksgiving and worship to God (Ps. 68:18,25; 149:3,6-8; notice the context of war in both these passages), the highest activity and expression of man.
As Ex. 15 describes a national, social celebratory parade upon a great deliverance, it would be very natural and appropriate in our day to dance and sing praises to God at such a civil parade today (as is already commonly done in most nations, only, unfortunately, usually without praising God), especially when soldiers come home from a victory in war.
2. The Golden Calf, Ex. 32:19
Moses was called up into Mount Sinai to receive further instruction from God. In the meantime the people grew ancy and demanded to worship God on their own terms. So Aaron declared his own appointed feast for the following day (Ex. 32:5) with sacrifices, the golden calf and dancing (Ex. 32:19). God was not pleased and almost destroyed the whole visible Church on earth for it (Ex. 32:10).
In the immediate chapters before this (Ex. 25-31), God charged Moses to tell the people of Israel detailed instructions for how to worship Him through the planned services of the Tabernacle, and it didn’t include dancing. When God forgave Israel for this event, and Moses went on managing the oversight of assembling the Tabernacle and its services, and completed it exactly as God had said (Ex. 39:43), it still didn’t include dancing.
This, the only instance of religious dancing in corporate worship in the Bible, was wholesale condemned by God.
3. Ladies Dancing outside a Feast, Judges 21:19-25
During the period of the Judges the Tabernacle was in Shiloh. At a particular annual feast (Jud. 21:19), certain men from the tribe of Benjamin planned to hide in the vineyards in order to come out and kidnap ladies for wives, “if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances.” (v. 21)
What is not said in this passage, and what there is no warrant for, is that these dances went on inside the Tabernacle in the services of the feast. It is clear that they did not, as the men hid in vineyards waiting for the ladies to ‘come out’.
As v. 19 says that part of the stratagem involved Shiloh being close to a highway (an easy retreat back to their tribal land), it is likely that ladies not only came out of the Tabernacle, but came out of the town itself to an open field nearby in order to dance where there was room, becoming an easy target.
It should be further noted that not all of the worshippers at the feast came out to dance (as if it was something that entailed upon all of the participants of the feast), but only the ladies, and that, ‘if’, they came out.
Clearly, the dancing of the ladies was not part of the Tabernacle service, but was a social custom of which they were accustomed to doing at the time of their joyous yearly feast. This is confirmed in that God did not prescribe liturgical dancing for any of the annual feasts of Israel in Lev. 23.
This example from Judges is similar to a group of ladies at an annual Christian conference, after participating in a worship service, to afterwards go outside and dance.
4. David Dancing before the Ark’s Processional, 2 Sam. 6:11-17 & 1 Chron. 15:26-29
The ark, after having been captured and returned by the Philistines, remained on a farmers property outside of Jerusalem. David sought to bring the ark up to Jerusalem, and did so with a great celebratory processional with Levitical music. Amidst the singing, David, wearing a linen robe with an ephod of linen over it (1 Chron. 15:27), was “leaping and dancing before the Lord.” (2 Sam. 6:16) It is likely that David was not dancing alone, but with the common folk (2 Sam. 6:20-22).
Note in this account that:
1. There is every reason to presume, as David was a man of war, that his leaping and dancing was naturally masculine in nature. His, dress, be it noted, while accused of being ‘base’ by his wife Michal, yet was very modest (neck to ankles, and it would have been relatively loose, not tight or form-fitting) in that it was very similar to what the priests wore as outer garments, as opposed to some modern conventions in dance.
2. This event, again, was an extraordinary, one time event which was never repeated. It was not part of Israel’s regularly stated, congregational worship. When the Temple would be built shortly thereafter by Solomon, God ordained many things for the Temple services, but not dancing.
