by Al Maxey

Issue #139 ------- August 9, 2004
The applause of a single human being
is of great consequence.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Applause in the Assembly
Ultra-Liberalism's "Strange Fire"

Hand-clapping. We all do it. Even little babies clap their hands to express joy and approval. It's most likely programmed somewhere in our DNA. It's genetic. It's a part of who we are. God made us this way. Humans clap their hands. So do monkeys. Even seals do it. Just maybe God had a purpose for applause. But .... shhhhhhh! Don't ever tell the legalists. Don't let the religious patternists know. You see, they believe this God-given method of expressing one's emotions is godless and sinful when done in the presence of other Christians as they engage in "formal worship" of their God. Indeed, they believe expressing such joy before God in such a setting will send one to "endless torment in Hell."

Richard Sims recently wrote an article titled Ultra-Liberalism in Churches of Christ in which he sought to identify several examples of this trend toward apostasy. He spoke of the godless actions of one particular congregation in Waco, Texas which "had a song between the bread and the fruit of the vine," and which even "sometimes sang a song while the Lord's Supper was being served." What heinous heresy! Satan is certainly alive and well in that congregation, isn't he?!! But, it gets worse -- "Hand clapping after a baptism was approved." Hold on to your seats, there's more: some brethren are even "changing the order of worship every week." This is nothing less than "brethren aping the sects in their religious emotionalism" ... so says Richard Sims. He concludes his article by saying, "From all corners of the United States we are hearing of similar things taking place in liberal - institutional churches." He then quotes Jude 3, pleading with the "faithful" to contend earnestly for the faith against the ultra-liberal "change agents" who are promoting their "Unity in Diversity" agenda and "ridiculing the worship service, as usually conducted in Churches of Christ."

A couple from the great state of Nevada, who recently assembled with us on a Sunday morning for a time of worship and praise, and who are longtime subscribers to these Reflections, handed me a clipping they had picked up from a congregation in Culpepper, Virginia during a recent trip to the east coast. Apparently this congregation had recently hosted a "Ladies' Retreat," and the leaders were greatly concerned that something "unscriptural" might occur within their building. Thus, this decree was issued to all who attended: "The leadership of this congregation has requested that the Ladies gathered here today PLEASE REFRAIN from HAND CLAPPING before, during, and after this service. Hand clapping is an UNAUTHORIZED action, and is, therefore, an UNSCRIPTURAL action!" They went on to declare that the ladies were not there to be "entertained," but to learn to be better Christians. NO hand-clapping would take place in their church building. Period! "It is an unauthorized addition to God's Word," and therefore sinful. I'm rather curious, though, as to why they didn't arrive at the same conclusion regarding having a "Ladies' Retreat" in their church building!!

This matter of hand-clapping has actually caused some to withdraw their fellowship from their brothers and sisters in Christ. A man named David Sims wrote, "On December 31, 2001, I withdrew fellowship from the Minot Church of Christ because of hand-clapping. A few weeks prior to withdrawing, I had spoken to the elders about it and told them what I thought of it. I assured them that if this congregation was going to practice something non-Scriptural and without biblical authority, I would withdraw fellowship." Well, the elders didn't allow their congregation to be held hostage to the threats of this patternist, and he did in fact withdraw from them. He also wrote a lengthy letter to them -- Why I Oppose Hand-Clapping -- and that letter is published on the Internet. In this letter he likens hand-clapping by Christians in a worship assembly to the "strange fire" offered by Nadab and Abihu. "Do we want to be guilty today of offering 'strange worship' to God that He has not authorized?" Then he brings out the "slippery slope" argument -- "If we can clap, then can we whistle? If we can whistle, can we stamp our feet? Can we click with our tongue? Can we twang on our mustaches? Can we thump our tummies? Can we put our hands under our armpits and make squelching sounds? Where will we draw the line?" He concluded his long letter with this statement: "Clapping is 'strange fire' the Lord has not authorized. Clapping is a wood other than the gopher wood Noah used. I am sad that it has come to this. I never thought I would have to leave a church because of hand-clapping. But, I have no choice. The Bible does not give the choice to tolerate a non-biblical practice. I must withdraw and disfellowship from sinful practices."

