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Shall We Dance?

When discussing what are or are not acceptable elements for worship, some will raise the issue of dancing. “David danced before the Lord, didn’t he?” Here are just some sketches of thoughts about this issue:

1. Whatever “dancing” is in the Old Testament, it is nowhere found in the New Testament, so a strict observance of the Regulative Principle of Worship would eliminate dancing as an acceptable element of worship for the Church. Even so…

2. Several terms are used in the Old Testament that have been translated “dance” by various translations.

a. Of them, only machowl is a term that clearly signifies “artistic movement to music” – what we would call “dancing.”

b. Other terms often used are forms of karar and raqad, terms that simply refer to joyful spinning, leaping, and jumping for joy. These could be translated “dance,” but they are not as clear as machowl.

c. Interestingly, the KJV is the most liberal in translating these other two terms as “dance.” Newer translations usually translate them as “jump” or “spin.” Even so, there are only 11 occurances of “dance” in the KJV translation of the OT.

3. 2 Samuel 6 – David and the Ark. Machowl is not used in this passage, only karar and raqad.

a. The context is God punishing the people (specifically Uzzah) for not following his prescribed instructions for carrying the Ark. Instead they borrowed pagan practices, and God punished them. So whatever kara and raqad are in this passage, they certainly are not pagan dancing.

b. Contextually, this seems to be more of spontaneous leaping for joy because of the safe return of the Ark.

c. Even if this is some kind of choreographed, artistic dance, it is the only record of a king, priest, or prophet ever dancing, and most certainly gives no justification for some kind of liturgical dance.

4. Uses of machowl in the OT.

a. Exodus 15.20 – Miriam danced in celebration.

b. Judges 11.34 – Jeptha’s daughter celebrated victory.

c. 1 Samuel 18.6 – Celebration after David killed Goliath.

d. Jeremiah 31.4, 13 – Israel dances for joy

e.. Lamentations 5.15 – Dancing is turned to mourning.

f. Psalm 149.3 – “Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!”

g. Psalm 150.4 – “Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!”

h. Observations:

1) These are clearly references to some kind of artistic movement to music.

2) Whatever it was, it could not resemble anything like modern, MTV dancing, which intrinsically expresses sexuality.

3) Probably refers to some kind of Jewish folk dancing, always connected with joyful civil celebration. This dancing would have communicated joy and exuberance and certainly not any kind of immorality or sexuality.

4) There are few modern, American equivalents to this; maybe square dancing or barn dancing or jumping in celebration.

5) Except for the two Psalms, it is clear that none of these are public worship. They involve the social life of the Jews.

6) Even the two Psalms are not necessarily prescribing dance for public worship. The Psalms call everything to “praise the Lord,” much of which would never be included in public worship, such as war, food, children, music, folk dancing, etc.

5. In the Old Testament there are teachers of song, teachers of instruments, choir leaders, orchestra leaders, leaders of praise, but never choreographers. If God wanted dance for worship, why wouldn’t he have included this group of leaders?

6. Conclusions:

a. God wants every part of our lives to praise Him, including eating, drinking, playing, war, and any wholesome folk dancing that may be part of our culture.

b. God abhors immorality, so any public expression of sexuality in the form of dance is sin.

c. There is no doubt that God has not prescribed dance for New Testament Church worship, and very little (if any) conclusive evidence that He prescribed dance for Old Testament Temple worship.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

22 Responses to Shall We Dance?

  1. I can't quite make out your site yet. Are you a new-evangelical site trying to break down the walls and advocate for dancing, or are you a fundamentalist who is correct in standing against dancing? I just discovered your site and so far find it interesting.I think the 3 biggest problems in Christianity are: Dancing, the theatre, and cards. If we can keep our young people (and the adults) from these three things, then I think we have accomplished a victory. It's sad that we don't see the emphasis on these 3 big areas of life like we used to.

  2. Bill,

    I'm not sure if your post was tongue-in-cheek or not, so I guess I'll just answer your questions in a straight forward fashion.

    1. I'm not sure there really is such a thing as a "new-evangelical" anymore, but I certainly don't see myself anywhere near the new-evangelical philosophy. I am a separatist by conviction.

    2. This essay was simply intended to explain what dancing in the Bible is. And by the conclusions, you should no doubt recognize that I would in no way endorse modern, MTV-style dancing.

