By Don R. Freiling
There is concern about seemingly innocent changes some want to make in our observance of solemn but happy events (or our worship) to avoid what they call “Church of Christ ritualism.” Changes are sometimes refreshing, but care needs to be given that scriptural principals are not violated as we all strive to avoid ritualism and rote.
Who could object to a different order of worship as long as everything is scriptural? However, a distinction must be made between authorized scriptural worship and cultural (or traditional) expedients that accomplish authorized scriptural worship. Wherever worship takes place someone must choose between scriptural alter-natives. Someone must select a way to successfully accomplish what the Lord wants us to do. However, if these means of doing things are done repeatedly, some may assume they are the only way one can worship. One must respect the thunderous silence of the Scriptures while conscientiously and consistently applying principles of hermeneutics to please God and not to go beyond what is written (2 In. 9).
It is not popular to oppose “new ways of doing things.” Those of us who oppose applause in worship (or after a baptism), may bring some form of ridicule upon us. Let’s be above this and react like mature Christians as we study this subject.
Applause After Baptism
The subject of this discussion is applause after baptism. I would be opposed to it primarily because there is no Bible authority for it and it violates the sacred principle of keeping sacred things from becoming common or secular. I would also be opposed to it if it offended anyone else or if the elders of the local church opposed it.
Let’s first define the subject. We are concerned with the twentieth century custom in the USA of groups or assemblies that express their approval for someone’s performance by clapping their hands for an extended period of time. Usually, the louder and the longer the applause the more approval one shows. We will therefore define applause as an extended clapping of the hands like one would observe at a basketball game or at a theatrical performance of actors on a stage.
Is Applause After Baptism Authorized?
Where in the New Testament is any applause mentioned at all much less in regard to worship or baptism? If the subject is not mentioned in the Bible and therefore from the mind of God then it must be from the mind of man. If there is no Bible authority for applause after baptism no command, no example of its use by New Testament Christians or if there is no implication from which a necessary conclusion can be drawn, then it must be avoided. Why would anyone want to lead God? We all must be lead by God? Why would anyone want to establish an example in the minds of our youth or others that could and would lead them down some other wrong road in the future? Why not stick to what we know for sure is right and leave off what is not even mentioned in the New Testament?
Remember the lessons about observing the silence of the Scriptures. We cannot presume God likes what we like. Instruments of music are presumed to be pleasing to God because they are pleasing to us. There is only silence regarding applause after baptism.
Reports have come to our attention of a belly dancer and a gymnast performing their specialty in religious services. Both acts were rendered to the glory of God. How would you reserve worship for only acts prescribed by Bible authority? Wouldn’t you eventually rely upon the time-tested rule of respecting the silence of the Scripture?
Do you recall that Nadab and Abihu sinned when they failed to respect the silence of the Scripture (Lev. 10:1-2)? Do you recall the teaching of Hebrews 7:14 where the tribe of Judah was excluded from priesthood duties by the silence of the Scripture? Do you recall the teaching of Isaiah quoted by Jesus in Matthew 15:9 that using doctrines of men in worship makes that worship vain?
Some say that applause is only an expedient way of expressing joy. Remember: Expedients must first be lawful (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23). Are there not specified ways to express our joy or approval? James says “sing” (Jas. 5:13). Paul suggests “amen” (1 Cor. 14:16) and he wrote a letter to those of whom he approved, expressing his joy (Philippians, Thessalonians, etc.).
Who says applause is expressing joy? If God said it, where did he say it? Is the “non-traditionalist” who wants to add applause after baptism doing it just to be different? Is the “non-traditionalist” making laws to allow for his own preferences or traditions? Perhaps the “non-traditionalist” isn’t operating in the arena of expedients but has added something the New Testament says nothing about.
The Sanctity of God
Next, does clapping the hands in applause violate the sacred principle of respecting the sanctity of God? We all agree that God is holy and separate from sin. The Hebrews author said, “Let us have grace whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). The Jews of Ezekiel’s day were reminded that their punishment in captivity was the result of their false worship serving God “their way” and not his way. Ezekiel 44:23 states that they were destroyed because they did not make a distinction between the holy and the unholy, the sacred and the secular (the common).