It is absolutely heartbreaking to witness such ignorance in action. Not only is the patternist plagued and tormented by his own legalistic mindset, but he brings discontent and division to those around him. Countless examples could be quickly provided of how some, because of their allegiance to the CENI hermeneutic and its rigid patternistic philosophy of biblical interpretation and application, have sought to impose their convictions upon others as the sole expression of Truth, and in so doing have succeeded only in dividing and dismembering the Body of Christ. What might seem to be an innocent expression of joy and praise (hand-clapping), has become the cause of squabbling and splintering among siblings ... all to our shame! Brethren, we can do better than this!

Hand-Clapping in the Bible

The clapping of hands is never specifically mentioned in the New Covenant writings, but it is mentioned nine times within the pages of the Old Covenant documents. Four Hebrew verbs are used to express the action of clapping -- macha' .. nakah .. saphak .. taqa' -- and each of these verbs contain the concept of "striking" something. In this case, these four verbs are used in conjunction with the Hebrew word for "hand" -- kaf -- thus signifying "the striking of hands." The phrase is used in a number of different ways, conveying several different ideas, both positive and negative.

Although the people of God should not be "clapping their hands" in scorn or derision of others, nevertheless there is ample evidence that all the creation should be evidencing joyful praise unto our great God. One of the approved manifestations of this worshipful praise is hand-clapping. The rivers and the trees clap their hands in expressions of joy and praise; the hills and mountains shout for joy! But, according to the legalists, Christians had better keep their mouths clamped shut and sit on their hands when praising God!! Such expressions of praise and joy are forbidden to us! Why? Because these legalists can't find a verse in the New Testament writings that says it is okay to clap hands; they can't find an example of anyone in the New Testament clapping hands. Therefore, because of the silence of the NT writings on hand-clapping, it is therefore godless and sinful. All of creation praised God with joyful singing and clapping back then, but if a Christian does it now, God will send him straight to hell. So say the legalists and patternists!

Brian Kenyon, in a two-part study of hand-clapping in worship, wrote, "To practice hand clapping in worship is sinful, because it goes beyond what God has authorized" (The Harvester, December, 1997). Dennis Gulledge, in an article titled "Shall We Applaud in Worship?," concluded, "Until we can show that the New Testament authorizes hand clapping in worship, may we keep our hands folded in prayer" (Gospel Gazette, September, 2000). In that same article he tried to link hand-clapping to instrumental music in worship --- "Hand clapping amounts to percussion. We would not add drums to the worship, but that is essentially what people do when they clap their hands" (ibid). Thus, guilt by association! Gary McDade, the minister for the Getwell Church of Christ in Memphis, TN (which produces the ultra-conservative periodical The Spiritual Sword), declared hand-clapping to be a "fanciful fascination with wrong worship" which is "spoiling the spiritual nature of the church." He called it one of the "little foxes that spoil the vines" ... a reference to Song of Solomon 2:15. John Waddey, on his Christianity: Then and Now web site, characterized hand-clapping "as part of a trend away from simple Bible based worship." However, in an effort at magnanimity, he "prefers to think that those who clap at a service do not do so for malicious reasons or to harm the body ... but primarily because they don't know any better, likely they have not been taught better." Thus, rather than getting mad at hand-clappers, we ought to just feel sorry for these poor, ignorant, spiritually immature babes in Christ.

