If you want to disrupt a beautifully harmonious dinner party, all you have to do is bring up the radioactive issue of immigration. There might not be a more heated political topic in contemporary American life.
And yet pastors, by virtue of the changing diversity of their congregations and their role as community leaders, can’t afford to avoid the subject if we are to be faithful ministers of the gospel. Not only are we inundated with opinions from our parishioners, we’re forced to wrestle with real-world implications of immigration policy, whether our churches are located in Arizona or Alaska.
A sampling of political opinion, on all sides of the issue, reflects a failure on the part of many evangelicals to articulate a gospel-centered approach both to immigration policy and to immigrants themselves. A recent survey from the Pew Forum on Faith and Public Life suggests that just 12 percent of white evangelicals see this issue primarily through the lens of their faith. We think this presents a golden opportunity for pastors to reframe the debate from a missiological standpoint.
Pastors’ wariness to discuss the issue may stem from the politically charged nature of the national dialogue on immigration, or from the fear that by addressing the issue they will inevitably offend some in their congregation, putting attendance, tithes, and offerings at risk. We suspect that others avoid the issue, though, because—in a U.S. context where nearly a third of immigrants are present unlawfully—they see a paradox between the repeated biblical commands to welcome and love immigrants and the equally biblical commands to be subject to the governing authorities. Unsure of how to reconcile these seemingly conflicting commands, some pastors just avoid the issue altogether.
We argue that this is a false paradox which should not keep evangelicals from seizing the missional opportunity that God has foreordained in the movement of peoples across borders.
In this first article, we plan to address the attitudes that should shape our discussion of immigration. In a subsequent article, we plan on discussing some practical ways for pastors to address the issues that affect ministry.
Treatment of Immigrants
The issue of immigration is actually a very common theme in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word gare—which most English translations render “foreigner,” “sojourner,” or “alien,” but which Tim Keller argues compellingly (in a footnote to Generous Justice) is best translated as “immigrant”—appears in one form or another 92 times in the Old Testament. Most often, we find the immigrant referenced in a positive sense: God sets the standard for the Israelites that the immigrants who come to dwell among them should be treated “as the native among you” (Lev. 19:34), and as he gives the Law to his people, he repeatedly states that its protections—including the right to fair treatment as laborers (Deut. 24:14), to a Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:10), and to prompt payment for labor (Deut. 24:15)—-and most of its requirements (but not all: note Deut. 14:21) are meant for the immigrant as well as the native-born (Ex. 12:49). Throughout the Old Testament, the immigrant is repeatedly referenced with other two other groups—-the fatherless and the widow—-as uniquely vulnerable and thus worthy of special care and provisions (Ps. 146:9, Zech. 7:10, Ezek. 22:7, Mal. 3:5, Jer. 7:6, Deut. 24:21). God commands his people to love immigrants both because he loves them (Deut. 10:18) and because, given their unique history in Egypt, they ought to know better than to mistreat foreigners living in their midst (Deut. 10:19, Ex. 23:9, Lev. 19:34).
While we’re not proposing that we directly apply God’s rules for the nation of Israel to the United States, God’s love for immigrants and others who are vulnerable is unchanging and should guide our contemporary response. The New Testament’s emphatic commands to neighbor love (Matt. 22:39, Lk. 10:27, Rom. 13:9) and to extend hospitality to strangers (1 Tim. 5:10, Heb. 13:2) guide us in the same direction as the many Old Testament texts: Christians are to love, welcome, and seek justice for immigrants. (For a more thorough analysis of the issue of immigration in Scripture, we recommend Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible by Dr. Daniel Carroll R. of Denver Seminary.)
Our View of Immigrants
Pastors serve a vital purpose in shaping worldviews. Central to our mission is the call of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). The arrival of immigrants into our communities has brought the nations to our doorsteps. This movement of people is not an accident: the God who made all people also “determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live . . . so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27, NIV). While economic and sociological reasons drive people’s desire to migrate, we believe God has sovereignly superintended this movement of people to America so that they might come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and follow him as disciples. This is a two-way street, as many immigrants are faithful Christians who bring the gospel with them to unbelieving Americans.
This is why it is so important for pastors to combat the strain of anti-immigrant attitudes that pervades American society. A faithful Christian cannot see his Hispanic neighbor as an intrusion of his way of life, but as a sovereign opportunity for Christ to be expressed in the world through his bride. The immigrant who arrives may either be a brother or sister to be added to our fellowship or a lost soul in need of the gospel.
The tendency may be to ignore immigrants because of concern that we might upset those within the church who, guided by (often spurious) media accounts and political considerations, see them as a threat to their culture and values.
But we must have the courage to articulate a gospel-centered approach to this issue. It is our duty to view immigrants not as problems to solve but as people for whom Jesus died. Without a biblical lens, we may come to view immigrants as a threat and an invasion, rather than as a missional opportunity. In doing so, we lose credibility with our immigrant neighbors when, while proclaiming Christ’s love to them, we also communicate (intentionally or otherwise) that we dislike them and wish they were not part of our communities. As Russell Moore notes, “It’s horrifying to hear those identified with the gospel speak, whatever their position on the issues, with mean-spirited disdain for the immigrants themselves.”
If pastors exercise their responsibility to address the issue from a biblical and missiological perspective, however, we may not only sow in the hearts of our people a love for their immigrant neighbor, we may help shape the national conversation on immigration.