Clapping in Worship

by Gardner Hall

Is it wrong? If so, why?

The last few years have seen the introduction of handclapping in congregations of the Lord, including a few that have opposed institutionalism. Though motives are often praiseworthy, serious questions are raised by the practice. Is it presumptuous? Is it practiced because God wants it? Or rather, is it practiced for our own benefit, because we like it?

Handclapping among churches can generally be placed in two categories:

  1. Clapping in appreciation
    1. for brethren who are to be honored,
    2. when a good point is made during preaching, and
    3. at baptisms and
  2. rhythmic clapping while singing hymns.

It is highly doubtful that handclapping found its way into congregations of the Lord because scriptures were analyzed and it was discovered that for centuries Christians were lacking in something that God had always wanted from them. It is more likely that it was adopted directly or indirectly from the "Discipling movement," Pentecostalism or some other popular religious trendsetters. Later, scriptures were searched to justify a practice that had already begun.

Handclapping in the Bible

There are a few references to handclapping in the Old Testament. Some are quoted to defend the practice in churches today.

  • Psalms 47:1, 2 says, "O clap your hands, all peoples; shout to God with the voice of joy. For the Lord Most High is to be feared, a great King over all the earth."
  • Psalms 98:8 reads, "Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills be joyful together before the Lord."
  • Isaiah 55:12 says, "And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."

The last two texts are obviously symbolic and can be compared to expressions in Revelation of "harpers harping" (Revelation 14:2). Psalms 98 refers not only to clapping but to instrumental music in Psalms 98:5-6. Therefore, if the text authorized clapping in worship today, it would also authorize instrumental music.

Psalms 47 has nothing to do with rhythmic clapping to music. At most, it might be parallel to Psalms 150 which commands the use of instrumental music to praise God along with other fleshly, physical forms of worship of the Old Testament. It has no relevance in determining the kind of spiritual worship which God wants under the New Covenant.

There are no references to handclapping in the New Testament and absolutely no indication that it was a part of the worship of churches for hundreds of years after Christ. That fact should give pause to all who defend it in worship.

Handclapping to Show Appreciation

Clapping to show appreciation for others has been a part of Western culture for millennia. Since Christians are to honor each other (Romans 12:10; Romans 13:7; I Corinthians 12:23-24), certainly applause could be one way we choose to show appreciation in appropriate circumstances. For that reason applause among Christians is common at birthdays, awards presentations at schools and other social events. The question is, should such applause be a part of assemblies designed to praise God?

To defend applause as a part of worshipping God, it has been pointed out that worship assemblies not only involve vertical communion with God but horizontal communion with brethren. As a part of that horizontal communion, it is reasoned, we can applaud each other.

It is absolutely true that worship assemblies involve horizontal communion, fellowship with brethren. Hebrew Christians were told to "consider one another in order to stir up love and good works" in the assembly (Hebrews 10:24-25). Ephesians 5:19 tells us to "speak to one another" in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Colossians 3:16 says that when we sing we are "teaching and admonishing one another." The latter two texts, however, give us the key to this mutual edification. It is not brought about by praising each other (though there should be occasions for that), but rather by focusing together on "singing...to the Lord" (Colossians 3:16), by making melody in our hearts "to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:19). That expression, "to the Lord," is found all through the Old and New Testaments in reference to worship and indicates a point of focus in worship. God's people in the Old and New Testaments have always had designated times to meet together to focus upon prayer and praise to the Lord. Though we greatly encourage each other in designated times of worship, it comes from a common effort to unite and sing and pray to the Lord, not to praise each other. In that designated time to give praise to the Lord, applause for each other becomes a distraction.

Some activities, such as eating meals together, are important for the growth of the body (Acts 2:46). However, they are completely out of place in the time that is dedicated for worship to the Lord (I Corinthians 11:22, 34). The same thing is true of applause for birthday celebrants, preachers, mothers, fathers, grandparents, etc. While appropriate and stimulating in some settings, it is out of place when we are together for the purpose of focusing on worship to the Lord.

Clapping to Show Approval During Preaching

Dave Miller quotes from the Encyclopedia Britannica in his book, "Piloting the Straits", page 238.

"When Christianity became fashionable the customs of the theater were transferred to the churches. Paul of Samosata encouraged the congregation to applaud his preaching by waving linen cloths. Applause of the rhetoric of popular preachers became an established custom destined to disappear under the influence of a more reverent spirit."

It should be obvious that applause has historically been associated with show business rather than praising God. In our entertainment obsessed culture, it seems that Christians should want to disassociate themselves from that worldly current rather than move towards it.

Both the Old and New Testaments employ the same word, "Amen" to describe how God's followers express their approval of the message. It originally meant "firm" and came to mean "so it is, so be it." (Thayer, p. 32). While applause tends to focus attention on a performer or a speaker, saying "Amen"" focuses on the truth of the message.

Instead of expressing ourselves in a way not found in the New Testament, but associated more often with theater and show business, Christians should express themselves in the ancient, time proven method that all acknowledge to have God's approval. "Let all the people say, Amen!" (Psalms 106:48; I Corinthians 14:16). Sermons and prayers need to be filled with enthusiastic yet orderly "Amens", not with applause. This form of expression is found in scripture, focuses on the message, is associated with praise of God and is unquestionably right. The other is not found in the scriptures, tends to focus on the speaker, is associated with show business and is highly questionable.

