Greet with a Holy Kiss?

Applying an Uncomfortable Command

Some Christians today might be surprised to learn that the apostles command us, five times, to “greet [each other] with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; or “kiss of love,” 1 Peter 5:14). Really? How’s that supposed to work? When you arrive at church? When you cross paths during the week? And is it okay that many of us today, at least in my Christian circles, are not obeying this command? Or are we?

Previously, we surveyed a theology of kissing by tracing the theme across the Old Testament and identifying a key takeaway for the church age. We then turned to the two signature instances of kissing in the New Testament, both of them in the life of Christ: the holy kisses of one “woman of the city,” from a heart of love and worship (Luke 7:37–38), and the unholy kiss of betrayal from one of Jesus’s own disciples (Luke 22:47–48).

In this scriptural context, then, how do we understand the apostles’ charge about the holy kiss, and how might we apply it today across the stretches of our varying times and customs?

We Are Family

First and foremost, one of the main contributions of the survey was the familial (rather than romantic) nature of kissing in both ancient Israel and the early church. A massive and easily overlooked assumption beneath the apostles’ charge is the familial claim implicit in such instruction. Christ came to create a social reality that transcends that of blood relatives. He came to establish and build his church, as not only a people who receive his grace and salvation but as a family joined together to him, the elder brother, and through him, to the Father, by faith.

The holy-kiss charge communicates more than simply the implicit “we are family” as brothers and sisters in Christ, but we should not ignore this remarkable reality, nor a second truth which flows from it.

We Love Each Other

Not only are we, in Christ, family in fact, but we also are to be familial in affection. That is, we come to be like King David, not only in our words and acts but in our affections, when he says of fellow believers in Psalm 16:3,

As for the saints in the land,
they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.

As sinners ourselves, we often find fellow Christians to be some of the hardest people to love. But in our new selves, by the Spirit, the saints — our fellows in Christ, joined also to him — become our delight. However strange and quirky and annoying and difficult, however foolish and weak by the world’s standards (1 Corinthians 1:26–29), we learn to see our family members in Christ, despite their many flaws, as “excellent ones.”

We might then check ourselves with every “holy kiss,” whether a literal kiss (if acceptable still in some places) or in every kind word of greeting, expression of affection, handshake, or hug to a fellow Christian: Do I really manifest the new birth I have in Jesus, the heart that first loves God and also loves those who too have been born of him (1 John 5:1)? Are my demonstrations of affection toward other believers sincere expressions of love? Are my greetings holy, like that of the redeemed “woman of the city” in Luke 7? Or are they deceptive, even conniving, and unholy like the Judas kiss?

“The holy-kiss charge is a rebuke to any who claim Christ and yet nurse a hard heart toward his people.”

When affectionate ways of greeting one another in Christ become our norm, we may notice more readily emerging breaches in relationship. When we newly feel hesitant to embrace, say, some fellow believer (or extend a handshake, heartfelt word, or warm smile), that may indicate some unaddressed issue that needs attention and resolution (at least in our own hearts). Just as it’s hard to sincerely pray for someone while remaining angry at him, it would likewise be hard to give someone a “holy kiss” (or whatever culturally appropriate sign) while harboring bitterness.

Reticence to kiss between spouses may signal unresolved issues in a marriage. So too, in our churches, reticence to greet each other with manifest and unqualified warmth may signal a problem (and lead us to revisit Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5:23–24). This leads to a third and final truth informing how we think of, and apply, the holy kiss today.

We Love with Sincerity

Surely, “the holy kiss” meant, at least, kissing without lust. But again, kissing in the ancient world (and in Scripture) was far more familial than romantic. And very likely, at the end of five New Testament Epistles, the emphasis is not as much on the charge to kiss, as if early believers were not greeting each other with kisses and needed to introduce this new act. Rather, the emphasis, given that the kiss of greeting was already common and assumed, was that early Christians do so, unlike Judas, with holiness. Greet each other, as family, and without sin.

In other words, express your affection with sincerity, not pretense. When you greet each other, in word or deed, mean it. Don’t flatter or deceive. But first and foremost, genuinely love one another from the heart, as family, brothers and sisters in Christ; then express it genuinely.

No Judas Kisses

Perhaps often overlooked, against the background of Scripture’s most infamous kiss, is the charge to holiness and sincerity in our demonstrations of affection to our fellows in Christ. Imagine how Judas’s unholy peck of betrayal would have freshly dominated the connotations of the kiss for early Christians.

The apostles’ charge for holy kisses means, at least, “Let there be no Judases among us.” Not in the church. Heaven, forbid it. May we never leverage the familial trust of our shared faith in Christ to deceive, use, trick, or exploit other Christians.

So, we resolve with every “holy kiss” not to betray or backstab each other, not to “bite and devour one another” (Galatians 5:15). Rather, we resolve to serve each other, be loyal to each other, love each other in ways that show the world, the flesh, and the devil what kisses are for — not to con or manipulate but to convey heartfelt affection. We greet each other, as family, with sincere love — and resolve to live consistently with our greetings.

Holy Kisses Today

Christians today, in our differing times and cultures, can feel the freedom not to greet each other with literal kisses. But some still may. And regardless, we are enjoined to greet each other — and not without holiness — whether with a hug, handshake, heartfelt word, or whatever similar expression. And perhaps our lingering today over the repeated holy-kiss charge will remind us how important it is to cultivate, and express, affection for our fellows in Christ, who are family, even deeper and more enduringly so than blood relatives.

The holy-kiss charge is a rebuke to any who would claim Christ and yet nurse a critical disposition toward his people. It exposes the folly of Christians who would claim to love our brother Jesus but find his other brothers and sisters merely annoying, or maddening, or to be flattered or exploited.

The holy kiss also reminds us of an important dynamic in corporate worship, to ready our hearts for each Sunday. Indeed, we gather to worship Jesus — and we gather that we might do so together.

Which might lead to an application almost as uncomfortable to modern people as a kiss of greeting: slowing down. What if we considered how hurried we are before and after worship — how late to arrive before the call to worship, and how quick to rush off to lunch or the next event?

We will hardly greet each other with sincere expressions of holy, familial affection without the time and space to greet each other at all.