The debate over illegal immigration and the refugee crisis has continued to rage within the Christian community.
As we wrestle with such important matters, it is always important for Christians to turn to Scripture for guidance as much as possible. Sometimes the Bible is quite clear about how Christians are to approach cultural issues, as in the cases of human sexuality and marriage.
However, what about issues like illegal immigration and the refugee crisis?
Some Christians believe the Bible is clear on these matters too. They often cite Old Testament passages like Leviticus 19:34, which says: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (NIV).
From the New Testament, some Christians will argue that the command to love your neighbor requires America – a so-called Christian nation – to help those in need.
However, if we are concerned with “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB), here are some things to remember:
1. Biblical passages that address individual Christians – or the church – don’t necessarily apply to governments.
Christians on the liberal side of the spectrum are traditionally those who advocate a large government role for fulfilling commands that Christians be generous toward those in need. Meanwhile, Christian conservatives generally emphasize personal responsibility and church help for those in need, while minimizing government involvement.
There is no doubt Christ commanded Christians to be generous and care for those in need. This is what it means to love our neighbor.
However, does this apply to government programs? May Christians who have the power to vote – as do those in the West – use that power to bring the government into the equation?
Absolutely, and conservative Christians have no right to bind the consciences of their more liberal brethren by demanding otherwise.
However, must Christians vote to do so? And if Christians do vote to do so, how much government activity should we demand? How much in tax money should be allocated? What sort of programs must we call for? Food stamps only? Job training programs? Is there ever a time when someone should cease getting aid?
These questions are vexing, but here’s the problem: At this point the Bible ceases to be a guide. Christians on the left have no right to bind the consciences of others on such secondary questions, either.
Instead, at this point it becomes a matter of wisdom, not biblical injunction. Christians, like everyone else, make their case in the public square and attempt to persuade their fellow countrymen to join them.
Here is the principle: Biblically speaking, the government is not the same as the individual Christian and it is not the same as the church. Therefore, believers must be careful applying Scriptures meant for one to the other.
For example, Jesus said, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14, NASB).
So, we must conclude that individual Christians are to forgive their enemies. But must we also conclude that governments should forgive their enemies? Must we demand that criminals convicted of crimes be released and not sent to prison?
The consequence of this principle is that individual Christians, because of verses like Leviticus 19:34, should help refugees who are in our nation. But the issue of who we allow in – and how many – is not a biblical matter. It is a matter for political debate.
And that means Christians must also show charity toward those who might disagree.
2. Understanding the proper biblical function of government is critical to this debate.
Many Christians fail to understand the purpose of government in a fallen world, and act as if the matter is irrelevant to Christians focused on the eternal kingdom. But God has ordained government to serve His purposes on the earth as surely as He has ordained the church to carry out her assigned role.
Romans 13 makes plain the fact that governments derive their authority from God and are considered to be “ministers” or servants of Yahweh (vv. 1, 4). They help order human existence, represent the authority of God Himself, restrain evil, and reward good.
Therefore one must assume that a government has both the right and the responsibility before God to maintain order. Surely that would include providing for national borders – which might require restricting immigration and the flow of refugees across them.
Very few of the Christians who advocate increasing the number of immigrants or refugees into the U.S. ever seem to truly wrestle with this matter. Invariably their responses are: “Yes, of course, the government should establish secure borders and enforce the laws, but ….”
That is not an answer that is helpful. In fact, that is not wrestling with the subtleties of the issue at all. A specific answer requires more than platitudes.
Here are the types of answers we need from these brothers and sisters: Should a government allow every refugee who wants to enter the country to do so? No? Then exactly how should a government decide who and how many?
If a Christian insists that “love your neighbor” requires us (as a country) to accept, say, more Syrian refugees, then that Christian cannot restrict the refugee process at all. The moment a Christian says a government can be loving and restrict the refugee process, the Christian has then admitted that the political process must take place. In other words, the government must be allowed to do its job.
But if it does its job and restricts the refugee process, that Christian cannot argue that the country is no longer being loving. Why? Because the Bible does not quantify how many refugees a country must allow. Once again, that is a wisdom issue, not a biblical one.
3. Old Testament passages dealing with immigration, refugees, or “foreigners” in Israel do not apply to our current political debates.
It is clear that Old Testament passages like Leviticus 19:34 required God’s people to love and treat respectfully those who were not Jews, yet were living among them or passing through.
However, such verses merely assume that certain people would fall into those categories because transient peoples were common in the ancient world. Virtually all societies, and especially those in that part of the world – in the middle of major trade routes – were quite used to seeing trade caravans passing through and foreigners who stayed for a few months conducting business.
James alludes to this common practice when he says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit’” (James 4:13).
These Biblical references instruct God’s people to treat lovingly those who were already passing through. The more likely parallel would be: How should Christians today treat legal immigrants who are in our midst?
Thus the subject matter does not address whether or not governments have a right to restrict immigration, how they should go about doing so, or how many they should allow in. Using these verses in this manner is to bend them to serve a political agenda, rather than a biblical one.
4. Passages that apply to Israel do not always apply to other nations like the U.S.
It is probably safe to assume that Leviticus 19:34 requires Christians to not only help the “foreigners” already in their midst but also to press their government to do the same. Sometimes the moral force behind a commandment given to Israel is universal in its application.
But this is not always the case – and great care should be exercised when attempting to stretch a passage that might only apply to Israel and making it universally binding.
For example, should Christians insist that the U.S. government stop taking a census every 10 years because God was angry at David for taking a census of the people (1 Chronicles 21:1-8)?
If there is some way in which taking a census is injurious to cultures in general, then perhaps Christians could make that argument. But it is probable that God punished David for the census because of the peculiar relationship that Israel had with Yahweh. Since other nations did not – and do not – have a special covenant relationship with God, they are under no obligation to avoid taking censuses.
Sometimes God made promises to Israel that do not apply to other nations. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is a classic example of a promise made to Israel that evangelicals then stretch to apply to America – or some other nation.
There are certainly principles in 2 Chronicles 7:14 that should encourage American Christians to repent and pray and seek revival for their land. But it is not a covenant promise from God. He has not obligated Himself to save America like He obligated Himself to respond to the prayers of His people in the Old Testament.
However, as the above arguments demonstrate, there is nothing simple about trying to interpret the Bible in the often-overheated atmosphere of the culture wars of 2015.
The worst thing we can do is to accuse our brothers and sisters of disobeying Christ or not loving their neighbors or – fill in the blank here – when they disagree.
If we are to sort out the implications of weighty issues like immigration and refugee policy, it will require all of us in the body of Christ jump into the debate with wisdom, discernment, grace, and humility.