Praise Him in the Dance

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 14:3 (Autumn 1996)

Praise Him in the Dance

Evangel 14:3 (Autumn 1996)

The appropriateness of the use of dance in worship is one of the many ‘worship’ issues over which evangelicals deeply divide today. Discussion on the subject often generates more heat than light. What is, therefore, urgently needed is a ‘menu’ which outlines the sort of issues that need to be faced and, perhaps, offers some guidelines as to how these questions ought to be tackled. The present editorial is a provisional attempt to undertake this.

  Fundamental to a discussion on this subject is the question of the use of the body in worship. Few traditions within the Christian world have failed to recognize that bodily postures etc. have a place within worship. Nevertheless, some have tended to be deeply influenced by the neo-Platonic worldview and denied or minimized the part played by the body in Christian devotion. However, there can be little argument that biblical faith is a faith directed to the whole person and responded to by the whole person.
 
  Recognizing this, however, does not justify all that might be practised today. It is important to make this point since advocates of dance (for example) sometimes seem to believe that establishing that bodily movement is legitimate means that their particular form of movement must be appropriate and permissible.
 
  I have recently been conducting a straw-poll among mature Christian men from a variety of evangelical traditions. Balletic dance seems to be the prevailing form of dance on offer in the churches today and I have been asking them whether they find balletic dance helpful in worship. All have, so far, indicated that they find it a distraction. Watching (usually) pretty young women in scanty or figure-hugging clothing may be enjoyable; but my respondents have indicated that it is for the wrong reasons! Several have also raised the question as to whether such ‘performing arts’ have a place in Christian worship.
 
There are three vital issues here which are seldom adequately addressed. First of all, Christian worship is surely to be free from sensuality. Both Old and New Testament Scriptures agree that the conduct of believers is not to be admixed with anything sensual. So how ought this principle to be applied to dance in the church, especially in such situations as just described?

  Secondly, there is the question of to what extent biblical dance was balletic. It seems widely assumed in the literature that the presence of dance in biblical worship legitimizes the balletic dance-forms adopted today. This must, however, be seen as an assumption. A case could probably be better made that the Old Testament ‘dance’ was either liturgical or ecstatic (with the former predominating). Careful exegesis and adequate principles for applying the results of such exegesis to the present are in desperately short supply. One of the urgent needs of today is for such work to be undertaken.
 
  As an aside, it may be mentioned here that many of the word studies undertaken to seek to justify dance fall into many of the exegetical fallacies associated with such studies. Classically, the ‘root fallacy’ is frequently encountered; a word assumed to carry its original sense despite the fact that words change their meanings through time (as, for example, the word ‘gay’).
 
  Thirdly, the issue of performance and the life of the church has to be addressed. An undergirding assumption of many dance and drama advocates is that those with gifts within the ‘arts’ should be expected to use such gifts within the life of the worshipping community. This may be so but it cannot be assumed. However, and in response, it cannot be argued simply (as is often done) that ‘entertainment’ or ‘performance’ is inappropriate in worship since many activities (not least preaching!) have an element of ‘performance’ to them. Moreover, we do well not just to criticize the bad examples (those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!); some drama which I have seen has been profoundly moving and spoken a very clear Christian message. Again, however, the tendency to replace careful hermeneutics by trite and inaccurate slogans needs to be eschewed.
 
  It may be added here that it is illegitimate to assume that just because someone has a performing gift that that gift ought to be used within the life of the church. A Christian may be a fine footballer but that does not appear to carry with it the assumption that such a gift is invested on him for the benefit of the worshipping community! We must beware of unwarranted assumptions of this sort.
 
The view of the present writer is that the reformed tradition has often failed to be adequately biblical in its theology of the body and has often hidden behind unproven theological presuppositions in its attempt to counter certain modern trends in worship. Sadly, a failure to be radically biblical has meant that unhelpful practices have developed and remained unchallenged by adequate arguments. It would be encouraging to see those within the reformed movement take up the challenge!

Resources