Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

I was recently reading through all the “one another” verses in the New Testament. There are lots of these verses. Many of them are about loving one another and not judging one another. I was surprised to see that several say that we are to greet one another with a kiss.

Wifely Submission and Holy KissesDid you know that there are five verses in the New Testament where believers are instructed to greet one another with a kiss? Five! Four were written by Paul, and one by Peter (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12b; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14b). I didn’t realise there were that many.

In Australia, it is very unusual for men to kiss other men as a form of greeting. And I personally don’t know of any church where all the believers, both men and women, greet each other with a kiss despite the instructions from the apostles Paul and Peter.[1] Moreover, I have never heard a sermon emphasising, or elaborating on, the clear biblical principle of holy kisses.

Wifely Submission and Holy KissesDid you know that there are five verses in the New Testament where wives are instructed to be submissive to their husbands. Five! Four are found in the later Pauline letters of Ephesians, Colossians, and Titus, and one is in Peter’s first letter (Eph. 5:22, 24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1).[2] Unlike the instructions for holy kisses, these instructions about wifely submission are unduly emphasised and elaborated on in too many churches.

Holy kisses and wifely submission are clearly mentioned in the New Testament, but one concept is largely ignored while the other is highlighted. Why is that?  Perhaps “culture” is part of the answer.

Some churches have decided that, since the kissing instructions were given to people in a culture that already used kisses as a form of greeting, and since men in some cultures today don’t usually kiss one another, the apostles’ instructions are no longer culturally relevant, therefore we no longer have to apply them literally.

I suggest that the wifely submission verses in the New Testament, particularly in Titus 2:5 and 1 Peter 3:1, were given as a concession to Greco-Roman culture, a culture where the subordination of women was deeply ingrained.[3] Furthermore, I suggest that both kisses-as-greetings and wifely submission are cultural phenomena, and neither are culturally relevant today in many modern societies.

It is important to note that Jesus, in the Gospels, and Paul, in his early letters, never mention anything like one-sided wifely submission. Furthermore, all of Jesus’ instructions for kingdom living and relationships apply equally to men and to women. In Jesus’ kingdom, the humble are exalted, the lowly are the greatest, the last are first, and there is no place for hierarchies.

Relationships within the New Creation community of the church should be marked by mutual submission and service. This mutuality extends to Christian marriage.

The New Creation principles, or kingdom principles, concerning relationships have not always been socially acceptable to outsiders, and some new Christians may have implemented some of their new-found freedoms unwisely. So in a few later letters of the New Testament, there are corrective (rather than didactic or doctrinal) instructions to both slaves and to women limiting their freedoms. Slaves are told to respect and obey their masters, including their female masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18), and wives are told to respect and submit to their own husbands.[4]

In some verses we are given the reason for these instructions: so that the church would not get a bad reputation among non-believers (including non-believing masters and husbands) in a society where slaves and women were regarded as lesser people (in comparison with freeborn men), and in a society where slavery and wifely submission were considered social norms.[5]

In twenty-first century Australia, and some other western-style nations, patriarchy and slavery are generally frowned upon—in fact, slavery is illegal. Yet some churches are still teaching that patriarchy and one-sided submission from wives are God’s ideals. These congregations have failed to see that wifely submission was a compromise for the first-century church. One-sided submission from wives compromises and distorts the relationship dynamics of the New Creation.

It doesn’t make sense to take a verse that was a concession to first-century culture and apply it today in a society that mostly sees equality and mutuality as the ideal between husbands and wives. It also doesn’t make sense that some churches choose to uphold the instructions about wifely submission but choose not to uphold the instructions about kisses. They are allowing their own church culture to influence their decision about what verses they want to implement and what verses they want to ignore.

I believe that those who truly think that one-sided wifely submission is a timeless apostolic principle should also start taking seriously other apostolic instructions that are usually ignored (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:8). I suggest beginning with greeting one another with a holy kiss. After all, there are just as many instructions about kisses as there are instructions about wifely submission given in the New Testament.

Footnotes

[1] In The Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus of Rome and written sometime in the third century, there are several statements about the “kiss of peace” which must be “pure”. 18:3 states, “The the faithful shall greet one another with a kiss, men with men, and women with women. Men must not greet women with a kiss.” In other documents, such as the Martyrdom of Perpetua (written in 202 or 203), we read that Christian men and women kissed each other. These circumstances, imminent martyrdom, were exceptional; nevertheless, it is likely that in first-century churches men and women kissed each other irrespective of gender. In chapter 65 of his First Apology (written around 150-160), Justin Martyr wrote that Christians greeted each other with a kiss just before sharing the sacrament of communion. Canon 19 of the Council of Laodicea (held sometime during 343–381) contains later regulations surrounding the kiss of peace.

[2] The verb “submit” is found in numerous verses and contexts throughout the New Testament. It is also found in the context of women speaking and learning in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. These verses are not about wifely submission. More on these passages here and here. Furthermore, the verb “submit” has a range of nuances. (See footnotes below.)

[3] Paul’s instructions about wifely submission in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3:18 are given in the context of love and Spirit-led living. So, deference with humility and respect is probably the sense of “submission” in these verses.

