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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Veils, Footwashing, and the Holy Kiss

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

The average American feels that truth is unknowable, and therefore everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. He or she feels that one viewpoint is as good as another, and no one should be so arrogant or judgmental as to say that one view is correct and all others are wrong. After all, one cannot be certain as to what is ultimately right and what is ultimately wrong. And who is to say who is right and who is wrong? How can we be so sure that we have all the answers?

This cultural inclination has infiltrated the church. It manifests itself among those who insist that we in the churches of Christ have been too narrow and dogmatic about our doctrinal positions. They say we have assumed that we’re right, and that other religious groups are wrong; we have made too much of some issues, and too little of others; and our rigid doctrinal stance has, in turn, caused us to be unloving and intolerant of alternative viewpoints and churches.

Of course, this entire line of thinking proceeds from a humanistic, pluralistic mindset. It constitutes the classic attempt to dodge accountability and responsibility. When Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), He was showing that we must be right about certain matters. We do not know everything. But we can know some things—those things that God expects us to know. We can know truth! We can know that we know (1 John 2:3). We can know which things we have to know, and we can know which things we do not have to know. But we must analyze each matter logically and scripturally.

For example, some have concluded that God wants women to wear head-coverings when they worship in the presence of men. They believe this conclusion follows from the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. However, the wearing of a veil in Corinth conveyed a meaning within Graeco-Roman culture that is not conveyed in American culture. It was a cultural phenomenon (“judge in yourselves”—vs. 13). To them, the veil symbolized a woman’s submission to male authority (vs. 10). The removal of the veil symbolized a woman’s rejection of male authority, and was equivalent to the shameful practice of shaving the head—an act done by women of ill-repute (vs. 5-6). Since the symbolism of the veil in Corinthian culture was in harmony with the abiding principle of female submission to male leadership, Corinthian Christians were admonished to conform to the cultural practice.

The application of this injunction is that Christians, who find themselves in cultures today where a particular cultural symbol undergirds an abiding biblical principle, should conform to that cultural propriety. Head coverings have no such significance in American culture, and vary throughout the world (cf. Genesis 24:65; 29:25; 38:14-15; Song of Solomon 4:1,3; 6:7). If Paul intended for veils to be enjoined upon all Christian women in all cultures for all time, then three conclusions follow: a hat is no substitute; veils must be worn outside the worship assembly as well; and those who refuse must be urged to shave their heads.

Another area of confusion about which the truth may be ascertained is the “holy kiss.” Both Paul and Peter urged first-century Christians to greet each other with holy kisses (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). Was this injunction intended to be an abiding feature of Christianity? Does God want Christians today to practice a “holy kiss,” even as He desires that baptism, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper be observed?

Kissing as a greeting predated Christianity (1 Samuel 20:41; 2 Samuel 20:9; Matthew 26:49; Luke 7:45; Acts 20:37). Americans typically have been unable to relate to kissing as a standard form of greeting. They shake hands or offer a pat on the back. However, hugging has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Paul could not have been commanding Christians to start kissing each other as a form of greeting—they were already doing so! Rather Paul was applying Christian principles to the existing and widespread cultural practice of kiss-greetings by urging them to keep their greeting holy. Far from enjoining kissing, he was requiring holy kissing. He was telling Christians to make their kiss-greetings a sanctified activity—set apart for, or in line with, proper Christian living. He was instructing them, “Since you kiss, when you kiss, make it holy—greet one another with a holy kiss.”

A third practice that requires clarification in order to understand its proper application is foot washing. Jesus literally startled and shocked the disciples on the occasion when He insisted upon washing their feet (John 13:1-20). It is nearly as surprising to find religious groups today who believe that Jesus was instituting an abiding occurrence—a worship act to be observed ritualistically in the practice of Christianity.

As a matter of fact, the washing of feet in first-century Palestine was a common cultural amenity that was necessary due to the dry, dusty road conditions and the footwear of the day (i.e., sandals—Genesis 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; Judges 19:21; 1 Timothy 5:10). In a typical middle-eastern setting, several social courtesies were ordinarily extended to guests. These expressions of hospitality included the kiss greeting, anointing, and caring for the guest’s animals, in addition to providing food and shelter (Genesis 18:4-5; 24:32; Judges 19:21; Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; Psalm 23:5; Ecclesiastes 9:8; Daniel 10:3; Matthew 6:17; Luke 7:44-46). Western culture typically has a completely different list of social amenities, including taking a guest’s coat, offering something to drink, and asking the guest to be seated.

In a culture where household servants were in abundant supply, the task of washing a guest’s dusty feet normally would have been performed by a servant of the host. This fact is what made Jesus’ action so repugnant to the disciples. They were disgusted that Jesus would lower Himself to perform such demeaning labor.

Since the disciples of Jesus already were practicing foot washing, Jesus was simply using the cultural custom to teach a spiritual principle. That is why He prefaced His action by noting they would not understand the significance of what He was about to do (John 13:7). That is why, when He finished, He asked, “Do you know what I have done to you?” (vs. 12). Obviously, they knew that He had washed their feet! If He was merely urging them to continue this common practice, they would have understood His injunction instantly. But that was not the point He was attempting to get across to them. He was teaching self-humiliation and forgiveness. We, too, must be humble enough to correct our mistakes and receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers. We must be willing to treat others better than ourselves by serving them and showing concern for the fulfillment of their needs. It would be a simple matter if we could fulfill this edict by ritualistically washing another’s feet. However, Jesus was conveying the fact that the humility and unassuming, servant-attitude that He wants us to display require a far more diligent, consistent dedication of one’s daily behavior.




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