Dancing and the Local Church
by Stephen R. Button
This article is reprinted by permission from the October, 2003 issue of The Baptist Bulletin, the official organ of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, published by Regular Baptist Press. For subscription information, visit The Baptist Bulletin web site, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s wrong with dancing? Why not use dancing as a means to bring the unsaved to church? Can dancing in the local church be used as an opportunity for evangelism?
Today’s local churches risk increased secularization. What many churches formerly considered inappropriate for Christians they now consider acceptable. Attempting to attract the unchurched, many churches are adopting programs and activities once considered worldly. Though promoted for the noble purpose of eventually winning the lost to Christ, these activities must be evaluated. Are we changing the lost through them, or are the lost changing us?
Some agree that the church can use almost any technique to draw the unsaved into the church to hear the gospel. This pragmatism extends into a variety of areas that are often directly, or even indirectly, prohibited in Scripture. Each church must evaluate how or if it should accommodate itself to an ever-changing society. One increasingly popular accommodation is that of Christian- or church-sponsored dances.
Dancing and the Biblical Record
“What’s wrong with dancing?” some people ask. “The Bible is full of references to dancing. After all, David danced before the Lord. If it were acceptable for David to dance as a part of worship, why can’t Church-age saints dance as a part of our religious activities?”
The Bible does indeed refer to dancing, using at least six core words to define the activity translated “dance.” These words appear in a variety of settings and describe a variety of activities. A study of these words will reveal, however, that dancing in the Bible had little similarity to what is commonly known today as dancing. The lexical meaning, coupled with the context, will give a clear understanding of what “dance” meant to the writers and first readers of the Biblical accounts.
One word translated “dance” is raqad. This word means “to stamp or spring about wildly for joy.” It involves leaping and skipping. When Job answered his critics, he may have had in mind the picture of children playing in a field: “They send forth their little ones like a flock, and their children dance” (Job 21:11). He also used the word in contrast to the heaviness of heart associated with mourning (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
Another word, machowl, means “to whirl about or to twist in a circular or spiral manner.” It seems to suggest the circular round dances familiar in ancient cultures, which were usually segregated by gender. “The dances probably consisted only of circular movements with artless rhythmical steps and lively gesticulations and were accompanied by women beating tambourines (Judges 11:34).”1
This word also describes the movements one might make lying on a bed when in severe pain due to an injury or illness.2 At least three references use machowl to contrast gladness with sorrow (Psalm 30:11; Jeremiah 31:13; Lamentations 5:15).
The word mechowlah is the feminine form of the previous word, which suggests dancing in the company of others. This is the word used in Exodus 32:19 to describe the activity Moses found the Hebrews doing when he came down from the mountain. This “mixed” dancing was obviously sensual and forbidden. Other uses of this word refer to a kind of cheerleading by the village women in response to a victory. (Judges 11:34; 1 Samuel 18:6).
The word chagag refers to the processional march, moving about in an organized fashion in a circle. It was used of festive occasions and by implication suggests being giddy or excited (1 Samuel 30:16).
Two words for “dance” are prominent in the New Testament: orcheomai and choros.
We get our word “orchestra” from the first, orcheomai. This term suggests a uniform, regulated motion caused by “lifting up” the feet, or leaping about. It is the word John used to describe the performance by Herodias’s daughter as a form of “artistic” dancing. Scholars generally assume that her dance had sexual overtones (Matthew 14:6). However, the term is also used in the nonsexual context of children responding to the sound of a flute, perhaps in a funeral procession or in a parade (Matthew 11:17; Luke 7:32).
The second word, choros, from which we get the word “chorus,” suggests a cooperative effort. Before it became known for the dancing itself or the group of dancers, it primarily denoted an enclosure for dancing (Luke 15:25).3 This dance would resemble today’s folk dancing and would require a homogeneous activity, as in square dancing.