Even the rivers and trees clap for joy, praising their God .... but we Christians are to "have better sense" than that! We're to be more mature! We're New Testament children of God. We "know better" than to express such joyful praise to the Father. We may feel that joy in our hearts, but to "let it out" is a SIN. Dennis Gulledge, for example, when witnessing a person's immersion into Christ, stated, "It would be profane for me to applaud such a spiritually significant event, even though in my heart I rejoice even as the one being baptized" rejoices (Gospel Gazette, September, 2000). It's okay for Christians to feel joy, but God help that misguided soul who dares to show it! I can't help but be reminded of the following two biblical accounts:

  1. As Jesus made His "Triumphal Entry" into the city of Jerusalem, the people were visibly showing their emotions at this momentous event. Not only were they throwing garments and palm fronds onto the roadway (John 12:13), but "the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice" (Luke 19:37). They simply could not contain the joy they felt within their hearts, and they visibly and vocally expressed their praise! And then the Pharisees showed up .... griping and complaining .... saying, "Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!" (vs. 39). Jesus issued a rebuke that day, but it was not directed to those showing their emotions; it was directed to the legalists! He declared, "I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!" (vs. 40). Perhaps there is a message of rebuke here for those patternists today who believe Christians need to sit on their hands and keep their lips zipped! Another message is: even a rock has greater spiritual insight than some religionists!

  2. When the Ark of the Covenant was finally returned to Jerusalem, David was so overcome with joy that he "was dancing before the Lord with all his might" (2 Sam. 6:14). The people also "were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouting and the sound of the trumpet" (vs. 15). As the procession entered the city, David's wife, Michal (who was the daughter of the former king Saul), "looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart" (vs. 16). When David got home, she tore into him for his "foolish display" of emotion before the people. She was apparently of the persuasion that it is okay to feel joy, just don't show it! Sound familiar?! Anyway, David rebuked her! "It was before the Lord, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel; therefore, I will celebrate before the Lord" (vs. 21). "And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death" (vs. 23). It would be through Bathsheba, whom David married later, that the Messiah would come!

There have always been those who have sought to "quench the Spirit" within us. However, right after urging us to "rejoice always," Paul said, "Quench not the Spirit" (1 Thess. 5:19). An expression of the "fruit of the Spirit" is JOY (Gal. 5:22). If we truly appreciate the grace and goodness of our God, as shown in the gift of Jesus Christ, our hearts will be overflowing with JOY, and how can that not spill over into PRAISE?! To quiet the lips, to restrain the hands, is to quench the Spirit. "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, REJOICE" (Philp. 4:4). To this the legalists will add: "Just don't show it." The story is told of a man who kept shouting "Praise the Lord!" during the Sunday morning assembly. He was obviously overjoyed to be in the presence of God and fellow believers; he was moved by the singing and uplifted by the message. Thus, he was expressing the joy he felt in his heart. Finally, one of the elders went over to him and whispered, "Brother, you are going to have to restrain yourself. We don't allow that here." The man said, "But, brother, I've got the Spirit!" To which the elder responded, "Well, you didn't get it here! ... now knock it off!!" Is the Spirit welcome in our assemblies? Let's hope so!!

Concluding Thoughts

I will be the first to admit that I believe hand-clapping, like just about anything else, has the potential for abuse and misuse. I also believe that when we come together as the family of God, that we should apply the following principles: "Let all things be done for edification" (1 Cor. 14:26) and "Let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner" (1 Cor. 14:40). If anything is done in a disruptive or dishonorable manner, then it is contrary to biblical principles and certainly not conducive to edification. This is a very subjective area, however, as most will readily admit. What might be considered "disorderly" in one congregation, may not be deemed as such in another! What builds up one group of disciples may tear down another. Each body of believers must determine for themselves, appealing to the Word of God for their guiding precepts and principles, what is or is not acceptable in their own corporate worship. One congregation may be edified by singing a song during the Lord's Supper; another may not. One may deem it spiritually appropriate to express joy via applause when one is immersed; another may not. These are personal choices. Where we "cross the line," in my estimation, is when we seek to bind or impose our convictions and choices on others as the only acceptable ones. To break fellowship with others over our personal choices is actually the literal definition of the word "heresy." We must cease this behavior in the church, and begin accepting one another, differing convictions and all (Romans 14).

