Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Other Fly in the Ointment

The careful student of scripture, as I have pointed out in two recent posts, gets his cues about appropriate Christian behaviour and church order from instructions found in the New Testament. Historical narrative in the Bible provides us with much useful information, but it should not be considered authoritative in the same way as is a direct commandment.

That’s a useful principle to observe if you want to avoid confusion. God is probably not calling you to exterminate idolatrous Canaanites, slay giants with a slingshot or lead a slave uprising in Egypt. Likewise, he probably does not expect you to perform miracles, speak in foreign languages you don’t understand or predict a coming famine.

Still, every rule of interpretation seems to have its occasional exception, which is lamentable in that it requires us to exercise discernment rather than simply checking boxes. Oops.

I pointed out one fly in the ointment yesterday, an inconvenient exception to the “You don’t get doctrine from historical narrative” rule: Jesus did. Not often, and not in a way that might make it easy for us to follow his example. But he did, in fact, draw conclusions about how the Law of Moses should be applied to his disciples from the life of David, king of Israel.

So much for batting 1000. Here’s another fly in the ointment: the dreaded “holy kiss”.

The Holy Kiss

The holy kiss is not a passing reference in historical narrative; it’s a New Testament commandment, given by two different apostolic writers not once, not twice, but FIVE TIMES:
I’m going to assume all five of these verses refer to the same thing. And, despite the fact that these are clearly instructions, no group of Christians with which I’ve ever gathered practices it. Not one.

The holy kiss has been, well, kissed off.

Okay, not entirely. Infogalactic (the non-social justice Wikipedia) says the Eastern Orthodox and Anabaptists practice it, among others. But most evangelicals do not.

Why not? What possible reason might be adduced by Christians to dismiss an apostolic command, and a five-time apostolic command to boot?

A fly in the ointment indeed. Let’s consider some possibilities:

 Is This Command Addressed to All Christians?

The question of who’s being addressed by any given writer in any given context is exceedingly important, even critical. Maybe the holy kiss is not directed to modern Christians at all?
  • For example, when we read in the book of Hebrews that “it is impossible, in the case of those who ... have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance”, it absolutely matters who is being addressed. (As it turns out, the book of Hebrews is written to professing Jews, some of whom possessed genuine Christian faith and others of whom, perhaps, did not. That makes a significant difference to the security of the Christian, as these two posts detail.)
  • Likewise, when Paul says, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments,” the believing alcoholic may be relieved to find the apostle’s instruction is directed only to Timothy, not to the rest of us.
“Is this addressed to all Christians?” is one of the first questions I ask myself when looking at a command in the Bible.

But by this metric, the holy kiss seems pretty solid. We have the command being given to Jewish and Gentile believers all over Asia. We can’t dismiss it as merely a holdover from Judaism, and it’s not limited to a single church or group of churches.

 Is This Command Limited in Some Other Way?

Sometimes the apostle’s expressed desire for a specific type of Christian behaviour comes with an obvious limitation:
  • One possible limitation is TIME. A particular Christian practice may be entirely appropriate at one point in history and quite inappropriate at another. Consider Paul’s statement to the church in Corinth, “I want you all to speak in tongues”. It comes with a built-in time limitation, among other limitations Paul mentions on the use of the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. The apostle has already stated, “As for tongues, they will cease”. There are various theories as to when tongues ceased (or will do so), but what is clear is that once the gift of speaking in tongues has stopped being given to Christians, it will be (or already is) inappropriate for Christians to attempt it. Time limits the applicable scope of Paul’s desire for believers.
  • Another possible limitation is CIRCUMSTANCES. Speaking to the Corinthians on the subject of marriage, Paul says, “I think that in view of the present [or impending] distress it is good for a person to remain as he is”. What is this “distress” Paul is referring to? Again, there are various theories, but my point is that once the relevant circumstances had ceased to apply, Paul’s advice would be modified accordingly.
The problem with dismissing the holy kiss on the basis of limited time frame or special circumstances is that not one of the commands to “greet one another with a holy kiss” comes with any sort of context that might suggest either sort of limitation applies.

 Is This Command Merely a Cultural Artifact?

