Most students of church history eventually run across that nasty heresy called “Docetism.” It comes from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to seem.” Docetism is the belief that Jesus only seemed human but was actually spirit taking on a “human shell” for a time. Underneath Docetism lie the Greek/Gnostic emphases of glorifying the spiritual and disparaging the physical. Thus, when we speak of something as “docetic,” we often mean that it has the tendency to negatively view physical, material reality and prize that which is purely spiritual. This sets the stage for the indicting critique that worship theologian Jean-Jacques von Allmen proffered almost five decades ago:
[Worship is rightly expressed in] the kinetic domain, that of attitudes, gestures and movements…In the cult [“cult” is a more formal word for worship], faith must proceed to the use of gestures, and it is rather a docetic tendency than spiritual modesty which at this point prevents us modern Reformed Protestants from agreeing…P. Brunner happily remarks that ‘the body of man is included in the spiritual response which the human being makes to the event of revelation’, and such an inclusion of the ody must not be despised. To be sure, the attitude, the gesture, the movement can be devoid of content (just as doctrine can be devoid of faith); but without the attitude, the gesture, the movement, Church worship also risks becoming emptied of its content, for it has no longer a vessel to contain it, or has one that belies the content (as faith runs dry if it is not defined and sustained by doctrine). Thus this concord and harmony between liturgical feeling (faith, repentance, thanksgiving, supplication, adoration) and the kinetic expression of that feeling is not necessarily a source of hypocrisy, it is rather a liturgical necessity and it is time that we learnt this truth afresh.1
The language might be thick and old school, but the truth rings out clear, doesn’t it? The argument that worship should be “purely spiritual” and that bodily expression is somehow suspect comes dangerously close to docetism IF the argument is that “spiritual worship” is somehow better, purer, more godly, or more sanctified because bodily worship is more carnal and wordly. Now, to be clear, there are other (in my opinion unconvincing) arguments for “spiritual worship” which do not play the physical-is-bad-spiritual-is-good card, but if the argumentation engages the above line of thinking, it is quite fair to call it docetic.
The case for bodily engagement in worship is made on both directly biblical and biblical-theological grounds. A thorough yet brief treatment of the biblical passages which address or command bodily worship was put together by worship theologian Mike Farley here, and it’s worth thinking through. The biblical-theological basis for bodily worship is rooted in anthropology (what the Bible has to say about us as human beings)–we are a mysteriously unified body-soul, material-immaterial beings. (I say “mysteriously” because philosophers have racked their brains over the so-called mind-body problem [how the material and immaterial parts of the human intersect].) Ultimately, the Scriptures don’t disparage the body against the spirit. The Bible affirms their goodness. God’s creation of the physical realm was deemed “good” and “very good.” And the other bookend of the earth’s story is that God will one day usher in not only a new heavens, but a new earth. It would be very odd to think that the period between these two epochs of creation and consummation would be anything less than than a robustly physical-spiritual reality.
So, if you find yourself drawn “purely spiritual” worship, beware of the trappings and presuppositions that may plague an objective analysis.
- Interested in a simple, one-shot individual, small group, or church-wide study of the body in worship? Check out Chapter 11 from Bifrost Arts’ Liturgy, Music, Space Curriculum.
- Check out this interaction/symposium around Matt Anderson’s great book, Earthen Vessels, on the physical body and worship: Part 1 | Part 2