3. While this processional was in many ways similar to Israel’s celebratory civil parades, insofar as it specially involved the ark of God’s presence, the extensive ecclesiastical officers of the priests to carry the ark, the Levitical musicians and singers (1 Chron. 15:16-24) and accordingly had an ecclesiastical characteristic to it, so it was a type of the Ascension of Christ (Ps. 68:18-35; Eph. 4:8-10; Ps. 15, 24:7-10), the one greater than David.
This one time, special, ecclesiastical event, being fulfilled by Christ, was not the grounds for any distinctive Church ceremony in the New Testament. Rather, as Gal. 4 and Hebrews states, these characteristically Old Testament, typical, ecclesiastical and providential, one-time events, with outward glory and display, have fallen away with that carnal Old Testament economy. We have a greater spiritual reality communicated to us by verbal revelation, that Christ the substance has ascended into Heaven and stands at the throne of God interceding for us. This is greater than any carnal parade.
The Reformers understood this, which is why they put away all the Popish, Medieval, Old Testament ecclesiastical parades and processions of outward glory; and Protestantism has been devoid of them since, though probably not for long.
5. Psalm 149:3, ‘Let them praise his name in the dance’
While the first verses of Psalm 149 open with the exhortation to praise the Lord’s name ‘in the congregation of saints’, the psalm ends with executing vengeance upon the heathen in war.
This should alert us that not everything in the psalm was taking place in congregational worship, but rather the psalm is exhorting us to praise the Lord in all the activities of our life. Hence, we are to sing aloud upon our beds and with a two-edged sword in our hands (vv. 5-6), which does not take place in public worship.
Further, the timbrel (which dancing is coupled with in v. 3) was not one of the instruments appointed by the prophets (2 Chron. 29:25-27) for Temple worship (which only included stringed instruments, psalteries, harps, cymbals, cornets and trumpets, 1 Chron. 15:16,28; 23:5; 28:13,19; 2 Chron. 29:25-27; etc.).
In fact, the timbrel is expressly excluded from the official service of the divine music of the Levites. The first time David attempted to bring the ark up to Jerusalem, amongst other serious errors in worship, “all the house of Israel played before the Lord on all manner of instruments… even on… timbrels…” (2 Sam. 6:5) When David realized his errors in worship and successfully brought up the ark the second time (more than likely consulting with his prophets for specific direction, 1 Chron. 15:13; 2 Chron. 29:25-26), it was only the Levites who played the instruments, and the timbrel wasn’t one of them (1 Chron. 15:16,28).
Hence the praising of the Lord’s name in the dance was not taking place in the Temple, but in the many other spheres of social life.
(The early Septuagint, Chaldaic, Arabic, Vulgate and Ethiopic translations and numerous reformation and puritan era commentators take the Hebrew word translated for ‘dance’ in Psalms 149 & 150 as ‘pipe’, a musical instrument. This is because the root word חול means ‘whirl’, which could either be understood of the air-whirling of a musical pipe or whirling in a dance, both of which meanings fit the context.
Andrew Fausset, a late-1800’s commentator, says that the word can be legitimately taken either way, though the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Dictionary, a standard from the late-1800’s, documents extensive evidence of it meaning ‘dance’ without listing any meaning of ‘pipe’.
Similarly, Bible translations differ on whether the end of Ps. 87 refers to playing on musical instruments or to dancing. Either way, the comments made here upon Psalms 149 & 150 apply equally to Ps. 87.)
6. Psalm 150:4, ‘Praise Him with the timbrel and dance’
Psalm 150 is much like Psalm 149. It starts with the exhortation to ‘Praise God in his sanctuary’, but immediately continues with, ‘praise Him in the firmament [sky and beyond] of his power’. The Psalm ends, not with the Temple, but with the exhortation for ‘everything that has breath’ (all people and animals) to ‘praise the Lord’.
