We continue our series in the worship of the church and we have come to a subject that I thought best addressed by reading Psalm 95:1-7. I have come to believe that one of the failings of the worship in which I was raised, the worship still very common in our evangelical, Reformed tradition, is that it was and is largely disembodied. It was worship in which the body played no meaningful role and in which the soul received no assistance from the body in doing a work which is, unquestionably, the greatest and most challenging work people are ever called upon to perform in this world. The more spiritual a work is, the more difficult it is for sinful human beings to do and the worship of Almighty God is a profoundly spiritual work, requiring the employment of all our mental powers and the entire range of our affections with the purest possible attitude and the sincerest possible intention. That is no easy thing to do, as every serious Christian has discovered, no matter how often we make the attempt and no matter with what heartfelt intention to offer God the worship he truly deserves. For such a work, in other words, we need all the help we can get! But in the days of my upbringing, we attempted to worship with part of ourselves wholly uninvolved.
It was a great weakness of American fundamentalism that, however unwittingly, it had a streak of Gnosticism running through it, an unbiblical kind of spirituality which played body off against spirit and denigrated the body in the name of the spirit. If, for example, you had asked our people in those days, and if you ask many American evangelicals in our day, why they don’t kneel in worship, you would very likely be told, “We kneel in our hearts,” or “It is what happens in the heart that matters; it is not the outside, but the inside that tells the tale.” The fact is we sometimes stood (though without knowing why) but we ordinarily sat to pray in church.
It sounds spiritual to say such things as “It is what’s on the inside that counts.” Obviously outward acts can be hypocritical and insincere. And just as obviously the soul must be engaged for an act to be sincere. But the fact is, as here in Psalm 95:6, we are taught everywhere in the Bible to employ our bodies in the worship of God.
“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”
We were Biblicists. We prided ourselves on believing the Bible and keeping the commandments of the Word of God. And the odd thing was we did kneel in prayer; but only in private, not in church, not in the worship of the congregation on the Lord’s Day. It was a blind spot. Here we were determined to follow the Word of God wherever it led, but we didn’t do what it says to do a great many times in its pages. We were following the Bible but only up to a point.
A friend of mine gave me a book the other day, a book written by his late brother. John A. Hutchinson was a sailor in the U.S. Navy and the book is his reminiscences of combat in the Pacific during the Second World War. It is entitled: Bluejacket: In Harm’s Way from Guadalcanal to Tokyo. Most books of naval history are written by historians and most memoirs are written by senior officers. At the time it was published Hutchinson said his was the only book he knew of written by an enlisted sailor about the experience of sailors in war. I was arrested by the first page.
“Jimmy O’Neill shouted: ‘Hey Jughead, come here.’ Chief Gunner’s Mate James A. O’Neill called all the recruits in his company ‘Jughead’. But we always seemed to know which ‘Jughead’ he was addressing. This time it was I.
“The Chief put his left hand on my shoulder, his arm below the elbow blazing red with the six ‘hash marks’ signifying his more than 24 years of service in the United States Navy.
“You look like you have a little more smarts than some of these other ‘Jugheads’, he said, ‘Are you plannin’ to make the Navy a career?’ ‘Yes, Chief,’ I replied.
“Then go get your Bluejacket’s Manual.’ When I returned, Jimmy instructed me to turn to Chapters 4 and 5, dealing with ‘Rules and Regulations’. I scanned the subtitles: discipline, respect for authority, good behavior, nature of duty in the Navy, articles for the government of the Navy, rules regarding salutes and other subjects dealing with the principal dictates of military life.
“I’m gonna tell you how to make life easier for you and keep you out of trouble. You memorize these regulations. They tell you what you can do and what you can’t do. Follow ‘em and your cruise will be smooth sailing. Break ‘em and the Navy’ll break you.
“He paused, then smiled: ‘Remember, though, if you run into any situation not covered in that book you’re on your own. Use your own best judgment.’”
Well, that’s more crudely put than a Christian would put it but is it not our view of the Bible? Our understanding is that we are to do what it says and that we are not to do what it forbids. Period. There is a great deal left to our freedom. The Bible gives us general principles, but it does not tell us where to live or what to do for a living; it doesn’t tell us whom to marry or what to eat; it doesn’t determine our hobbies for us or whether we live in an apartment or a house, what car we drive, what clothes we wear. But what commandments it contains we are to obey without question, hesitation, or equivocation, whether or not we fully understand the reason for the commandment.
