In recent times, it has been argued that clapping as a rhythmic accompaniment to singing in Christian worship is not an addition to the singing (as is a mechanical instrument). It merely is an aid comparable to a songbook.

In this article, we’ll discuss the nature of handclapping as a function of worship in song and its relevance to the arguments for or against instrumental music in the worship of the church.

Is Handclapping in Worship an Aid or Addition?

This is the same argument the Christian Church has made for years regarding a tuning fork or pitch pipe. These folks contend that the musical instrument is equivalent to the pitch pipe, that instrumental accompaniment is just an aid. Thus, both are permissible in worship.

In essence, N. B. Hardeman responded to the rationalization in this fashion. The pitch pipe is not parallel to the piano because the pitch pipe has “enough sense to shut its mouth” before the singing begins, but the piano “blabs” all the way through the song!

A pitch pipe aids in obtaining the pitch, but it does not add a new element to the worship.

Similarly, a songbook adds no accompanying sound. Clapping does. When one uses a songbook in praise, he is doing nothing but singing. When he begins clapping, he is no longer just singing. He is singing and clapping.

Clapping is not an aid. It is an addition just as an instrument is.

Here’s an important question. If clapping as an accompaniment to singing is just an aid, how does this noise “aid” the singing? Does it convey the praise more clearly and emphatically to God? Does it somehow enhance the reciprocal (“one to another”) teaching and admonition that the song’s words are intended to convey (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)?

It is imperative that Christians study carefully and think critically as to how one discerns the difference between an aid and an addition. This is a crucial matter upon which many issues hang.

Is Silence Prohibitive or Permissive?

Another argument designed to legitimize clapping is called permissive silence. This is the idea that since clapping does not violate category worship lines, it is permitted.

Genuine permissive silence is simply another way of saying expediency. An expediency is permitted under generic authority.

For example, utensils for distribution of the communion are allowed as expediencies because they do not alter the prescribed elements (bread and fruit of the vine).

Clapping is not an expediency. It is an innovation.

The Category Argument

It is alleged that in order for a sound action to be a violation of the New Testament pattern of praise worship, it would have to be a sound of a different class or category (i.e., not a “human” sound, but a “mechanical” sound).

In other words, any strictly human sound is allowed, but a mechanical sound is forbidden.

This contention is flawed, both in logic and in the application of scripture. The classification argument is entirely arbitrary with a manufactured distinction.

If the point were valid, whistling, humming and yodeling could accompany the singing, since all of these are human sounds.

The fact is, playing an instrument ultimately is a human sound because no instrument can play itself.

If the argument under review were consistent, it would suggest that singing with a piano is acceptable because ultimately it is a human-created sound and the instrument is only an aid. That is precisely where this line of argument leads.

Are We Authorized to Make Sounds or Sing?

We are not instructed to make sounds. Rather, the command is to sing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Clapping is not singing. Singing is the expression of thoughts by words through melody. Singing is intended to convey understanding (1 Cor. 14:15). There is no instruction analogous to singing in mere sounds.

This was Paul’s point in forbidding speaking a language in an alien assembly when no interpreter was present (1 Cor. 14:28). To contend that clapping is permitted because it can impart encouragement opens the door for the instrument because the sound of an instrument can impart encouragement (e.g., the cavalry charge; cf. 1 Cor. 14:8).

If any human action different from singing is to be sanctioned because it is restricted to the category of bodily action, then dancing would be allowed as an accompaniment to singing. Dancing was commonly practiced as a form of praise under the Mosaic regime (Ex. 15:20; 2 Sam. 6:14; Psa. 149:3; 150:4). It does not inhere a mechanical instrument. Are we ready for the sacred dance?

Earl Edwards, professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University, correctly has observed:

“Clapping is a type of percussion very similar to the music we produce on a drum.” (291).

He further noted that there is no difference in using “live skin” to make a noise (clapping) and “dead skin” to make a noise (beating a drum). One cannot license the former without endorsing the latter.

Manifestations of Praise

Under the Mosaic economy, many forms of praise were employed — prayer, singing, dancing, clapping, playing instruments, shouting, offering sacrifices, and burning incense (cf. Psa. 47:1-7; 66:13-15; 150:4, etc.).