[4] A strict military sense of the word “submit” does not fit with New Testament verses about marriage, especially as Paul’s instruction for wifely submission in Ephesians 5:22 follows his instruction for mutual submission.

[5] The apostolic instructions for slaves to obey their masters included adult men obeying their female masters (cf. Rhoda and Hermas; the Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 1:1). More on this here.


Postscript

“An American missionary couple went to Greece for their first assignment. A local church invited the husband to preach, although he had just arrived in the country. Everything went smoothly until the translator invited him to stand at the back of the church to greet the people as they left the service. He put out his hand to shake hands with the first man leaving. Imagine the missionary’s surprise and shock when instead of shaking hands, this man and every man following him reached up and kissed the missionary on the mouth. Paul and Peter repeatedly commanded early Christians to greet each other with a holy kiss (Rom. 16: 16; 1 Pet. 4: 14). Though the command was never cancelled, most Western believers today do not practice this kiss. They believe the instruction applied to that specific culture and group at that time in history, then and there, not here and now. The task of interpreting the Bible presents some complex challenges. Sincere, dedicated, born-again Christians sometimes arrive at different conclusions about the same passages. Some people use only ‘proof texts’ they have memorized and exclude other factors. Others combine their experience or lack of experience with teaching they have received about the Scriptures.”
Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, God’s Women—Then and Now  (Springfield, MO: Grace & Truth, 2004, 2009) Kindle Locations 233-243.

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29 thoughts on “Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses

  1. That is absolutely bloomin’ BRILLIANT, Marg!

  2. Hahaha . . . Have been watching repeats of Gardening Australia, Bev?
    It sounds like a comment Peter Cundell might make. 😉
    Thanks for the compliment!

  3. food for thought

  4. Nice! I just posted about “frozen accommodations” myself…. 😉 Keep stirring the pot!

  5. According to Aristotle and Greco-Roman laws, the paterfamilias (family father) ruled over his wife, kids and slaves. This was the expectation in culture and law. So I see it as highly significant that the NT while saying that kids and slaves are to obey, never says that a wife is to obey at least explicitly.

  6. Although I agree with you that one-sided submission isn’t meant to be in a marriage, I can’t agree that wives’ submission of their husbands don’t apply today. I believe wives submission is biblical was well as submit to one another as members of Christ’s body, which many other Christians overlook. Jesus Christ also submitted to the church when he gave himself up to it on the cross. I just posted a latest topic on submission and what it means which can get a more clear understanding.

  7. Sorry made in typing error

  8. Hi Curious thinker, I think we are agreed that submission, one to another, is the ideal in the community of God’s people (the Church) and in marriage. Some Christians, however, have the mistaken belief that one-sided wifely submission is God’s ideal in marriage.

    Don, I also think it’s significant that in the NT husbands are never told to rule or govern their wives using any of the many usual Greek words for leadership and authority. Unfortunately many Christians sound more like Plutarch than Paul, or Jesus, when it comes to marriage.

    Chris, Yes “food for thought”. 🙂 I don’t want to state things too dogmatically.

  9. The explanation I have heard about the importance of holy kisses is that a kiss was a greeting among family members, i.e. Greco-Roman believers kissing each other expressed that they wanted to treat each other as relatives. In that sense, that we are to treat fellow believers as family, the command is timeless.

  10. Thanks for this Karin. It’s a good point.

    A holy kiss would have been an especially welcome greeting for the early Christians who had been ostracized from their family and close-knit communities because of their new-found faith.

    I agree that we need to welcome our brothers and sisters with familial love (1 Pet. 5:14). I’m not sure that many Christian communities do this successfully in the western world. Perhaps we really should be emphasizing the principle of the holy kiss more.

  11. Hey marg, excellent explanation & biblically correct in your explanation. Many believers in christ & churches take women leaders & wifely submission out of context just by verses that only state women to submit to their husbands & “I suffer not a woman to teach” or “its a shame for women to speak in the church”. They don’t look at the entire sccripture/chapter to see the purpose & reason it says what it says. Espeshians5:25&28 and 1Corinthians7:3-4 shows how wives aren’t the only ones who have to submit/respect & show love…but husbands as well. And marg I must say your explanation on 1timothy2:11-12&13-15 regarding paul & women/false teachers in the city of ephesus is amazing & so true. It makes absolute sense to show male chauvenists & people that overlook this verse the truth and story behind it. Many people think women can be saved. By grace through their childbearing. We can’t get saved by works, that’s why thheres a reason why paul said 1Timothy2:15 relating to a goddess of fertile named Diana/artemis that paul tackled with since acts19. Its alll about going back in history to find out what happened in the city where paul was in.

  12. By the way, sorry for the spelling error…my phone got too excited lol. But true, the middle east culture is very different than our country & culture on the west. They still persue in this culture because its how it was brought up and lived by. But in the western culture in our day, if a man kisses another man in a holy kiss, there would be some weird uncomfortable feelings rolling around in the mind because we don’t do that type of culture based on how we in our society and culture grew up. The holy kiss to one another was indeed written to the eastern culture during that period and time that we in our day weren’t in.

