“Nobody ever touches me,” a friend recently lamented. I could sympathize. In my 20s, I was in the same situation—unmarried and living far from my parents. As a teacher in a public junior high school even my job was strictly touch-free. Faculty were routinely warned against so much as placing a hand on a student’s shoulder, and once an anonymous co-worker filed a sexual harassment complaint against a single male teacher who sometimes stopped to talk to me on his free period. With no spouse and no nearby relatives, I returned untouched every evening to a quiet room and a stack of papers, often spending several days in a row without so much as a handshake of human contact.
Now, one husband and three young children later, my life is filled with touch: hand-holding, hair-stroking, and crack-your-ribs hugging. In fact, I frequently long for some isolation. But I haven’t forgotten my earlier life. And when I read my Bible, even in the middle of one of my leave-me-alone funks, I can’t ignore the fact that five times—five!—in the New Testament, we are commanded to touch other Christians (Rom. 16:16, I Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, I Thess. 5:26, 1Pet. 5:14).
It’s a challenge. With touch in our culture so often either co-opted by sexualization or horrifically corrupted by abuse, the right expression of physical affection in the Christian church is difficult to figure out. But I want the church to try.
In a May article for The American Conservative, “Our Starved for Touch Culture,” Leah Libresco grieves the lack of touch for many in our society. She theorizes that we have abandoned friendly touch because it has been too-frequently tainted or overtaken by ulterior motives of sexual intimacy: “The friendzone is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signalling.” (Albert Mohler has written a thought-provoking essay making a similar argument.)
In addition I suspect that instances of abuse have done their nasty work to bring touch low. Particularly in the church, we are rightly sickened by our public rap sheet of abusers—often church leaders or clergy—who corrupted touch and abused vulnerable human beings to serve their own sinful desires.
We have, on every church roll, people who still suffer the effects of inappropriate touch. We worship weekly alongside men and women who have themselves touched others in sinful ways. We also, often unknowingly, enjoy fellowship with those who have been abused. We must not forget to treat our brothers and sisters with especial tenderness, aware that we may not know what they have experienced.
We are right to be cautious. In touching, just as in talking and looking, much can go wrong. But rejecting biblical imperatives poses danger, too. The New Testament “holy kiss” actually stands against many of the touch-corruptions in our day. What is a holy kiss? It's a culturally appropriate, morally chaste, physical expression of love for other believers. It's a hand on a shoulder, a warm smile with a hand-clasp, or a friendly hug—a touch that publicly acknowledges our bond with other members of Christ’s body. It’s not just a kiss, it’s a holy kiss, a kiss reclaimed from a fallen world and repurposed for the glory of God.
And it’s not optional. Pastor A. N. Martin notes that in 2 Corinthians 13:12, the holy kiss comes at the end of a list of imperatives that we would unanimously consider Christian obligations: rejoice, aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace, greet one another with a holy kiss. One of the essential marks of the body of Christ is physical affection.
We might be tempted to think of the holy kiss as a practice for a particular first-century culture, too fraught with issues for our day. But this imperative covers the wide diversity of the New Testament church. Paul commands it, and Peter commands it, too. It is required of the Jewish-background diaspora recipients of Peter’s epistle, and also of the Roman and Thessalonian churches—bodies largely composed of Gentile converts. Twice, the holy kiss is commanded for the Corinthian church, a church so beleaguered by sexual impropriety that you’d think the apostle Paul would ban touch altogether.
In many ways, this requirement best guards against perversion. “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss,” reads 1 Thessalonians 5:26 (emphasis mine). The holy kiss is not subject to personal choice and individual preference. Touch in the church is not offered to someone we especially like as a sign that he or she has been singled out for intimate attention. The holy kiss is not exclusive. In contrast to the man in James 2:2-4 who tells the rich man to sit here and the poor man to stand over there, we must not show partiality in physical nearness to our brothers. We don’t touch only the people of our choosing; we touch the people of God’s covenant choosing. We give a holy kiss to all the brothers.
And the holy kiss does not accomplish goals of our personal choosing. It is not to the end of asserting power or manipulating someone into sealing a business deal—or scam, as Libresco notes. It is not for our own physical pleasure. (Treat “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity,” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:2.) Instead, the holy kiss is what Martin calls “visible, physical confirmation of mutual love.”
Last Sunday, my church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. I looked at my hand and at the cupped hands of my brothers and sisters, each of us holding a piece of bread. And I gave thanks that Jesus has given us something to touch. The sacraments are themselves a holy kiss of sorts—a visible, physical confirmation of mutual love.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.