And there is no doubt that the Bible orders God’s people to worship him with their entire selves, their souls and their bodies, their spiritual and physical selves at one and the same time. It is certainly interesting and important that when Paul describes the Christian life as a life of grateful worship he includes both mind and body. We are, he tells us in Romans 12:1-2 both to present our bodies as living sacrifices and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And the high worship of the church is the same; it is a matter of body and soul, of the inside and the outside of a human being. It is a principle of great importance to Christianity that God both made us and saved us as psycho‑physical beings and that we are to worship and serve him with our whole and entire selves.
The Bible tells us to kneel, to stand, and to raise our hands before God in worship. It commands us to do so and shows us people in worship doing so. As so often in the Bible its instruction is given in various ways, sometimes directly, sometimes in illustration, sometimes by analogy. For example, we are told in Leviticus 19:32 “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God.” In other words, it is not enough to have a respectful attitude toward the elderly, you must demonstrate that in an outward act, in a physical posture. Well, if we are to stand in the presence of the elderly to show them appropriate honor, how much more in the presence of the Almighty himself?
I could give you a massive amount of biblical data proving that in both the OT and the NT God’s people are to use their bodies in the worship of God, kneeling, standing, raising their hands, and so on. The data is found in the NT as well as the OT and it concerns both private and public worship. We see individuals and congregations kneeling to pray or raising their hands to God or standing before the Lord, embodying their conviction that they are in the very presence of the Lord and acting therefore as they would if they could see the glory of God. We sat before God when I was growing up even when we were speaking to him. And the problem with sitting, biblically speaking, is that it doesn’t say, it doesn’t express anything at all. Not reverence, not honor, not respect, not humility, not fear, not a desire to be heard, not exultation. Believe me; you wouldn’t just sit there if you found yourself face to face with the glory of God!
The biblical postures are all trans-cultural and trans-temporal in their significance. If kneeling has largely fallen out of use in American culture, it is nevertheless retained in the marriage proposal. Everyone knows what kneeling it means. It is the embodiment of humility and of the position of a supplicant. Today, when the President appears before the press corps or when a judge enters the courtroom everyone stands. It is a sign of respect; it is a means of paying honor. We stand for the singing of the national anthem and we would look askance at anyone who for any other reason than infirmity refused to stand. His sitting would be a very obvious sign of disrespect. And if we do this for a human state or ruler or a human judge, how much more for the King of Kings and the Judge of all the earth? We have all seen children with hands raised to their parents when seeking something. We know what it means to raise our hands. The hands are pointing in the direction toward which the request is being made. Or it is a gesture of exaltation, as one sees when one’s home team scores a goal or scores a run.
When we had kneelers installed in the sanctuary pews years ago I had one man tell me that he didn’t kneel for anyone. Oh, yes; he does and he will. For the day is coming when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. But for Christians there ought to be immense satisfaction and pleasure in kneeling or standing before our God, because we rejoice in the majesty of our God and we rejoice in confessing his majesty as we do when we kneel or stand before him or raise our hands to him because he is our God!
As I said, evidence abounds for these postures in Holy Scripture, and, so far as I can tell, there are no hard and fast distinctions drawn between the use of one or the other. Both postures, standing and kneeling, are used for both public and private prayer and when used in public prayer they are both used for confession and penitential prayer. You find some evidence in the materials of early Christianity that kneeling was not used in the Sunday worship of the church because standing better expressed the freedom of the children of God in the house of the Lord. But there is little to commend that distinction in the Bible itself. Both kneeling and standing are used for intercession but so is the raising of the hands, which ordinarily would accompany the standing posture. As Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:8:
“I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling….”
Well, then, why did we, biblically minded Christians that we were, why did we allow our customs in worship to diverge from the emphatic and repeated instruction of the Word of God. We were, after all, the champions of the regulative principle. We held that nothing was to be done in worship but what is commanded in the Word of God, but here was a command made a hundred times and in many different ways and we were ignoring it. The Scripture told us to kneel before the Lord and we sat. The Scripture told us to raise our hands and we kept them at our sides. Why, for goodness sake?
Well, I think there were two reasons principally. Both of them have a great deal to do with human nature and not much to do with the Word of God. Fact is, in the days of my youth and for generations before, we didn’t think much about worship. We did what we were used to and we asked very few questions. We were content with our tradition and we stuck with it. That’s usually what people do. Apart from times of foment and revolution, habits are retained with comparatively little thought.
But that doesn’t explain why we formed such habits in the first place. That is a sadder story still. Our Reformed and Protestant churches typically did kneel at the beginning. They knelt in Geneva in the worship service that John Calvin ordered for the church there. Indeed, there was a widespread acceptance of the importance of outward postures to true worship. Consider this from the 1559 Book of Discipline of the French Reformed Church, a deliverance from the first generation of Reformed Christianity.
