I have commented elsewhere on how the biblical directive of a “holy kiss” can be translated, as well as how the notion of a “kiss” in our culture is most often quite different.

It follows that when we read  scripture with an injunction (a command or order), 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 in our own or some other culture.

It does not seem wise, for example, that Paul intended members of every Christian church 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? I suggested we examine other cultures of the world to see how people greet 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?

I also suggested that we ask if there is any moral feature that accompanies the act. Is a “holy kiss” is supposed to be cursory , i.e. hasty and in passing, and not dynamic, i.e. lively or forceful? Can we judge the difference and decide what is a “holy kiss” and what seems to be more “unholy” or secular and profane?

Finally, does “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?

We noted that 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).

In other words, when it comes to something like a “holy kiss”, how do we decide on what is an absolute rule? Are denominational and church rules 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.

What about “fancy hair styles”?

Paul wants women to be modest about their clothes, hair styles and jewelry (1 Timothy 2:9 and Peter repeats the injunction in 1 Peter 3:3).

What was the problem and how did the church (and women) respond? The problem seems to be that the hairstyle attracted attention away from the worship service. We are not told how the women responded, but we can be quite sure there was not a “women’s march” against the right to wear their hair the way they wanted—after all it is their hair and not Paul’s or another man’s. Paul seems to be writing about a particular problem and not giving a universal command about hairstyles. How, for example, would he know how the Kewa women in PNG wore their hair and that short hair was necessary for them?

The question then seems to be one of propriety, even modesty or respectability: Does the hairstyle distract from the worship service? And, if so, who decides and how do they decide? Further, do we have the means to decide that a similar problem exists in the church today? Women today wear clothes that reveal more and more “frontage” and “shapeliness.” When does it become a “problem”, distracting from worship, and who decides?

What about lipstick, perfume, fingernail and toenail polish, fancy rings, tattoos, nose and ear plugs, and so on? What is distractive to me at my church may be quite acceptable at another church. People dress differently at the “Cowboy Church”, than at First Methodist or First Presbyterian. Are they more in tune with Paul at the one church rather than the other?

Again, we have to turn to the culture for specifics and to the Bible for general principles. The Bible implores believers to worship in a way that honors God; the cultures and sub-cultures determines what will or will not honor God.

In the culture in PNG where we once worked, the women were traditionally “bare breasted”. However, certain missionaries determined that this was not “wholesome” and insisted that the women wear blouses. They did, although some cut holes in the blouses so that they could nurse their children more easily! Were they being profane, unholy, or just practical? It would seem parochial to suggest that they were unholy.

It seems clear that churches have come up with their own sets of rules and regulations, depending on their own bias and interpretation of the Bible. For example, one denomination that worked in the area where we also did (in Papua New Guinea), ruled that the men must wear long sleeve shirts and long trousers (remember this is in a warm climate) and that missionaries should be addressed in certain form terms: Mister, Pastor, Father, etc.

The problem arises when denominations exclude one another on the basis of surface problems like clothes and hair style, treating them as doctrines. Of course, there are “doctrinal” differences like the mode of baptism, communion, marriage, burials, and so on—that is why we have denominations—for the most part. However, we do not usually argue over the basic tenants of Christianity: the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, or the Trinity. We argue over cultural problems and constraints that were present in Jew and Gentile groups and reported in the Bible and we treat them as if they should apply today.

Metaphors and Figures of Speech

Do we believe that if our “hand offends us” we should cut it off and throw it away? Are we really supposed to “hate” our father and mother?; Give away all that we have to the poor? Jesus said to do these things. Do we take him literally or is he using these heavy metaphors and parables to make us think about certain things in our lives?

A metaphor represents something, for example, Jesus as a ”door” represents the way he provides entrance into the Kingdom of God. As the “lamb” of God, he was sacrificed for us and as “light” he shows the way to live. All these are metaphors, of course, and no one would interpret them literally.

When it comes to some writing in the NT, we may be less certain. For a start, what is your interpretation of the following, e.g. are they meant for a specific time and culture or for everyone forever? Take a look at these commands and decide:

  • Wives, submit to your husbands (1 Peter 3:1; Ephesians 5:21)
  • (Women) do not use outward aids to make yourselves beautiful (1 Peter 3:3)
  • Parents, do not treat your children in such a way as to make them angry (Ephesians 6:4)
  • Slaves, obey your human masters (Ephesians 6:5)
  • Help carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
  • If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in yourselves (John 6:53)

These are just a start—there are other examples that you probably have noticed.