  13. Thanks John. 🙂

    As Karin pointed out, the instructions for holy kisses still convey an important principle that is valid and applicable in the church today, even if we don’t have to carry out the instructions precisely. We need to discern the principle, or principles, behind the wifely submission verses if we want Christian women in Christian marriages to obey them faithfully.

  14. Hi all….I just found this page! Really interesting! For whatever it’s worth, I grew up in a denomination (which originated in Europe) that heavily emphasized all the verses teaching about the “holy kiss”. Men literally kissed men on the lips, and women literally kissed women on the lips as a form of greeting on Sunday. However, it was only practiced with those who were members of the church. If one had not yet been baptized and had not yet become a member, there was no “kiss”. It was all taken very seriously, and still is. As you might imagine, this denomination does other things a little differently, too!

  15. Just brilliant! Thank you 🙂

    (And this is one of the reasons I am so over the way too many christians use the word “biblical” as a way of controlling the behaviour of others. What they really mean is that others should follow those parts of the bible that they adhere to, in the way in which they interpret them.)

    1. The word “biblical” is problematic, for the reason you mentioned, and because there are biblical values, customs, attitudes, and behaviours that the church should strenuously avoid. In the Old Testament especially, there are plenty of biblical practices that have no place in the New Creation (e.g. slavery, polygamy, endogamy, dowries, patriarchy).

      1. Excellent point! 🙂

  16. I’ve long advised men attending men’s retreats to stock up on the lip balm, because there ought to be a lot of smooching going on if it’s to follow the biblical model.

    1. And antiperspirant would be good if they’re getting close and personal. 😉

  17. Noting that if the purpose of the wifely submission verses was to prevent the church from being thought ill of in its surrounding culture, today’s church should be the first to champion mutual submission.

    One of the church’s biggest PR problems (it’s much more than a PR problem, but for the purposes of the “church reputation” idea…) is its treatment of and attitudes towards women.

    1. I completely agree!

      I saw a prominent atheist debate a Christian at my university several years ago, and the atheist brought up the church’s treatment of women. The Christian, who was an egalitarian, was unable to make a convincing comeback.

      1. Exactly. In today’s culture, treating women as secondary is indefensible.

        What has happened in Christianity in the meantime, however, is that male headship over girls and women has gone from its original idea of “uphold the respectability of the church” to “this is THE ISSUE on which we prove we’re Christians and the world isn’t!”

        Treating women as second-class has become the actual method by which Christians consider themselves different from and morally superior to the world.

        What a twist.

        1. I don’t even think that Paul used the Greek word for “head” to mean “leader”. I believe he used it as part of a head-body metaphor, signifying unity in marriage, in Ephesians 5:21-33. And that he used it to mean “origin” or “source” in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

          Sadly, the church got things wrong pretty quickly. Instead of seeing the mutuality between men and women, as taught by Paul, they interpreted his words through the perspective of patriarchy.

          It’s bizarre that, as you say, some Christians now see that treating women as second class is counter cultural and even morally superior. Ughh!

          Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s an article about “head” in Paul’s letters: https://margmowczko.com/kephale-and-male-headship-in-pauls-letters/

          1. I read New Life pretty faithfully. Thanks for the link though–this is a topic of particular interest to me, and the controversy over “head” is one of the big debates in this subject area, as you obviously know.

            I just find it perplexing and dismaying that Christians have taken this one teaching and in modern Christianity have literally turned it into a sign of not-worldliness.

            It’s especially ironic when you consider that the original purpose of the teaching was to help early Christians *not offend* the world.

            So they could evangelize it.

          2. It’s always nice to “meet” a reader. 😀

          3. It’s great to meet you too. When you first responded I thought you looked familiar, and then when you linked I had a “d’oh” moment. Thanks for all your writing and research. You’ve been a blessing.

          4. hahaha

            You’re very welcome.

  18. Love the article. Plain churches (Amish, Mennonite, and German Baptist) do continue the kiss (on the lips too!) on the basis of obeying these “commands.” They also are ridiculously strong on wifely submission, in fact, I went to the baptism of a couple who were joining from another denomination, where the woman was warned to submit but the husband was never told to love. Of course, like the 2nd century church, they have turned a natural family greeting of love into a religious duty and obligation surrounded by rules and ceremonies. They are not allowed to give the kiss to non-members even if they are Christian brethren.

    Personally, I think hugging and even a kiss on the cheek should be strongly encouraged between believers — a handshake is not considered to be a warm family greeting in America. Does anyone even know if lip kissing was a normal greeting among first century Jews, Greeks, or Romans? I always assumed it was cheek kissing.

    1. Hi Angela,

      I’m personally uncomfortable with physical touch, let alone a kiss, from anyone except immediate family. So social distancing because of COVID has been a pleasant relief from the discomfort I feel from acquaintances and strangers hugging and kissing me.

      I’m not sure what the social kiss looked like in the first century. Different regions in the Roman Empire, and different congregations, may have had slightly different ways of kissing. Note that in Apostolic Traditions 18:3 it says, “The the faithful shall greet one another with a kiss, men with men, and women with women. Men must not greet women with a kiss.”

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