A rabbit trail on kissing

31 Aug

Yesterday morning at Huron Baptist Church, Pastor Steve Thomas concluded his series of sermons on 1 Peter. Our text was the final three verses of the book:

12 With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it. 13 She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. 14 Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.

Verse 14 always seems to illicit some laughs, doesn’t it? But why is that?

The standard explanation is that the kiss was the cultural greeting of that day; we have simply replaced it with our standard cultural greeting, the handshake. And this is doubtlessly true. Some cultures today still commonly practice a kiss as a greeting; I recall that during the summer that I traveled to Europe on a mission team from Bob Jones University, most guys on the team were at least a bit antsy at the prospect of being kissed full on the lips by a Russian brother.

I’m going to make my point here brief: the reality is that while both the kiss of greeting and the handshake are cultural expressions that have very similar functions, they are not identical in meaning. I would also suspect that our substitution of the arm’s-length handshake for the kiss is related to one of the most unchristian characteristics of our society: a radical individualism that considers the deep one-anotherness of Christian community invasive and uncomfortable.

The reality is that cultural forms carry meaning in themselves. And whether such meaning is associative or intrinsic is irrelevant to this point: if the form carries meaning, we must evaluate its meaning. The handshake is a contextualization of the kiss of greeting, but we must acknowledge at least some level of difference in meaning. And the same would be true if we tried to substitute other greeting rituals. What about a high five? A chest bump? Punching a buddy in the shoulder? These may all be acceptable forms of cultural greeting, but do they accomplish (within the setting of the corporate gathering of the church, where the kiss of greeting would have occurred) the same thing as the kiss of greeting?

Could a culturally acceptable expression of greeting actually be anti-Christian?

Note well: this post is not expressing any settled conclusions on my part regarding a re-institution of the kiss of greeting. I think we have something worth thinking about here, but those who know me needn’t avoid me at public gatherings out of fear of being kissed.

For what it’s worth, I think that this post is quite relevant to our ongoing discussion about musical diversity in the church.


Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Fundamentalism, Theology, Worship


4 responses to “A rabbit trail on kissing

  1. Chuck Bumgardner

    September 1, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Interestingly enough, I’ve recently read a couple of articles on this:

    John Ellington, “Kissing in the Bible: Form and Meaning,” Bible Translator 41 (1990): 409-16.

    Michael Penn, “Performing Family: Ritual Kissing and the Construction of Early Christian Kinship,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 10 (2002): 151-74.

    and (a couple of years ago)

    W. Klassen, “The Sacred Kiss in the New Testament: An Example of Social Boundary Lines,” NTS 39 (1993): 122-135.

    I hope to post on the topic soon, but it seems to me that in the broader culture when the kiss was not between lovers (even in scripture, the modifier “holy” rules out this sort of kiss, and early church writings go to some length to prohibit sensuality in this greeting), it was most often between family members, at least in extant literature (see Penn’s article). I’ve taken this to mean that we ought to have an affection for our fellow believers equivalent to the affection we would have for our physical family, and that we ought to demonstrate this affection when we gather together. It is interesting to study the evolution of the “holy kiss” through history, and how different groups have attempted to fulfill the pertinent commands in Scripture. I have tried to put these commands into practice by demonstrating a genuine affection toward my brothers and sisters in Christ in the same way I do so with my family. Sometimes that means a brotherly hug, but most people would be uncomfortable enough with that that I usually default to the not-as-expressive handshake while expressing verbally my joy at seeing them.

  2. Michael Riley

    September 1, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Really good thoughts, Chuck; I appreciate the references (which i should check out).

  3. chuckbumgardner

    September 1, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Here’s a quick read in CT by Michael Penn:

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