Toward a Theology of Hugging

Toward a Theology of Hugging

The August 21 issue of the Christian Century has an interesting news item on hugging in church. It briefly chronicles the increase of hugging as a form of greeting other worshipers, and then concludes that, given the appropriate ground rules, hugging can be a healthy practice for congregations.

Much of the brief discussion, though, has to do with the practical benefits, along with some of the possible problems, associated with church-hugging. Little is offered by way of theological reflection on hugging. One person quoted does make a stab at it. She points to the example of Jesus, who “touched in every single way imaginable.” That strikes me as an overstatement. But even in a more modest version I doubt that an imitation-of-Christ approach to hugging will get us very far.

I have actually given some thought about church-hugging, drawing upon  my Kuyperian theological perspective. My reflections were originally stimulated by an experience at a church in the 1970s. With our Grand Rapids neighbors, George and Lucie Marsden, Phyllis and I decided one weekend to check out a service at a local charismatic congregation. As our two families entered the sanctuary a person standing at the door greeted each person with “Good morning. Welcome. May I give you a hug?” I was at the rear of our party, and when I observed this I whispered to my wife, “Save me a seat,” and  I turned around and waited in the parking lot until the service started.

As our group reviewed the worship experience afterward, the question came up why I had come in late. My answer: “I did not want to hug anyone.” My loved ones and neighbors accused me of being too “uptight” (a ’70s word!), and nothing that I could come up with changed their assessment of my sensitivities.

I kept thinking about the topic all that day. It was also on my mind  the next morning as I was preparing a guest lecture for a class in social ethics at Calvin Theological Seminary. My topic for the day was Abraham Kuyper’s theology of “sphere sovereignty.” Kuyper held that God built a variety of social spheres into the very creation order: family life, artistic activity, political governance, scientific investigation, economic activity, and so on. It is crucial, he insisted, that we recognize the diversity of these spheres and keep the boundaries between them clear. Families have a different created functions than businesses. States are different than churches.

In thinking about my hugging experience at the same time as I was preparing the lecture on sphere sovereignty, I realized the connection between the two. Hugging is a familial activity, not an ecclesiastical one. Families are not churches. In my lecture I put it graphically: “We should not hug in church and we should not preach in the bed!” I was satisfied that I had discovered a solid Reformed rationale for my opposition to ecclesiastical hugging.

Recently, though, I have been re-thinking my views about hugging. For one thing, I have become a public hugger of sorts, and I sense an obligation to bring my theology in line with my practice. But the issue goes deeper. In a lecture on Kuyper that I gave a few months ago at Princeton Seminary, I talked about the ways in which the church might actually have to take on some familial functions in our present situation. Kuyper was presupposing a society in the 19th century Netherlands where  family units were fairly stable. Today families are in trouble. Some children regularly move back and forth between different family configurations. Many men and women function as single parents. “Dysfunctional” has become a common adjective applied to family life.

The kind of acceptance, closeness and nurture that we have long associated with the family is missing in many lives today. In Kuyperian terms with can think of this as a case of “sphere shrinkage.” A God-ordained area for a certain kind of human interaction has lost some of its crucial attributes. When that happens, it is necessary–as a remedial move–for another sphere to take over the function that has been lost or reduced.

One churchgoer described in the Christian Century article talked about needing to come to church because the person had not been hugged all week. I’m glad that a person like that can get hugged in church. And I think Kuyper would agree with me. But I am confident that we would both stick with our conviction that it is wrong to preach in bed!


  1. Theologically, I expect there isn’t anything wrong with hugging, although I have to confess that, as a strong Introvert, it’s pretty low on the list of things I enjoy about worship services which engage in the practice (which seems to be just about every church I go to these days. I’m almost always “hugged out” well before the rest of the congregation is).

    But that’s just me, and is mostly said in the interests of laying my biases on the table. I’m concerned about the effects that a well meaning “hugger” might have on people who have experienced physical abuse, for whom touch is a difficult thing to accept. While I expect that, for such people, learning that a hug can be a loving thing can be a very healing experience, there is quite a bit of room for misunderstanding if such a person is approached for an unsolicited hug by a person that is not yet someone they know well. I would definitely reserve hugs for those with whom I have an existing relationship.

    Comment by B-W — September 4, 2007 @ 4:32 pm

  2. The appropriateness of touching people when greeting them in public (and touching them in what ways) varies from culture to culture. In New Testament times, it was appropriate for believers to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” In America that wouldn’t really work. In the Philippines it does.

