IS CLAPPING OF HANDS APPROPRIATE IN WORSHIP?
T. PIERCE BROWN
The question was raised primarily in reference to applauding at a baptismal service. The one who asked it remarked that it seemed to him that it was equivalent to saying “Amen” at the end of someone’s prayer, and merely indicated approval of what was being done. If it were merely equivalent to taking his hand and saying, “I rejoice in your obedience,” I would have no objection to it. However, it involves other significant principles.
Let us examine some and try to arrive at a scriptural answer to the question. When we say “scriptural answer” we do not claim that we know a scripture that deals directly with the question, for if there was an approved example of early Christians doing it, or a command that indicated the propriety of it, we would not need to discuss the matter. If we could find a scripture that said, “Do not clap hands” we would not need to discuss the matter. So we must examine principles and scriptures that deal with broader matters, and strive to make logical application of them.
First, let us look at the assumption that the clapping of hands is no more than simply expressing agreement with a statement or action, as “Amen” might be. When an audience claps and shouts approval of Michael Jackson’s performance, would it evidence about the same thing if the audience said, “Amen?”
The basic meaning of “Amen” is “may it be so.” It has various nuances in other contexts, but the basic idea is approval of what another has said. The basic purpose of clapping of hands in our society is to show approval of a person’s performance, involving his skill or ability.
When a person is baptized properly, it is approved of God and by all subjects of God. When a person prays appropriately, takes the Lord’s Supper or sings properly, the same thing is true. Should we applaud at any or all of those times? If not, why?
Note two or three significant things. If a professional singer performs and the audience applauds, they are normally applauding the performance of the musician. Is there anything in God’s word that leads one to assume that when a person leads a song, leads a prayer, or preaches in worship, his performance is to be applauded? Is he or his performance the center of attention? Or should our attention be on the message and the Christ whom the message should exalt?
In fact, if one applauded when a person got through leading a prayer at the Lord’s supper and removed the top of the containers of the fruit of the vine, would anyone know whether you were applauding the beautiful way he led the prayer, the superb flourish with which he removed the lid without banging it against the table, or the fact that Jesus died for us? Is either of them the fit subject for applause? Just because you said, “Amen” when he offered the prayer, and approve of what went on, assuming that God also approved of it, would you advocate applause at that point? If the argument about clapping hands being equivalent to saying “amen” were valid, you would. If you had been standing at the foot of the cross when Jesus died, and knew the purpose for which He died, would you have approved of his loving sacrifice? If so, would it have been appropriate for you to applaud as the soldier thrust his spear into the side of our Lord? If you can see why not, it should not be too difficult for you to see why not in the other cases mentioned.
There are other principles involved. The performance of a singer or pianist on the stage is supposed to be a performance that calls attention to the skill or ability of the artist who is performing. Thus, it is appropriate to applaud or withhold applause in terms of how you valued the skill or ability of the performer. That is not true with reference to the act of baptism, preaching, prayer, singing in worship, or waiting on the Lord’s Table. If one applauded at a baptism, he might be applauding the skill with which the baptizer put the person under the water without getting himself wet. I saw a person baptize another on one occasion by grabbing him around the throat with both hands and bending him backward with no other support. I might have applauded the fact that he came up alive without being strangled or choked to death. But my point here is that applause always calls attention to the performers of the act, whatever the act may be. At a baptism, preaching, praying, etc. we should be calling attention to the grace and love of the Savior who authorized those acts. When a preacher is preaching and I say, “Amen,” I am not calling attention to the performance of the preacher, but to the message which exalts Christ. When a person is praying, and I say, “Amen” I am not calling attention to the beauty or eloquence of his phraseology, but to the validity and worth of his petition. If I applauded, I would be calling attention to his performance. This is inappropriate, and has no place in an assembly for the worship of God. When a person is baptized, I approve of his action, if it is in obedience to the command of the Lord, who said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark16:16). I also approve of the action of the person doing the baptizing, if he is doing it by the authority of Christ, in the way Christ commanded, for the purpose Christ ordained. If applauding by clapping of the hands were nothing more than a way of saying, “I’m glad he did that, for it glorifies God,” I would have no objection to it. But since God’s word gives no indication that He wants to be glorified in that way, and 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.
If you have thought it appropriate to applaud at a baptism, because you are merely showing gladness or approval of the act, and still think so, then try to give a sound and sensible answer to the question, “At what place in the worship or service of God would you not want to applaud by clapping the hands, since you should approve of every scriptural act?” Should it be done after the songs, after the reading and/or prayer, after the Lord’s supper, after the sermon, or any time and every time you feel like rejoicing?