“That great irreverence which is found in divers persons, who at public and private prayers do neither uncover their heads nor bow their knees shall be reformed; which is a matter repugnant unto piety, and giveth suspicion of pride, and scandalizes them that fear God. Wherefore all pastors shall be advised, as also elders and heads of families, carefully to oversee, that in time of prayer all persons, without exception…do evidence by these exterior signs the inward humility of their hearts and homage which they yield to God; unless anyone be hindered from doing so by sickness or otherwise.”
But over the next few generations a controversy erupted over the proper way to take the Lord’s Supper. The fear at the time was that if one knelt to receive the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, it would prove a temptation to people to worship the elements themselves as if they had become, in Roman Catholic fashion, the very body and blood of Jesus. To make a long story short, after other strategies were attempted to remove the temptation, in the churches of the Puritan movement, the churches from which we descend, kneeling was removed from the church’s worship as the safest way to avoid any confusion.
It may disappoint you to think that our spiritual ancestors, for all their great virtues and all their loyalty to the Bible, stopped doing what the Bible told them to do for such a reason. But that was the reason and the Reformed church hasn’t knelt since. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! We stopped kneeling because enemy Christians were kneeling for the wrong reason, or so we thought. Follow that logic to its end and there is little else that will be left to us in our worship service: out will go the hymns, the sermons, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and all the rest, for enemy Christians do all of those things and, in our judgment, many of them do so for the wrong reasons.
The story gets stranger still. If you consult the older Reformed authorities on posture in worship they will all tell you that kneeling and standing are appropriate postures for prayer but that sitting is not. Sitting is mentioned as a posture for prayer only a couple of times in the Bible and it probably refers not to sitting as we think of it, but probably another form of kneeling, as when Muslim men sit on their heels before prostrating themselves in prayer.
Now don’t mistake me. You can pray hanging upside down. You can pray falling through the air. You can pray while running. No doubt prayers have been offered many times to God in such circumstances. Think of the people in that very cold water that early morning in 1912 who went into the water from the Titanic. I am sure there were a great many prayers prayed from the sea with shivering lips. The question is not how and when can you pray, but what is the most appropriate posture for prayer in our worship of God as a church. Does the Bible answer that question? If it does, enough said. And, of course, it does answer the question; time and time again. “Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.”
But the importance of this issue is more than simply that of obedience or disobedience to the instruction of the Word of God. The commandments of God, as John says, are not burdensome. They have a reason, an intention, a rationale. God does not tell us to do something for no reason. And there are two very important reasons for assuming appropriate postures in the church’s worship.
First, postures are themselves an act of worship. When you stand or kneel or raise your hands your body is at worship. When you kneel to pray or stand to sing praise to God or lift your hands to make intercession to him you are worshipping God with your entire self, assuming that you mean what you say when you pray and sing and ask. You are a psycho-physical being and when you are before the Lord it ought to be your entire self that is before him and when you are worshipping God you ought to be worshipping him with your entire self. In Holy Scripture, whenever men or women came face to face with God, they always immediately and instinctively assumed postures which were appropriate for a creature and a sinner before the living God. Well, when we are before him by faith, we are as really before him as we would be by sight! And we ought to behave the same way.
This was Calvin’s point in his commentary on Psalm 95:6.
“We observe that mention is made not only of inward gratitude, but the necessity of an outward profession. The three words which are used imply that, to discharge their duty properly, the Lord’s people must present themselves a sacrifice to him publicly, with kneeling, and other marks of devotion – an entire devotement of themselves to God.”
In the days of my youth and early on in my pastorate, I suppose we acted as if the only function of the body were to carry the soul into church and then to wait until the soul was ready to leave. I suppose we knew better than actually to say that, but we acted as if that were true. If we stood to sing, it wasn’t because we were addressing the Lord and knew we ought to assume a posture that had some expression of that honor we knew he deserved from us. We stood to stretch so that the long periods of sitting wouldn’t bother us so much.
But in the Bible to stand is to worship, and so to kneel and to raise the hands. It is the worship that is to be offered by a person who is, as Jack Collins puts it, created to be a “soul/body tangle.” And when you are before God the whole of you ought to be offering yourself to him.
