Is "Heads Bowed, Eyes Closed . . ." Inherently an Unscriptural Manipulative Practice?

July 17, 2012

Many believers today hold that the giving of an invitation at the end of a service is inherently an unscriptural manipulative practice. They believe that this is especially the case if the minister instructs the congregation to bow their heads and close their eyes with no one looking around and then forcefully challenges people to respond to the message by coming forward. They often assert that Scripture provides little to no support for the giving of such an invitation.

Instead of using an invitation, some ministers end their services typically with a brief time of prayer in which people are encouraged to respond to what they have heard. Often, this instruction is coupled with a statement that the minister will be available after the service to talk with any people who are interested in learning more.

Does the Scripture support these perspectives about what should and should not be done in services after the preaching?

Heads Bowed, Eyes Closed?

Preachers routinely ask their people to bow in prayer with them in numerous contexts, such as before receiving the Lord’s Supper, ordaining deacons, and dedicating children. The (legitimate) assumption in these settings is that people will close their eyes when they bow their heads.

Scripture supports a sinner’s bowing his head (presumably with his eyes closed) in the presence of Deity, when approaching God, or encountering a messenger of God:

“And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, 3 And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant” (Gen. 18:2-3).

“And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, 16 And fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks: and he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:15).

“And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

“And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last” (Rev. 1:17).

These passages (and others like them) support instructing people to bow their heads and close their eyes when they are approaching God in prayer. Telling lost people, many of whom have had no prior instruction about how to approach God properly, to do so makes perfect sense and is fitting with guiding them in approaching God with humility, as they must.

No One Looking Around?

Instructing people to close their eyes should make saying that no one is to be looking around unnecessary. These words probably, therefore, are spoken to put at greater ease people who want to respond but who also worry about other people’s seeing them respond to the message.

Is this a biblical perspective? The only passage in Scripture that actually records a church service taking place does not seem to support this notion:

“But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: 25 And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you [plural you] of a truth” (1 Cor. 14:24-25).

The act of falling down on one’s face and reporting to the congregation what God has done in your heart does not support merely making a private response. It also does not support putting sinners at greater relative ease for making a response. (For a fuller treatment of 1 Cor. 14:23-25, see my post The Consummation of Public Worship)

Come Forward?

Telling people to come forward after a message is consistent with the response related above in 1 Corinthians 14:25 in which a sinner who is convicted in a church service publicly abases himself and publicly reports to the congregation that God has truly worked in his heart through their ministry to him. It is also consistent with other Scriptural teaching that God requires abasing oneself from those who would come to Him for forgiveness (2 Chron. 7:14; cf. Jonah 3:5, 6, 8).

Conclusion

Instructing sinners to bow their heads and close their eyes as they approach God in prayer is biblical. Informing them about pastoral availability after the service is one possible way to encourage them to go beyond praying.

Challenging sinners whom God has convicted in a service, however, to come forward is supported by epistolary teaching showing that a fitting response in such a situation involves publicly abasing oneself and informing the congregation about what God has done for them. Such a response is consistent with other passages about what God demands from sinners who would come to him for forgiveness of their sins.

Although Scripture thus supports the use of a “head bowed, eyes closed . . .” invitation, such invitations have often been misused in years past. A minister who uses such an invitation must do so with great care so that he is not manipulative in what he does.

Rajesh

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5 responses to Is "Heads Bowed, Eyes Closed . . ." Inherently an Unscriptural Manipulative Practice?

  1. 1. Aside from biblical precedent for either lifting your eyes or bowing your head, the connotation in 21st century culture is not positive. Even if the preacher is not manipulative as some are, the connotation still exists? Why force an old manner of response on a congregation that reminds people of manipulation?

    2. Because of the previous point, it seems to me to be something that is neither mandated nor forbidden in Scripture, so a preacher is welcome to do it, but must understand his cultural and historical context.

    I myself grew up in contexts where manipulation was often present. When I came to BJU, I was exposed to both the same manipulation I grew up with, and also invitations that were not manipulative. But even when they were not manipulative, I still felt pressure. Whether that pressure came from within my own heart and experience, or implicitly from the speaker, I do not know.

    3. I hesitate to use the invitational methods you mention more than on a rare occasion because of the theological premise inherent in such methods. Using them often indicates pressure to congregants that “it’s all up to them.” I much prefer to end a sermon with a benediction or blessing of hope that points their hearts to Christ.

    Humble hearts will want to talk with someone about their growth; they do not need to be coerced or manipulated.

    • Dustin,

      Thanks for your interest and feedback on this subject. Here are my thoughts about your comments:

      1. More than biblical precedent is involved; biblical principles about a proper approach to God are revealed from the relevant texts that I treated. These are not culturally specific and must be maintained regardless of cultural considerations. Plus, negative connotations of such invitations would only be present in settings where people have previously had negative experiences with manipulation in invitations. Such negativity is not inherent with the use of a “head bowed . . .” invitation. Furthermore, in my opinion, the potential negative aspects do not outweigh the importance of leading sinners into a proper response to the message that fully reflects all Scriptural revelation about God’s expectations for them.

