In his 2013 national conference message, What God Made is Good–and Must Be Sanctified: C.S. Lewis and St. Paul on the Use of Creation, John Piper expounds on 1 Timothy 4:1-4.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
As Piper expounds, “The issue is: How are we to experience the material creation (which of course, includes our bodies, and everything we encounter with our five senses) in such a way that God is worshiped, honored, loved, and supremely treasured in our experience of material creation?” In 1 Timothy 4, the specific things being addressed are food and marriage (sex), but the foundational revelation by which they are interpreted is clearly meant to be applied to a much wider range of our interaction with the world around us. As Piper says, “this world and every pleasure in it is designed for the worship of the true God.” Thus it is of vital importance that we give thought to how then, in fact, we can engage with every particular aspect of God’s creation for His glory. This essay provides an introductory overview of the way expressive movement (dance) can be sanctified for the glory of God.
Glorify God in your Body
In the good purpose and design of God, we have been created as embodied souls. In this life our bodies can not be separated from our spirit. Because of sin, the separation of our body and spirit is a reality at death. Yet this separation is only temporary! One of the glorious truths of the gospel is that Christ, in taking on human flesh forever, will redeem and resurrect physical bodies, transforming the saints into the likeness of His glorified body. The significance of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, having a body for the rest of eternity should not be underestimated! Throughout Scripture, we are commanded to honor and love the Lord with all that we are, including our bodies. God means to have the fullness of his children worshipping him in the beauty of holiness.
1 Cor 6:19, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
Deuteronomy 5:6, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Romans 12: 1, “I appeal to you therefore brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
There are many varied and beautiful ways we can fulfill this call to love, worship, and thus glorify God with all that we are. Dance, as an expression of our love for Jesus, is one such way. There are as many ideas of what is meant by the word “dance” as there are people in the world, but what I am talking about is not a specific style of dance or movement. It is not something only those with years of training can do. The broad definition of dance I am working with is movement that is expressive of the heart, usually accompanying music and/or rhythmic lyrics.
Worldly Dance versus Godly Dance
In much of our culture, dance is synonymous with sensuality and is thus notoriously frowned upon and forbidden by many Christian churches. One only has to flip through TV channels or browse the internet to see dancing figures promoting countless products and promises of fleshly enjoyment. It is easy to see how Satan has used the sensual delights of dance to turn hearts away from the true God so that people look to a creature for the satisfaction of their souls rather than the Creator. The Bible also reveals several examples of dances that were acts of idolatrous worship (Exodus 32) and wicked manipulation (Mark 6:22). Expressive movement is a powerful way to testify to the reality of what is happening on the inside of us! It is no surprise then, that among unbelievers, sinful desires are often made shockingly evident through dance. When the lusts of the flesh are reigning supreme, a dance can unleash great wickedness..such as took place leading to the execution of John the Baptist (Mark 6). This power to both reveal and allure hearts has caused dance to be feared and often condemned over much of the history of the church.
But it need not be so! Dance itself is not inherently evil. Yes, the Deceiver has almost entirely stolen and corrupted its use for his own evil desires across the earth, but he is not the one who created the body to leap when the heart is joyful or sway to the rhythms of music. Colossians 1:16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. God created dance as a way to express the heart and delight the soul. This is a gift of His common grace to all mankind. Too often people have “delighted” themselves in a dance of darkness, spiritually speaking. Yet, God designed it as an instrument of the praise of His glory.
Psalm 149:3 “Let them praise his name with dancing.” Psalm 150:4 “Praise Him with tambourine and dance..”
The first heart-response to the incarnate Son of God recorded in Scripture was a dance that took place in the hiddenness of the womb when John, filled with the Holy Spirit, leaped for joy at the presence of Jesus (Luke 1:44). In fact, John the Baptist’s life begins and ends with a dance! In the end, the joyful dance of John triumphed over the sensual dance that prompted his execution. John’s great joy in the presence of Jesus will have no end whereas the dance of his enemy has been forever exposed in Scripture to be a weak and futile, momentary attempt to thwart the purposes of God. The dance of the redeemed, as it flows out of genuine joy in Jesus and a desire to see him exalted should cause the enemy to tremble and flee, rather than the church fleeing from all physical expressions of worship. Dance is a gift from God to be received with thanksgiving. It is one of the most powerful expressions of joy the Lord has given us! What then are the implications of loving a God in whose presence is fullness of joy?! (Ps 16:11) Is it any surprise then that Biblically, dance is associated with victory, joy, salvation, healing, restoration, and praise?
To reject dance entirely is to follow the same trajectory as those in 1 Timothy 4 who were forbidding marriage and food under the auspices or religious asceticism. It is taking what God created good and calling it in every form wicked. Piper in his teaching makes note that, “Satan uses both sensual indulgence and abstinence to turn hearts away from the true God.” The one thing the enemy does not want is for the gifts of God to be used in a way that glorifies and honor God. In his attempt to mar and steal the glory of God, Satan would rather us idolize God’s gifts or reject them completely. Forbidding dance entirely, while making it seem easier to restrain fleshly indulgences, actually inhibits the full glory the Lord desires to receive through what He has made.
