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What exactly is a holy kiss?

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In Romans 16:16, the apostle Paul issues a directive to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” In this article, we will examine the early Christian practice of kissing one another and how contemporary believers should understand and apply this directive.

There are several passages in the New Testament that refer to a “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26). While the apostle Peter does not use the words “holy kiss,” he does command us to “greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). In each instance, the kiss is supposed to be loving, holy, and sacred.

In New Testament times and in the culture of the Near East, a kiss was a common form of greeting among family and close friends. A kiss, then, symbolized love, brotherly affection, and fellowship. Hence, the instruction to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16) cultivated a sense of unity and equality among believers. This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote that we should “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:15–16).

The adjective holy in Romans 16:16 signifies that this kiss is different from romantic or sensual kisses. Instead, it embodies the love, purity, and sanctity of Christian fellowship: “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12, ESV).

Over the centuries, the practice of greeting one another with a holy kiss adapted to fit various cultural contexts. What remained constant, however, was the godly principle of mutual love and respect for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, the essence of Paul’s instruction in Romans 16:16 is the expression of genuine and sincere affection, regardless of the form it takes: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:9–10, ESV).

In contemporary Christian communities, the practice of greeting one another with a holy kiss varies greatly. In Western churches, specifically, a kiss is often replaced with a handshake, hug, or head nod—gestures that signify warmth and fellowship. In some Eastern Orthodox and Middle Eastern churches, however, the tradition of greeting one another with a literal kiss continues to be culturally appropriate.

The Bible offers guidance on adapting biblical practices to specific cultural contexts. In 1 Corinthians 9:22b, for example, Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” Of course, the core message of the gospel should remain intact, but God allows us to interpret Romans 16:16 according to our cultural context.

Cultural and personal sensitivities are crucial in applying Romans 16:16. What is appropriate and comfortable in one culture may not be in another. The key is to love one another in a way that respects individual comfort levels. As Paul says in Romans 14:19, “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (ESV).

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What exactly is a holy kiss?
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This page last updated: January 22, 2024