Commentary Regarding the Practice of Dancing in the Bible
It should be apparent from researching Biblical references to dancing that the “dancing” practiced in Biblical times differed from what is commonly considered dancing today. “While the mode of dancing is not known in detail, it is clear that men and women did not generally dance together, and there is no real evidence that they ever did. Social amusement was hardly a major purpose of dancing, and the modern method of dancing by couples is unknown.”4 Note these observations:
Many Biblical references to dancing indicate a joyous movement of the body in a spontaneous outburst of excitement and enthusiasm. This movement might be compared to the moves of a football player who prances around the end zone and victoriously spikes the football after completing a seventy-yard run.
Many Biblical references to dancing relate to a processional to honor and praise those victorious in battle, or to some other festive occasion. This “dance” might be compared to the choreographed precision of a band or drill team during the halftime of a football game or to the splendor of the Rose Bowl Parade.
Most Biblical references to dancing are in the context of some religious observance, both of true worship and of idol worship. In true worship, the dance celebrated God and expressed adoration of Him. The focus was not on the dancing partner.5 In the case of idol worship, however, sensuality was paramount.6
Dancing in the Bible was performed mostly by women7 (young maidens), with an exception such as David’s dancing before the Lord. His dancing was clearly an act of worship, and it may well have been the kind of spontaneous outburst as described above.
Dancing as recorded in the Bible was always in the open, in fields or pastures, and during the daytime, with the exceptions of Solome’s dance, which was indoors, and the illusion to dancing in the story of the prodigal son.
Dancing was seldom performed with a mix of genders, and the sensual, intimate nature of today’s dancing was foreign to the religious-observance dancing of Biblical times.8
None of the dancing referred to in the Bible was social in nature,9 but rather had specific significance to the celebration of an event or as an act of worship. The nature of Salome’s dance was entertainment, and its style was probably similar to that of a modern-day stripper’s, obviously not sanctioned by its placement in the Biblical record.
It would be improper for us to implant the contemporary meanings of “dance” into Biblical references to dancing. Biblical dancing reflected its culture, not ours. From the lexical definitions it is obvious that a dance involved rhythmic movement of the body that was usually accompanied by music. Biblical dancing expressed joy and gladness at times of military victories (1 Samuel 18:6), cultural celebrations (Judges 21:19-23), or religious and national holidays (Psalm 68:25; 150:4).10 Children would imitate adults in their play and “pretend” to dance (Job 21:11; Matthew 11:17). Never did men and women dance together.11 Even when both danced at a sacred celebration, they danced separately (Psalm 68:25; Jeremiah 31:13).
Social Dancing from Past to Present
Social dancing often provides the opportunity to become physically close to a member of the opposite sex, which, apart from the dance itself, would be totally unacceptable by many people. In referring to the nature of social dancing, it has been said, “Its chief fascination lies in the relation of the sexes” (Dr. Brand). “Take sex out of the dance, and it would lose its fascination for most of those now captivated by it” (Dr. Haydn).12 To appreciate the impact of these quotations, we need to note that these statements were made over a hundred years ago and that they related to the kinds of dances that refined society generally found acceptable (e.g., ballroom dancing).
As Christians, we should have a standard of modesty that is tied to Scriptural principles and not the whims of society.
Dancing as It Applies to the Local Church
Since we cannot use any Biblical reference to dance as a defense of social dancing today, because of the obvious differences in the nature and type of dancing then and dancing today, on what basis can we find defense for a participation in, or approval by, a local church? Perhaps the answers to the following questions will guide in the formulation of a position regarding dancing in the context of the local church.
Who is permitted to participate in social dancing (that is, the intimate touching, holding, and moving to a musical rhythm)? Should we allow young people access to each other in such a form as to promote intimacy before marriage? Should we encourage unmarried people of any age to participate in an activity that is, by nature, a form of sexual arousal?
Would we find acceptable the intimate touching, holding, and moving that characterizes such dancing apart form the context of a dance? Do we want to create an atmosphere in our church activities that encourages intimacy?
Is it necessary for married couples to openly display their affection and intimacy in public view during a dance?