Each of the above involves a different action — some solely with the body. Others were engaged with the use of humanly-utilized instruments or implements. The Old Testament writers made no qualitative distinction between these various categories.

But when we examine the New Testament, we find an entirely different situation. Worship is a spiritual exercise that leaves behind the more carnal features of the former regime (cf. Heb. 9:10; 13:15).

What About Authority?

When all factors are considered, the issue comes down to this. There is no New Testament authority for instruments of music in worship — nor for clapping or dancing. As Jack Lewis wrote:

“If the primary task in worship is to make worship conform to Scripture, then clapping and stomping have exactly the same support in Scripture that instrumental music does — none at all” (26).

Hugo McCord declared:

“Nothing in the New Testament teaching on worship (John 4:24; Hebrews 2:12; 13:15; Ephesians 5:19) calls for hand-clapping, body movements, or shouted words.”

The New Testament commands singing as an expression of musical praise. To import other elements from the Mosaic code or to arbitrarily introduce them is a form of “will-worship,” a species of worship that either is “forbidden” or “unbidden” (cf. (Col. 2:23; Vine, 881). Thayer called it “arbitrary” — a “worship which one devises and prescribes for himself” (168). F.W. Danker, et al., characterized will-worship as a “self-made, do-it-yourself religion” (276).

Clapping violates the Lord’s instructions regarding worshiping “in truth” (Jn. 4:24; 17:17). It ignores the prohibition of going “beyond that which is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). And it fails to abide within the teaching of Christ (2 Jn. 9).

Clapping as an accompaniment to singing has no support in the history of genuine Christianity. In his classic work, Instrumental Music in the Worship, M. C. Kurfees introduced a quotation from a very early period in church history, formerly thought to issue from Justin Martyr — now generally attributed to Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-458):

“Simply singing is not agreeable to children [i.e., the infantile state of the Jews under the law of Moses], but singing with lifeless instruments and with dancing and clapping; on which account the use of this kind of instruments and of others agreeable to children is removed from the songs in the churches, and there is left remaining simply singing” (193-194).

Thirty-five years ago Everett Ferguson, a premier historian of ancient Christian history, wrote a small book titled A Capella Music in the Public Worship of the Church. In one chapter, he addressed the matter of music worship in the early centuries of the church. Over and over again (more than 75 times) he cites from the writings of the “church fathers” — both ante-Nicene and post-Nicene — concerning how the primitive church worshiped in music.

I have combed through these citations looking for references to clapping in connection with Christian worship. I found only two references. Both were negative concerning the practice. One was the citation mentioned just above — Theodoret. The other was Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), who wrote:

“Let us take up hymns instead of timbrels, psalmody instead of lewd dances and songs, thankful acclamation instead of theatrical clapping” (Ferguson, 1972, 76).

Incidentally, in a discussion of the actions involved in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, Ferguson pointed out that: “non-verbal sounds made by the voice or other parts of the body” do not meet the criteria of these texts. Only “words that are rational, intelligible, and spiritual” satisfy the divine demands (2002, 100).

The growing practice of rhythmic clapping as a supplement to congregational singing has the support of neither scripture nor history. It is a relatively recent innovation that is a corruption of Christian worship.

Nullification by Intimidation

Some, who attempt to defend the clapping phenomenon apparently think that if they marginalize their opponents by labeling them as the “radical right,” opposition will cease. Also, it is contended that this issue must not “disrupt unity.”

Informed people know who constitutes the “radical right.” Men like Hugo McCord, Jack Lewis, Earl Edwards, and Everett Ferguson are not among them — nor is this writer.

Moreover, the quibble that if we press this issue we will create division is the same complaint the Christian Church has made for years and now is being echoed by the “liberal left” regarding the instrument.

A Sobering Consequence

Consider this closing thought. If clapping as a worship companion to singing is in the category of instrumental music, where does this leave those who practice or sanction this addition to worship?

When mature leaders begin to argue for the use of instrumental music, do we ignore them, or do we address the issue and benevolently press upon them the consequence of their action? This should not be a difficult question to answer.