Immigration: An Evangelical Approach
Print Friendly and PDF

December 02, 2006

[Peter Brimelow writes: For some reason, it is much easier to get Catholic immigration reformers to write about their faith and their preferred policy, even though it means arguing with their bishops. But recently Jim Antle wrote about Methodists and here Rev. Barnwell offers an Evangelical perspective.]

The mainstream Christian Right has long been divided on the issue of immigration. Since Evangelical Protestants view the Scriptures as the basis for their worldview, both sides appeal to the Bible to support their position. Christianity Today has run several pieces recently, featuring different angles on the Evangelical response to the immigration crisis. [For example, On Immigration Issue, Big Evangelical Groups Conspicuously Mum, G. Jeffrey Macdonald, January 20, 2006]

The debate raises several questions: How do Evangelicals reach their divergent opinions? Is there any hope of a consensus on what the Bible "really" says on this issue for 21st century Americans? Is the Bible even a valid source for evangelical immigration debates?

While the Scriptures do not directly address this modern policy debate, there certainly are some overriding Biblical principles that can help a Christian reach a conclusion. I believe that while Christians who support mass immigration may be well-intentioned, they are simply missing the mark by overlooking some key facts both in the Biblical text and in the modern debate.

First, it must be pointed out that current political and social conditions are very different than in Biblical times. The nation-state as it exists today does not reflect the ancient kingdoms of Israel or Judah, or the Roman Empire of the New Testament.

After the Israelites left Egypt, they settled in the land of Canaan and functioned as a theocracy. There was no king, and most surrounding people groups belonged to what we would basically call "city-states." Eventually the nations of Israel and Judah became established states with their own kings (the unified kingdom split after Solomon).

The book of Deuteronomy makes provisions for the selection of a king (I Deut. 17:14-20). One of the instructions was that the king himself be from the Israelite community. The people were instructed not to put a foreigner over themselves.

Likewise, after the Israelites returned to their land from national exile, they were forbidden by their priestly leaders from intermarrying with foreign persons (Ezra 9).

The appeal here in the Old Testament is not one of racial purity, but spiritual purity. Foreigners were indeed allowed into the Israelite community. Ruth the Moabite is a prime example of this.

These instructions were given when the Israelites were under the Old Testament law and were to be a holy people, set apart. They were not to conform to wicked customs, morals, and religious beliefs of the Canaanites, Hittites, Ammonites, etc. The Israelites were supposed to be a shining city on a hill to which the rest of the world would take notice and ideally worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was part of the promise to Abraham, the father of Israel, when God told him, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" ( Gen. 12:3).

According to the New Testament, this promise reached its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The first chapter in the New Testament spells this out by showing that Christ was the promised descendant of Abraham and David ( Matthew 1). Therefore, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

So if the emphasis is not, in fact, on race and ethnicity, is there anything here that can be applied to the discussion of immigration? In short, yes.

As I've shown, the Israelites were supposed to welcome foreigners who believed in their spiritual ideals and wanted to freely become a part of the Israelite community. To speak anachronistically, they were not supposed to welcome foreigners who would come in and burn their flags and sing the national anthem of the Canaanites.

Christians, therefore, should be advocating an immigration policy that welcomes those who seek to willingly assimilate and become a part of their national culture and heritage.

Foreigners who became a part of the Israelite community were obligated to forsake their old ways and assimilate to their new culture. While for the Israelites this transformation was primarily spiritual, it surely carried many secular connotations as well. Christians should not have a racial focus, but a values focus.

However, Christians need to recognize that the purpose of immigration policy is not to invite more potential converts into our churches.

But what about highly spiritual illegal immigrants who come to America seeking a better life? Surely they should be welcomed into the American community with open arms, even if they break the law, correct?

Well, not so fast.

In general, the Bible supports the idea of obeying the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). However, when the authorities are rebelling against God's will ( Revelation 13), the Christian has the obligation to "obey God rather than men" ( Acts 5:29). We must ask ourselves then:

  • Is a nation-state protecting its borders and seeking to assimilate its citizens into its culture really engaging in an egregious offense against God?
  • Are these laws so offensive towards God that they permit a Christian to break American laws and thumb their noses at other foreign Christians who are seeking to enter the country legally?

Unless it can be proven that the law or authority in question is in direct violation of God's revealed will, we cannot conclude that illegal immigrants (including Christian ones) are pursuing a righteous cause. Why is it seen as immoral or unfair for America to actually enforce its already lax standards on immigration? Immigration policy certainly does not rise to the level of an offense against God.

The biblical verses most commonly used by Christians who support liberal immigration laws appeal to the Israelites to treat fairly the "strangers in the land." Leviticus 19:33-34 supports this notion: "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God."

[VDARE.COM note: Or in the King James Version: "If a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." This gave John Higham the title of his famous book on nativism, still cited by many who do not realize he subsequently changed his mind.]

There are several ways in which these verses are misinterpreted:

  • First of all, these verses were most probably primarily referring to foreigners who sought to become a part of the Israelite community. It certainly cannot be referring to the pagans in the land who sought to lure the Israelites into sin and rebellion against God. Therefore, these passages were certainly not directed towards aliens who were breaking laws and causing mayhem in the community.
  • Second, these passages say nothing about modern democratic nation-states establishing their own guidelines about what is and isn't the appropriate number of "aliens" living in their lands.
  • Third, is it treating an illegal alien unfairly by punishing him for breaking the law? When our own legal citizens clearly violate the law, are we being unjust as a society by punishing them? No. Rather, it is more unfair to the rest of the society when we ignore the rule of law and turn our heads away from the lawbreakers.

It is true that both the Old and New Testaments are very harsh in their assessment of those in God's supposed community who turn a blind eye to the needy or permit social injustices. However, Christians who support mass immigration usually make two errors of judgment about this:

  • First, they assume that the Christians who want a more controlled immigration policy are the ones who are promoting a more unjust or faulty society.

The "injustice" contention has many problems outlined in such books as Peter Brimelow's  Alien Nation and Pat Buchanan's recent  State of Emergency. There is plenty of evidence that both illegal immigration and mass legal immigration have created far more problems than benefits in society. This is evidence that some Evangelicals do not want to hear.

That is far from the case. Any person who calls himself a Christian should of course demonstrate love to the less fortunate both in word and deed. But there are other ways to love immigrants than sanctioning their law breaking. It takes more sacrifice for a Christian to do a short-term missions project or to donate financially towards impoverished areas of Mexico than it does for them to cheer on illegal immigration.

Rather than just applauding faceless illegals—whom they may never actually meet—Evangelicals would do better to actually meet these people where they are and donate their resources (time, money, etc) to help improve their lots in life. Christians could also support Mexican churches in their efforts to provide relief to their countrymen and women.

Whatever route is chosen—and there are plenty of other possibilities—we should not act as if the only way to show love and compassion to immigrants is by promoting or condoning illegal behavior.

A grander goal for the global Christian community, and Americans on a whole, is to help impoverished Mexican communities empower themselves to better care for their hurting people. This of course takes more work and sacrifice than just promoting open borders.

The Evangelical must ask himself which side in this internal debate ultimately demands more love and sacrifice and is more closely aligned to the Scriptures.

It is hard for me to believe the side that promotes law breaking, and ignores the very real social problems and risks this entails, is doing more justice to Scriptural principles.  

Bill Barnwell [send him mail] is a pastor and writer in Michigan. He holds both a Master of Ministry degree and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree from Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Visit his blog at

Print Friendly and PDF