I come from a conservative background of the Protestant church tradition. My friends and family tend to be non-demonstrative lot at church, with little more than the occasional "A-men!" when we are REALLY moved. So, it has bothered me to see a particular phenomenon from the charismatic/pentecostal tradition starting to appear in church - the raising of hands. This action, usually done during singing, always seemed showy to me and distracting. But, it is important to separate "it bothers me" from "it is wrong." So, I decided to do some research into the phenomenon, and see what the Bible had to say.
First, I found an amazing number of defenses of the practice online. The best explanation of why people lift their hands in worship came from here.
- Lifting the hands is a symbol of surrender.The "surrender" symbolism is especially significant, it seems to me. In my own observation, I have noticed that the lifting of hands is especially common among women in the churches I have visited. Surrender is something that is culturally-appropriate for women in America - giving oneself to your husband, to your children, to your church, to your friends - but is less culturally-appropriate to the rugged individualism which governs men in our culture.
- Lifting the hands is a symbol of trust.
- Lifting the hands is a symbol of openness.
- Lifting the hands is a symbol of affection.
In looking through scripture, there appears to be three classifications for the raising of hands:
1. Prayer (5 references): 1 Timothey 2:8, Lamentations 3:40-42, Psalm 28:1-2, Psalm 141:1-2, Nehemiah 8:5-6
2. Worship (2 references): Psalms 63:3-4, Psalm 134:1-3
3. Study (1 reference): Psalm 119:48
Going by the pure number of references, it is clear scripture favors the raising of hands as a posture of PRAYER over worship. However, it is equally clear that scripture does call for the lifting of hands in worship. One interesting note from the same article listed above may be significant in this.
The Hebrew word for hand is the word yad; yadah means to “throw out the hand” or to worship with extended hands.Which may indicate that the extension of hands to an object of adoration is simply an assumption of Hebrew culture.
Another article noted one other aspect of the raising of hands - which C.S. Lewis also applies to kneeling in The Screwtape Letters - is that movements and positions of the body influence the attitude of the mind and heart.
But of note also is this article which makes the claim that all raising-of-hands references in the old testament are related to the sacrificial system, and thus are inappropriate to a Christian world where sacrifices have been fulfilled by the death and resurrection of Christ. The author dismisses the 1 Timothy 2:8 scripture as a figurative passage asking for "clean hands" of Christians.
Overall, the middle road here appears to be that the raising of hands is a Biblical practice. It is permitted and encouraged by Scripture, but is not commanded or required. This article does a good job of summarizing what I have come to: worshiping with lifted hands is appropriate and scriptural, but should be done with an eye toward its potential impact on others around you. If you are in a service with people who will find it distracting, or who will be tempted toward showing off, then keep your hands down. If you are in a service where people are comfortable or ambivalent to the practice, go right ahead.
For me, this study has been a comfort. It reminds me that my own prejudices should not rule how I view others, or their relationship with God. Surely, some raise their hands to be showy. But others do so with sincere hearts, looking to praise God and obey scripture.