    3. I my opinion, there are probably a whole lot more things to be concerned about than those "big areas" you mentioned!

  3. I LOVE to dance before the Lord during worship time, before I hear a very biblically-based and doctrinally-sound sermon. (I know this because I actually read and study my Bible). It's too bad that you can't experience the joy of worshiping the Lord in dance as David and the Israelites did.
    Here is the larger context of Psalm 149, from verses 1-6:

    Praise the LORD!
    Sing to the Lord a new song,
    And His praise in the assembly of saints.
    Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
    Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
    Let them praise His name with the dance;
    Let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp.
    For the Lord takes pleasure in His people;
    He will beautify the humble with salvation.
    Let the saints be joyful in glory;
    Let them sing aloud on their beds.
    Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,
    And a two-edged sword in their hand.

    Psalm 150 basically repeats the same thing. Dancing before the Lord does NOT equal sexual gyrations. Oh my, what a joyful worship unto the Lord you are missing!

  4. Sharon, as I clearly note in the article, it is certainly appropriate to praise the Lord with a non-sexual, folk-type of dancing. Two comments, though:

    1. All of the dancing in our current culture (think MTV, etc) is sexual in its movements. It is clearly not the kind of clean, communal, folk dancing spoken of in the OT.

    2. Regardless, it is a stretch to insist that dancing is acceptable for corporate worship. As I point out in the article, since Israel was a theocracy, many of the Psalm mesh sacred, social, and political life. For the Jew, all of life was to be to the praise of God. So it is for the Christian.

    But that does not mean that everything mentioned in the Psalms should be done in corporate worship. Corporate worship is a specific, regulated event. There are many things mentioned in the Psalms that are to be done to the Praise of God, but never in a corporate worship setting. The Psalm you printed gives a perfect example: the Jews were supposed to use their swords (presumably in war) to the praise of God, but that was certainly not a corporate worship event.

    The same is true for their social, folk dancing.

  5. Scott,

    I've just stumbled across this post.

    I'm not sure what Bible study resources you used, but I think you've got it slightly wrong. Machol (the more usual spelling) is found in six verses: Ps 30:11, Ps 149:3, Ps 150:4, Jer 31:4, Jer 31:13, Lam 5:15, and the related term mecholah (the feminine form, I believe) is found in eight verses: Ex 15:20, Ex 32:19, Judges 11:34, Judges 21:21, 1 Sam 18:6, 1 Sam 21:11, 1 Sam 29:5, Song 6:13. All these are translated dance/dancing/dancers by the NIV (I don't use the KJV). Your list is a combination of these two and I don't know how you arrived at it.

    Dance is also mentioned in the new testament: Luke 15:25, Matt 11:17, Matt 14:6, Mark 6:22, Luke 7:32. Also, one of the first deacons (Acts 6:5) was a man called Prochorus, which means "leader of the (circle) dance" – chorus is the word used for dance by Jesus in Luke 15:25.

    There are lots of other issues with your analysis, but for the moment I'll just question your belief that all the dancing in our current culture is sexual. There are Christians who use hip-hop (MTV-style) dance to express their faith and happily do so without any sexual content. Likewise, many more use modern dance (sometimes called contemporary dance – as developed by people like Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, etc) and ballet in worship, again without issues of sexuality.

    As an example, here's a YouTube video of a modern dance done in a church, and I'd challenge anyone to take offence at it.

    .

    Hope this helps, and more to come…

  6. OK, a bit more on this subject.

    The NIV has 23 passages that mention dance. There are actually 27 occurrences of dance/danced/dancing/dancers as four passages have one of these words twice. Here they are:

    Exodus 15:20, Exodus 32:19, Judges 11:34, Judges 21:20-23, 1 Samuel 18:6-7, 1 Samuel 21:11, 1 Samuel 29:5, 2 Samuel 6:14-16, 1 Kings 18:26, 1 Chronicles 15:29, Job 21:11, Psalm 30:11, Psalm 149:3, Psalm 150:4, Ecclesiastes 3:4, Song of Songs 6:13, Jeremiah 31:4,13, Lamentations 5:15

    Matthew 11:17, Matthew 14:6, Mark 6:22, Luke 7:32, Luke 15:25

    When considering what the Bible says about dance, we should look at all of them, to understand it in context. We see dance is linked to praise, worship, joy, celebration, restoration, victory. A study of the Hebrew (in particular) reveals that many other words translated celebrate, joy, and rejoice imply some sort of expressive movement and/or are closely related to dance. This is lost in translation between languages and cultures.