    It would seem that Dr. Mouw is from a background that considers hugging in public to be abnormal. But not every American is of that background. I think it would be more respectful for people who think public hugging is appropriate to refrain from hugging those whom it makes uncomfortable. And it would be more respectful of those who are uncomfortable with it not to view hugging in public as a “remedial” measure, but rather, just as a different cultural attitude.

    P.S. Dr. Mouw–thanks so much for all the food for thought! What a great blog! (-:

    Comment by Virgie — September 5, 2007 @ 11:37 am

  3. So does this mean that we will see more moderation in Kuyperian thought regarding the differeniation between the spheres? Is this the weakness of Kuyper’s “sphere ideology?” (for lack of a better term). Hardlines shouldn’t be drawn? How far will this go? One time I was asked by Greg Boyd on his discussion boards, “Consider a person building a sand pile one grain at a time. When does the “pile” become a ‘pile’?” Who will decide? The Roman Catholic church or will it be “reality” with it’s odd ways of tapping you on the shoulder?

    Comment by Brandon Blake — September 5, 2007 @ 4:32 pm

  4. A La Carte (9/6)

    Thursday September 6, 2007…

    Trackback by Challies Dot Com SideBlog — September 6, 2007 @ 5:46 am

  5. […] Here is an interesting post from Richard Mouw on hugging. Yes, hugging. I’ll catch you later brother, maybe even with a hug! […]

    Pingback by A Theology of Hugging « Seeking Him — September 6, 2007 @ 7:45 am

  6. “Hugging is a familial activity, not an ecclesiastical one. Families are not churches.”

    I am still thinking over these two sentences from paragraph 6. Yes, families are not churches, and churches are not families, but the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ must certainly create some overlap in categories. Not all people will be “huggers,” but hugging as a greeting may be one cultural way of practicing the holy kiss of New Testament times.

    (Just a few more thoughts to help as you bring your theology in line with your practice :-) )

    Comment by Ray Fowler — September 6, 2007 @ 8:35 am

  7. […] 6, 2007 Hugging in Church Posted by Doug under Community , family  I believe that the church must be a place wherepeople can experience close community, but should there be hugging in church?  Regardless of your view on this issue, I found this article by Richard Mouw called, “Toward a Theology of Hugging” pretty intriguing.  […]

    Pingback by Hugging in Church « Life Together — September 6, 2007 @ 10:52 am

  8. Unless, of course, preaching in bed is some sort of spousal aphrodisiac and in the practice of love (double-entendre not intended) this is a means of fulfilling our spouse’s needs (though I would think this is far from my own reality!).

    Re: Hugging. I haven’t read any Kuyper, so can’t speak to his “spherical” schema.

    I would take a more sociological reading of hugging. I.e, that certain groups allow for hugging (Norwegians and Lutherans not notably among them) and expect it.

    To hug is to be open to another–to be “open to the unbidden” (Martin Buber, I think??), to treat a person as a “thou” and not an “it.” So perhaps hugging is love incarnated and ought to be practiced promiscously by followers of Jesus when the relationship is ripe for it (your 70’s awkward moment duly noted).

    It is a grace and says to another person. You are welcome with me. You belong.

    Comment by Scott Marshall — September 6, 2007 @ 2:59 pm

  9. […] Richard Mouw has a some helpful reflections on hugging in the church here. […]

    Pingback by In Light of the Gospel » Blog Archive » Mouw on Hugging — September 7, 2007 @ 7:00 pm

  10. […] Richard Muow reminds me why I need a huge, “Toward a Theology of Hugging“. […]

    Pingback by This week in Blogs: Suggested reads « Sets ‘n’ Service — September 8, 2007 @ 10:15 am

  11. Actually, since I belong to the family of God, and I am His child, and other Christians are my brothers and sisters-and WE are the church, and not the building-I would have to say that church IS family.

    Seems to me that’s how the Bible puts it.

    Comment by connie — September 9, 2007 @ 4:23 pm

  12. Dr. Mouw,
    I strangely enjoyed this discussion of hugging. I’m “hung up” on the same statement as Ray Fowler though: “Hugging is a familial activity, not an ecclesiastical one. Families are not churches.”

    Didn’t Jesus redefine the family system when he said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” – “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Luke 9:33-34)

    I think many churches operate with the understanding that church is a gathering of God’s family and it’s more than just a contemporary solution to isolated lives it’s following the example of community and family-life Jesus demonstrated.

    I may not be familiar enough with Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty,” but it sounds like he’s suggesting this is a bad ecclesiology. I wonder how Kuyper would respond to Jesus’ words. Anyway, just food for thought. Thanks for the discussion!

