What Not to Do With Holy Hands

By Rick Duggin

In recent years there has been some controversy over the use of applause in connection with religious speeches. Some see no harm in clapping their hands to show approval of a powerful point. A few thoughts on this subject may prove helpful in other areas as well.

Perhaps it would be interesting to note that this is not a new problem. Consider the following quotations.

The emperor (Constantine, rd) diligently attended divine worship, and is portrayed upon medals in the posture of prayer . . . And lie even himself composed and delivered discourses to his court, in the Latin language, from which they were translated into Greek by interpreters appointed for the purpose. General invitations were issued, and the citizens flocked in great crowds to the palace to hear the imperial preacher, who would in vain try to prevent their loud applause by pointing to heaven as the source of his wisdom . . . At times lie would severely rebuke the avarice and rapacity of his courtiers, who would loudly applaude him with their mouths, and belie his exhortation by their works (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 111, p. 34).

Julian the apostate complained of the indifference of his heathen followers. “The spectators at his sacrifices came not from devotion, but from curiosity, and grieved the devout emperor by their rounds of applause, as if he were simply a theatrical actor of religion” (Ibid., p. 48).

Chrysostorri mourns over the theatrical customs, such as loud clapping, which the Christians at Antioch and Constantinople brought with them into the church (Ibid., p. 377).

Pulpit eloquence in the fourth and fifth centuries reached a high point in the Greek church, and is most worthily represented by Gregory Nazianzen and Chrysostom. But it also often degenerated there into artificial rhetoric, declamatory bombast, and theatrical acting. Hence the abuse of frequent clapping and acclamations of applause among the people. As at this day, so in that, many went to church not to worship God, but to hear a celebrated speaker, and left as soon as the sermon was done, The sermon, they said, we can hear only in the church, but we can pray as well at home. Chrysostom often raised his voice against this in Antioch and in Constantinople (Ibid, p. 473).

At this point you may wonder why I have quoted the writings of early preachers rather than the New Testament itself, There is a good reason for this course. As far as I can tell, the New Testament is completely silent on the subject of hand-clapping and applause, either in a religious setting or out. I do not know of a single passage that even leans in that direction. Therefore, one who wishes to read of applause in churches must turn to uninspired history rather than to the biblical record.

We do know, that the most enlightened and spiritually-minded men of the third through the sixth centuries were unanimous in their opposition to applause following religious discourses. In view of their laxity in other areas, this is quite interesting.

We do know that the apostate Julian opposed applause in connection with his heathen sacrifices because it lowered his efforts to the level of theatrics.

We do know that those who favored applause were the ignorant masses who considered sermons more as performances than as exhortations to godly living. The more worldly the assembly, the greater the need for frivolous practices.

We do know that denominational writers such as Philip Schaff rejected applause as unseemly in religious settings. When Christians begin to practice activities that denominational leaders consider offensive, it is later than we think. Of course, other denominational leaders covet applause. Anyone who has ever watched Jimmy Swaggart knows that his worldly antics invite such responses. Do we really want to imitate such irreverent foolishness?

The burden of proof is clearly on the one who advocates applause in worship. The silence of the New Testament does not give consent (cf. Heb. 7:14). Which passage could be used to authorize clapping during or after a sermon? If the practice was not learned in the New Testament, where was it learned?

Let us reverently heed the preaching of God’s word and accept its challenge to mold our lives into the image of our Lord.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 5, p. 137
March 7, 1991