Kissing or Shaking Hands?

When we read a passage of scripture that has an injunction (a command or order) in it, we have to know the context of the passage: to whom it was written (and under what circumstances), as well as to determine the extent it is applicable to us now.

For example, following the KJV, there are four instances in the NT that ask Christians to greet or salute one another with “a holy kiss”: Romans 16;16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:13 and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Paul wrote each of them as an ending to his particular letters.

Are we therefore to conclude that members of every Christian church today should greet one another with a “holy kiss”? If not, on what basis do we decide that this was a cultural way of greeting and not a universal command for all churches?

First of all, we can examine other cultures of the world to see how people greet or say goodbye to one another? Do they kiss? If so, how do they do it (one cheek, both cheeks, lips?) and how well do they have to know one other in order to do it? And where do they do it—church meetings, social occasions, card games, etc.?

Secondly, we ask if there is any moral feature that accompanies the act: Suppose, for example, that a “holy kiss” is supposed to be cursory , i.e. hasty and in passing, and not dynamic, i.e. lively or forceful so that there are no moral ‘side-effects’. Can we judge the difference and decide what is a “holy kiss” and what seems to be more “unholy” or secular and profane? That seems pretty subjective and may be open to all sorts of arguments. But, as I show later with the names of some Western cultural kisses, not all are holy.

Thirdly, does a different action, such as “shaking hands” or “hugging” have the same social effect: a greeting between two people, but nothing more than that? In other words, does it matter—is a greeting of sufficient cause—to lead into doctrine? A doctrine arises out of discussion by church leaders, just as the Creeds arose out of the judgment and writing of the Church Fathers. And, if the matter of how greeting were performed became a doctrine rather than a “custom”, who would decide and how would they go about it? A council? A vote?

Some NT versions do not use “holy kiss”; instead we find: “ holy (consecrated) kiss (AMPC); warm greeting (CEV); “the special greeting of God’s people” (ERV); kiss of peace” (GNT), “hearty handshake” (Phillips); “shake hands warmly” (TLB); “holy embraces” (MSG); “kiss of holy love” (NLV); and “sacred kiss” (NLT). Most English versions, I might add, stick to “holy kiss”.

If we turn to the OT, we find 31 examples of kisses as greetings, beginning in Genesis 27:26, where, with his mother Rebekah’s help, Jacob tricks his father into believing that he is Esau and therefore deserving of Isaac’s blessing. So he goes near to his father who “kissed him…and blessed him.” Generally, in the OT the kiss is between relatives. However, in other instances, “kiss” is used in a metaphorical way : Job 31:27 where Job implores that he has not secretly “kissed his hand” or Psalm 85:10, where righteousness and peace “kiss” each other.

This short example is one of many that we find in the NT that raises similar questions about taking certain passages literally, instead of figuratively. In other words, when it comes to passages like a “holy kiss”, are we provided with guides or opinions, or with absolute rules? Either can be inspired.

Now, with the biblical mandate in mind, what does our U.S. culture say about kissing? On the web, I read about 20 different kinds. For example, think of the “Eskimo Kiss,” which is rubbing noses and moving back and forth at the same time. This is good in cold climates so that the lips don’t get stuck together.

Quite repulsive to some, on the other hand, is the “French Kiss,” which involves “plenty of tongue action.” Or, how about the “Single Lip Kiss,” where you suck and sandwich the lip of your lover between yours? Just hope she (or he) has not been eating spinach or garlic. And when people get so close to each that their eyelashes connect, that is the “Butterfly Kiss” and is said to signal “mad infatuation,” much like a butterfly landing on a flower.

The “Lipstick Kiss” is when the girl wants to leave a “mark” on the boy, especially if the boy may be interested in another girl.

Of course, kisses don’t have to be on the lips: other common ones are on the forehead, hand, earlobe, nose (watch out for snot), jaw, and the cheek. If one of the couple gives a “deep passionate kiss on the neck that includes “sucking and a bit of biting,” it is called the Vampire Kiss.

There are many kinds of “hugs” as well—one Internet site names 11, but we’ll leave that alone, except for the Grandma Hug, which squeezes you so tight your eyes pop out.

This little essay should remind you that not all kisses are holy ones—maybe it is better to shake hands!