Applause at Baptisms

One brother has stated sincerely to me, "How often have baptisms been announced in churches, and such announcements have been met with silent smiles. Souls have been wrested from Satan's grasp --from the dominion of Satan to the dominion of God -- saved for eternity. Yet, a church of 400 sits silent at such an announcement. Then they go home and raise the rafters with cheering and applause every time their football team scores! Unrestrained celebration when their football team is "saved," but quietness when newborn babes in Christ in their midst are announced. Isn't there something seriously wrong here?

Though there should be a distinction made between the hysteria of a football game and the spiritual joy of Christians, the brother does make a valid point -- that brethren are usually too reserved when witnessing a spiritual triumph. And yet, is clapping the best way to express that joy? Should baptisms be accompanied by drum rolls, cheers, or other forms of celebration seen at ball games?

The fact that clapping at baptisms may not necessarily be considered worship, gives me pause in my objections to it. Perhaps it might be considered a matter of judgment. However, the danger that such applause could easily move into the worship services for the Lord make me prefer that announcements of baptisms be met with enthusiastic songs of praise unto the Lord, either directed or spontaneous, with hallelujahs and other expressions of praise.

Rhythmic Clapping to Hymns

Rhythmic clapping to the music of hymns is parallel in many ways to instrumental music as an accompaniment to singing. Both offer something beyond "the fruit of the lips," the type of praise God has specifically requested (Hebrews 13:15). Both are unauthorized in the New Testament.

Several points are made in defense of rhythmic clapping to the music:

  1. Clapping does not have melody line or tone. It is thus not music and therefore does not take us beyond the type of music specified by God, vocal music.
  2. God wants us to praise him with our whole body.
  3. We can praise God as we kneel, stand, raise our hands and therefore it should be acceptable to praise him while clapping.
  4. Brethren have patted their feet and tapped their fingers to the rhythm of hymns for years without being questioned.

None of these points are valid as a defense of rhythmic clapping to hymns.

Drums lack melody line and or tone and yet would be unauthorized in praise to God because they do not give God the "fruit of lips," the type of praise God has specifically requested in the New Testament (Hebrews 13:15). The question is not so much, is it music?, which is often debatable, but rather, is it praise from the lips, the instrument specifically requested by God for praise in the New Testament?

God does request that we give our bodies as living sacrifices unto Him (Romans 12:1) and that we love Him with all our heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37) but such expressions of what we should give to serve him should not be confused with body parts used to express praise to him. If the concept of giving our bodies to the Lord authorized worshipping him with different body parts, then we would have to click our teeth, stomp our feet, snap our fingers, knock our knees together and make all kinds of strange noises in worship. Also, such would mean that those who were paralyzed in various parts of their body would be unable to worship acceptably. The truth of the matter is that the concept of worshipping God with all our being, doesn't have to do with body parts, but rather with worshipping with all our soul, energy and love. And yet, the instrument of expression of that worship with all our being is specified, the lips (Hebrews 13:15).

It is an error to confuse the position of the body while praising God, and the instrument used to give that praise. One, corporal position, is not specified, the other, the instrument is. A band director might tell a student, "I want you to learn to play the flute. I don't care if you play it standing up, sitting down, or even kneeling or lying down, I just want you to play it!" In such instructions, liberty is given as to the corporal position, but the instrument, the flute, is specified. God hasn't specified a body position in praising Him in the New Testament. Therefore, we can praise him while standing, seated, kneeling, raising the arms, bowing the head, etc. Whatever corporal position one may take, however, he should use the instrument of praise which God has exclusively requested in the New Testament, the lips. The hands are not the lips!

A distinction should be made between the usually silent, incidental, isolated and unobtrusive patting of the foot sometimes seen while brethren sing, and loud, collective clapping. One doesn't justify the other.

Questions that Need to be Answered about Rhythmic Clapping to Music

  1. Does God specify fruit of the lips as the type of praise He wants in the New Testament age? (Hebrews 13:15)
  2. If "fruit of the hands" (clapping) is an acceptable way of praising God in New Testament times then why not the "fruit of feet" (foot stomping), the fruit of fingers (finger snapping), etc. Why not the fruit of drums, the fruit of cymbals, etc.?
  3. If God wants rhythmic clapping, did Christians generally worship him through the millennia in an unacceptable way if they didn't clap?
  4. What is the origin of rhythmic clapping to music in the church? Is it from heaven or from men?
  5. Is there any evidence of rhythmic clapping to music among Christians in the first century?

I want to be open to any thoughts or ideas from those who may think the reasoning here is wrong or inconsistent. But until these questions are answered, I feel it my duty to speak out against clapping in worship as a practice that will take us away from the Lord and the spiritual, "fruit of the lips," worship he has authorized.

It is true that there needs to be more enthusiasm among brethren, more amens, hallelujahs and songs or praise. But there doesn't need to be applause, rhythmic clapping or any other type of expression that would move us away from the simple spiritual pattern which God has given us.