The plain principle here is that we should not make our worship secular, common or unholy. We all know that Israel was destroyed because of “the sin of Jeroboam with which he caused Israel to sin” (1 Kgs. 12:33; 13:34; 15:30,34). What sin? The sin of worshipping God Jeroboam’s way, not God’s way. When Jeroboam failed to respect what God said in one act of worship, it was a small matter not to respect what God said in regard to any other matter even moral matters.
Some see worship as sitting in a seat in an auditorium, watching and listening to someone sing (or lead) songs, read Scripture, pray or preach. They judge the performance of such as they would actors on a stage. The pro-per view of New Testament worship has God as the audience and those who assemble for worship on the stage. God is judging us when we worship. We are to praise God in “spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:23-24).
What distinguishes a public service dedicated to worship Almighty God from a public assembly to hear a political or motivational speaker?
Terry Varner relates a couple of interesting anecdotes from secular history that relate to this point. About 260 A.D. there was an elder of the church at Antioch named Paul of Samosata. This man was eventually chastised because of his false, heretical teaching. He loved “exorbitant praise and applause” for what he did both within and without the assembly. If there were any who did not applaud him or who did not in the custom of his day shake their handkerchiefs or who did make loud acclamations but rather heard him with composed attention and reverence, these were reproved and abused by him (Credibility of Gospel History IL, p. 666ff).
Another anecdote illustrates my concern. In 1903 in the Warlick-Stark Debate on the use of instrumental music in the worship, Stark thought of worship as the emotion of the soul and that it might “produce singing, shouting, praising, leaping, dancing, hand clapping, or thanksgiving and such should not be suppressed by man made rules” (emphasis mine, DRF). We should not fail to note the extent to which such thinking led their children and grand-children in this day. The “progressive brethren” of a hundred years ago would cringe to see their own fruit listening to homosexuals preach abortion rights in their pulpits. My opposition comes from respecting the thunderous silence of God’s word not man made laws. If applause after baptism is a “liberty or expedient,” what else could a “liberty” legalize?
Object of Applause
Applause must have an object. One does not applaud just for the sake of applauding or praising God spontaneously by himself when he is alone. Perhaps those who have favored applause after baptism did not realize that they were showing approval for someone’s actions. Where does one get the idea we should applaud such “performances”? If it is from the Bible where? If it is not from the Bible then it came from the mind of man. Our choice is man or the Bible. If one objects and claims he is not applauding that person for something he has done but only praising God, we must ask a question. Do you regularly stop what you are doing and just clap your hands together for an extended period of time just to praise God or to express your joy about something without a human object? If people do not normally and regularly applaud just to be applauding then the necessity of a human object of the applause must be recognized. If it’s all right to applaud one’s baptismal performance, what’s wrong with recognizing our appreciation for a fine song leader, prayer, or one’s comments before or after the Lord’s Supper? Conversely, could we “hiss” or “boo” a lesser performance by our brethren? Let all be done orderly and decently (1 Cor. 14:40).
Sometimes we get caught up in something before we think much about it. Sometimes we are hardened in what we did because we are told it was wrong by someone we don’t really like very much or in a manner that we object to. Let’s be humble and think.
Some have used Old Testament passages that refer to a “clap of hands, trees, or rivers, etc.” as a way to express joy after baptism. Remember that one cannot use the Old Testament as authority without bringing in animal sacrifices, polygamy and priests (Gal. 5:3). Also, note that many of the passages are figurative saying trees, rivers, or nations clap hands. In 2 Kings 11:12 there was a clap of the hands at the anointing of a king. This was not applause as we know it today and it was not an act of worship or used in connection with a spiritual event. David danced when the ark was moved to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:14). Who would justify a dance around the Lord’s table? Whatever condemns the dance for us today, condemns applause.
Some say applause is authorized under the generic command to be joyful. If applause is authorized why are not whistling or shouting authorized, too? Would you like to worship next to someone who wants to praise God with applause or whistling or shouting after he partakes of the bread, and again after he partakes of the fruit of the vine?
