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Echoes of History No.1 – Applause, Applause…


Echoes of History…
An occasional series comparing modern church practice and belief with historical events.

Paul of Samosata

A recently broadcast church service reminded me of a historical figure I had studied when I was training for the ministry around thirty years ago. The service was good enough in and of itself, from a modern evangelical church with contemporary worship and ‘Finneyesque’ style preaching. They were worshipping the Lord, and the preacher was doing his best, preaching from his own theological perspective.

But early in the service, following the singing of the first hymn (sorry, ‘song’) the congregation burst into applause, presumably applauding themselves for the singing. (Although in the past I have heard pastors in this type of modern church urging the congregation to ‘give the Lord a clap offering’). That continued throughout the service. Worse was to come. A gentleman gave a testimony, – told of how the Lord had helped him through a time of extreme trial – and at the end of the testimony, the people in the church gave him a huge round of applause.

The hymns were applauded, the personal testimony was applauded, the preacher was applauded, … and that is what brings me back to this character from the history of the early church, a man known as Paul of Samosata.

Paul was the Bishop of Antioch, elected to the post in 260AD. His teachings were thoroughly heretical, for he believed and taught a form of dynamic monarchianism, – denying the Trinity, he believed that Jesus was a mere man union whom the divine Logos of God had descended at his baptism. Jesus possessed no extraordinary nature above other men, the Logos being entirely an attribute of God. Thus, instead of God becoming man and dwelling among us, Paul taught that man became God. In 269 a synod convened at Antioch and condemned him for his heresy, officially removing him from office, although he continued to practise as bishop under the protection of the local Roman officials until 272. His teachings may have been an influence on Arius the Herisiarch.

Now, none of this was what came to my mind when I was listening to the church service on the radio, and I wouldn’t suggest for one moment that the church was quite so unorthodox. It was the applause. Paul of Samosata loved applause. When he mounted the pulpit, he had people planted in the audience to begin applauding him. Ladies would wave handkerchiefs at him. When he preached, he was frequently interrupted by applause, and all of it not only encouraged by him, but instigated by him. Eventually he stopped the church from singing hymns of praise to Jesus and had special hymns written – hymns of praise to himself!

I’m sure no modern, evangelical church would go that far (or would they?) but the applause thing still worries me. If we seek the applause of men, or even encourage it, are we in some way accepting people’s praise and approbation, just as Paul of Samosata was? And is that not wrong in a service where only Jesus should be praised? And are we not robbing ourselves of blessing, having received an earthly reward, and thus forfeiting a heavenly one?

Jesus warns us about seeking the approbation of men in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us that we are not to do any act of righteousness before other men to win their praise, whether it is giving, or praying or fasting. He says, in Matthew 6:1. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven“. He adds in Matt 6:5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

And there may be other dangers in the applause phenomenon that has entered the modern church. In Matthew 23, Jesus describes the attitudes of people who use their religious service to accumulate the praise of others. He says, in verse 5-7, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” He calls them hypocrites and we must be careful that we don’t become like them.

So, I’m not sure that applause of man has any place in the worship of God. What do you think?

  1. Well…there is Psalm 47…

    • There is Nancy. And that has prompted me to start work on a post on the nature of New Testament worship. Will have to clear some space in the dairy!

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