One thing that most obviously and immediately distinguishes our worship from that of most other Presbyterian, Reformed, and Protestant evangelical congregations is that we kneel for some prayers and that we raise our hands for some praises. People who visit our church notice this at once and often comment on it. Kneeling, of course, is hardly unique to us. Many churches have always knelt in public worship. Similarly, our Pentecostal and charismatic brethren have long raised their hands. However, these have not been postures commonly employed in American evangelical worship in general or Reformed and Presbyterian worship in particular.
It takes too long to tell, but the story of how kneeling fell out of use in Reformed worship is a cautionary tale. It is a perfect example of good men, with the best intentions, throwing the baby out with the bath-water. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a time of sharp conflict with Roman Catholicism, kneeling became controversial as a posture for receiving the elements at the Lord’s Supper (some fearing that it encouraged the view, all too common in those days, that the elements were being venerated themselves as having physically become the body and blood of Christ). The result over time was the abandonment of kneeling altogether in Reformed worship. It had not been so from the beginning. Kneeling for the Lord’s Supper and for prayer was common in the worship of Calvin’s Geneva and Calvin himself advocated the raising of hands. Those later controversies shaped Reformed practice in surprising and perhaps unintended ways.
Once the habit of not kneeling and of not raising the hands was formed, it became difficult to break. This was all the more so because churches that continued these practices were often those with which Reformed Christians had substantial disagreement (e.g. Roman Catholics knelt and Pentecostals raised their hands). It was easy to feel that kneeling or raising hands were acts that somehow were tainted by the errors Reformed Christians found in those other communions.
Presbyterians, however, have made a principle of worship being biblical. That is, we have argued that we ought very strictly to take our direction in worship from the Bible itself: do what it tells us to do and refuse to do what it does not tell us to do (the regulative principle of worship). In this case, we were not loyal to our own principles! In the Bible we are commanded to kneel in our worship (e.g. Psalm 95:6) and we are shown saints kneeling for prayer together, not merely when they are alone (e.g. Nehemiah 8:6; Acts 20:36; 21:5). There is plenty of biblical support as well for the raising of hands (Nehemiah 8:6; Psalm 141:2; 1 Timothy 2:8). Similar support can be found in the Bible for standing for prayer. It is doubtful that the Bible anywhere commends sitting for prayer, though, of course, we know that prayer can be offered anywhere, at any time.
These biblical postures are trans-temporal and trans-cultural. We all know how kneeling conveys humility and the spirit of supplication, how standing shows reverence, and how the raising of hands expresses the direction of our thoughts and words. By recommending these postures to us by illustration and commanding their use, the Bible bears witness to their significance. These postures serve at least three important functions.
First, they enable us to pray and worship with our whole selves, body and soul together. It is interesting that in the Bible it seems not to matter whether we say that “we lift up our soul” (Psalm 25:1) or that “we lift up our hands” (Psalm 63:4). Second, we all know how the posture and the action of the body can assist the soul in obtaining and preserving a proper attitude. Kneeling or raising the hands coerces our unreliable and wayward thoughts and feelings and sets them on their proper object. We sit for so many things. When we kneel and when we raise our hands we bear witness to ourselves that what we are doing now is no ordinary thing at all. Third, such postures bear a public witness to the fact that the church is in the very presence of God and that she is speaking to God. I grew up in worship that was largely disembodied and I feel now that the great weakness of that worship was precisely that it did not convey to the soul or to the congregation or to the world that in the high worship of the Lord’s Day the saints were coram Deo, in the very presence of God. The fact that we did not act like we were in God’s presence contributed mightily to this lack. In the Bible, when people found themselves in the very presence of God they always, instinctively assumed some posture appropriate to that momentous encounter.
It is precisely because all of this is so easy to understand and these postures are so helpful in all of these ways that they never disappeared from the private worship of Reformed Christians, even when they were not used in public worship. But why would we cheat ourselves of these blessings in our public prayer and praise? Why, indeed, when the Bible so clearly commands their use? It is no surprise to me that as Reformed Christians have begun to think seriously again about worship, many are recommending the restoration of kneeling, standing, and the raising of hands as neglected elements in authentic Christian prayer and praise.