“Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16)
“…Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (I Corinthians 16:20)
“Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (II Corinthians 13:12)
“Greet one another with a kiss of love.” (I Peter 5:14)
Many modern interpreters go to great lengths to enculturate and even explain away the kiss as an act of affectionate — not sexual — love that Christians ought to have for one another. Folks all great themselves with kisses in some cultures, they say, so we should just do whatever is best for our culture; that is, we ought to do the handshake or fist-bump of love.
Wrote Charles Spurgeon, “Give one another a hearty shake of the hands. That is the western interpretation of the eastern form. Outward forms differ. The inward sense abides the same. Let brotherly love continue in a hearty friendliness among yourselves.”
Odd thing is that we do not explain away other Bible-commanded oddities in such a fashion. At least, we shouldn’t. When the Lord’s Table is served, we don’t do Nabs and a Coke or RC Cola and a Moon Pie. The Pope even declared recently that Catholic communion must have gluten! We stick to grape juice or wine and real bread or crackers. We break the bread or break up the crackers. We get up and read the accounts of the Lord’s Table — every Sunday in some churches — and share in the Lord’s body and blood (whether metaphorically or not is an issue for a different book). Just because some cultures drink wine but ours drinks soda does not, most interpreters agree, allow us to get away from grapes entirely when doing communion, and just because some people are gluten-sensitive does not mean we substitute pears or steak for the bread.
So why the rush to get away from the holy kiss? Of course it is uncomfortable and weird in our broader cultural context, but rather than say “oh it is just too weird in our culture so let’s generalize Paul and Peter to mean ‘great each other warmly,’” shouldn’t we at least try to encounter our culture in a meaningful fashion by asking why we are so scared of an affectionate kiss between Christians?
So let’s look at the importance and meaning of kissing. What does kissing say or do in an affectionate but non-sexual relationship? Why does it matter? Why are we are so scared of kissing as friends nowadays. What is wrong with it? Why is it considered weird? What is stopping us from following a pretty clear command in Scripture by greeting one another with a kiss of love?
Kissing in Scripture
Terrible online resources would tell you that kissing originated in India and spread through the conquests of Alexander the Great. Such a timeline totally ignores the widespread references to kissing in the Hebrew Bible that predate the Hellenic conquests. The Hebrew Bible has several references to kissing, including kisses between father and son, lovers, family, and people to their kings or idols.
The Hebrew root the word we translate “to kiss” implies a joining together or fastening of an object to a body. Kissing was a symbol of affection and unity. Most of the references are familial, between sons and fathers or daughters and mothers. They were greetings or good-byes. Kisses are viewed positively in Scripture and almost totally as affectionate signs, not sexual actions. So Proverbs 25:26 says, “An honest answer is like a kiss of friendship.” And elsewhere we see the depravity of Joab when he kills his cousin by stabbing him in the stomach after he “took him by the beard with his right hand as though to kiss him.” (2 Samuel 20:9). The normal usage of the kiss was friendly or familial affection.
Of course, kisses can be sexual as well. “Kiss me and kiss me again,” the young woman says in the Song of Solomon, “for your love is sweeter than wine.” (Song of Solomon 1:2). “May your kisses be as exciting as the best wine.” (Song of Solomon 7:9) But even Song of Solomon notes that public kissing was generally recognized as affectionate, not sexual, and that women and men only kissed when they were family: “Oh, I wish you were my brother, who nursed ay my mother’s breasts. Then I could kiss you no matter who was watching, and no one would criticize me.” (8:1).
The New Testament does not have as many references to kissing as the Old Testament, but it is important to note that none of the references are sexual. The most important kiss is that of Judas, who betrays Jesus by kissing him in the garden. Jesus notes the depth of this betrayal — the corruption of a normal symbol of affection and friendship — by saying “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48) This kiss contrasts with the many humble kisses of the sinful woman who weeps at his feet. “She kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.” (Luke 7:38) He contrasts her impoverished affection — she is loving at his feet, considering herself unworthy of pouring affection on his head or face — with Simon’s indignance, noting that this dinner host “did not greet me with a kiss.” (Luke 7:45) Her kisses are a symbol of her faith.
What do we glean from these and other references to kissing?
1. Kissing is a meaningful symbol of heartfelt affection.
2. Kissing is mostly seen as non-sexual.
3. Kissing principally happens between members of the same sex or between family members.
4. Kissing occurs across the span of Bible cultures, including Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and Moabite.
5. Kissing continues over thousands of years of Bible history.
6. Kissing is never proscribed or looked down upon unless it is used in betrayal or as a public sign of sexual love.
What makes kissing so meaningful? Consider the act itself, in all its constituent parts: first, someone draws near to someone else. Bodies are close, even touching. We become close enough to smell one another. We see if our clothes are old and unwashed or new and clean. We can sense someone’s attitude. Do they withdraw? Do they want to be near enough to you to kiss you? Are they faking this moment?
