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!”
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?
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.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.