Over on Sarah’s Blog she asked a question about using dance in worship. (See it here.) She had run across an article which implied that dance was improper for the church today because you do not find it mentioned in the New Testament. I was going to answer her there, until I realized that this was going to be a rather long and involved post, and felt it best to bring it to my own blog as a topic.
First, let me say Sarah, that this is a good question, and I am glad you asked. It is a prevalent (and often heated) debate in the church world today. Many Christians are opposed to the use of dance in worship because of what the world has done with it. However, just because Satan has perverted something, doesn’t mean that we as Christians should stop using it for God’s glory.
The Bible says: “...all things were created by him, and for him” (Col 1:16).
The world has perverted music too, shall we drop that from our services? (Some already have.)
What about lifting our hands? The world has stolen that too, as they often do “the wave” at major sporting events and other venues. I guess we need to stop that hand lifting stuff.
Looking for something you can’t find in the New Testament?
What about electronics? We have sound systems, electronic instruments, projection systems, and a host of other things we use in worship that are not found in the New Testament. And everyone knows that if it is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, then it is taboo for us to use in worship.
It gets kind of silly when you apply this same logic to other areas, doesn’t it?
For the purpose of building a solid argument, it is probably best to first see where and how dance is mentioned in the Bible.
As far as I can tell, the earliest mention of dance as a form of worship is found in the book of Exodus, when the nation of Israel had just crossed the Red Sea. Here it says:
“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”
One of the things that King David is known for in the Bible is his praise and worship. Much of the book of Psalms (songs of praises) was written by him, and the Davidic style of worship has been practiced in Israel for many years, even unto today. Today, the resurgence of dance, and other forms of the arts being used in worship in Christian churches is referred to as the reinstatement of Davidic worship. King David himself danced before the Lord, when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem.
“And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod.”
“Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.”
What scriptures? What are they referring too?
It could not have been the New Testament, because that hadn’t been written yet. No, it is plain to see that they were in fact referring to the Old Testament.
Something that we must come to understand is that the New Testament church gained most of its style of worship from the Jews. Since the Jewish believers were accustomed to using dance as a form of worship, they naturally continued this practice in the early church and most likely taught it to the gentile converts. The early Christians understood dance as a normal part of worship. In fact, one of the original deacons, elected in the sixth chapter of Acts was Prochorus. If you dig into his name, it means “the leader of the circle dance.” This implies rather strongly that the early church accepted dance as a part of worship.
It is rather ironic that dance has existed to some degree all through church history. In the two earliest Christian liturgies recorded in detail, dance is used in the order of service. Both Justin Martyr in A.D. 150 and Hippolytus in A.D. 200 describe joyful circle dances. In the early church, dance was perceived as one of the “heavenly joys and part of the adoration of the divinity by the angels and by the saved.”
As the years passed and we entered into a time period known as the early middle ages (AD 500-1100) there had become a clear distinction or separation of what I will term “professional clergy” and the laity. If one will study this time period, the clergy often led the people in dance in worship, but gradually there came a further separation to where only the clergy were permitted to dance. This gradually transformed to the point that dance was only performed by the clergy at Christmas and Easter, with the laity being mere spectators. During the Renaissance, dance became much more a part of worship again, however it was very ritualized. Ironic as it may seem, it was the Reformation that stifled the use of dance in worship. There was such disdain for the structure of the church, that almost all dance was abolished from worship, the exception being in the funeral procession.
Again, it is rather interesting that Martin Luther himself was not against dance. In fact, he wrote a carol for children entitled From Heaven High in which two stanzas support the role of song and dance in worship.
The English Church leader, William Tyndale, in a prologue to the New Testament wrote of the roles of joyous song and dance, and was happy to use the words, daunce and leepe when he considered the joyous good news of Christianity. Yet, the teaching and interpretation of the people began to stifle dance and consider it worldly and eventually even in the Catholic church, in a decree was issue in 1566, which threatened priests and other persons with excommunication if they led dances in churches or cemeteries.
Isn’t it strange that it took the church over 1500 years to finally understand that dancing in church was carnal?
Just like so many other man-made rules, it has now become accepted that God is not pleased with our dance, because this is what has been passed down in our churches, yet, it is clear if you do the study, that dance was designed for use in worship.
I found it particularly amusing while in college and studying the history of Christianity I ran across some interesting breaks from the norm in regarding the ban on dancing in worship. Just to show one example, consider a group that has to be considered one of the most structured, legalistic Christian denominations ever, known as The Shakers. The Shakers were a offshoot of the Quakers in the early years of our country. The Shakers (or Shaking Quakers) lived in their own communities, remained celibate, denied themselves of physical pleasures, and danced before the Lord with all their might!
Yes, it is true that the New Testament gives few direct references to dance. But I propose that this points to the fact that dance was so much a part of worship that there was no need to mention it explicitly.
Evidence of the use of dance as an accepted expression of joy is reflected in Jesus' comment in Matthew 11:17, “We piped to you (played the flute for you) but you did not dance.”
Similarly, in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son there was dancing and rejoicing on the son's return to his home (Luke 15:25).
Interestingly, recent studies suggest there are more references to dance in the New Testament than originally thought. In the Aramaic language which Jews spoke, the word for ”rejoice” and ”dance” are the same. With that being true, if we include “dance” with “rejoice” there are references to dancing and leaping for joy (Luke 6:23) as well as “dancing in the Spirit” (Luke 10:21).
To bring this to a close, let me add my own personal observation.
There is something about dance that will take any worship service into a higher level than it can otherwise reach. One person truly dancing before the Lord (not before man) can take the entire congregation farther into His throne room, than they would otherwise have gone.