We were in Perth over the weekend. I met a number of friends whom I had not seen for a while. There was a brother I had not met for 40 years. There was a couple whose wedding I conducted 20 years ago. Some of them had walked with me through the darkest days of my life. And I had walked with them through some of their valleys as well. It was good seeing my friends again. There was much joy, animated conversation and laughter. We greeted and parted with firm handshakes and hugs.
Firm handshakes and hugs were made for such folks and such occasions. They felt right. We might not exchange firm handshakes and we definitely would not hug strangers (hey I’m Chinese) or acquaintances. That would not be appropriate. But we are grateful that we can communicate warmth and affection to close friends through physical expressions like hugs. Welcome to the world of haptics, the nonverbal code of touching and touching behaviour as experienced during human communication. (P.S. Perkins, The Art and Science of Communication, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008, 48.)
God made human beings with bodies. We shouldn’t be surprised that bodily contact is part of human communication. Sexual intercourse for example is how a husband and wife demonstrate and reinforce their love for each other in the covenant of marriage. During New Testament times, believers had a way to demonstrate their love for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. They were to give each other holy kisses. Note the following:
All the brothers and sisters here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (1 Corinthians 16:20 NIV)
Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ. (1 Peter 5:14 NIV)
Commenting on 1 Peter 5:14, Peter H. Davids writes:
In the ancient world kisses were normally exchanged among family members (parents and children; brothers and sisters; servants and masters) and at times between rulers and their clients. The erotic kiss is secondary and not stressed in the literature. The familial kiss probably forms the background to the NT practice, for all fellow-Christians were considered brothers and sisters. This affectionate kissing was normally on the cheeks, forehead, or hands. We can assume such to be the practice here. While we are not sure when in the service it was done, it is probable that it was a mark of greeting (Luke 7:45; 15:20) or parting (Acts 20:37) . . .
In calling it the “kiss of love” Peter not only brings out the meaning of kiss (“kiss,” philema in Greek, comes from phileo, a verb indicating familial and friendly as opposed to erotic love), but also expresses the proper relationship among the members of the Christian community (“love” here is the typical Christian term for love, agape, used also in 1:22; 4:8). (Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990, 204-205).
Robert Banks points out both the importance of exchanging holy kisses and the fact that the practice was a familiar one in New Testament times.
To interpret this action (holy kiss) as merely a formal or secondary procedure would be to underestimate its importance. Not as significant as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it does, like the laying on of hands, play an important role in early Christian communal life. By means of the action the bond between each member of the church was given real, not merely symbolic expression.
In itself the exchange of kisses in such a group is not particularly remarkable . . . it was part of the everyday life of Eastern societies, especially among relatives, friends, and those giving and receiving hospitality (compare Luke 7:45). (Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, Revised Edition, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994, 85).
Something is lost if we ignore the bible’s expectation that we demonstrate our affection for each other as brothers and sisters using the code of touch. How then are we to apply the New Testament practice of holy kisses to church life today? We note that the practice of familial kissing was part and parcel of life in biblical times. The practice was not strange. It was the implications that were new. There was now a community of people from all walks of life who loved each other deeply and were willing to die for each other. It would be strange if they did not greet each other with holy kisses.
But the Asian communities I come from do not, as a rule, exchange kisses in public when they meet friends and family. I do not think that, to be Christian, we must adopt Middle Eastern cultural norms. In the communities I come from, handshakes are common expressions of connecting. And some of us will hug family and close friends. However we choose to physically demonstrate our kinship in Christ, we ought to do something that our communities are comfortable with so that we do not stumble over the form and miss the significance of the expression. We have to respect the fact that different cultures, indeed different individuals, will have different do’s and don’ts for physical contact. We must respect those differences. But we shouldn’t give up trying to find suitable ways to physically express our care for each other. Something significant is lost if we do.
We need to bear in mind that churches in the New Testament were close knit communities of twenty to thirty people who assembled in homes. There was a depth of relationship in such assemblies that made holy kisses natural and logical. Maybe the question we have to struggle with is not why we don’t do holy kisses or hugs. Maybe the question we have to struggle with first is why many of our churches have become anonymous places where people hardly know each other. After all I won’t feel comfortable being hugged by a stranger, whether in the marketplace or in church. Peter asks us to “greet one another with a kiss of love.” Maybe it’s not the “kiss” part that is the problem.