Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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The Holy Kiss of Love: Are We Keeping this Command?

The Holy Kiss of Love
Are We Keeping This Command?
by Al Maxey


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), in one of his many memorable essays, astutely observed, "The heart and soul of all men being one, this bitterness of His and Mine ceases. His is mine. I am my brother, and my brother is me." In a highly poetic and poignant way, Emerson has placed before us the wondrous possibility of unity, accord and oneness among men: a genuine brotherhood in which hearts joyfully merge, becoming, in essence, one soul. In such a divinely blessed state, all desire to dominate one another ends, and our focus becomes the ultimate good of our neighbor. If indeed we are truly one, then what impacts you (be it positive or negative) impacts me! The apostle Paul had so melded his own soul with those whom he had led to Jesus Christ that he experienced their suffering and celebrated their victories at the very core of his being. "Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?" [2 Cor. 11:29]. Thus, Paul urged his fellow believers, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" [Rom. 12:15]. How can you and I do otherwise when we are all One Body. "If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it" [1 Cor. 12:26-27].

The greatest threat to the Body of Christ, in my view, is the breaking of this bond of love among its many diverse members. When this cement of love and affection crumbles, the fellowship of the saints fragments; we become in short order separate bodies of squabbling sectarians. History has witnessed this great tragedy time and again throughout the past 2000 years. Even in the first century, brethren were losing sight of their brotherhood. The disciples in the city of Corinth had become so fragmented and factious that the apostle Paul lamented, "you come together not for the better but for the worse. ... Therefore, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper" [1 Cor. 11:17, 20]. The Communion was a meal that was intended, at least in part, to celebrate the unity and the oneness of a Body of diverse members brought together in love and harmony by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. To partake of these elements without any appreciation of this fact was to "eat and drink judgment" unto oneself [vs. 29]. Lest the redeemed forget this fact, the early church adopted a practice, closely associated with the observance of the Lord's Supper, of bestowing upon one another a holy kiss of love. It was to be a visible sign of the spiritual bond they enjoyed in Christ; a constant reminder of their fellowship in Him. They were family -- beloved brothers and sisters -- and the Father desired for His children to love one another, and to show it. The "holy kiss" was designed to be a visible demonstration of this great spiritual Truth.

Many biblical scholars feel that such a kiss may well "have been practiced in the synagogue by first-century A.D. Jews -- a practice in which men would have kissed men and women would have kissed women" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 296]. Since many of the worship traditions of the synagogue carried over into the Christian assembly, it's very likely that this "kiss of love" was adopted "among early believers to show their Christian affection and unity in the faith ... as a pledge of their spirit of unity and forgiveness" [ibid]. "It was a token of the love of Christ mutually shared and of the peace and harmony He had brought into their lives" [ibid, p. 165]. In the early years, the custom of the separation of the sexes was honored (men kissed men, women kissed women) to avoid the appearance of sexual impropriety. Indeed, "the reminder that it is a 'holy' kiss guards it against erotic associations" [ibid]. Later, however, Tertullian (160-220 A.D.) indicates in his writings that such kissing within the assembly could acceptably be mixed. For many years afterward this became a point of debate and contention, with cases arising where such kissing was abused (becoming erotic in nature). Clement of Alexandria (died c. 215 A.D.), a Greek theologian of the early Church, complained, "Some do nothing but fill the Churches with noise of kissing," which led to "suspicions and evil reports among the heathen" as to what must be transpiring in these Christian gatherings [Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 443]. Early Church Councils sought to regulate and restrict its use, and by the end of the Middle Ages it was no longer in use in either the Eastern or Western Church.

Although there is evidence in the early historical writings that the "holy kiss" was associated with baptisms, marriages, funerals, and the ordination of spiritual leaders, clearly its most common liturgical expression within the early church was as a visible accompaniment to the observance of the Lord's Supper. "By this kiss the early Christians expressed the intimate fellowship of the reconciled community" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 44]. This kiss of love and peace "was practiced most widely during the celebration of the Eucharist" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 831]. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), in his Apologies, wrote, "When we have ceased from prayer, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought unto the presiding brother bread and a cup of wine" [Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 443]. Prior to partaking of the elements in "holy communion" with one another, the members of the Body of Christ demonstrated their deep love for one another by a "holy kiss." "Each person turned to his neighbor in the assembly, and both bestowed and received a kiss, and this bestowal and receiving expressed the fact that all were in genuine spiritual accord. ... It likewise expressed mutual forgiveness when it was bestowed between members of a family just before going to the Lord's Supper" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 912-913]. One of the most prominent preachers of the Greek Church, John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), characterized this holy kiss as "the peace by which the Apostle expels all disturbing thought and beginning of small-mindedness ... this kiss softens and levels." Several biblical scholars have regarded this kiss as a symbolic act of obedience to the command of Matthew 5:23-24, this kiss being an apt "token that all offences were forgotten and forgiven, and that there was nothing but peace and good will between them" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 416].