In the act of kissing itself, your lips touch another person — usually on the cheek, though Greeks and Romans recorded affection and non-sexual kissing on the lips as well — and you feel their skin with one of the most sensitive parts of your body. All this sounds terribly weird to Americans and most Westerners, but there it is. The kiss is intimate, close, tender, and even sensual.
Kissing someone requires a disposition of love and affection toward another person. Allowing yourself to be kissed requires a certain yielding or surrender to a person. As Joab showed, we are never more vulnerable physically than when we are near enough to be kissed. In this way, kissing is an act rooted in complete trust, especially in Bible times when the only widespread and surely effective means of killing someone was a blade to the belly or the neck.
Kissing also requires the comfort and acceptance of the community around the people who are greeting one another with a kiss. Seeing two men kiss in our current culture implies the people are family, gay, or European/South American. Seeing two men kiss in the church lobby in Backwater, North Carolina might cause a gunfight. Seeing two women kiss might be more acceptable, but only marginally so. Oddly, though, having an older woman in the church kiss a younger man or woman in the church as a sign of affection is much more accepted and widespread, even in the deep south. Older women get to be everyone’s grandmothers at some point in Southern churches.
Acceptance, trust, affection, love — the kiss symbolizes and even requires all of these. It is no wonder that Scripture and many cultures employ the kiss as a meaningful and even required gesture. Just as baptism serves as a public statement of our baptism by Christ into salvation, so our kisses show how we as brothers have overcome the natural hatred and disunity of mankind to form supernatural bonds of trust and affection in Christ.
Why Kisses End
Al Mohler wrote that “the normalization of homosexuality destroys the natural order of friendships among men.” In other words, male friendship — and thus holy kisses — have been destroyed by sexual confusion and wondering whether someone is gay if they sleep in the same bed with someone of the same sex as a kid. He quotes Anthony Esolen, who wrote:
“The stigma against sodomy cleared away ample space for an emotionally powerful friendship that did not involve sexual intercourse, exactly as the stigma against incest allows for the physical and emotional freedom of a family.”
I disagree with Mohler and Esolen. Whatever the agendas of various LGBTQ organizations, existing stigma against homosexuality did not create or eradicate meaningful manly relationships in the 80’s, when I grew up, or in previous generations. The church was not afflicted with widespread holy kisses or exuberant signs of affection. Individuals have sought out or failed to seek out relationships on an individual basis for all mankind. Most tightly affectionate relationships in years past — boys sharing beds, for example, or writing affectionate letters to one another — came about within larger family structures or, in richer societies, with the advent of single-sex boarding schools. Men shared deeper private relationships with other men in part because they lived in closer proximity to other men. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, men slept in near quarters on ships, jobsites, and farming quarters. Women did not work out in the world in the same manner. Men with travelling jobs were away from family far longer than travelling men are today, so relationships were in part by necessity. Male closeness was not a result of hating sodomy (which still occurred, by the way, but in secret, we know from history) but the result of proximity and necessity.
Various sociologists have traced problems with American male relationships and broader social collapse back many decades, including the Middletown studies in the 1920s and Robert Putnum’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community in the 1990’s. It seems like every sociologist wants to point to this that or the other cause for American social decline — including male friendships — and Mohler, as amateur sociologist, adds homosexuality to a list that has included radio, TV, internet, virtual reality, women in the workforce, demographic changes, and other evils.
The reality of any friendship is that closeness requires vulnerability, and affection requires proximity and time. I am very close to my college roommates in large part because of the massive amount of time we shared together in school; I daresay none of the male friends I have made since my marriage will ever be as close, in part because none of them will ever require my sharing a room, food, laundry, classes, and hours of basketball and video games every night. I still vacation with these old friends and their families. I did not grow close to them because I was totally free of the fear of any of them being gay. Fact is, I didn’t care if they were gay or not. I grew close to them because we spent significant time together, shared significant life milestones, and were brutally honest with one another. We treasured one another’s vulnerability and were careful not to betray one another’s trust.
Simply put: men in America are not close friends because they do not spend significant time with one another like they had to in years past. They do not form the tight bonds that were necessitated by months at sea or years at war. They do not sleep in shared quarters. They do not live in group quarters and shower together out of necessity like they had to in years past. Instead of talking with other men late in the night when I need company while on the road, I call my wife with my telephone or text her. I am able to cross the entire world in several hours, not months or years. I am able to talk with my old friends rather than form new ones. I simply will never have the kind of proximity with other men that formed my deepest friendships as young man.