Would those who wish to dance in this manner be able to comfortably do so as a witness for Jesus? How can a dance of mixed couples testify to the love and salvation of Jesus? Would it be appropriate to dance in this way to the tunes of “Amazing Grace,” “To God Be the Glory,” “How Great Thou Art,” or other tunes attributing glory to God and recognizing our need of the salvation of God?
Would such dancing indicate a recognition of the need to be separate from the world, to not “Love the world or the things in the world,” or would it confuse those trying to understand their role as Christians in an ungodly world? Would dancing accomplish the Great Commission, drawing men and women to Christ? Or would it distract from the love of God required for any believer in God, and would it focus inordinate attention on human affection?
Would an unsaved person watching a Christian dancing see the Christian as distinct and set apart unto God, and therefore different from him- or herself? Would the unsaved person’s observations cause him or her to conclude that since there is no difference in the Christian’s behavior and his or her own, there would be no need for the unsaved person to alter his or her beliefs, since Christian beliefs apparently would have no bearing on behavior?
Could dancing by mature Christians give weaker or immature Christians a license to participate in dancing but with less discernment and discretion?
Could a weaker believer discontinue his or her journey toward spiritual maturity because of the unnecessary diversion and distraction of dancing or of seeing a mature Christian dancing? Would this weaker believer have a distorted view of Christian values and standards as a result of witnessing or participating in a “Christian dance”?
How could dancing in a “Christian” environment add to an immature believer’s concept of spirituality or bring an unbeliever to understand that he or she needs the Savior? Are we free to use any method to further the cause of Christ? Are there limitations to our “liberties in Christ” for the sake of others and the gospel?
Is dancing so important that it’s worth the risk of tempting the unmarried with the possibility of sin (adultery), openly displaying the intimacy of a married relationship, jeopardizing a testimony for Christ, or leading an immature believer away from spiritual growth?
Since dancing is such a broad subject, questions about it may be answerable in such a way that an individual believer will feel comfortable in some kinds of dancing. That is between him or her and the Lord.
But when it comes to the matter of the corporate practice of social dancing by a local congregation, the restraints and requirements increase. It is necessary for a church to hold the highest possible standard to ensure the purity and holiness of its members before God. The universal church is, after all, the Bride of Christ and is to be blameless at the appearing of her Bridegroom. The local church must, therefore, guard its members from the influence of the world and provide the guidelines and atmosphere for the greatest possible spiritual growth.
Utilizing a worldly activity (as demonstrated in the comparison of the nature of social dancing today with the dancing of Biblical times) to draw an unsaved person to Christ is unhealthy for the church and is unproductive in spiritual reproduction. As a pregnant mother is told to abstain from certain foods, beverages, and activities for the health of her child, so those who are expecting to witness effectively must abstain from certain influences and activities for the sake of those for whom they are to have spiritual care.
The purpose of this article is not to pontificate regarding an artificial list of do’s and don’ts. Every believer has the responsibility to evaluate and apply the principles from Scripture as he or she encounters them. The pastor of a local church, however, is held accountable to Christ for the care and protection of the local church and its testimony. Therefore, we must step back from single issues to see the overarching principles to apply:
Personal Purity. We are to keep our lives free from contamination by that which is worldly or sinful. Scripture clearly defines specific sins for which there should be no question–lying, stealing, adultery, and so on. However, some attitudes, behaviors, and acts may not be classified as sin, but they pose a threat to a believer and may, in fact, provide an occasion for sinning. Such gray areas need to be addressed by each believer through careful application of Biblical standards, the counsel of other believers, and an alignment with the priorities of godly living.
Public Testimony. We are to present to the world a model of Christlikeness that will demonstrate the value of forsaking sin and accepting the cross of Christ. Trying to hold to elements of worldliness (possible remnants of our lives before accepting Christ) may only impair our effectiveness as witnesses to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Truly “old things have passed away; . . . all things have become new,” but when we cling to our former things, we are suggesting that life in Christ is insufficient to satisfy the desires of the heart. Nothing this world has to offer is worth retaining at the cost of losing our testimony before a dying world.
