“Greet Priscilla and Aquila. . . . Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epaenetus. . . . Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. . . . Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings” (Romans 16:3-6, 16).
These folks represent only a few people whom Paul greeted personally as he closed his letter to the Roman believers. In fact, he mentioned 26 people by name, and his exhortation to “greet one another with a holy kiss” represents only one of five such exhortations in the New Testament letters (see also 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14).
Some Christians have puzzled over this injunction – particularly the “holy kiss.” Others have resolved the problem by practicing it in various forms even in 21st-century. One church I heard of – each Sunday men would greet men and women would greet women with a “holy kiss.” Knowing the lack of love in the church, I often wondered how “holy” the kiss really was.
Most Christians, however, simply dismiss this biblical exhortation as purely cultural. (I don’t remember hearing a sermon preached on this particular text; nor do I remember it ever being seriously treated in my biblical studies in graduate school.)
What did Paul and Peter mean? Do these five injunctions (four by the Apostle Paul and one by the Apostle Peter) have any relevance to Christians living in the 20th century? When an exhortation is repeated five times in the New Testament, Christians ought to consider it seriously before dismissing it as irrelevant.
This injunction seems to have both cultural and supra-cultural dimensions. On the one hand, to “greet one another” is normative. On the other hand, the form of that greeting varies. Put another way, Christians are always to sincerely greet one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. The way that greeting is expressed depends on what is appropriate and acceptable in a given culture.
The Cultural Aspect
In order to properly interpret scriptural exhortations, we must understand the difference between “absolutes” and “non-absolutes.” For example, we are to “teach and counsel one another,” but the Bible does not lock us into a particular form or structure for that process to take place. We are told to “preach the Word,” but are not told specifically how. In these cases, teaching, preaching, and counseling are basic functions that take on various forms. In fact, it is impossible to have function without form. It is possible, however, to talk about the function without describing the form. This the Bible does frequently.
Christians make a serious mistake when they superimpose particular cultural forms on biblical functions and then make the forms absolute as well as the functions. For example, some pastors teach that the Bible presents one-way communication as an absolute pattern, exclusive of other forms. This is the way they define preaching. (They will, of course, have difficulty explaining why Peter allowed dialogue in his sermon [Acts 2].)
To do this is the same as insisting that preaching must always be from the pulpit, arranged with three points, and delivered with forceful voice. The fact is, the Bible says nothing about the first two factors, and probably implies “loud voices” in most cases because they didn’t have amplifiers.
Don’t misunderstand. The Bible doesn’t teach that these things are wrong. The Bible leaves us free to develop the forms that are most appropriate in any given culture, to carry out a normative biblical function.
Understanding the scriptural difference between function and form, supra-cultural absolutes and cultural non-absolutes, helps solve many problems in biblical interpretation. With this in mind, the injunction to “greet one another with a holy kiss” also becomes an understandable concept-relevant in the first century as well as the twentieth. On the one hand, the injunction to “greet one another” is supra-cultural; on the other hand, the kiss represents a form of greeting very common in the first century. It is still common in some cultures today. We’ve all observed heads of state of Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries greeting one another with a kiss. Most noticeable are the outward demonstrations by Russian leaders when they visit outside their country. They usually hold their host officials by both arms and then give a kiss on either the right or both cheeks. Some call the embrace a “Russian bear hug.” They seem especially demonstrative when greeting officials of nearby Eastern European countries.
Paul’s and Peter’s concern was that the kiss be a “holy” one-a sanctified one-an expression of true Christian love. It was to demonstrate that believers were truly brothers and sisters in Christ. It was no longer to be just a greeting-a routine gesture that reflected the social graces of that particular culture.
The Bible gives several examples of greeting others with a kiss: Judas and Christ (Matthew 26:48-49); the father and his prodigal son (Luke 15:20); the Ephesian elders and Paul (Acts 20:37). Not one of these illustrations gives a specific description of the form a kiss took. Luke gives us a slight clue when he describes the parting scene between the Ephesian elders and Paul in Miletus. “And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck, and kissed him” (Acts 20:37, KJV). Yet, the description is not terribly specific. We can only speculate from what we’re told. It probably involved kissing his neck or his cheek. This, of course, conforms to the cultural practice of the day.
The ambiguity regarding “form” in Scripture is by unique design. Had the Holy Spirit specified a lot of form when He inspired the New Testament writers to describe New Testament functions, Christians all over the world would be attempting to copy form rather than function. Rather than allowing the biblical objectives to guide us in creating unique forms for a given moment in history and in particular cultures, we would probably be locking ourselves into first-century patterns and structures. This would be lethal to Christianity. The fact is, 21st-century Christians are often guilty of making the Scriptures teach form when it is not even there. Think of what it would be like if there were an abundance of forms spelled out in the New Testament. The Church would really be in trouble.
