Saturday, June 12, 2010

Posture in Worship

Recently a friend of my wife’s raised the issue of the correct posture for prayer. Brought up in a church where it was customary to kneel for prayer, she now finds herself attending one in which the congregation stands for prayer, but she feels uncomfortable doing so. Her pastor, himself, became aware of the issue and outlined several different prayer postures that he found in Scripture, depending on the mood or purpose of the prayer. Obviously, consideration of the proper Biblical posture for prayer is linked to that for all aspects of corporate worship, which in one way is simply “public prayer.”

Why is the question of posture in worship important? Isn’t it our inward motivation and direction toward God that is more important? Well, yes and no. Biblical worship always has a visible, as well as invisible, component. The words translated “worship” in English versions of both the Old and New Testaments are words of movement or posture. The Hebrew hishtachavah signifies bowing down or falling prostrate, and the Greek proskuneo means, literally, to fall to the knees. In the ancient world these were the proper gestures for expressing homage to a sovereign ruler or superior, signifying one’s loyalty and submission. These gestures are especially important within the framework of the Biblical covenant, which is a relationship between a King and the people that is faithful to Him as their Authority and Source. Biblical worship is the expression of this relationship of fidelity and dependence.

Perhaps, in our contemporary culture, it is difficult to understand the need for gesture as an expression of honor and loyalty. Within the military, of course, the salute preserves this concern for an outward sign of respect, but many such gestures have disappeared from common life. At one time a gentleman removed his hat, or stood up if seated, when a lady entered his presence. A man always removed his hat within a building, unless it signified some official role (the headgear of a policeman, for example, or that of a bishop during a liturgy). Today, however, it is common to see men eating in restaurants wearing baseball-style caps. In our “casual age” we have largely lost the sense of what is appropriate gesture and posture (or clothing, for that matter) in various venues, including that of Christian worship.

The Old Testament describes various postures and movements associated with Israelite worship — not only bowing down, but also processions, dance, lifting the hands, and standing (not, however, sitting, which was a posture of honor accorded to teachers, see Matthew 5:1). The earliest Christians met in private homes, often at night and under some threat of persecution if their gathering came to the attention of local authorities. Under such conditions the full range of postures characteristic of Israelite festive worship was not available to them. We know that New Testament worshipers sang, prayed, prophesied, taught from the Scriptures, and partook of the Supper of the Lord. Given the scarcity of furniture for sitting in ancient times — even meals were typically eaten in a reclining position — it is likely that the congregation stood throughout the time of the gathering. (This was the custom in the chairless Medieval cathedrals and is still the practice today in the Eastern churches.) Depending on the number of people present, there was probably not room for more spacious postures within the confines of the home where the assembly gathered.

Nevertheless, Paul refers to the unbeliever visiting the Christian assembly who, moved by the word of prophecy, “falls on his face” to worship God (1 Corinthians 14:25). And this is the gesture Paul envisions for worship when the authority of Christ becomes universally recognized; he looks forward to the time when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). The same posture of prostration is in view in the worship described in the Revelation to John, in which “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne” (Revelation 4:10). In addition, Roman catacomb illustrations of early Christians praying show them in the “orant” position, lifting their hands just as Paul suggests in 1 Timothy 2:8: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”

Prostration and the lifting of hands are both gestures of “confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Romans 10:9), which I suggest is the heart of New Testament worship. They are consistent with the act of “giving thanks,” which Biblically does not mean to express gratitude but to affirm one’s loyalty to God alone. The Hebrew word todah, translated “give thanks,” is derived from the word for “hand” (yad) and refers to lifting the hand in the oath of loyalty (a gesture preserved today in the “swearing in” of public officials). We see this close connection in what Paul says of the apostate Jews in Romans 1:21: “For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.” The Christian Holy Communion or Eucharist — a word derived from the Greek term eucharisteo, “give thanks” — therefore contains this element of pledging one’s faithfulness to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It comes down to this: Christian worship is not a spectator sport but an active expression of covenantal faithfulness to the Lord. Prostration, bending the knee, lifting the hand, “giving thanks” or partaking of the Lord’s Supper are all actions that symbolize this theological truth. I do not say that they are the only acts capable of expressing faithfulness to God. But I am suggesting that Christian gatherings that fail to make a place for some visible and significant expression of faithfulness through movement, posture, and gesture are missing the point of New Testament worship. Such “meetings” have lapsed into an audience-entertainer format in which the only expression of commitment is inside one’s head, where no one else can call you to account for it. Of course, true worship — as Jesus insisted — is worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). However, it is a mistake to think of the “spiritual” as the “invisible.” In fact, in Scripture whenever someone is described as being “filled with the Spirit” we know it because of the actions we see them perform.