Protection of the Weak. Our example always influences someone. Scripture teaches us to “abstain from every form of evil” because people make judgments based on what they observe, not on what they know. For example, a parent may be able to walk close to the edge of a precipice without danger. His or her child then assumes by observation that there is no danger and, therefore, ventures beyond without fear.
Similarly, our safe participation in a gray area may lead others to accept the gray area as safe, and then they may venture beyond.
Hovering close to the forbidden border may be safe, but it puts one too near danger. When we are indiscriminately involved in the gray areas, not only may we be in danger of falling, we may be in a position of pushing another over the edge by our laxity.
These principles should be applied to all areas of our lives. Unfortunately, we tend to accept our “liberty in Christ” as a license to do whatever we want, without reference to how it might affect those around us. This is selfishness and does not represent the selfless love that Christians are to display. Jesus could have done whatever He wanted to do, but He was restrained from doing so by His selfless love and commitment to the will of the Father.
Dancing is at best a gray area. Like other practices, it is not directly forbidden in Scripture. What references there are to it are couched in a culture that no longer exists and that does not parallel our situation. That the Bible refers to dancing should not cause us to assume that it gives approval of dancing today.
Since the church must maintain a standard that provides for the spiritual health and security of all believers, young and old, immature and mature, it is inappropriate for us to adopt a policy to allow dancing at church functions or church-sponsored events. To use dancing as a witnessing tool or drawing unbelievers to church contradicts the basis of the gospel message, which declares a distinction between the things of the Lord and the things of the world. While privately people such as married couples may be able to dance without jeopardizing that distinction, as a church body it would be virtually impossible.
Notes 1 The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988). 2 R. Laird Harris, ed., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 270. 3 choros – “probably related to chortos (Latin: hortus), chronos, etc., denoting primarily ‘an enclosure for dancing'”: (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, electronic database, Biblesoft, 2000). 4 H.M. Wolf, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, 1975), 12. 5 “Men and women never danced together. Even on those occasions where both sexes participated in the sacred professional dances, they always danced separately (Psalm 68:25; Jeremiah 31:13). Dancing for sensual entertainment was unheard of among the Hebrews” (Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986]). 6 “The Jewish dance was performed by the sexes separately. There is no evidence from sacred history that the diversion was promiscuously enjoyed, except perhaps when the deified calf had be erected in imitation of the Egyptian festival of Apis, and all classes of Hebrews intermingled in the frantic revelry. In the sacred dances, although both sexes seem to have frequently borne a part in the procession or chorus, they remained in distinct and separate companies (Psalm 68:25; Jeremiah 31:13)” (The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary [Chicago: Moody Pres, 1988]). 7 “The performers were usually females, who, in cases of public rejoicing, volunteered their services (Exodus 15:20; 1 Samuel 18:6), and who, in the case of religious observances, composed the regular chorus of the temple (Psalm 149:3; 150:4), although there are not wanting instances of men also joining the dance on these seasons of religious festivity” (McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, electronic database, Biblesoft, 2000). See also: “It was usually the part of the women only (Exodus 15:20; Judges 11:34; comp. 5:1).” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database, Biblesoft, 2003). 8 “Dancing by men and women together was unknown; as indeed the oriental seclusion of women from men would alone have sufficed to make it seem indecorous” (Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, electronic database, Biblesoft, 1998). 9 “Of the social dancing of couple sin the modern fashion there is no trace” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, electronic database, Biblesoft, 1996). 10 “the dances probably consisted only of circular movements with artless rhythmical steps and lively gesticulations and were accompanied by women beating tambourines” (The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary [Chicago: Moody Press, 1988]). 11 “Dancing by men and women together was unknown; as indeed the oriental seclusion of women from men would alone have sufficed to make it seem indecorous” (Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, electronic database, Biblesoft, 1998). 12 Perry Wayland Sinks, Popular Amusements and the Christian Life (Chicago: The Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1896) 42.