A third possibility is that Peter and Paul are not really commanding Christians to kiss one another at all, but rather making reference to an existing practice and modifying the custom to make it appropriate and distinctive within Christian circles.

In this case, the emphasis would be on “holy” rather than on “kiss”, and the command might be clarified for societies that don’t generally greet one another lip-to-lip something like this: “Since your culture leads you to kiss one another when you meet, you’d best keep those kisses holy!” Thus believers from more austere societies (especially Brits) might be excused from such demonstrations on the basis that the apostles were not really concerned with kisses but with greeting one another in a manner unique to believers and pleasing to God.

Could that explain the reluctance of so many generations of Western Christians to follow a plain command?

Examining the Theory

This theory has possibilities, because we know from the Gospels that kisses of greeting were sufficiently common in Jewish circles that Judas chose to use one to indicate the target of his betrayal. Likewise, the Lord says to Simon the Pharisee, “You gave me no kiss”, suggesting that one would normally be expected. We can also see right away from these verses (and from the absence of any other reference to a kiss of greeting in the gospels and Acts) that Jewish kisses were not ubiquitous, but were bestowed selectively.

The kiss of greeting was not just a Judaean social convention, but was common all around the Mediterranean, a fact that would explain the instructions about the holy kiss to Gentile churches.

In both cases found in the Gospels, the “kisser” discriminated with his kisses: Judas, by singling out the Lord rather than kissing the disciples as well; Simon, by declining to kiss the Lord at all. This suggests that the kiss may have been used to indicate special respect or love, and the refusal to kiss was a bit of an insult.

If that is the case, then a “holy kiss” is a kiss that treats all believers equally, without distinction, rather than singling out special favourites (such an interpretation would certainly be consistent with the teaching of James). This would have been especially relevant in churches with a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, where it might be natural to kiss one’s countrymen but less natural to kiss someone whose first language and background differed from yours significantly. This might also be what Paul is emphasizing to the Thessalonians with his slight variation in wording: “Greet ALL the brothers with a holy kiss”, meaning “Don’t discriminate and leave some brothers out”. A holy kiss would be a kiss that was neither feigned nor hypocritical; it would not be used to suck up to its recipient, to show off, or to imply a closer relationship than might actually exist.

Thus a holy kiss would be a kiss “set apart”, which is what “holy” means; a kiss unlike the kisses of the world of its day. In this way of looking at the text, Paul and Peter are not commanding that all Christians kiss, but stressing that this common custom ought to be practiced in a uniquely Christian way.

Artifacts and Artifices

Some variant of this reasoning accounts for the near-complete absence of “holy kisses” in most Protestant churches today. I find the explanation persuasive.

That’s not something that happens a lot. In general, I’m pretty cautious about introducing arguments from culture. Cultural arguments are an awfully convenient way to get rid of anything we find in the New Testament that doesn’t suit our modern way of thinking; things like the voluntary subjection of wives to husbands, the woman’s headcovering and audible participation in meetings of the church — even sexually chaste Christian behaviour.

Our knowledge of first century cultures turns largely on the current opinions of secular historians, and historians have a way of changing their minds roughly as often as I change my socks. They include people like Jessie Childs (“Certainty is the enemy of history”) and Judith Flanders (“Not changing your mind is dull”). Care to hang your doctrinal hat on pronouncements like that? No? Me neither.

This argument for viewing the holy kiss as a cultural artifact, however, does not rest on the shifting assertions of lesser historians but rather on internal evidence — the plain statements of the writers of the inspired Gospels. With that in mind, I am inclined to view the holy kiss as unnecessary for believers today to practice literally, though we ought to be mindful of greeting our fellow believers without discrimination or other false motives, recognizing the uniqueness and preciousness of Christian fellowship.

Others may be reluctant to dismiss a repeated command, and I sympathize with that position: I may be making a distinction between standards of proof that many would consider overly nuanced.

Let’s put it this way: If forced to choose between entertaining all cultural arguments currently on offer, or none of them, my inclination would be to reject them all. In which case, expect (at bare minimum) a peck on the cheek the next time we cross paths.

A holy one, of course.

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