Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses

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 state 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 clear 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 were given as a concession to Greco-Roman culture, a culture where the subordination of women was deeply ingrained. 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. Moreover, 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, including a gender hierarchy in marriage. The relationships within the New Creation community of the church should be marked by mutual submission and equality between all people. These dynamics extend 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.[3] 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.[4]

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 which 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.


[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, “But 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. I do not think a strict a military sense of the word is comparable to the way it is used in New Testament verses about marriage.

[3] The verb “submit” has a range of nuances. I do not think a strict a military sense of the word is comparable to the way it is used in New Testament verses about marriage, especially as Paul’s instruction for wifely submission in Ephesians 5:22 follows his instruction for mutual submission.

[4] 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  (Grace and Truth Publishers, Kindle Edition) Kindle Locations 233-243.

Related Articles

The Priority of Wifely Submission vs Mutual Submission
More articles on Submission
Wives, Mothers, and Female Masters in the NT Household Codes
Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew
Galatians 3:28 – Our Identity in Christ and in the Church
Busy at Home: How does Titus 2:4-5 apply today?
The Complementarian Concept of “The Created Order”
More articles about Gender in Genesis 1-3

Posted March 27th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

23 comments on “Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses

  1. Bev Murrill says:

    That is absolutely bloomin’ BRILLIANT, Marg!

  2. Marg says:

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

  3. Chris Brittain says:

    food for thought

  4. Peggy Brown says:

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

  5. Don Johnson says:

    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. Marg says:

    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. Karin says:

    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. Marg says:

    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. John says:

    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. John says:

    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. Marg says:

    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. Trena Garrison says:

    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.)

    • Marg says:

      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).

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