Second, the attitude of the body, its posture, is also an aid to the soul. It helps us to bring the right attitude of heart when we offer the right attitude of body. Parents know this very well, how the body and the soul interact in behavior. If a child agrees to obey but does so with a posture that screams defiance or indifference or disagreement, the obedience promised is not the obedience needed. A child who sullenly or indifferently says "I’m sorry," to a brother or sister, or who slouches and looks pained and wronged while listening to an adult correct him, has not done right. We say to him: “actions speak louder than words.” In the same way the military has long since learned that a salute offered in a slouch might as well not be given at all. Well, so in worship! If we don’t look like we are honoring God, we probably aren’t! And if we want the right heart, the right attitude of body is essential help.
In the churches where I grew up, if you had sat in the balcony and looked over the congregation at prayer, I suspect you would have come rather quickly the conclusion that many of them were not in fact at prayer at all. Their bodies didn’t suggest any reverence for God, any sense that they were at that moment speaking to the Maker of heaven and earth, that theirs was nothing less than an audience with the Almighty. Let the body serve the soul by expressing for the soul the spirit it ought to have as it comes before the Lord, whether that is kneeling or standing or even the bodily attention that is paid to the Word of God as it is read and preached.
Listen to this from Thomas Howard. Isn’t this true to life?
"An open-minded evangelical from one of the…churches in America…may…say, ‘Fine, if the lad wants to kneel, by all means let him. It’s a very fine posture. And no doubt there is something to be said for such a practice in the Church. Certainly we…have much to learn about reverence in worship from the ancient churches.’
"A response like this is a charitable one, but under the ensign of broad-mindedness it may be missing a point. It is not quite a trivial matter of mere taste or whim. To treat it so is to fall into the error of supposing that physical attitudes do not matter. It is once again to locate faith and piety in a disembodied realm. We know that this is false. Our innermost attitudes cry out for a shape. They long to be clothed with flesh. We can see this wherever we turn: we are happy and our face muscles stretch into smiles; we are sad, and our tear ducts go to work; we are ashamed, and our neck muscles incline our heads forward; we are awed, and our mouths gape open; we are exasperated, and we throw up our hands; we are angry, and we clench our fists.
"We might discipline ourselves to quell all of these motions so that, like a superannuated Tibetan lama, we could sit, petrified and inscrutable, registering nothing. The lama, however, would tell us that posture matters infinitely and that it had taken him years of discipline to reach this impassivity, one of the most rigorous exercises being learning to stay motionless. The motionlessness of his body had percolated inwards and assisted his soul to be motionless.
"This last point is perhaps the one that might escape us. The question is not merely one of outward gestures and postures that express something interior. It works the other way around as well. The outward posture actually helps to create the inner attitude. We all know this from our Sunday school teachers who told us that if we could not quite feel love for somebody, at least we should act as though we love him. The external attempt would eventually have its effect on how we feel. Baron von Hugel remarked that he kissed his son in order that he might love him. The act dragooned his somewhat untrustworthy and wayward feelings and helped to bundle them along toward their true object.”
That was written by a Roman Catholic, worse still by a former Protestant who later became a Roman Catholic, but John Calvin agrees. The soul, he says, needs the help of the body. “As for bodily gestures customarily observed in praying, such as kneeling…they are exercises whereby we try to rise to a greater reverence for God.” Each of us, everyone, suffers from this great problem. We do not have sufficient reverence for God. We do not fear him as we should. This is one way the Bible tells us to cultivate that reverence: act it out in our life and in our worship.
Thankfully many Reformed churches have begun to alter their habitual practice, though in many cases without much of a plan, program or argument. Here too we owe a great deal to other churches who got to where we are going long before we did. The Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists knelt, the charismatics raised their hands. Many of our churches have begun to do one thing but not the other, they kneel but don’t raise their hands, or they raise their hands but don’t kneel. The argument for the one is the same as the argument for the other and, of course, both are found everywhere in the Bible.
Ask yourself this: when a visitor walks into our church and observes our worship is it clear to him or to her that this is a body of people who know themselves to be before the Lord God and are these people who both love and fear the Lord? If the fact that we love and fear the Lord ought to be plain at any time, it ought to be plain in the public worship of the church. And we have found it so have we not? Something important is being said and seen and felt when a congregation falls to its knees or rises to its feet before the Lord. We have needed more vitality in our worship in Reformed Churches, more of a sense of what we are about, what we are doing, and whom it is we are before. Posture, the engagement of the body, the Scripture teaches us and the experience of life confirms, is a most important means to that holy end.
We live in a society that no longer believes that the God of love is also a God of infinite justice and unsupportable majesty. If the Christian church doesn’t act as if she believes God to be so great; if it doesn’t appear that Christians believe in such a high and holy God, the society certainly never will.
“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”