Dance in Worship? Part Two: A Historical & Cultural Perspective

Really, when it’s all said and done, the only thing that matters is what the Bible says. But as I’ve been pondering I began to wonder, what happened to dance within the church? If it was so prevalent in Jewish culture and the Christian church obviously began in that culture, why did dancing get put aside? I discovered an impressive article on this very topic! Now, as with all things that one discovers on the Internet, it may or may not be true. So I’m not staking my convictions on this, but it does pose some interesting points!

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 (Daniels 1981:13). 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’ (Gagne 1984:36).

I would love to see those orders of service! And won’t it be fun to dance with the angels in the day that we see the full glory of the King?!?

The article goes on to explain how in the first 3-4 centuries, as Christianity grew in popularity, dance was brought in that was described as licentious. Throughout those centuries there was a move from reminding believers to keep their dance appropriate before the Lord to emphasizing the spiritual aspect of the dance to calling all dance sinful.

I think that there is a very common (and natural) trend in the way that Christians respond to issues in the church and this is a great example of it. We first try to bring back order by showing the better way (appropriate dance). If/When the issue continues to grow out of control, we then continue to allow it to continue with more warnings about what is appropriate and emphasizing other things (in this case the emphasis was directed to prayer). Sadly, human nature rarely turns back at this point and the problem grows. So to be safe (and I’m not saying this is wrong), we eliminate the issue altogether. This boundary, while not necessarily what God calls us to, does keep us safe from giving unacceptable worship to the Lord. And we know from both the Old and New Testaments, that God takes worship of  Himself seriously! I could quote Scripture after Scripture to this end.

So historically, dance was lost in response to the issue of pagans begin converted and bringing their pagan (licentious) dance into the church. The church fore-fathers that denounced dance seem to have done so, not because of dance, but because of the types of dance that were coming into the service. I think the old adage applies: “Better safe than sorry!” This is a whole different topic, but I would say that this goes for our dress, our entertainment, and our time spent, also.

My next thought was, what about this culture now? I can see how there might be places and times where dance in the corporate worship service could be a problem. We saw it above. All sorts of ungodly dancing arose and it became a distraction and offense to those around. In our culture, there isn’t a lot of dance unless you are young or in entertainment. High schoolers and college kids go to parties, bars, etc. and dance. Singles and young married couples may do similar things. Kids, girls in particular, take dance classes for years and participate in recitals, Christmas programs, etc. I think these things are part of the reason that many people don’t want dancing in the church. It is seen as something for children, as something undignified (parties, bars), or as something sexual.

I have no desire to offend or distract by dancing, but I also know that God has put these dances in my heart. Rarely do I try to choreograph dance to music. Usually it comes (at least in part) without any effort. And I am much more likely to envision dance when I’m standing in the corporate service worshiping! So based on my Bible study, I have determined that God does find dance an acceptable act of worship — including in the corporate worship service. But based on my culture, I know that any dance performed must be carefully created. The dance is to honor God and every move, every look, and every aspect of the dance must give Him praise. It should not bring glory to the dancer and more than anything should be a visual of praise!

With this thought in mind, I have been researching types of Christian dance in worship. I have discovered four main types.

  • Davidic/Messianic (typically done in circles, may or may not use banners, ribbons — often what I imagine the Israelites would have done)
  • Expressive (dance that tells the story in the song)
  • Tambourine (don’t know much about this, yet, but you dance using tambourines that have ribbons attached in groups of three)
  • Flags & Banners (movement with flags and/or banners — every color has a meaning!)

I am learning to greatly appreciate all four forms of dance. However, the expressive dance is definitely where my heart is. As I look at it from an outside perspective, I can see that it is the most likely to fall into the pitfall of sensuality. It is the most likely to cause offense, distraction, and glory for the dancer rather than the Lord. I don’t think that means that expressive dance can never be used, but careful discernment is ever so important in the choreography! As one dance site states, MUCH prayer must go before the choreography and the dances should be watched and approved by the church leaders — the pastor and the worship pastor. This is true for all the types, but I think it is so much more important with the expressive — especially if the dancers are women. There are moves that as women we may not think much of, but that men may find distracting. Also, women don’t always seem to understand how our clothing affects men, so the costumes need to be approved by the leaders (and our husbands!)

I don’t think my thoughts today were as clear and cohesive as yesterday, but that’s what the Word of God will do for you! My final determination is that it is acceptable before God to have dancing in corporate worship, but we must be careful to always dance in ways that are honoring to God. We must always submit ourselves to God and in so doing to the leaders in which He has placed us in submission. Our dress must be extremely, extremely modest (and also approved by our authorities).

As I said before, I know not everyone will agree with me. I understand that there are many reasons in others minds for not dancing in corporate worship. I have already addressed the problem of sensuality and distraction (though maybe not very clearly), however, if you have another argument, I would like to hear it. After putting a lot of time and research into it, I am pretty confident in my stand, but God is always working and changing our hearts, so we will see if my opinion changes!

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