A theology of immigration

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in A More Welcoming Way, a series of TC articles on the immigration experience, attempts at reform and the church’s role in the process.

For Christians who take seriously the authority of Scripture, immigration is much more than a complex and controversial political issue. It is also an important theological issue.

The Bible actually has a lot to say on the topic of immigration. The Hebrew word that best fits the idea of an immigrant - the ger - appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. God makes clear that He loves immigrants and He commands His people to do so as well (Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Leviticus 19:33-34). Often, the command to love and welcome immigrants is mentioned alongside two other uniquely vulnerable groups: orphans and widows. In fact, Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser notes that the Hebrew Scriptures warn “no fewer than 36 times of Israel’s obligations to aliens, widows and orphans. Most important here, Israel’s obligation is to be motivated by the memory that they had been aliens in Egypt.”

In the gospels, Jesus interacts with foreigners in countercultural ways. While many around Him despised Samaritans, Jesus’ interactions with these individuals, whom He considered to be “foreigners,” are characterized by love and respect. He reveals Himself as the Messiah to a Samaritan woman, in whom He sees a potential evangelist. He highlights the gratitude of a Samaritan whom He has healed of leprosy. And, most powerfully, He makes a Samaritan the hero of one of His most important parables, depicting him as a model of neighborly love.

The New Testament also makes clear that hospitality - literally, philoxenia, the love of strangers - is a requirement for Christians and, in particular, for leaders in the church. In contemporary English, we often use the word hospitality to refer to having our friends over for a meal, but Jesus makes clear that our welcome must extend beyond that to welcoming those on the margins. Indeed, though many in our society associate “strangers” with a potential threat, it is the explicit command of Scripture to welcome them, with the suggestion that by welcoming strangers we could be welcoming an angel or even Jesus Himself.

Ask an average, church-going Christian which Scripture passage most informs their view of immigration and some will quickly reference Romans 13, which speaks not to our treatment of immigrants but to our relationship to the divinely ordained civil authorities. Yet it’s an error to hear “immigrant” and infer “illegal,” because most immigrants in the U.S. are present lawfully. Given an estimated 11.5 million immigrants present unlawfully, however, this Biblical teaching certainly is relevant.

The good news is that, at least at present, there is no United States law prohibiting a church or an individual from welcoming immigrants, sharing the Gospel with them (or, as might be just as likely, letting them share the Gospel with us) or compassionately meeting any number of basic human needs - so long as there is no employment involved. Romans 13 is not an excuse to ignore Scripture’s plethora of commands to love, welcome and seek justice for immigrants.

Romans 13 does compel us to work within our form of government, though, to advocate for public policies that would both restore the rule of law and extend compassion to vulnerable immigrants. Hundreds of Christian leaders, from a broad range of theological and political perspectives, have affirmed the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, which sets forward a series of principles that they hope will guide Congress to move forward on this issue. Regardless of what Congress does, though, Scripture compels those of us who profess to follow Jesus to reach out with compassion and genuine hospitality to the immigrants in our communities.

Comments (6)

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Thank you. I am horrified at what is happening in our country right now. Thank you for reminding us that this is a scriptural issue.

Thank you.

While much of what you said is true, to make the church a good works only organization is not what the church is founded on. Good works are certainly a fruit of a changed life through repentance and faith in Jesus, but not the means by which we are acceptable to God.

The state or government is designed by God to keep peace by punishing lawbreakers and rewarding do gooders.

The church is to be the conscience of the state so that just and equitable laws are enacted for the peace and safety of all. But when government doesn’t enforce the laws on the books then chaos and anarchy rules the day (think Ferguson, Chicago, etc,), drugs run more rampant, addictions on the rise.

Immigration has two aspects: 1) those who enter countries legally, and 2) those who don’t.  With certain safety issues regarding criminals and cartels border control is a must. But very little movement legally or enforcement has happened and many are upset that the government, at the behest of the former administration, has not made it happen. Now we have a president who promised in campaigning, and now as the elected president is working to do what former administrations refused to do.

I fear the angst demonstrated in last weeks march was more in defiance of Trump than the stated reasons - otherwise, why didn’t they march sooner?

As someone who is married to a Singaporean and who’s adopted a Chinese boy, I am very much in favor of legal immigration.  However, I am very much against illegal immigration, and favor government efforts to strengthen border security, including building a wall along our border with Mexico.  I think it is very important that our government makes a clear distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. 

I also think that our churches do need to be more welcoming of immigrants and refugees, because serving these people in Jesus’ name offers these people - and the wider community - a beautiful picture of what Jesus’ love is like.  Can you imagine the positive benefits that would occur if churches in America were to welcome immigrants and refugees with the love of Jesus?

Some may consider these views to be contradictory, but they’re not, because they reflect the fact that God has ordained separate roles for the government and the church.  Governments have been ordained by God to provide for the common welfare, which includes providing for the common defense of their citizens and maintaining law and order.  Churches, on the other hand, have been given the mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to everyone in the world through word and deed.

We do need to treat all people with Christian charity.  But civil policy has to balance a number of competing rights and goods.  It is entirely legitimate for countries to have laws regulating immigration. It is entirely legitimate to have laws making illegal immigrants unwelcome in the country and to deport them if they come here illegally.  In fact, most countries have such laws. Christians have a duty before God to uphold the civil laws of their countries that are not immoral and illegitimate.  Christians can also work (at least in constitutional republics such as ours) within the legal/political system to change laws they do not like.  I know of many people who would like to immigrate to the US legally, but face numerous obstacles within the system that make it a very difficult and long process.  When they see us welcoming illegals from across whatever borders we have, what message does that send to them?  Especially when many have turned out to commit violent crimes.  There has to be a rational discussion on the issue of immigration and the laws should create positive incentives, not perverse ones. Immigration laws should facilitate the reception of people who want to assimilate and would strengthen our nation rather than people who just come here for economic gain and try to change our nation to be like the nation(s) they left behind.

The main idea of halting immigration, or rather putting a hold on immigration for 90 days is not to ban it but to keep America safe from radicals who want to destroy us from within. I would rather live in a country who wants to keep it’s citizens safe than live in a country who doesn’t care who crosses it’s borders. I come from an immigrant family. My mother came here and was sponsored by a man who came to her country looking for a cook. She had to have at least $25 in her pocket,be healthy and have a job before she came here. My father jumped ship and stayed here, became a citizen and worked. My father-in-law came here first, then his wife and 3 children arrived but he had to show proof of a job and that they would not be on any kind of government assistance for 1 year. The last part was in 1951. So if you think that the immigrants coming into our country now are having it hard, think of those from 50 to 100 years ago.

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