Many or most of God’s ‘mighty acts’ that we are to praise Him for in v. 2 were not in the Temple. As was shown in Ps. 149, the timbrel, which dancing is tied to in v. 4, was not used in the public worship of the Temple. The ‘organs’, also of v. 4, were not as our modern, mechanical organs of multiple pipes, but a lone pipe with holes, played by the mouth like a shepherd’s pipe or a flute (see ISBE, ‘Music’). These pipe instruments are not listed in Scripture as instruments used in the Temple, as numerous commentators confirm.
Hence, there is every reason to believe that Ps. 150 is not exhorting us to praise God in the dance in congregational worship, but to praise God by dance outside of congregational worship.
Is Dancing a Means of Grace?
A common characteristic of Biblical worship elements is that they are means of grace. The means of grace are the divinely appointed means by which we commune with God and receive grace from Him, God having promised in scripture to do so.
Thus, grace is promised to be bestowed through: preaching (Isa. 55:11; 61:1; Acts 3:12,19-20; 4:1,4; 1 Tim. 4:11,16, etc.), the reading of Scripture (Deut. 17:19; Neh. 8:1-6; Jn. 17:17; 1 Tim. 4:13-16, etc.), prayer (2 Chron. 7:14; Matt 7:7-11; Matt 21:22; James 5:15, etc.), and singing (Ps. 22:22; 147:1; 149:5-6; Eph. 5:18,19, etc.). But where are the Scriptural promises that God will confer grace through dancing, or seeing people dance?
Dance of itself, being non-verbal, is a very ambiguous medium for communication, and without explanation, is often unintelligible. When persons in the apostolic Church prayed or sung in a foreign language, it was to be verbally interpreted, or the other person would not be edified, Paul says, “seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest.” (1 Cor. 14:14-17)
It takes propositional content for a message of more than brute simplicity to be communicated, especially regarding the Word of God and for people to be safely and accurately edified through faith. Thus all the Biblical elements of worship use the vehicle of ‘the understanding’ (1 Cor. 14:14-16). Paul says, “Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” (1 Cor. 14:19)
The Reformers, puritans, and virtually every age of the Reformed Church except for ours, having understood this clear teaching in Scripture, have not had dance in public worship, as witnessed by every historic, reformed order of worship that has been handed down to us.
God’s Word is clear: God has regulated religious, visual imagery and drama in worship in detail throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament has appointed the sacraments to be visual, dramatic signs and seals of our salvation. Dance has never been an element in the regular worship of God.
To add by human wisdom to the worship that God has instituted is the height of folly, and is idolatry: worshipping God through our own made-up creaturely means, the works of our hands. Sadly and inevitably, such human contrivances in God’s worship take on the same level of import as God’s own divinely authorized ordinances, and God’s ordinances which are divine means of grace, come to be put on the same level as the human traditions of men.
The problem is not a lack of clarity on the part of God’s Word. The problem is with Biblical literacy: knowing the content of what the Bible says. Let us no longer be babes in understanding, but grow mature in becoming familiar with the profound details of all that the Lord has revealed in Scripture as to how we are to worship Him (Heb. 5:13-14):
“For every one that uses milk is unskillful in the Word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
When we become satisfied and learn to love the worship Omniscience has thought good for us, there will come a spiritual power with it that no human ingenuity can conceive of. God will not share his glory with another.
May we humble ourselves below the authority of his Word and seek to worship Him with the visual imagery and drama that He has divinely authorized, alone.
Matthew Henry on Psalm 149 HT: Andrew Myers
“Let God be praised in the dance with timbrel and harp, according to the usage of the Old-Testament church very early (Ex. 15:20), where we find God praised with timbrels and dances. Those who from this urge the use of [instrumental] music in religious worship must by the same rule introduce dancing, for they went together, as in David’s dancing before the ark, and Judg. 21:21.
But, whereas many scriptures in the New Testament keep up singing as a gospel-ordinance, none provide for the keeping up of [instrumental] music and dancing; the gospel-canon for psalmody is to sing with the spirit and with the understanding.”