The Supra-cultural Aspect
It is always appropriate (and important) for Christians to “greet one another.” And though we may use the common and accepted form of greeting in a particular culture, it should be a holy form – a form that has deep meaning, reflecting sincere Christian love.
Greetings among people generally tend to be quite empty. People say, “Hello, how are you?” without any thought of wanting to know how you really are. Many people say, “It’s been good to see you.” Yet they could care less if they ever see you again. Many people say, “I’m glad you came,” while not caring if you’ll ever come again. All of these, of course, are meaningless and empty, if not in many instances down-right dishonest and hypocritical.
Paul’s concern (and Peter’s) was that these New Testament Christians would greet one another with pure motives. It was to be a true expression of concern and love. And today when Christians greet one another, it must reflect the same dynamic. There is no place for hypocrisy and dishonesty among members of Christ’s body. If we cannot greet one another in this way, we are admonished to confess our sins to each other to “pray for each other,” and to forgive one another (James 5:16; Colossians 3:13).
We are not to be out of harmony with other Christians. If a brother has sinned against us, we are to go to that person and, with grace and love, express our feelings. If we have sinned against someone, we are to ask his forgiveness (Matthew 18: 15).
Practical Steps for Helping Christians to Greet One Another in a Biblical Fashion
You cannot greet others sincerely if you do not really care about them, or if there is something between you and another Christian brother or sister. The first step in getting back into God’s will is to correct that problem. If you have been sinned against, go to that person and share why you feel the way you do. On the other hand, if you have sinned against someone else, immediately take the initiative and ask forgiveness.
Note: Be prepared to discover that you may be as wrong as the other person, though you feel it’s all his fault. Bad feelings exist among Christians today because of misunderstandings and a breakdown in communication. Each sincerely feels the other person is wrong. The fact is that both can be wrong!
Make a serious effort to develop sincere interest in others. If you don’t, you’ll never feel comfortable greeting them. You’ll always be “running away”-often blaming other people for not being interested in you.
Note: If you have difficulty expressing sincere affection and love for other Christians, your problem may be rooted in one of two sources. Either you are a self-centered person because you always think of yourself first and have built the world around yourself; or perhaps you feel uncomfortable with people because you are fearful. Perhaps you have deep feelings of inferiority.
There is only one basic solution to both of these problems – no matter what the root cause. You must forget about yourself. You must reach out to others. And though it may be painful – especially if your problem is psychological – you must begin to experience the benefits of relational Christianity. If you don’t, you will never grow spiritually as you should. Furthermore, you will not be functioning fully as part of the body, helping other people to grow.
Consider the aspects of physical affection in greeting other Christians. There is no doubt that first-century Christians greeted one another with more than words. This we can be sure of. A kiss-no matter how performed-involved physical contact with the other person. It probably involved both sexes. Could it be that 21st-century Christians have been so concerned with the “dangers” of touching others of the opposite sex that we have gone to the other extreme?
Note: There are dangers when Christians generally show physical affection to each other, particularly towards the opposite sex. If people are vulnerable to sensuous behavior, they will probably engage in inappropriate thoughts and actions no matter what the situation. There can also be dangers in “just talking” to Christians of the opposite sex.
Following are several guidelines that will help Christians avoid problems in showing physical affection-particularly to those of the opposite sex.
1. Men and women who are not related should always be discreet about showing physical affection.
2. Physical affection among unmarried people should rarely be expressed in private situations. People who are seriously looking forward to marriage should guard themselves at all times.
Note: Pastors and professional counselors must be especially cautious about showing physical affection. An emotionally or spiritually sick woman (or man) can destroy another’s reputation through gossip. Such a person might exaggerate any show of affection because of vain imagination.
3. Unmarried Christians should never show physical affection in such a way to stimulate the sensuous nature of the other person, causing improper thoughts and actions.
4. Some people who are more vulnerable to sin must always be more cautious than others in showing physical affection to the opposite sex. A young woman once complained to her pastor that her father, who was a Christian involved in Christian work, insisted on sensuously kissing her on the lips. The pastor later discovered that this man had a very unsatisfying relationship with his wife. Obviously, he was vulnerable sexually, even in expressing affection to his own daughter.
A Final Word
Mature Christians can and should show physical affection. In our society, shaking hands, a kiss on the cheek, a gentle embrace are certainly appropriate. Most Christians can express this kind of affection. But this kind of affection must always be based on pure motives, discretion, and above all, true Christian love. When it is expressed in this manner, it can create oneness, unity, and even spiritual and psychological healing. But when it is expressed inappropriately, reflecting impure motives, indiscretion, and selfish actions, it can lead to severe hurt, bitterness, and even immorality. But isn’t this true of most every ingredient in Christian relationships?