This special kiss, which evidenced the love, peace, harmony and unity of the members of the Family of God, is mentioned specifically five times within the pages of the New Covenant writings. It should further be noted that in each of the five occurrences, the very same word is used at the beginning of the statement: "Greet one another with ..." The word being employed is aspazomai, which may be translated "salute, greet, welcome, express good wishes, pay respects, embrace, treat with affection" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 56]. It is also significant to note that in each of these five passages this word appears in the Aorist Imperative form, the latter term being the mood of command. As one wit observed, these are "prescribed pucker points." The apostles Paul and Peter, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have commanded that the "holy kiss" be practiced by the disciples of Christ. It is not optional. Notice these five passages:


Romans 16:16 -- "Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you."

1 Corinthians 16:20 -- "All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss."

2 Corinthians 13:12-13 -- "Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you."

1 Thessalonians 5:26 -- "Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss."

1 Peter 5:13-14 -- "She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark. Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace be to you all who are in Christ."
The fact that the "holy kiss" is a command of two different apostles within the inspired New Testament Scriptures does not necessarily prescribe, however, that the expression or implementation of this command is forever frozen in a single form. In other words, what exactly is it that is really being commanded of disciples? Is it a literal placing of one's lips upon the face or head of another disciple, or simply the visible, physical expression, in whatever form may be customary to one's time and culture, of peace, affection, harmony and unity among brethren? The same question has been asked of the command by Jesus to wash the feet of others [John 13:14]. Must we literally wash the feet of our brothers and sisters in Christ, or was Jesus seeking to impress a deeper truth upon our hearts (Reflections #263 -- Pondering Pedilavium: A Reflective Examination of the History & Purpose of Foot Washing)? The fact that many legalistic patternists seek to impose a literal fulfillment of certain commands and examples, but dismiss other commands and examples as "culturally irrelevant" to our modern times, smacks somewhat of a "pick and choose" (subjective selective) theology, and at best shows the inconsistency of the patternistic approach to biblical interpretation and application.

Greeting another person with a kiss to the cheek, head or beard was "the customary mode of salutation at the time" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 467]. It is not, however, the customary mode of salutation in all periods of time or among all peoples and cultures. Indeed, within certain societies it may even be perceived as offensive. In our own society, for example, given our sensitivity to the dangers of sexual harassment, one must be extremely cautious of bestowing kisses ("holy," or otherwise) upon others. Even within a congregation of believers, among those whom we know and love, some people are simply not very comfortable with such physical displays of affection. Thus, we need to be very careful of HOW we show others we love them. I don't believe the Lord is demanding that we must KISS a fellow believer, and that no other form will suffice; rather, I believe (and most scholars agree) that we're to display to one another (and to all those who observe us) in some appropriate visible way the reality of our unity, harmony, love and oneness. Yes, for many that may well be a kiss. For others, it may be a "holy hug" or a "holy handshake" or a "sacred slap on the back." One thing we do at our congregation fairly often is have everyone in the auditorium stand at some point during the assembly and take just a few minutes to simply greet one another (hugs, handshakes, kisses, etc.). It is a visible, and much needed, demonstration of our unity and oneness as a Family. Not only does it uplift us, but it sends a powerful message to those who may be visiting: we love one another, and we show it. Yes, we are to be showing it every day in countless ways, NOT just for a couple of minutes during an assembly, yet such times of "holy hugs, handshakes and kisses" are at least symbolic of a deeper union that we demonstrate daily.

If we are NOT demonstrating this love and affection toward one another ... if we are instead fussing and fighting, biting and devouring, condemning and withdrawing from one another ... can we truly say we are abiding by the command of the apostles Paul and Peter? Worse, are we making a mockery of the Lord's Supper when we come to the Table with hearts filled with contempt and bitterness toward our spiritual siblings? I hope and pray that each of us, individually and congregationally, will resolve to do some intense self-evaluation this new year! Are we the type of people our Lord would have us to be? If not, what do we plan to do about it? Let me leave you with this bold charge from The Pulpit Commentary: "Is not this exhortation also -- namely, of friendliness and brotherly kindness among Christians -- much needed in the Christian Church of today?!! How many professing Christians pass in and out of the same Church, sit down at the same Communion Table, and never exchange greetings with one another?! Alas!! After centuries of Christianity, we are but beginners within the school of Christ!! Our profession of friendship for Christ is not worth much if we are not willing to make friends of His brethren" [vol. 18, p. 467].


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