    So I fail to see how you can argue that dance is unacceptable for corporate worship. Were not the crossing of the Red Sea or the journey of the Ark to Jerusalem examples of corporate worship?

    As you rightly say, all of life is sacred to the Jew, and so it should be to the Christian. It's telling that in Biblical Hebrew, there is no word for secular – the concept doesn't exist. To move on to the New Testament, it is recorded and widely accepted the early believers continued as a sect of Judaism, and we know that dancing was part of the Jewish festivals that they continued to celebrate. And these were, of course, religious festivals giving praise and worship to God. We sometimes make too much of a distinction between the old and new. After all, to Jesus and his followers, the Old Testament was their Bible. And there's nothing in the New Testament to suggest that the Old Testament view of dance has changed. When Paul wrote (for example), "rejoice in the Lord always", it's inconceivable that, as a Jew, he didn't see dancing and rejoicing as going hand-in-hand.

    I do also wonder, with your multiple references to sexuality, if you've been unduly influenced by the worst of the world's dance. MTV is no more representative of dance than death metal is of music!

    This is just some random thoughts and I hope it makes sense.

  7. It's interesting that this has been selected as an editor's pick – one of the most important articles. I'm also fascinated that no-one has responded to my comments…

  8. that's a good objective look at dance. i think the problem we have is that we want to work backwards. from the world to the Bible. other than getting a biblical understanding of these issues, and applying them to our contexts.

  9. Sidefall… great response. I think most people try to justify dancing as being wrong because it's the way the Christian Church in America has always viewed it. They link drinking and dancing categorically together as being influenced by each other — and therefore wrong. I think it's a shame that people pick and choose scripture to justify a particular view.

    I especially liked your comment that the Paul in the NT Church viewed dancing and praising as one in the same.

    By the way, if you go back and look at the hebrew and greek words that can be translated into some form of dancing in english, many more passages of scripture are picked up than even the ones you have metioned.

    Good article.

  10. I find this very interesting since I am presently studying this subject right now…Sidefall I am very pleased with your findings because after digging and studying the word my conclusions are just like yours. Jamaica made a very important closing statement .If one should look at the Hebrew and Greek words that can be translated into a form of dance in the English ……and trust me there are Many…Scripture verses more than what Sidefall mentioned would be surely found.. I often wonder why when chosing the 7 deacons One amongst them was a dance leader (Prochorus) Acts 6:5 New Testament Right? If you are chosen to serve the body The gift you have must be duplicated ,transfer, imagine if Jesus had kept every thing to himself ….. Thanks for the mind provocation… It was fun!!!! It was really fun searching the scriptures ..Thanks again .>>>>.

    Scott

  11. carribean girl (and jamaica – perhaps you are related!),
    Thanks for your comments. I'm glad that you found my thoughts helpful. I wouldn't read too much into Prochorus's name, but it is interesting to note what it means. One thing I would say, if you are studying what the bible says about dance, is that much of the published material (on the internet or in books) isn't that well researched. I'd always recommend checking other people's claims (including my own) out carefully.

  12. I was looking into the name Prochorus as well.But this is the mans name not his title.Now was this man Hebrew?If so it would make sense that his name means leader of the circle dance .Every Hebrew name has a meaning.In fact there is a study that shows the message of Yashua (Jesus) when you put the meaning of the Hebrew names in order of birth from Adam to Noah.Check it out :

    http://www.bible-codes.org/images/Slide1-names-bi
    Even Yashua means Yahweh is Salvation.It has alot more meaning that the name Jesus that does not have a meaning.If you look it up you will find that The letters J, U, and W of the modern alphabet were added in medieval times, and did not appear in the classical alphabet, except that J and U could be alternative forms for I and V .

    Anyway,im trying to find out more about worship and praise in the dance.I do agree that dancing in the flesh is accepted as worship . All dance is worship to something or someone.Dancing in the flesh pleases demons and devils.As a believer we should reserve dance strictly to praise and worshiping our creator Yahweh/Yeshua.Never for our own entertainment and never to show off or be sexy.

