The Apostle Paul’s familiar exhortation to “greet one another with a holy kiss” reflects a customary mid-Eastern and first century greeting (Romans 16:16). Those from other nations yet greet one another in this way. We’ve seen European leaders welcoming our presidents at summits with a kiss on both cheeks, though American leaders don’t generally greet this way. “The Living Bible” renders Paul’s word “Greet one another with a warm handshake.” Customary greetings vary from culture to culture and over time.
I remember the ’80s and ’90s when it was common for worshipers to hold hands for the final benediction prayer or song. There was a sweetness that came from this when we were reminded we’re a spiritual family. Some congregations held hands as they concluded the service of communion. But then society grew concerned about germs. A church member responded to a worship survey we did at the time with a comment, “Holding hands ain’t sanitary!” So we eventually stopped this practice in our church, though I’m sure smaller groups continued to close their sessions this way.
The saga continues. It’s reported that candidates aren’t shaking hands as much in this political season due to fears of the coronavirus.
Many rural congregations take hand-holding a step beyond by hugging one another in worship. When I served full-time at a college, the administration told us not to touch, but when I went to church on Sunday, they called me “stiff” since I was reluctant to hug these salt-of-the-earth saints who’d done this from time immemorial.
Another consideration we face today is the misinterpretation of hugs. The “Me, Too” movement has rightly taught us about unwanted physical contact. Psychology identifies personal space, sometimes called the “bubble,” outward to about 18 inches. Most of us are restrictive about those we allow inside this space. Intrusion can make some people physically and emotionally uncomfortable.
Church leaders especially must be careful with affection since it can be unwanted or misinterpreted. I’ve known colleagues called to task over touching or hugging that some deemed inappropriate.
We’ve also sadly learned in recent years that some evil people have violated the personal sanctity of children. Accordingly, churches have instituted more stringent policies for contact with children since church must be the happiest and safest place for boys and girls.
I suppose there’s no quick answer to this issue of affection in church. Every congregation is unique and every decade is different. Affection is more cultural than theological.
But we can show our affection through ministry. The Apostle James said true religion means serving the most vulnerable among us (James 1:26-27). This kind of affection is needed in our hurting world and honored by the Lord of the church.
Reflections is a weekly devotional column written by Michael J. Brooks, pastor of the Siluria Baptist Church in Alabaster. The church's website is siluriabaptist.com.