As I've said many times before, the heart of the matter is the HEART. What motivates us? As noted in the nine biblical examples of hand-clapping, what prompts the applause largely determines the acceptability of it. Since there are both positive and negative motivations, it stands to reason that there would be acceptable and unacceptable manifestations. What exactly is it that motivates our applause today in the setting of a "formal worship assembly" (such a setting itself, by the way, being very much worthy of further prayerful reflection)? If our corporate worship has been reduced to performances by paid performers, with spectators applauding "actors on a stage," then I believe not only is the applause inappropriate, but the entire staged performance is inappropriate. Worship of God, whether individual or corporate, is not a performance for the purpose of pleasing men.

Thus, to a point, I would agree with brother T. Pierce Brown's comments in an article titled "Is Clapping of Hands Appropriate in Worship?" He wrote, "My point here is that applause always calls attention to the performers of the act, whatever the act may be." Thus, he concludes, "If I applauded, I would be calling attention to his performance. ... since that kind of applause is always used to call attention to the performers of the act rather than to God, or the God-ordained purpose of the act, I object to it" (Gospel Gazette, September, 2002). Where I would have to disagree with brother Brown, however, is in his apparent view that applause in a Christian worship assembly is "always" the result of a negative motivation. Such an assertion is simply absurd. Even the Bible notes there are occasions where applause among gathered believers is properly, and even spiritually, motivated.

I was thrilled, however, to find this statement in brother Brown's article --- "If applauding by clapping of the hands was nothing more than a way of saying, 'I'm glad he did that, for it glorifies God,' I would have no objection to it" (ibid). Therefore, brother Brown and I are in agreement. Applause, if properly motivated, IS acceptable. Where my brother and I differ, however, is in his apparent insistence that it is impossible for such positive motivation to ever exist in the hearts and minds of Christians who are assembled for worship, and thus applause in the assembly is ALWAYS improperly motivated. I myself am living proof to the contrary (as are countless other people who could testify similarly). I have often applauded following a person's immersion into Christ. I can assure brother Brown that I was NOT applauding the performance. I don't regard such a moving spiritual event as a "performance." MY heart, rather, rejoices that this person has made a life commitment to the Lord, that he or she is now a beloved brother or sister, and that God is glorified by their demonstration of faith!! MY applause is a demonstrative overflow of the JOY I feel in my heart, and an expression of PRAISE for the manifest grace of our God. I know for a fact this is how others feel as well. We have discussed it many times. Thus, I am happy to hear that brother T. Pierce Brown has "no objection" to such applause!!! And why would he?! It is a perfectly biblical expression of joy and praise. It has nothing to do with Old Covenant versus New Covenant ... it has to do with a NEW HEART, which is characteristic of both covenants!!

Perhaps one of the best summations of the matter is provided by Angel M. Rodriguez in an article titled "Clapping In Church." It appeared in Adventist Review, a publication of the Seventh Day Adventist group (yes, many denominations struggle with this issue). He wrote, "Motivation becomes extremely important in this context. Is clapping an expression of joy in the Lord and His saving power? Or is it a recognition of the good performance of the singer or the preacher? I suppose that what really matters is that each person be fully aware of the reasons why he or she claps in church" (May, 1997). I would say that is sound biblical advice; advice that, if followed, should be sufficient to resolve the debate.

"Right Here, Right Now"

On occasion I would like to recommend to the readers
the work of promising young disciples of Christ who are
gifted with the ability to challenge us to THINK. Such a
person is Aaron Goodman. He's a friend, a beloved brother
in the Lord, and the son-in-law of one of my fellow elders at
the congregation where I serve. He is also a subscriber to
these Reflections, and has been very supportive of my
ministry. He asked if I would review his site, with a view
to sharing it with others, and I am happy to do so. His web
site is still a "work in progress," but you will be challenged and
edified by his writing. The URL is:

Reflections from Readers

From a New Reader in Washington:

Please add me to the Reflections routing list. Thanks so much for your efforts. Your writings have helped me tremendously to rid myself of sectarian, legalistic views.