Vulnerability and proximity form friendships, but even the closest American friendships have not been marked with holy kisses. Fact is, Americans have never really been public kissers. Captain Kemble made the mistake in colonial America of kissing his wife in public after “three years at sea, a transgression that earned him several hours of public humiliation in the stocks.” Public affection was shunned, even between lovers, and men were not known to kiss other men. The Victoria era strictures that bled into Anglo-American culture surely reinforced such public displays. Brides were not even supposed to kiss their husbands in their own weddings! From The Bazaar Book of Decorum. The Care of the Person, Manners, Etiquette, and Ceremonials, printed in 1873:
“When the ceremony is over, the question sometimes arises whether the bride is to be kissed by the bridegroom. We should leave its decision to the instinct of affection were we not solemnly warned by a portentous authority on deportment that the practice is decidedly to be avoided; it is never followed by people in the best society. A bridegroom with any tact will take care that this is known to his wife, since any disappointment of expectations would be a breach of good breeding.” The bride is congratulated by all her friends in the church, and elderly relatives will kiss her in congratulations: This is, of course, now settled beyond all peradventure of doubt by the fact that, according to the same authority, the queen was kissed by the Duke of Sussex, but not by Prince Albert.”
Point being, kissing has always been a weird subject in the English and American cultural milieu. Sometimes it is celebrated as a symbol of peace or hope; sometimes it is chastised as lustful or gross; sometimes it is simply accepted or even ignored as being hum-drum. What, in our culture, would people kissing in public mean to us as we walk down the street? Not much. Kissing on TV, movies, etc. is simply there, part of human life. Not questioned.
So why don’t men kiss other men or women kiss other women now? Why is that affection not put out? I argue that is homophobia, not an acceptance of sodomy, that causes our fear of kissing. Men are afraid of appearing gay in American Christian culture. I was raised in a culture that widely and tacitly accepted the word “fag” as an insult and check against any sort of culturally rejected behavior. I would be a fag for hugging a guy but would also be a fag for eating too much (I was a pretty fat kid). Fag was ubiquitous, tossed at me and by me to others with incredibly frequency. The widespread panic over “gay rights” mean that Christians felt rather free to fear gays and slam them in any way possible. In doing so, we ensured that young men were extremely comfortable with our bodies and with showing public displays of affection with other men. It is not sodomy that makes me draw back from a holy kiss; it is the fear of being seen as gay. In other words, the gay people are not the problem; judgmental people within my own culture are the problem. More to the point: I am my own problem.
Because, honestly, who cares if someone thinks I am gay anymore? Or what do I care if the man I am trying to show affection to or spend time with is gay? I am not so infatuated with myself to assume that all women find me desirable, so why would I assume that about men who are gay? And even if a man finds me attractive, my aim would be the restoration of his own heart to Christ, not the prevention of my seeming to be gay.
How would we act differently, dear Christian brothers (and sisters, though I think men are hung up on this far more than women), if we just shrugged off this concern about looking or seeming gay (provided we live within the confines of Scripture as to our mannerisms), and just loved one another as Christ loved his disciples and the church? What if we expressed hurt feelings, sought consolation, rebuked, loved, cherished, were patient with, and genuinely showed affection for one another? Would we be gay then? Would we snicker behind one another’s backs and say assume all these brotherly-loving godly men were suddenly homosexuals?
What a foolish thought!
This thought is stupid for two reasons: first, homosexuals are not more affectionate, kind, or loving people than straight folks. This is a misunderstanding created by rampant homophobia and the media. Gay men are shown in their most effeminate form and serve as designers or hairdressers or whatever other stereotypical form. They have lisps and say “Fabulous.” Most gay men are not that way, and not every homosexual man is loving because of his gay-ness. They are sinners, same as you and me, and not predisposed toward kindness or brotherly affection. So why would genuine affection between men be “gay?” If anything, brotherly love is completely un-sexual or a-sexual, being rooted in the love of Jesus which surpasses sex itself!
Second, assuming that brotherly affection — even holy kisses! — are gay then denigrates the idea of the holy kiss itself by confusing it with sexual activity. Men who hug each other or even kiss one another in brotherly love are not then going to have sex. What an insult to Paul and Peter and all of the Bible where men have affectionate relationships and love one another deeply!
Brothers, some men experience sexual attraction for other men. That just happens. That is life. Will we let our fear of those people dominate our outward displays of affection? Will we refuse to hug one another or even — God forbid! — kiss one another because gay men kiss each other? Or are we foolish enough to think that the commands of God will somehow incite new homosexual thoughts where none existed? Will holy kisses take us down the slippery slope to gay kisses? Come on.
Final note: a great deal of homophobia has been fueled by men who had homosexual urges and never dealt with them. “Dealt with them” means all sorts of things in different Christian communities, from have therapy for, dealing with, or confessing them, but at the very least “dealing with” homosexual urges must begin with facing their reality. How many anti-gay politicians and pastors have found themselves in gay-related sex scandals! What if they had confided in their pastor or in their friends or spouses and actually faced the truth, whatever the next steps might be?
