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At my old church (PCA) occasionally there would be a few women who would dance at the front of the sanctuary. Later, after leaving the church, I began to feel a little bit biased against that dancing because of the mindset that surrounded it. It served a primarily "mushy" purpose - the focus that it gave to the "worship" was one of subjective, feel-y experience rather than sincere praise to God.

However, after reading through the Psalms a year or so ago, I encountered a few passages explicitly allowing, supporting - even commanding dance.

Psalm 149:3 ESV Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!

and

Psalm 150:4 ESV Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!

David dances before the Lord in 2 Samuel 6.

Being in a PCA church now, we hold to the Regulative Principle - that is, we don't do anything in our worship service that isn't explicitly commanded in Scripture. So I understand the lack of other modern additions to worship. But dancing is commanded. And yet our church - and many more "reformed" or "traditional" services - does not include dancing as part of the liturgy.

Why not? What's the biblical, logical, or traditional basis for this?

For other non-reformed or non-"traditional" denominations or groups that still don't include dancing in the liturgy, what's your reasoning/scriptural backing?

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I was just thinking "we don't hear enough lyre these days" –  Marc Gravell Apr 8 '12 at 9:30
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@MarcGravell for some reason I got an image of a Hebrew worship team rocking out on tambourines and electric lyres. :) –  Thomas Shields Apr 9 '12 at 4:32
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In terms of the Regulative Principle, what precisely constitutes "worship"? I would note for example that in Western Catholicism, dance is pretty much verboten in the liturgy, but there are still some local traditions of praising God with dance outside the context of the mass; e.g., en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dancing_procession_of_Echternach. This simultaneously fulfills Psalm 150:4 and respects the longstanding tradition of excluding dance from the sanctuary. –  Ben Dunlap Apr 12 '12 at 16:53
    
And what's wrong with "subjective, feel-y experience"? In fact, isn't that a good thing? –  TRiG Nov 30 '12 at 11:33
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3 Answers 3

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This answer relates to the Church of Scotland.

Dancing has often been regarded with deep suspicion in the Presbyterian tradition. Originally, it was strongly associated with all kinds of bad behaviour, and would certainly not be permitted in church. Even after dancing became more socially acceptable, church was still meant to be a solemn and sober place. This is less true today, though there is still a lot of historical inertia against allowing dancing.

In 1649, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland banned "promiscuous dancing":

The Assembly, finding the scandall and abuse that arises thorow promiscuous dancing; do, therefore, inhibit and discharge the same, and do referre the censure thereof to severall Presbyteries, earnestly recommending it to their care and diligence.

"Promiscuous dancing" particularly refers to mixed dancing at weddings and other celebrations, and was associated by the Kirk with drunkenness, gluttony, immodesty and lechery. Offenders could be punished by having to pay a fine, or be made to stand in the "place of repentance" at the front of the church, so that they could be rebuked during the sermon. Dancing on Sundays was particularly frowned upon, since Sunday was meant to be reserved for solemn religious observance. An earlier prohibition applied only to ministers, who were expected to set a moral example; the Second Book of Discipline (1578) said that Kirk sessions could excommunicate elders or ministers

that teach erroneous and corrupt doctrine; that are of scandalous life, and, after admonition, desist not; that are given to schism or rebellion against the kirk, manifest blasphemy, simony, corruption of bribes, falsehood, perjury, whoredom, theft, drunkenness, fighting worthy of punishment by the law, usury, dancing, infamy, and all others that deserve separation from the kirk. (7.16)

John Knox, in particular, disliked the feasting and dancing he saw at the court of Mary, Queen of Scots, telling her (in December 1562, according to his own account in Historie of the Reformation of Religioun within the Realm of Scotland) that "fiddling and flinging", instead of "reading and hearing God's most blessed word", was morally objectionable for a ruler. He went on to say that "the reward of dancers ... will be to drink in Hell, unless they speedily repent, so shall God turn their mirth into sudden sorrow".

If secular dancing was seen in such a light, it is not surprising that dancing in church was unimaginable. Instrumental music was often regarded in the same way, and there were disagreements over forms of singing: for example, whether polyphony or harmony were allowed, or whether religious music should stick to first-century forms instead. In time, it was recognized that the acceptability of music in (polite!) society made a difference to how it could be used in church - it was no longer automatically associated with debauchery and decadence. This did not quite extend as far as dancing: in fact, one of the counter-arguments to permitting more diverse forms of music was that it would lead to dancing in church as well.