Because most dance in this world is not God-glorifying worship, it can be genuinely challenging to see how it can truly honor the Lord. In order to glorify God and not self, it must be sanctified. In fact, the dancer must be sanctified, body, soul, and spirit. The distinction between the essence of worship and its expression in dance is crucial to understand to this end. Piper’s definition of sanctifying something is, “setting it apart as a means of expressing the infinite worth of God.” Godly dance requires a heart submitted joyfully to God’s Word and a desire to see Jesus exalted above all. He is after worship in spirit and truth (John 4), and this is therefore the primary litmus test as to whether our dance honors Him or not. It must be flowing from a heart that has truly encountered the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through His Word and is responding in love to Him on the basis of that glorious revelation. No matter how beautiful or graceful, a dance that is not from this place does not honor God. The movements themselves are worshipful only in as much as they are a genuine expression of the affection, adoration, and desire of our hearts for God. Integrity requires that a dance for Jesus is but one small piece of an entire life lived for the glory of God. When this is true of a person, expressive movement offered, in the beauty of holiness, as a testimony to the very great Salvation He has worked on their behalf, magnifies Christ.
Dance was Designed to Glorify God
The primary purpose of dance as revealed through Scripture is to declare the glory of God. This glorious purpose can be seen in the following three passages: Exodus 15, 2 Samuel 6, and Luke 15. In Exodus 15, Israel had just been stunningly delivered from Egypt and led across the Red Sea on dry land. Moses led the people of Israel in a triumphant song of praise to the Lord declaring his glory, honor, and power revealed in the mighty salvation He had worked on their behalf. Miriam then took up her tambourine and led the women in a dance to this magnificent song of deliverance. It was a fitting response to so great a salvation! Throughout the Old Testament there are references to the dances of the Israelite women being a sign that the Salvation of the Lord has come to His people. (Is 52:7, 1 Sam 18:6, Jer 31:4, 13)
Women are not the only dancers in the Bible. Several of David’s Psalms refer to dancing, (Ps 30:11, 87:7 149, 150 among others) and his own famous dance is recorded in 2 Samuel 6. “And David danced before the Lord with all his might.” He responded with unrestrained joy at the ark of the covenant being restored to the people of God. This was a remarkable response to the Presence of God returning to his people. As he faced the derision of his wife Michal, David revealed that it was the Lord’s presence and approval that was the motivation of his extravagant display. As a man after God’s heart, through the anointing of the Spirit, he had written Psalm 16:11 testifying to fullness of joy being found in the presence of the Lord. His mourning had been turned to dancing because the Lord had restored Himself in the midst of his people.
The New Testament reinforces this connection between dancing, joy, and salvation in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. When the lost son returns home and is restored in the loving presence of his father, a celebration including music and dancing was the appropriate response. In Luke 15:32, the father says, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
The Gospel is the Reason we Dance
If rejoicing with song and dance was called for at the Exodus, the return of the Ark, and the return of the prodigal, how much more fitting is it among the church of the living God! For, we celebrate a much greater exodus from sin and death and have received salvation unto an eternal inheritance! (Colossians 1:12-14) We have the presence of the Holy Spirit, not in a box behind a veil, but on the inside of us! (Ephesians 1:13-14) We have been adopted and welcomed by our heavenly Father though we were far off and hostile to Him. (Galatians 4: 4-7) All of this was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf for the glory of God. We should dance like no other people on the face of the earth!
The Dance of Faith
Truly, no matter what our circumstances, even when we face hardship and persecution, we have a reason to dance! Jesus in fact calls us to rejoice and leap for joy when we are persecuted (Luke 6:23) because the greater reality of our lives is that we are blessed by God. A dance of joy to God in moments of great trial testifies to the One who has the weightier word over our lives. Because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8), nothing can separate us from our joy. No one can turn our dancing to mourning! This does not mean that we will not mourn at all. We groan for the fullness of redemption to be revealed, and we are called to weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15) But, our mourning does not have the final word! It is temporal. It is filled with hope. Even as we pour out our souls to the Lord with tears, we can set our hearts on the truth of God that is revealed in his word about who He is and the glorious greatness of His promises…such as the psalm that those who weep in tears will reap with shouts of joy! (Psalm 126:5) As a response to such a word, we can dance. Such a dance of faith speaks volumes about the worth of Christ. It is a testimony of His sweet sufficiency in all things…of the joy of His presence…of His mighty Salvation! It is a sight that might even bring our persecutors to repentance. Who else, but the children of God, would dare to dance when facing great trial?
As the dances of the children of God reflect their joy in God, they must be radically different in spirit than the dances of the world. They should be childlike, not caring about the approval of man but delighting in God. They should be humble and modest, aiming to draw attention to Christ and not to themselves. They must be pure. Above all, they should be passionate and extravagant! By this I mean that they should communicate that there is no greater joy, no higher good, no one more worthy than Jesus Christ than to receive all of our love and life.
Incorporating Dance into Corporate Worship
Dance, because of its nature and history, should be incorporated into the life of a local church in the context of much prayer and careful, Bible based wisdom. Psalm 149 and 150 which both call forth dance as a legitimate way to praise the Lord are in the context of the assembly of the godly. In fact, most references to dance in the Bible are in a corporate setting, though not a social one. This is no light or flippant thing. It is not about being cool or culturally relevant. It is not entertainment. It is about the testimony of Jesus going forth for the edification of the church and the salvation of the lost. In the context of a corporate worship setting, careful shepherding will be required by the elders of the congregation that the purity and focus of the worship service stays fixed on Christ. Great safety for the flock of God will come when clear guidelines, Biblical teaching, and intentional discipleship regarding expressive movement are given to the church as a means of grace, facilitating true embodied worship unto the glory of God. It is my prayer that as dance is sanctified in the midst of God’s people, it will be increasingly seen and embraced as a gift of God, a means of grace given to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)