From a Reader in Alabama:

I tell everyone I can about your articles and archives, and often forward them to several people. I hope to use your Reflections articles for my advanced Bible class to do research on various topics and then to discuss them here at the Academy where I teach. Also, is there any way you could get your articles translated into Spanish? We have a work going in Baja, Mexico, and those preachers and teachers need good material like this that is thorough, open, and yet brief and simple.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al -- It is tragic how we treat those who are not Christians, and then say we are trying to win them to Christ. I was serving as an elder here in --------, and a young girl began attending on Sunday mornings wearing shorts. I did not know the girl, but soon some came to me about talking to the girl and telling her not to come back dressed like that. That was not an option with me, so I went to a school teacher that was a very faithful Christian. I told her about the comments of these others, and asked her if she would help me in this situation. She literally grabbed me in a "bear hug" and said, with tears, how glad she was that I had asked her and not talked to the girl first. She said the girl was in her school, and that she had been teaching and encouraging her. She said that if I had talked to her, it would in all probability have turned her off completely. She said she would talk to her, which she did, and the problem was solved. The girl became obedient to the gospel, as I recall. I do not believe a Christian has to lose his common sense or tact in order to serve the Lord. Just wanted to share this. Always enjoy your Reflections.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, Thanks for the latest Reflections. Jesus observing the Passover meal one day early, along with His use of the four cups of wine, must drive the ultra-conservatives crazy! Have you ever gotten into a one-on-one discussion about the four cups of wine in the Passover with an ultra-conservative? How do they defend the fact that Jesus observed a man-made innovation? Thanks for your efforts, Al!! As always, I can't wait to read another Reflections article!!

From a Minister in Washington:

Thank you for your latest article, Al. I wish our brothers would spend more time testing the spirits, rather than labeling. Not just the legalists, but the progressives, too .... hey, look at that -- I just labeled both sides!! I regret to tell you that I tried to share an article that you wrote with some people, and instead of reading it, they "marked" you and refused to even try to understand or "test the spirits." I apologize to you for putting you in that mess. I anticipate your articles every week. Thank you so much for your willingness to be castigated for the sake of the kingdom! Praise God for you and your help, Al.

From a New Reader in Texas:

Please add me to your list of subscribers to Reflections. I am an elder at the ------- Church of Christ, have a Berean spirit, and am very interested in your writings and thoughts. May the Lord continue to bless you in your work.

From a Reader in California:

About the question of divorce and remarriage: I have seen with my own eyes much pain associated with those in the church who have been forced to live in fear all their days because of teaching on divorce and remarriage. Many still struggle with this major problem of guilt. So sad. Where is our FAITH in Jesus, who died to cover our sins, instead of faith in ourselves to never commit sins? I do not understand how we can focus on sins committed during a marriage -- teaching that some sins are never forgiven, or that somehow we can manage to "fix" some sins in our lives -- and yet teach forgiveness through Jesus from the pulpit and actually expect the listening audience to believe in forgiveness of sin. I don't get it!

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

Well, you've done it again! I enjoyed your discussion in the last Reflections. Your solution to the seeming contradiction between the Synoptists and John is reasonable, certainly more so than several of the others. In considering the dilemma, it seems to me we have two options: The meal that Jesus ate with the disciples was either the Passover or it was a common evening meal. Either way, Jesus ate a meal -- where do we get the "pattern" of just using a pinch of cracker and sip of juice?! Even the Corinthian passage, which we often read at the table, is clearly a reference to a meal. Like you, I think we have become more concerned over form than function. Given the two options as to the nature of the meal Jesus ate -- I am afraid we don't consistently or faithfully follow the "pattern" of either. Thank you again! Keep the faith!

From a Reader in Texas:

"Otherwise Than Prescribed" -- Did Jesus Violate the Passover Pattern? (issue #138) was another excellent paper. Have you given any thought to publishing a Bible commentary? I would be the first in line to buy one. I think it would be a helpful reference to many, many Christians, especially those of us with a Church of Christ background. Keep up the great work. I look forward to each one of your Reflections.

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