One of the main reformers was Robert Lee, a minister at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. In 1860 he had an organ installed there - the first one at any Presbyterian church in Scotland. In his book The reform of the Church of Scotland in worship, government and doctrine (1864) he discusses Old Testament references to dancing, saying that it did not take place as part of Temple rituals, and therefore does not constitute a precedent for Christian churches:

We are only informed that the ancient Jews, in the excitement of their joy, actually danced on certain special occasions, such as after some great victory or some wonderful deliverance; but we never read that dancing was any regular or ordinary part of their religious worship. ... We have not a word to show that dancing enjoyed any divine sanction, or that any such thing was ever admitted or thought of as part of that ritual. Also, while "singers and players on instruments" are repeatedly spoken of in connection with the temple-service, no mention is ever made of dancers. ... The Seer of the Apocalypse also beholds "the elders" and "them that had gotten the victory," with "the harps of God" (chap. V and XV); but he says nothing of dancing; for no such thing was known in the temple-worship, which forms the basis of his imagery. It is in vain, therefore, to pretend that dancing holds the same position in the Old Testament ritual as the use of musical instruments.

He further notes that there is no New Testament reference to dancing in worship. Lee also proposes a general principle for how ancient modes of worship may be received and adapted, maintaining the essence but without having to adhere to the same exact form:

In all these cases, and in others which might be named, we not only consider what was practised by the ancient Jews, even under the sanction of Divine authority, but what may be decent and reverent in us, in our different climate, with our different institutions, customs, manners, and associations, and national character. ... These things belong not to the essence of religion, but are merely means towards an end, and are therefore to be judged of, in all cases and at all times, according to their fitness for promoting that end.

Indeed, John Calvin had written (Institutes 3.20):

If singing is tempered to a gravity befitting the presence of God and angels, it both gives dignity and grace to sacred actions, and has a very powerful tendency to stir up the mind to true zeal and ardor in prayer. We must, however, carefully beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. ... Songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming the majesty of the Church, and cannot but be most displeasing to God.

This would apply just as well to dancing as to singing. In general, contemporary arguments about dancing probably depend very much on the nature of the dancing and of its context in worship, as opposed to how well particular forms of dance (or singing, or instrumental music) mirror first-century practice. For example, we could argue that dance tends to be a performance for others to watch, rather than being a truly participatory act of worship. But the historical argument against it is not a knock-out blow, given that we have permitted many other innovations in worship since that time, even just in the domain of music.

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Your conclusion sounds a lot like James 4. What is the heart in whatever practice this is? It seems like the church can get way to caught up in tradition when considering what is and is not a sin though. That exchange John Knox had...lets just say Paul mighta had Galatians 1 language for him on that. If the goal of dancing in front of a church is to hold ones self up, that person aught to be rebuked and told they need to seek Christ first. But if they have passion for God and seek after him, and an expression of that is dancing...Knox was totally wrong to call it all sin, the Bible doesnt –  Derrick H Apr 11 '12 at 17:57
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Knox was a thoroughly nasty man. When even Calvin is saying, "Wow, that's a bit harsh," (1) it should make you take a good long look at yourself. Alas, he didn't. Honestly, dancers get off lightly compared to his opinions about women, Catholics, and anybody who dared to enjoy themselves. With Queen Mary, a fun-loving Catholic woman, things were never going to go well. (1) - paraphrased, re Knox's "Monstrous Regiment of Women" –  James T Apr 11 '12 at 22:24
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It's cultural.

This is a Catholic answer, but not based on Catholic Dogma or even the Bible. It's just common sense. In the Western Hemisphere, and western Europe (commonly and ruefully [here at least] referred to as the West) we don't need dance to communicate. Furthermore, we can't even interpret dance as language.

In African (and other) cultures dance may be the most succinct way of communicating the message. Liturgy, means the work of the people of the church, not the entertainment of the people in the church.

Therefore, there is a great difference in cultures: what is well receieved in one culture cannot be taken on by another culture.

Dance in the Liturgy (1975)

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I think many Christians view dancing with suspicion because it inherently focuses attention on the body, and we need to be careful in how we think about the bodies of people other than our spouses. Many dances involve close physical contact between two people. To what extent is this appropriate? Or if we are observing someone dance, especially men observing a woman dance, they are clearly thinking about her body in ways that are, if not lustful, easily turned to lustful thoughts. (Need I explain that I say "men especially" because men are more easily tempted to lust by a woman's physical appearance than women are by simply looking at a man?)

Personally I tend to think these concerns are exaggerated because they confuse all appreciation for the beauty of a human body with sex, and all interest in sex with lust. I often look at a woman and think, "Wow, she's really beautiful" without immediately following that with "... and I'd like to have an adulterous affair with her." But the danger is certainly there, and one would have to be extremely naive to suppose that there is no sexual component to dancing.

I presume this would be doubly bad within a church service. In a sense we could say that a woman performing a dance in front of the congregation as an act of worship is not inherently different from singing a song, playing an instrument, reciting a poem, acting in a play, etc. It could certainly be done with all the right motives. But I can comprehend a concern that men watching would be more likely to be thinking about the dancer's sexuality than about the glory of God.

All that said, this is pretty much the objection that Michal made to David's dancing: “How glorious was the king of Israel today, uncovering himself today in the eyes of the maids of his servants, as one of the base fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” And this objection is refuted on the grounds that he was dancing for God and not for people.

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