Quick—where am I? Am I at a music festival or am I in a church building? According to The High Calling,
Today, it’s not uncommon for worshipers in all sorts of churches to lift their hands in worship. This gesture is not just for the Pentecostals and Charismatics anymore. It has become increasingly common among Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Independents, Catholics, and, well, you name it.
Misused as an encouragement to sway with the music, or even as a criticism of those whose hands remain still, Paul’s instructions are being misunderstood. “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling,” he said (I Tim. 2:8). His words have more to do with the purity of hands than with their position.
Hands: Purity or Position?
Within the larger theme of leadership in worship, addressed in First Corinthians 14:34-35 and in First Timothy 2:11-15, the passage refers specifically to “the men in contrast to the women” (A.T. Robertson). This conclusion follows the use of the Greek word aner that applies only to men. An emphasis on men’s hands is also supported by the contrast within the passage— Paul speaks of men and then women, connecting the comparison with the “likewise” at the beginning of First Timothy 2:9.
“Lifting up hands” is a biblical figure of prayer. As Lipscomb and Shepherd observed in their commentary on First Timothy, “Those leading prayer did so with outstretched hands.” “It is properly the action of entreaty and request; and seems to be an effort to embrace the assistance requested” (Adam Clarke).
An example is found in the parallelism of Psalm 141:2: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” The lifting of hands was literal (Lev. 9:22; see also Neh. 8:6; I Kings 8:22). There is also rich symbolic meaning, as in Lamentations 3:14, “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven.”
Only part of Paul’s admonition has to do with physical hands. With more than a little symbolism, he speaks of “lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” Albert Barnes notes, “They were not to come when the mind was heated with debate…Prayer was to be offered in a calm, serious, sober state of mind.” “And these hands must be holy and pure; there must be purity of heart… or a freedom from any governing sin, which renders prayer unacceptable unto God” (John Gill).
Arguing that the purity of hands was more important to Paul than their position is plausible, if not probable. One can pray without any hands at all, but one cannot pray without purity. “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Pet. 3:12).
Declaring every hand raised in prayer to be a violation of scripture cannot be sustained. Paul could not borrow the image of hands raised in prayer without endorsing the practice, but the acceptance of some hands raised is not acceptance of every hand raised, or of every motion rationalized by First Timothy 2:8. Those appealing to First Timothy 2:8 should note the application and limitation, to men raising hands as they lead prayers in well-ordered worship.
Paul addressed the behavior of those leading prayers and not the behavior of others who are also participating in worship. The general male and female arm-swaying found in contemporary services finds no support in First Timothy 2:8. Not everyone should be up and moving, and the movement should not progress from hands raised to bodies swaying.
What about the prayer leader himself? Old brother Beason often led prayers at the old Grove Avenue congregation in San Antonio in the 1960s. He was blind at that time, and with a voice tremoring with age and seasoned from decades of preaching, one hand on his cane, and the other hand raised shoulder-high to heaven—or higher if his strength allowed—his prayers are a moving memory for little boys who peeked. Little criticism can be raised against his holy hand raised in prayer; little condemnation can be raised against similar hands today.
As the previous decades have fast-forwarded to today, many “greater freedom” influences contrary to truth have touched our assemblies. The increasing influence of Pentecostalism and of runaway emotion masquerading as “expressions of deep spirituality” have brought behaviors to our worship that are contrary to the decency and order (1 Cor. 14:40) that are necessary to prevent confusion (1 Cor. 14:33) and promote the learning and encouragement (1 Cor. 14:30) that are the prevailing characteristics of worship. These characteristics are generally upset by any behavior not found in the Bible and specifically upset by movements that are found at charismatic services and rock concerts.