    Thanks for sharing your article.I read everything whether I agree or not.I think it is wise to see every point of view and be as the Biblical Bereans "received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:10-11). This is how we all should do it.Many blessings and may Yahweh open our minds to His truth in wisdom,Knowledge & Understanding.If you would like to share your dance studies please send them to me ,I will post them on my website crediting you with the research.Thanks Shalom :)

  13. Michelle, let me challenge you on one point: With what authority do you say "As a believer we should reserve dance strictly to praise and worshiping our creator…". I don't see any Biblical basis for that. How then could a christian dancer work in the secular dance world and be salt and light? And would you say the same about any other creative endeavor – music, singing, writing, painting, etc?

  14. I am very impressed at All the study that is involved with this article, but where is the Holy Spirit in every ones comments, especially Brother Scott. With all you are getting, get understanding….The Holy Spirit cannot be boxed into your "findings", I wonder did you pray and seek God's face before you come to your conclusions. I have experienced first hand how PLEASED the Lord is with ALL dance, as it is toward HIM. He has no limitations on how to praise.."Where the SPIRIT of the Lord is, there is freedom!" Dance was created by God and ordained to praise him…and that could be in all types of the dance, as long as He is lifted up! That can be for a group to a congregation, a solo, in private time, or a corporate during praise and worship. All are acceptable… because praise comes from within, He(God) is in us, and He inhabits all of the praise, that's where He dwells. I pray that Brother Scott allows the Holy Spirit that resides inside of him to OPEN UP his spiritual eyes to receive REVELATION KNOWLEGE and UNDERSTANDING on the importance of dance in all of it's relative forms, using it to BARAK our LORD and HEVEANLY FATHER. Amen.

  15. I am reminded to ask if Brother Scott, or anyone knows that God is a Spirit, and they, (believers) that worship him MUST worship in SPIRIT and in TRUTH(John4:24). If you do not acknowledge the Holy Spirit as you study, then you will never get the full understanding by which God intends. Is your study in vain? God is the CHEIF CHOEGRAPHER, don't you know our being is choreographed, for choreography means creation? Study to show yourself approved, and to understand and know Father, Son Holy Spirit to be real to you. Of course we can praise and worship from a choreographed dance, because Spirit filled Danced Leaders can be used by God to create a message or movement directly from the heart of God. One day you will receive a dream, and GOD will open your eyes, and you will see the Presence of God and experience His freedom, and when you awake, you will dance unto the Lord, because you have recieved the Holy Spirit! Amen.

  16. I am a dancer. I dance for God everyday. I take and teach ballet, pointe, Christian jazz, modern and lyrical. There hav been many nights when I so broken I couldn't even speek to God the words would not come so I'd put on something like lead me to the cross or amazing grace my chains are gone and danced making that song and those movements my prayer the are my worship and I lose myself in them. In God and His holy presence all around me has a dance for Him. It is the same everytime I step on stage. I have lead several of my students to Christ. And recently at a compition after I got off stage from performing my solo a girl 14 or 15 named Ashlee came up to me and said I want God I want to feel Him when I dance I want ur passion I want His love please please show me Christ. Then tears streaming down my face and hers I lead her to Lord. And u believe Hod frowns on me for being a dancer? Do u think He frowns on my 5 or 6 year olds that I teach? U think He frowns on that young lady? Nothing I ever teach of perform is sexual in Anyway. I know when I dance I bring God joy!

  17. Lauren, since no one has replied to you, I will. While there is somewhat more biblical uncertainty as to the use of dance in a corporate worship setting (i.e. church), what you are describing as a personal act of worship is indeed acceptable biblically. The Bible teaches us to live a lifestyle of worship, and that whatever we do, we are to do it unto the Lord. Your art form would definitely be included. I'm reminded of one of my favorite movie quotes from "Chariots of Fire," when Eric Liddell says: "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." I feel the same way about music. God gave me a musical ability, and when I use it for His glory, I feel His pleasure. The same would be true for you and your dancing. The fact that you use your talent to bring others to Him is also to be greatly commended, for that fulfills the great commission. I appreciate your heart. Keep up the good work.

  18. Lauren, thank you for sharing that wonderful testimony. God has also made me a dancer, and, like you, I love to dance for Him. He doesn't frown on dancing. Anyone who thinks otherwise is misguided. I pray that God brings you into the company of people who will understand and support your calling.

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