The subject of “cuddling” seems to have touched a nerve it’s got some people are up in arms. For instance, consider this recent exchange between two prominent guardians of Biblical Manhood™:
If you didn’t already know this Owen Strachan was the former president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Denny Burk is the current president. For them to make these kinds of statements is problematic in several ways.
First, these men are going far beyond what is written in scripture. Nowhere does the Bible forbid non-sexual physical affection for members of either the same sex or the opposite sex. These men have taken their own cultural assumptions and prejudices and elevated them to the level of scriptural truth, which, coincidentally, is exactly what they accuse “the other side“ of doing. But, to illustrate just how manifestly “unbiblical” their own position actually is, we need only to look to the example of Jesus Christ himself.
One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”John 13:23-25, NRSV
The first thing to notice is that John takes care to emphasize that Jesus had a uniquely close connection with one of his disciples – “the one whom Jesus loved.” It was this disciple who “was reclining next to him.” Most English translations actually obscure the Greek at this point. In the first instance, designated by bold italics above, the Greek literally states that this disciple “was reclining on his bosom.” In the second instance, designated by bold underline, the Greek literally states that this disciple “was leaning back on Jesus’ chest.” That sure sounds a lot like “cuddling” to me.
Some may point out that these phrases need not necessarily denote literal physical contact and may simply refer to this disciple “being next to” Jesus. While technically true, that doesn’t seem to me to be the most natural reading of the text – there was other, less-intimate language John could have used. In fact, as noted above, John seems to take special care to emphasize the close bond this disciple had with Jesus. That, coupled with the fact that even to this day physical affection between men is quite commonplace in the middle-east and Africa, leads me to believe that John was intentional with his use of physical language. I actually think the tendency to translate these phrases less literally is a reflection of our own cultural discomfort with male physical affection. I should add that this cultural discomfort is relatively modern, as this post from The Art of Manliness reveals.
But this is more important than a couple of self-proclaimed guardians of “biblical manhood” elevating their own “unbiblical” opinions to the the level of scriptural authority. These kinds of attitudes are not just wrong, they are actually harmful.
As science and medicine have repeatedly proven, humans need physical affection. There are lots of physical, psychological, and social benefits that come along with physical affection, and lots of detriments when it is withheld. When we hyper-sexualize all physical contact, we are actually depriving people of something very important, and it has very real consequences.
When the sexualization of all physical affection is combined with a “purity culture” that restricts all sexual contact marriage, we effectively restrict all physical affection to marriage. This is especially true for men, since these bizarre “no-cuddling” rules are selectively applied only to men. We thereby tell men that marriage is the only way to have this human need met. This places both an unbiblical and an unbearable load on the backs of those unmarried men who hold to a “traditional Christian sexual ethic” and who find themselves celibate, either by choice or by circumstance.
Celibacy is hard enough without telling people they can’t experience even non-sexual physical affection. The church already sucks at making space and caring for single, celibate people. The kind of “unbiblical” malarkey like that from Strachan and Burk further compounds the problem.