Clapping as an Accompaniment to Singing in Worship

By Wayne Jackson

The practice apparently has its origin in the youth-devotional phenomenon of a few years back, but now is gaining some mainline defense. It is argued that “clapping,” as a rhythmic form of 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 song book.

Aid or Addition

This is the 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 – just an aid; thus, both are permissible in the 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; 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 song book adds no accompanying sound; clapping does. When one uses a song book 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.

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 (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 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.

Silence: Prohibitive or Permissive?

Another argument designed to legitimize clapping is called “permissive silence.” It is the idea that since clapping does not cross “category” worship lines, it is permitted.

Genuine “permissive silence” is simply another way of saying, “expediency.” An expediency is permitted under generic authority. 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 expedient; 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. A strictly “human” sound is allowed; a mechanical sound is forbidden. This contention is flawed, both in logic and in the application of scripture. The “classification” argument is wholly 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 sound, and the instrument is only an aid. That is precisely where this line of argument leads.

Sound or Song?

We are not instructed to “make sounds”; rather, the command is to sing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). Clapping is not singing. Singing is the expression of thoughts by words through melody. Singing is intended to convey “understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:15). There is no “instruction,” analogous to singing, in a mere sound.

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

If any human action different from singing is to be sanctioned – because it is restricted to the category of “body” action – then “dancing” would be allowed as an accompaniment to singing. Dancing was commonly practiced as a form of praise under the Mosaic regime (Exodus 15:20; 2 Samuel 6:14; Psalm 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. Psalm 47:1-7; 66:13-15; 150:4, etc.).

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

When one examines the New Testament, however, he finds an entirely different situation. Worship is a spiritual exercise that leaves behind the more “carnal” features of the former regime (cf. Hebrews 9:10; 13:15).

The Matter of Authority

When all factors are considered, the issue comes down to this. There is no New Testament authorization 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” (see Sources).

The New Testament authorizes (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” (Colossians 2:23), i.e., a species of worship that either is “forbidden” or “unbidden” (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 worshipping “in truth” (John 4:24; 17:17); it ignores the prohibition of going “beyond that which is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6), and it fails to abide within the teaching of Christ (2 John 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 worshipped in music.

I have combed through these citations looking for references to “clapping” in connection with Christian worship. I found only two – 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 the opponents of the practice 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 the “radical right” are, and 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, and/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.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Danker, F.W. et al. (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago).
  • Edwards, Earl (2007), Protecting Our “Blind Side (Henderson, TN: Hester Publications).
  • Ferguson, Everett (1972), A Cappella Music In the Public Worship of the Church (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press).
  • Ferguson, Everett (2002), “Church Music…” Freed-Hardeman University Lectures (Henderson, TN: FHU).
  • Kurfees, M.C. (1950), Instrumental Music in the Worship (Nashville: Gospel Advocate).
  • Lewis, Jack (1996), “Worship: Biblical or Cultural,” Gospel Advocate, August, 1996.
  • McCord, Hugo (n.d.), “Festive Worship,” http://www.christianarticles.org/HugoMcCord.html
  • Thayer, J.H. (1958), _Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).
  • Vine, W.E. (1991), Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls: World).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.