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Social Distancing and God’s Commands

In light of the recent “suggestion” by our Federal government leaders, and others, that we maintain a healthy distance from people and not shake hands or hug, how do we deal with the “one another” commands of the New Testament which require contact with our brothers and sisters in Christ? For example, what about the command that we “greet one another with a holy kiss ! This is command found four times in Paul’s Epistles: Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. The holy kiss “typically was a cheek-to-cheek embrace between members of the same sex. . . . The “holy kiss” took on a special significance as a physical expression of brotherly love and mutual affection between church members . . .” David E. Garland notes, “A holy kiss represents something more than a social custom. It is a sign of mutual fellowship among persons of mixed social background, nationality, race, and gender who are joined together as a new family in Christ”. That it was to be a holy kiss eliminates any suggestion of sexual impurity. Unfortunately, it gradually became a formal, institutionalized part of the church’s liturgy, lost its true meaning, and eventually faded from the church altogether.” (2 Corinthians, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999], 554. Italics in original.)

Let’s be honest, you can’t “greet one another with a holy kiss” without touching!

I am sure that most believers in the United States do not “greet one another with a holy kiss” because it is not part of our culture, but some of us have been in cultures where the glancing kiss on the cheek (sometimes on both cheeks) is still practiced. It is foreign to me, but to people in those cultures it is their way of life, as it was in the Jewish culture of Paul’s day! It was the acceptable and preferred way to greet people. To not greet in that way was considered rude and offensive.

Because the “holy kiss” is not part of our American culture, believers have replaced the “holy kiss” with a “holy hug” or “holy handshake,” which I have no problem with. But, do such “greetings” have the same “expression of brotherly love and mutual affection” that the “holy kiss” had in the early church? That’s a great topic for a later time.

But, now our government is asking us to avoid even the handshake and hug! We’re even being told that the “fist-bump” or “elbow-bump” is too close and should be avoided! Instead, people are suggesting that we use the “Wuhan Shake,” where people bump feet instead of shaking hands or hugging. (Google it! It really is a creative greeting.) Please, do not take this in any way that I am making light of the government’s requests, or that I am against being careful and taking extreme precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19! I AM NOT! WE MUST DO EVERYTHING WE CAN TO CURB THIS PANDEMIC! I want to be clear on that!

So, as a Believer who desires to be obedient to God’s Word in “greeting one another” with a warm hug or handshake (maybe not with a “holy kiss”), yet being asked by my government (which I respect) to avoid social contact with such “greetings” — what am I to do? Please consider the following things with me:

  1. The emphasis must be upon the word “greet,” not so much on how it is done. The word for “greet” in the original language is aspazomai, which means “to welcome,” “to accept gladly,” “to be happy about”. In other words, the action of greeting is not as important as the attitude of greeting. A warm smile, or an enthusiastic “Hi” or “Hello” with a wave can suffice for a hug or handshake, but it must be enthusiastic and warm!
  2. We must remember that Jesus commanded us to “love one another, as I (Christ) have loved you . . ., by this shall all men know that you are my disciples ...!” The “love” that Jesus spoke of is agape! This is the love that the apostle Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8: a love that is, patient, kind, not jealous, does not brag, is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly, does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and will never cease!” Beloved, as I look at this list, I don’t see “holy kiss” or “hug”, or “handshake” mentioned! In other words, the “agape” (love) that Jesus spoke of, and command of us, can be expressed without touching at all! Oh, and let’s not forget it is agape that “all men” (saved or unsaved) will see to determine if we really are disciples of Jesus Christ, whether we hug or shake hands or not!
  3. We must be careful to not sin in our attitude in times like these. It’s so easy to fall into fleshly sins of complaining, criticizing, belly-aching, and impatience when we are faced with situations that we don’t like or are uncomfortable with. Whether we can “greet one another” by touching is not as important as “putting on” a heart of compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience, etc. (Colossians 3:12ff). If we “greet one another” with complaining or belly-aching about our present situation, or with criticalness about our governmental leaders, the CDC, or the medical personal in their handling of this crisis, we are sinning and acting in a way that portrays the attitudes and actions of the unsaved, rather than a Believer in Christ! Beloved, this must not be!
  4. We must be diligent to respect and obey our governmental leaders. If our governmental leaders do not ask us to violate God’s Word (social distancing does not), then we are obligated by God to follow their requests. In Romans 13:1-4 the apostle Paul states, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.” (13:1) The word for “subjection” is hupotasso which means “to become inclined or willing to submit to orders or wishes of others,” i.e., our governmental leaders! The reason? Because “there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.” (13:1) In other words, God has given us our governmental leaders for our good! That’s what Paul meant when he said, “it [government] “is a minister of God for our good.” (13:4)

The “good,” for which the government is responsible at this time, is the containment of the COVID-19 virus! It is for our “good”! Our government leaders and health-care providers have learned from other countries that a key way, and maybe the most important way to curb the spread of this horrible virus, is through restricting social contact! Which includes no hugging or handshaking, or “holy kiss” if you are so inclined!

Our government is not forbidding us from “greeting one another,” but it is requesting that we refrain from our normal, traditional ways. Their request is reasonable and for “our good,” so let us “submit” to their leadership and requests as we would “submit” to our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Beloved, we individually and as a nation are faced with a serious, life-threating crisis! We must not make light of it. It is not by our design or liking, but it has been allowed and orchestrated by God so that His purposes may be accomplished. What His purposes are, we do not know, but He does and we must trust Him as Habakkuk did in his day.

I trust that these thoughts will help you during these difficult days. Let us “glorify God” in all of our behavior! Let us “love one another, as Christ love us” and so prove that we are His disciples; we can do that without hugging or handshaking. Let us guard our emotions and attitudes by walking by the Spirit, and not giving the flesh any opportunity to defeat us! In so doing, let us guard our speech so that it “gives grace to the hearer!”

We live in unique, uncertain days, but a time that God has designed for us to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light!” (1 Peter 2:9). Yes, even without “hugs” or “handshakes”. Remember, the action of greeting is not as important as the attitude of greeting. A warm smile, or an enthusiastic “Hi” or “Hello” with a wave can suffice for a hug or handshake, but it must be enthusiastic and warm!

For the love of God’s people, Pastor Ron Finch (retired)


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