      2. Feeling pressure in a service is not inherently indication that manipulation is being employed. A minister’s applying appropriate pressure on his hearers is biblical, as Acts 2:40 shows: Peter forcefully challenged sinners at length at Pentecost to respond the gospel that he had preached earlier to them (Acts 2:40). He did so, after he had given them a brief response of what they were to do (2:38-39). The verbs that Luke uses to summarize Peter’s lengthy challenge to them are forceful terms and the summary of the content of his “after-sermon”/long invitation shows that he pointedly urged them to be saved from the fate that their untoward generation would experience. Giving a long, forceful, pointed appeal to sinners to be saved after preaching the gospel to them and telling them how to respond thus has explicit apostolic basis.

      3. I’m unclear what you intend to convey concerning the supposed theological premise that is inherent in such methods. Scriptural teaching puts the onus on the sinner to respond to what he has heard in God-honoring ways (cf. Matt. 23:37; Lk. 13:34; Paul and Barnabas’ rebuking their hearers for their unwillingness to respond to the gospel [Acts 13:46]).

      The 3,000 who were saved at Pentecost were not given a message that ended with “a benediction or blessing of hope that point[ed] their hearts to Christ”; they were forcefully challenged at length in a pointed manner to be saved! Peter did not manipulate them by doing so; he put godly pressure on them to respond lest they experience the just wrath of God that they deserved for their sins.

      Humble hearts gladly receive pointed challenge to them that instructs them in what they must do to get right with God (Ps. 141:5). “Rebuke a wise man and he will love thee” (Prov. 9:8) is the mindset that we all need at all times, and instruction of that nature that is given in an invitation is not coercion or manipulation. God wants ministers to urge people to flee from the wrath to come (Luke 3:7).

  2. Bradley McKenzie July 21, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    I didn’t see anything in those verses about the eyes being closed – dead people’s eyes have to be closed by others, generally – and I think it is a bit of a stretch to use those verses to support an invitation. But there is no doubting the power of God to be able to change a person.
    My personal experience is secondary to the Word, of course, but I will share it anyway. I use an invitation occasionally at camp. The invitation and appeal are a time of soul-searching and prayer. We have an inquiry area that is manned by counselors. We do not generally ask our campers to leave the service, but to go to the place of prayer after the service if God is dealing with them and/or they want to spend time in prayer, with or without a counselor.
    In our church (now not talking about camp) we also do not have an invitation. I read the letters of missionaries that do, and the altar is filled with people praying. I’m happy for them to do it the way God wants them to, and I rejoice over every God-induced change.
    I myself apply the Word of God on Sunday mornings for the saved primarily and also for the unsaved to some extent, though Acts 2:42 indicates that the primary activities of the church are believer-related. I fully expect for the Word of God to have application for everyone present, including every believer. In theory, everyone in the church could walk the aisle every time, including the preacher. All Scripture is profitable for the “man of God.” I tell them what God wants them to do, and I fully expect every one of them – not just such as would walk an aisle – to get busy applying God’s truth after every service. No exceptions.
    But even when I deal with people about their soul in personal conversation, I do not urge upon them a decision right then. I lay down the facts, and I let them know what is at stake, but I warn them NOT to make a decision prematurely. They need to count the cost of discipleship. So, I tell them to let me know when they have made a decision or (if they need help or want to have someone there) when they desire to. We also place much emphasis on a public profession once the faith has taken place, for with the mouth confession is made, and that may as well be in front of several people – no “every eye closed, no one looking around” there! While I do urge upon people the hazard of procrastination, I also make some attempt to dissuade them. If they let themselves be dissuaded, they apparently were not ready yet. However, I fully trust that the Holy Spirit will continue bringing pressure to bear upon the soul of any who are ordained to eternal life – in this sense, the doctrine of election gives me great confidence and courage in evangelism – and many times people have either come to me later to get saved, or, even more frequently have gotten saved on their own or with some other person concerned about their soul, and then came and told me later. The ones I pressured or even provided with a model prayer – “Repeat after me!” – have been the ones that have proven to be bear the least or no fruit at all. When they pray spontaneously and don’t need me to put words in their mouth, O, that is beautiful!
    Recently after a service I said to a man, “I’m going to go greet these people over here, and then I’ll come back to talk with you.” He said, “O, no you won’t! You’ll talk to me now! Where will it be? At my house? You name the place. I need to settle this matter with Jesus right now.” I warned him that he had better not do anything to please us, but he told me that he had thought it over thoroughly, and he wasn’t going to be dissuaded. Well, I missed out that day on greeting several visitors, but I got in on hearing a man stop saying, “God, IF Jesus is Your Son, then show me.” and start saying, “God, Jesus IS Your Son and my Savior. Thank You for showing me!”
    So, if a man of God feels liberty to give an invitation, more power to him. If he has no peace in doing so, then he should not do so. He should just preach or witness his heart out, and then place his entire dependence upon the Father to draw people to the Son. The Father will draw them, and they will come to Jesus, if the Father has given them to Him. If not, no end of urging will change the situation. Either God is working, or He isn’t. Cry out to God that He will work. He will, and He does!
    By the way, 1 Corinthians 14:25 is one of my favorite passages, and I pray frequently that the response of sinners that happen to attend a service where believers are all doing the right thing, will involve spontaneous conviction (the secrets of his heart becoming evident), spontaneous worship (prostrate is fine with me, as long as God is the object), and spontaneous testimony (of God being in each of us individually and collectively).
    Well, I’m not opposed to what you are saying, but I would say, “Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind.”
    May God bless you and your invitations!
    Your friend, Brad

