Interview: To Touch or Not to Touch?

In an era of anxiety about personal boundaries and sexual signals, Jesus shows us how to minster to others with care and sensitivity.

People have varying levels of comfort with physical touch. Some are happy to receive hugs from friends—or even total strangers. Others would prefer that everyone else keep their hands to themselves. Throw in the taboos surrounding evangelical purity culture and the wider social reckoning with unwanted sexual attention, and it quickly becomes a challenge to discern, in individual cases, whether touch is a welcome gesture or a violation of personal space. How can believers minister well in this environment? Lore Ferguson Wilbert takes up this question in Handle with Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry, which builds on her 2016 CT Women article, “Public Displays of Christian Affection.” Writer Abby Perry spoke with Wilbert about her book.

Sometimes it’s tough to know when physical touch is appropriate in a friendship context. How can friends make touch a healthy part of their relationship?

I’m careful not to impose blanket rules along the lines of “this is how you should touch” or “this is how you should hug.” These already get us into lots of trouble. Ultimately, the solution is the same for everyone: seeing the person sitting in front of us as an image-bearer of God. The most important question is how we care for the person in front of us. As I say again and again, my emphasis in Handle with Care is not on handling but on care. At its core, that changes how we touch within friendships, whether same-gender or cross-gender.

You argue that neither purity culture nor an ethic of consent offers a sufficient perspective on touch, especially as it pertains to sexuality. What are the gaps that you see?

Our world is so over-sexualized. Because we are sexual …

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