Reclaiming the Holy Kiss
As impassioned a case as I hope to make for the holy kiss, I recognize that we aren’t going to see a sudden outbreak of men bending in for the buss. But can we appropriate some of the features of the holy kiss and at least move toward it in some more meaningful ways than Spurgeon’s “hearty shake of the hands?” Here are some ideas:
1. Accept and practice physical symbols of affection between people of the same sex. The deep hug. The bro hug, even. The embrace. The clap or even rub of a back. These are all physical forms of affection that are not inherently sexual, but they all have the same features of the holy kiss: they require proximity, vulnerability, and affection. Why not hug brothers in Christ in a deep and even awkwardly affectionate manner when you see them? Why not comfort someone with a draped arm and drawing them near?
2. Meaningfully confront the homophobic undertones of your lack of physical expression. Do you fear that you are someone around you is gay? Why? What can you do about this fear that aligns with Scripture (teaching, training, rebuking, uplifting, praying for, etc) rather than merely avoiding certain kinds of physical contact? Fathers, perhaps you can start this confrontation by providing your boys with meaningful and affectionate physical contact. Hugs and kisses are great between a father and son and provide a level of comfort and familial intimacy that creates life-long trust and mutual care. Consider having that kind of familiar comfort with others in your Christian community as well, expanding your vulnerability amongst Christian brothers, fearlessly loving them absent and concern for their possibly being gay.
3. Experience proximity with other Christians of the same gender. In other words, men, hang out with Christian fellas. Do fun things together, even if the cost is some time with your nuclear family. Recognize that refreshing times of mutual support and rebuke can be a boon to your married life. Your wife might be happy for you to have someone other than her to dump all your anxieties over, while Christian brothers can do a good job of telling you how to be a better husband or father. Single men and women should seek friendships with their own sexes, not just the opposite sex, and share common struggles and rejoice together at your successes.
Christian women, although much of this was aimed at Christian men, I believe that many of you struggle more with the problem of proximity than the men do. There is an easy temptation to cut off friendships with other women once your husband comes along, and an even greater temptation to ignore friendships when kids join the scene. You feel “mommy guilt” when you are out with the girls instead of spending time at home or with your husband. Obviously there is a balance — some mothers do abandon their families, just as some fathers do — but I find in Christian homes that more women struggle with finding meaningful time with other Christians than men! Women, find yourselves godly Christian women with whom you can spend quality time.
A note on the quality of the time you spend: proximity does not mean merely sitting together on the couch watching The Bachelor or some other electronic pabulum. Quality time can mean watching a movie or show, provided that show and the time spent watching it pave the way to deeper relationships and more meaningful conversations than “oh look at his abs.” This is where vulnerability comes in: are you brave enough to take your community of Christian women (or, brothers, your community of men) to a deeper level, conversation-wise? Will you bring up your hurts, fears, angers, and frustrations, with a view to finding help? Will you uplift and encourage or even rebuke others?
Proximity only matters inasmuch as it is informed by the command to “love one another.” Friendship devoid of actions, dispositions, and feelings of love is vacuous and wasteful. Why spend your time on those false relationships? Enjoy one another, yes, but go deeper still.
4. Ask: “am I genuinely overjoyed to see this person? Why or why not?” One of the reasons we cannot greet one another with a holy kiss (or deep hug) is because we actually do not like each other. We have unhealed wounds or unforgiven sins. We avoid spending time with other Christians. We feel an implicit criticism because our lives have not turned out as we would have hope while other people’s lives seem so perfect. We put on airs rather than live in reality. We gussy our kids up for the church narthex. We ask “how are you” without meaning it. All of this fakery infects our churches and separates us from one another. Break down that façade! Be real and experience real emotions in the presence of one another. Only then will you begin to feel any emotions at all at church, let alone emotions like joy or rejoicing.
5. Maybe give a bro a kiss? But only on the cheek, right. And quick. And not like wet or anything. And then do something vigorous and manly to show the kiss was totally cool, right? Oh come off it. Jesus kissed dudes. Give it a go.
 Those same sources would lazily suggest, based on one dissertation that has been widely disproven by Latin scholars, that the Romans had three kinds of kisses: osculum (friend’s kiss on the cheek), basium (affectionate kiss on the lips), and suavium (deep lover’s kiss). Now is not the time to detail why this simplistic division is totally wrong, but suffice to say that most of the words are used more times in alternate settings than are used according to this lazy description. Basium, for example, appears in the same number of erotic contexts as suavium. Romans loved kissing, but their categories were not clear-cut like some articles would have you believe. See Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church by Michael Philip Penn