    • Thanks for sharing your perspectives and interacting with me about these issues. Because you shared so much with me in your comments, I will respond to the various points that you made in a series of responses, which should help keep the length down and any further discussion that we might have more focused.

      Yes, none of the verses that I cited explicitly say anything about the people’s eyes being closed. It seems to me that I plainly acknowledged (highlighted in bold below) in my article that I was assuming that point:

      “Preachers routinely ask their people to bow in prayer with them in numerous contexts, such as before receiving the Lord’s Supper, ordaining deacons, and dedicating children. The (legitimate) assumption in these settings is that people will close their eyes when they bow their heads. Scripture supports a sinner’s bowing his head (presumably with his eyes closed) in the presence of Deity, when approaching God, or encountering a messenger of God.”

      I believe, however, that assuming that they closed their eyes is a valid position. Closing one’s eyes when one bows his head to pray to God is fully consistent with an undistracted turning of the gaze of one’s soul to an invisible God.

      Also, I seriously doubt that you or any other parent would teach his children that when they bow their heads to pray to God, it does not matter whether they close their eyes or not. The two naturally go together.

      Having done further research, I find that Scripture provides explicit material that supports my position. When Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus and convicted him of his sinfulness, here is what happened:

      KJV Act 9:4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

      5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

      6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

      7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

      8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.

      When Saul encountered Jesus in His glory, Saul “fell to the earth.” Later, when he got back up, Luke says that he opened his eyes. His eyes, therefore, were closed (at least at some point) when he was upon the ground.

      Confronted literally with the light of the glory of God, Saul fittingly closed his natural eyes. Consistent with this Scriptural account, I believe that when God confronts a sinner with his sinfulness and humbles him, it is fitting for the sinner to humble himself before God by praying to Him while at least bowing his head and closing his eyes in the face of the glory of God that has supernaturally confronted him.

      As I see it, this account of Paul’s conversion naturally accords with what I believe Paul relates in 1 Cor. 14:25, although he does not explicitly say that person has his eyes closed. Based on the available Scriptural data, I conclude that heads bowed with eyes closed is a Scriptural perspective for praying in humility to an unseen God when He confronts a lost man with his sinfulness.

      I plan to respond to your other points soon, as God leads and time allows. Hope you are doing well. The Lord be with you.

      Rajesh

      • Brad,

        Here are many other thoughts that have come to my mind as I have carefully pondered all your remarks:

        Where is the apostolic basis for having an inquiry area manned by counselors?

        What apostolic teaching or example supports your practice of trying to dissuade inquirers?

        Do you expect a lost person with no biblical background and without any instruction received from believers (either in a message or afterwards) to be able to formulate a prayer to God that is appropriate?

        Did not Jesus give people (in what Pastor Minnick regards as the greatest evangelistic sermon of all, The Sermon on the Mount) a model prayer and extensive instruction about how and what to pray to God?

        Is your stress on spontaneity in your handling of 1 Cor. 14:25 supported by the text? It seems to me that you are assuming that the prophesying included no instruction to any sinners present about how to respond appropriately to God’s work in his heart as a result of what he has heard in the service. Lack of mention, however, in such a highly condensed report does not constitute sufficient evidence for understanding the absence of either testimony to particular truths or the use of a particular practice that is not overtly unbiblical.

        Scripture teaches that ministers have a role to play in the Spirit’s work of convicting sinners (2 Tim. 4:2). This ministry is not just limited to what a minister says in his message (see Acts 2:40).

        Do your views about “pressuring” inquirers to respond agree with the explicit Scriptural record of Peter’s lengthy (“many other words”), forceful (two verbs that indicate more than just a calm relating of facts—testified and exhorted), pointed ministry (“be saved from . . .”; 2:40)—after his lengthy message—to inquirers at Pentecost (2:37)? It seems clear that Peter was urging every inquirer to make a decision right then.

        If the king of Nineveh (and his nobles), who were lost people, gave their people extensive instruction about how to respond rightly to Jonah’s message (Jon. 3:7-10), is it unwarranted for ministers who know the Bible well to instruct lost people, who do not know God and do not know the Bible well, about the proper responses that God requires from them?

        Did not Namaan’s servants (2 Kings 5:13) serve to convince him to respond aright to God’s message from God’s messenger?

        Thanks for interacting with me on this subject. It has spurred me to give the teaching of Scripture a lot of additional attention.

        Rajesh