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Body Work: Understanding Where Anatomy Meets Worship

Body Work: Understanding Where Anatomy Meets Worship

Editorial Team

Besides being a worshiper that punctuated his letters with prayers and doxologies, the Apostle Paul made several fundamental statements regarding the practice of worship. Perhaps the most familiar is the Romans passage where Paul urges his readers to present their “bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1 NASB). This may be a good time to stop and ask ourselves, “Have I been doing this? Have I been presenting my body to God when I worship? Have I been leading in a way that invites my congregation to participate with their bodies?” 

Paul makes a fuller installment on his theology of the body in 1 Corinthians 6. The misbehavior of certain members in the Corinthian church compelled him to provide believers a criterion for determining the proper uses of the body. To ask, “Is it lawful?” does not provide a sufficient standard, because God’s grace has come to us “apart from the Law” (Rom 3:21-26). Other questions must be asked, such as, “Is it profitable?” “Could I become enslaved to it?” and “Is it edifying?” (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). 

Out With Gnosticism

In this context, Paul penned a line that is almost shocking to our Western ears. The body, he says, is “for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body” (1 Cor 6:13). Furthermore, our bodies are “members of Christ.” We are not to think that they still belong to us, for we have been purchased by God so that our bodies can serve as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:15, 19). The upshot of all of this comes in Paul’s concluding instruction, “Glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). 

If making our bodies a focal point of worship sounds foreign to us, it is not because Jesus advocated for worship that was purely spiritual (“in spirit,” in the context of John 4:24, does not negate the body, but qualifies its participation in worship). Rather, it is because the body has not fared well in church history that we are suspicious of its liturgical role. We have not yet fully escaped the influence of Platonic philosophy that fascinated important Christian theologians of the first four centuries. Therefore, our inclination is to either approach the body cautiously (the more positive view) or declare war on it. 

More Than Skin

Of course, the body makes an easy target for the pessimistic anthropology we inherited from St. Augustine, and it is no surprise that we think of it more like a banana peel, discarded after our souls are whisked away into heaven, than as “a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19 MSG).

One of my assumptions about worship leaders is that they are dedicated students of the Psalms. Now one can hardly read the Psalms—let alone delve deeply into them—without bumping into a multitude of references to the body and body parts. Take just the hands, for example. They can be raised toward the temple when crying for help (28:2), washed—symbolic of absolution—prior to approaching the altar (26:6), stretched out to God in longing for him (143:6), and lifted to God in praise and blessing—not unlike the smoke rising from the evening offering (63:4; 134:2; 141:2).

Reclaiming Human “Being”

But that is just the beginning of our exploration of body parts in worship. We soon come to the organs of speech (mouth, lips, tongue, palate, teeth, and throat), sight, and hearing. Even when we have been richly rewarded for having (re)discovered the role of our body parts in worship, we still have not entered into the body itself. It is here, in the “innermost parts,” that we encounter the deepest human experiences of communion with God.

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When the psalmists referred to their heart, belly, kidneys, innermost or hidden parts, and bones, they were searching for a vocabulary to describe what they felt in the deepest part of their being. When they say that their bones were dismayed (6:2), sick with guilt (38:3), or proclaimed God’s goodness, they were going to the very center of their existence. They were putting into words the inner experience of going through life, how it evoked emotions and feelings, and where in their bodies they felt those sensations. They listened to their bodies and told God what was going on within them (e.g., 42:6). What did their spiritual experience feel like on the inside? Their bodies held the answer.

Worship Renewal

Worship, like everything else in our Christian life, is incarnational and seeks expression in these “mortal bodies.” We will look in vain to find an instance of disembodied worship in the Scriptures. Rather, it is the body kneeling or bowing, prostrate or dancing, the body with its senses, movements, and speech that actualizes worship “in spirit and truth.”

Perhaps a helpful reminder at this point is that unless we are converted and become like children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven, because most of us soon realize that bringing our bodies into the fullness of biblical worship will mean learning all over again to see, hear, touch, smell, breathe, and feel as if for the first time.

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