Some say “non-applause” is a “Church of Christ tradition.” There are good traditions (2 Thess. 2:15) and traditions which were condemned (Matt. 15:9). The real question is, which is a Bible tradition applause or non-applause?” Let’s not add something because we like it or because we want to start “our” tradition. Think about what your children might add to the worship (dancing, whistling, shouting, “the wave,” waving handkerchiefs, etc.) and what consistent argument you could make to them.
Some say, clapping is like tapping the toe. Singing implies rhythm. Tapping the toe or finger on a book is only an expedient way to sing together. Applause is not an expedient way of doing anything that I can see.
Some say, only legalists oppose applause. People are called legalists by those who want to do whatever they want, and cannot find Bible authority for it and are challenged by some good brother or sister to find Bible authority. Was Christ a “legalist” in Matthew 7:21-23, John 14:31-32, 6:38? Is the “anti-legalist” really just making his own laws? Grover Stevens asked of the ones calling other legalists, “Are they telling us that to keep from being a legalist we should do whatever is right in our own eyes?”
- Is there any difference at all between a clap of the hands and applause? If so, what?
- Where is applauding authorized in the New Testament? What passage suggests it?
- If applauding is an expedient, where is it lawful?
- If applauding is merely praising God, do you regularly substitute it for a prayer or song?
- If applauding is just showing our joy, are we showing our joy like we do at a secular event (a play, a game, etc.)?
- Would it bother you for someone next to you to ex-press his joy for a holy, sacred event (Lord’s supper, spiritual song, prayer) in the same way as for secular, unholy events (a touchdown, field goal, or musical performance)?
- If one could applaud a person’s baptism could he also applaud that person’s prayer or song or sermon?
- Is applause an involuntary, spontaneous expression of joy that cannot be controlled or suppressed like a sneeze, a blink, a tear, or quick brief clap of the hands?
- Is applause an involuntary spontaneous expression of joy or is it a learned cultural response to performance?
- If applause after religious events or acts is no where to be found in the Bible, where did the idea originate God or man?
- If silence gives consent, what other acts could be justified with the same reasoning?
- How do we know we have God’s approval for applause in connection with spiritual events?
- How does the New Testament suggest we show our joy?
- If applause is done to show our approval of man’s performance, how would one show his approval and appreciation for what God has done? Would one act like the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 and cut themselves, etc.?
- Would you condemn one’s applause after the first verse of a song (possibly not the second), then for the third, or after a prayer, or after you partook of the unleavened bread, or after you partook of the fruit of the vine, or after the sermon?
- Are there other acts that do not break the solemnity of the occasion of worship that would enhance the moment rather than disturb the concentration of others?
- Could one “hiss” or “boo” if an impenitent brother is withdrawn from?
- Should we applaud a good sermon and “boo” a bad one?
- If applauding is permitted, do we have to do it all the time? Can some do it some of the time? What if one doesn’t get as much applause as another?
- When one applauds another’s baptism, is he applauding one’s performance? Is he applauding to let others know he approves the baptism?
- What distinguishes a public service dedicated to worship Almighty God from a public assembly to hear a political candidate or a motivational speaker?
- Could the same thinking that would allow applause also allow the instrument to be used with singing?
As time marches on we observe a general wearing away of things the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Entropy). Language changes from the formal to the familiar. Beautiful gardens grow weeds if left unattended. Cars cease to run after a time. Now wedding ceremonies have become a joke to some they are married under water, while sky diving, at a basketball game, etc. Could this lack of solemnity be a sign of changing attitudes toward marriage, women and the home? Graduation ceremonies used to be happy but dignified events. They were joyful but solemn. Cheers from bleachers were not appropriate and not permitted. But now, graduation ceremonies differ little from athletic events or theatrical performances. Where will applauding in connection with sacred but happy events lead? Shouldn’t we make a distinction between the holy and the unholy? Will we pay the price for our failure to make this application as did the people of whom Ezekiel wrote?
One can oppose applause for religious events on any one of four points:
- It is not authorized by the New Testament.
- It brings the “holy” down to a “common” event.
- It might offend others or distract them from their worship.
- It violates the judgment of the elders of the local church.
Applause after baptism may seem to some to be just a “new” way to do something. However, serious questions should be answered before one engages in this practice.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 14, p. 16-19
July 15, 1993