    Comment by Josh Husmann — September 10, 2007 @ 10:36 am

  13. Yeah, I too am cloudy on my theology of hugging. I’m not a real advocate of the practice, but I realize much of that is culturally dictated/determined.

    It’s not how I roll, but part of that has to do with concerns about how I might be perceived and the tendency in our society to see men as predators.

    Comment by GUNNY HARTMAN — September 11, 2007 @ 5:10 pm

  14. Richard: Our son, who is in prison, comments on the need for embracing other brothers in the Lord. Such “hugging” is not permitted in various state prisons congregations among prisoners or among volunteers who are not permitted to have any contacts with the prisoners.In fact, such personal touching and even “altar calls” are not permitted due to their supposed “security risk.” For more information about such lack of touching see “Partners in the Gospel” article in “The Christian Century” of October 3, 2006 where Troy pleads that the prison church needs to be nurtured through among other marks of the church by the sacraments–the passing by touch of the bread and wine symbolizing the death and life of Christ. Until reform comes, Troy lovingly places a closed fist into the chest on another inmate. The closed fist in the “Worden Days” of your GR sojourn represented “Black power” whereas today Troy’s fist into another prisoner’s chest is the best way he can hug someone.

    Comment by Richard Rienstra — September 12, 2007 @ 9:53 am

  15. […] (Wisdom from  Chairman Mouw.) […]

    Pingback by » Blog Archive » Hugging in church? — September 12, 2007 @ 2:29 pm

  16. […] Richard Mouw pens a must read. For Bill. Posted by: Joel Hunter @ 9:55 am | Trackback | Permalink […]

    Pingback by The Boar’s Head Tavern » — September 13, 2007 @ 6:56 am

  17. Great blog, Dr. Mouw . . . hugs to you!

    Comment by Janice Ryder — September 15, 2007 @ 10:25 pm

  18. […] Read the rest…   […]

    Pingback by Theology of Hugging « Creation Project — September 21, 2007 @ 1:09 pm

  19. […] Then there’s hugging. […]

    Pingback by As for me and my house … » Blog Archive » Issues of consequence — September 27, 2007 @ 10:25 pm

  20. dr. mouw,
    thank you for the hug during the commencement ceremony this summer. i had not realized so much thinking had gone into that act.

    Comment by curtis — October 8, 2007 @ 5:21 pm

  21. As our two families entered the sanctuary a person standing at the door greeted each person with “Good morning. Welcome. May I give you a hug?” I was at the rear of our party, and when I observed this I whispered to my wife, “Save me a seat,” and I turned around and waited in the parking lot until the service started.

    Dear Dr. Mouw,

    Wouldn’t it have been much easier all around had you kindly said, “No thank you,” not hugged the greeter and then taken a seat with your companions? Not everyone (the theology–or lack of it–regarding hugging aside) likes to be hugged. I’m sure you would have been neither the first nor the last to have opted out of it.

    Comment by Theo — November 12, 2007 @ 9:06 am

  22. Dear. Mouw,

    I volunteer as a Bible Studies teacher for incarcerated youth at LA County probation camps. These youngsters often come from dysfunctional families and prison is a dysfuntional place. So we end our classes by shaking hands with each minor, looking them straight in the eye and and blessing them. I see the look in their eye as they are touched and I think our touch serves as physical embodiment of blessing.

    I’m pleased that you shared your revised thinking about touch with us.


    Comment by Wendy — November 15, 2007 @ 12:40 pm

  23. Dr.Mouw,
    Your obvious sincerity is wonderful and I do profit from your writings. And I do love hugging! But in order to temper this gushiness that is in many circles, I would suggest reading Florence King on the subject. Have a great year.

    Comment by Raymond Coffey — December 18, 2007 @ 8:30 pm

  24. On the matter of hugging: What if we pass germs or viruses on to others while hugging? You may be carrying a cold virus, and not yet have succumbed to it. What if your action of hugging caused an elderly man or woman to catch that cold and end up with pneumonia and die? Is that loving your neighbor as yourself? Too, you might catch a cold or the flu from another person while hugging at church. This unfortunate experience might well interfere with you being effective for Christ at work at school at play. (Remember, you can’t preach in bed).

    p.s. I am not a hypochondriac!

    Comment by tremblingnut — January 22, 2008 @ 5:00 am

  25. […] class for a fifth week in a row late at night, I found myself reading Richard Mouw’s blog. For those of you not living at Fuller’s campus, he’s the President of Fuller. If I […]

    Pingback by a million possibilities… « the critic’s keyboard — November 26, 2008 @ 9:12 pm