Article

A biblical view of immigrants

Part 1

May 17, 2019

In recent years, few issues have dominated the headlines as frequently and divided the country as deeply as immigration. Many Americans — including many Christians — feel conflicted as they think about such a complex issue: They want the United States to continue to be a country that welcomes immigrants, but at the same time they want to ensure that our policies protect our national security, benefit our economy and respect the law.

A biblical view of immigrants and immigration

For evangelical Christians, our ultimate authority is the Bible. Too often, though, we’ve not looked to the Scriptures as our primary authority when it comes to forming our views toward immigrants and immigration. A LifeWay Research poll found that just 12 percent of evangelicals cited the Bible as the primary influencer of their thinking about immigration. In fact, when it comes to the top factor that informs their views on the topic, more evangelicals cited the media than the Bible, their local church, and national Christian leaders combined.

Some might presume that’s because the Bible is silent on this issue — but it’s not. While the Scriptures do not prescribe specific immigration policy that should govern the United States (or any other nation), they are replete with stories of immigrants, with specific instructions from God to the Israelites about how to treat the foreigners who came to reside in their land, and with broader principles that have clear ramifications for how contemporary followers of Jesus should interact with our immigrant neighbors. Even among evangelicals who disagree about how our government should prudentially apply biblical principles to questions of public policy, the role of the church is clear.

God’s concern for the vulnerable

Many biblical figures were forced across borders. Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. David flees the violence of King Saul and seeks asylum among the Philistines. Daniel and his friends are exiled from their homeland and end up serving a foreign government. Even Jesus himself, as a small child, is forced to flee, escaping to Egypt as a child refugee when Herod’s jealousy threatens the lives of all baby boys in Bethlehem.

Others migrate for different reasons. Abram (later Abraham) and his family leave their homeland at God’s instruction, then later cross borders again on multiple occasions in search of food during times of famine. His son Isaac and grandson Jacob later move because of famine as well. Generations later, Naomi and her family are motivated by hunger to migrate from the land of Judah, then eventually reports of adequate food lead Naomi to return, now accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth.

The Great Commandment

Indeed, at many points within the Law of Moses, we are not told why a particular command is given. But when it comes to God’s commands regarding the treatment of immigrants, a reason is offered: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Lev. 19:33-34, ESV). God’s people are told to love immigrants as themselves, because they knew firsthand what it is like to dwell in a land that was not their own.

One Body

We’re called to love our neighbors regardless of their country of origin or religious tradition, but as we do so, we’re likely to find that many of them are deeply committed followers of Jesus. Although it is difficult to quantitatively measure personal religious commitments, the significant majority of immigrants in the United States (whether present lawfully or not) self-identify as Christians. Many of them are evangelicals. In fact, roughly 1 in 10 evangelicals in the U.S. is an immigrant, and that share has been rising. In 2007, 12 percent of American evangelicals were either immigrants or their children; by 2014, that share was 16 percent.

The Great Commission opportunity

While many immigrants are already Christians when they reach the United States, many others are not. By the classification criteria of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, there are 361 unreached people groups — ethnic groups in which there are few if any known followers of Jesus — present within the boundaries of the United States, more than any other country except India and China.

If we approach immigration and — more important — immigrants themselves purely from a political perspective, we will fail to live up to this Great Commission responsibility. That’s not to say that public policy is unimportant: Indeed, it directly affects the lives of millions of people, including many members of the Christian family and many others whose future access to the gospel could be a casualty of restrictive immigration policies. Furthermore, the witness of the church is marred if followers of Jesus are hostile to immigrants, or are merely silent when such hostility is perceived.

On questions of public policy, Christians may come to different conclusions as they seek to apply biblical principles. When it comes to how we interact with our immigrant neighbors, the specific commands of the Bible leave less room for debate: We are called to show Christ-like love for our neighbors, including immigrants, and to share the good news of salvation to those of every nation.

The invitation: Take the next step

Reforming the U.S. immigration system is not a simple task, nor is it easy politically. But nearly all Americans agree that our current system isn’t working, that people are harmed along the way, and that Washington needs to come together for a solution.

What's one step you can take? For starters, pray for immigrants in your community, for a Christ-honoring response from local churches to this complex issue, and for our elected officials, who need divine wisdom as they seek to reform immigration policies.

This was an excerpt from Thinking Biblically about Immigrants and Immigration Reform, an e-book recently published by the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).