The pastor stood before the congregation and announced, “We’re a loving church, and we want you all to feel welcome. But we’re also a biblical church. The Bible says, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss.’ So stand up, turn to two or three people around you whom you haven’t met, say hello, and give them a big kiss.”
There was about one second of uncomfortable silence before the laughter started. People knew he wasn’t serious—but it certainly got everyone’s attention! I watched as people greeted each other: handshakes, occasional hugs, and a couple of kisses between spouses.
Later I thought about what had happened. Why were we so uncomfortable doing something the Bible specifically says to do? Was that really what the passage meant? If not, were there other passages we could ignore? How could we know? Did we have to pick-and-choose which commands of Scripture to follow?
The answer was pretty obvious. The emphasis in the command wasn’t on kissing but on greeting. In the New Testament culture, a “holy kiss” was a perfectly acceptable, well-understood way of greeting someone. It wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in a first-century congregation. Today the injunction to greet each other still stands, but our cultural setting has provided different methods to carry out that greeting.
The greeting is a function—the basic thing that needs to happen. The kiss is a form—a method of carrying out the function. Much of our misunderstanding of Scripture today stems from emphasizing the form over the function.
Several weeks ago, I spent some time in a large local secular bookstore. The Personal Finance section was one of the largest sections in the building. As I looked through the shelves, I tried to count the number of titles that focused on getting wealthy. Some books had sensational titles, while others were more academic. Many dealt with investing techniques or various strategies, and others emphasized saving and budgeting. I stopped counting after I reached a hundred, because I was only about a third of the way through the shelves.
Suddenly I realized the common theme of most of the books: we don’t have enough money, and we want more. This theme didn’t say anything about methods for making money or whether the desire for money was based on greediness, ambition, or need. People wanted to improve their financial situations. Gaining wealth was the function. All the books had that theme in common. But their specific methods took different forms.
Was one book better than another? For different individuals in different situations, certain techniques are probably more appropriate than others. I might be immensely helped by one book, while the same resource would be meaningless to you. Why? Because you are not me, and your situation is different from mine. We might both want to improve our financial situation, but we will take different paths to make it happen.
Several years ago, I spent some time in Ethiopia. I was traveling with Steve, who had been there many times before. He was teaching some local craftsmen how to build guitars, and I was assisting in the project. It was the first time I had been out of the country in thirty years, and it was reassuring to be on this trip with a seasoned traveler.
On the plane, he gave me some insight into the culture. We would be working closely with Yitbarak and Kassahoun, two warm, caring young men. He suggested that it wouldn’t take long to develop close relationships with these godly men. “Don’t be surprised,” he said, “when they hold hands with you when you’re walking together.”
The more time I spent in the country, the more I came to appreciate the loving spirit of the people and noticed how physical they were with each other. It was hard to spot two people standing side by side who didn’t have their arms around each other. When I was working on a guitar, they’d have their arms around me as they watched over my shoulder.
In Western culture, we tend to use less demonstrative ways to show our care for friends. So who is correct? The answer is reflected in an understanding of form and function. The function is to care about each other. The forms vary in different cultures.
I’ve been through a number of different classes and seminars on evangelism. Each had its unique approach and was designed to make it simple and effective for someone to share his or her faith with others. But like the books I found on evangelism, each seminar positioned itself as the newest and best approach. Each implied that its method would be easier and more effective than other methods. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need a new technique when the others were just as good.
I remember one method that was clear and simple, but we had to memorize the process word for word. We learned how to steer a conversation around to spiritual things and then find a way to walk someone through the process. It was actually helpful, and there was security in knowing how to present the gospel in a logical format. But my problem wasn’t with the technique. My problem was that we were supposed to use this technique in every encounter we had. Somehow that felt like the old approach of selling a product instead of providing a solution or like having your family doctor prescribe a medication without examining you.
The church has gone through different phases of evangelism over the years. The traditional approach, which emphasized the need to approach strangers and present the gospel, was popular for decades. It was characterized by door-to-door witnessing and confronting people on the street or in other public locations.
An alternative approach developed called “lifestyle evangelism,” which was the subject of books, classes, and seminars. This focused on first building a relationship and then presenting the gospel. That meant we should take the person out to lunch first and then confront him or her with the gospel.
Because those approaches didn’t fit the temperament of a lot of people, a third approach developed that’s common today: don’t evangelize at all. But that goes against the whole pulse of Scripture, because it focuses on forms while ignoring the biblical function.
It’s easy to look at those methods of evangelism and find fault with them, assuming they have no validity. But they’re just forms. God can use different forms with different people.
The important thing is to look at the function of evangelism— to bring people to the Savior. All the methods people use are just forms to accomplish that function.
The apostle Paul got it right in Philippians 1:14–17. His Philippian audience was using different methods to share their faith, and they were accusing each other of using the wrong techniques. Some actually had the wrong motives and were sharing for selfish reasons. From prison Paul said,
“Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” (That’s good.)
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry . . .” (That’s bad.)
“. . . but others out of goodwill.” (That’s good.)
“The latter do so in love.” (That’s good.)
“The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” (That’s bad.)
We might expect Paul to correct those who were preaching Christ from the wrong motives, but he makes an amazing statement in the next verse:
But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Paul knew the difference between form and function. He might not agree with the forms being used, but he didn’t really care as long as the function was being accomplished. The desired outcome was clear in his mind, but he knew God could take people on individual paths to get there.
Mike Bechtle, Evangelism for the Rest of Us: Sharing Christ within Your Personality Style (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006).
We have just released a new Bible Study on the topic Sharing Christ.
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking. Answers are provided in the form of quotes from respected authors such as John Piper, Max Lucado and Beth Moore.
These lessons will save you time as well as provide deep insights from some of the great writers and thinkers from today and generations past. I also include quotes from the same commentaries that your pastor uses in sermon preparation.
Ultimately, the goal is to create conversations that change lives.