Have Christians Lost the Moral High Ground on Immigration?

The Israelites were scattered because they refused to do as God commanded: they oppressed the sojourners, among other things.

Photo by Tim Butterfield

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger[1] and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”[2]

The parable of the sheep and goats and the explanation of it given by Jesus is relevant to the issue of immigration. This is not in the Old Testament, but the New Testament. This isn’t God talking to the nation of Israel (as if what God said to the nation of Israel has no bearing on us), but God talking to all of us through Jesus.

The bottom line is this: we will be judged by how we treat people.

A case can be made that God’s instructions to the Israelites on the treatment of strangers (aliens, foreigners, immigrants) doesn’t apply to us today,[3] like ceremonial and dietary laws don’t apply to us today as followers of Christ. At least, that is the position taken by James K. Hoffmeier in the article, The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate, December 2011.[4]

Hoffmeier argues that conservative Christians should not take a position in favor of immigration. He says that only secularists and liberals hold that view, and they misquote the Bible to support that position.

Before digging into the issue, we should note that the discussion isn’t about whether immigration should be allowed, or not. We already allow immigration and always have. Few people are arguing that we should open the borders wide with no controls at all, and few people are arguing that we should shut the borders tight and not allow any immigration at all.

The issue is the extent of the immigration we should allow and the terms and conditions that we should attach to it.

The public debate, however, sounds as if people are lining up completely in favor of open borders or completely in favor of closing them off. That perception isn’t accurate, and assuming an all or nothing approach is counterproductive.

Another perception we need to contend with is the notion that only secularists and liberals are in favor of immigration. This notion is also false. Who is against immigration?! Who would refuse any immigration at all? Everyone but Native Americans are descendants of immigrants in this country.

But, what if those “secularists and liberals” are “right” in their policies that favor more compassionate immigration? Do we oppose things just because secularists or liberals ascribe to them?

These are questions I ask myself as I consider the issues. Are we just reacting? I believe we should be guided, not by our opposition to positions taken by unbelievers, but by our own reading of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I am neither a secularist nor a liberal. I believe the Bible is the Word of God, and I believe that we are responsible to God whose Word is preserved in the Bible. My reading of the Bible leads me to take the position that we have a holy responsibility to welcome strangers (immigrants) into our land because that is the heart of God.

Professor Hoffmeier takes a different view. For support, he offers that nations had sovereignty laws in the millennia before Christ. He cites examples in the Old Testament, like the Edomites refusing to give Israel passage through the land of Edom.[5] That the Edomites controlled their borders and refused Israel passage, however, doesn’t mean God sanctioned their actions.

The Bible often chronicles events that happened without much overt commentary. We have to ask ourselves, “What did God think about it?” Is this a description of what happened or a prescription for how we should act?

The passage doesn’t offer any direct clues. It simply says that the Edomites met the wandering Israelites “with a large army and with a strong force … so Israel turned away….”[6] The fact that this passage doesn’t contain a “shall not” or “shall” instruction suggests the passage is merely descriptive.

We are not left to wonder, though, because other areas of the Bible fill in the blanks.

(c) Can Stock Photo

The Edomites descended from Esau. They were kin of the Israelites. Despite their shared ancestry, they were perpetually in conflict with the Israelites, and they incurred the wrath of God for the way they treated the Israelites, including the refusal to let the Israelites pass.[7] Among the pronouncements of judgment on Edom is this statement that sounds much like the words Jesus spoke in the parable of the sheep and the goats many, many years later:

As you have done, it shall be done to you;
your deeds shall return on your own head.[8]

Hoffmeier builds a case on the fact that nations protected their territories in the Old Testament, but that fact doesn’t really tell us anything about how God viewed those practices. The article cites to passages about Egypt and Edom, in particular, protecting and guarding their borders,[9] but Egypt and Edom are hardly examples of nations who had the blessing of God. God eventually allowed the Edomites to be wiped out because of their evil ways. God imposed plagues on the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites and refusing to let them go back to the land God had given them.

Even if we ignore for the moment that these nations who practiced border control incurred God’s wrath, should God’s people pattern themselves after wicked nations as a general proposition (just because their practices are described “in the Bible”)? A description of the way people behaved in the Bible doesn’t necessarily carry with it a prescription for the way we should behave.

Again, God doesn’t leave us to wonder what He thinks. He actually gave us prescriptive instructions on how to treat immigrants. The land that God gave the Israelites came with specific instructions about caring for orphans and widows and welcoming strangers.[10] In the land God gave His people, He instructed them very specifically about welcoming and looking after the immigrants. God’s people were not to be like the other, wicked nations around them. God was also explicit about the reasons why:

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”[11]

“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”[12]

“When a stranger sojourns[13] 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.”[14]

In the same passage in Leviticus where the Israelites are instructed to love the strangers who sojourn among them, the Israelites were instructed more globally to “love your neighbor as yourself”.[15] Sound familiar?

Jesus summarized all the Law and the Prophets in two statements: 1) love God, and 2) love your neighbor. It turns out that the very first example of God instructing His people to love their neighbors is in the context of the strangers (immigrants) living among them.

But, a person might say, we have laws, and people are disobeying those laws. Godly people should follow and uphold the laws. And that is generally true.

Consider this, however: If the Israelites had passed laws like the other nations to keep the strangers out, would they have been right to enforce them? Would they be justified in not honoring God’s instructions to them about the sojourners in their midst just because they had laws on the books that kept them out?

These questions are rhetorical, of course. I would not want to be the one standing before God saying, “I know what You said, but we had this law….”

Let’s consider the bigger picture here. Israel was to be an example of God’s law to the nations around them.[16] God’s law included a command to welcome, protect and care for strangers, orphans and widows. The nation of Israel was to be a shining example for the people around them, just as we (followers of Christ) are to be a shining example of Christ, a City set on a hill for all to see, a light not hidden under a bushel basket.

(c) Can Stock Photo / SeanPavonePhoto

God’s instruction to His people was clear, and His reaction to their failure to follow His instruction is equally clear. Long before Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats, God provided this explanation for exiling His people (to Babylon) from the land He gave them, and it has to do with how they treated the strangers in their midst:

And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner[17]or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts. “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the Lord of hosts, “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known….[18]

The Israelites were scattered because they refused to do as God commanded. Among those express commands was a command not to oppress the sojourners. They refused to listen, and they suffered the consequences of God’s wrath because of it (just like the Edomites who refused to let Israel pass).

While Hoffmeier tries to build a case based on the practice of evil nations that protected their borders, the Bible doesn’t contain any statements (I could find) approving those practices. Bojidar Marinov[19] observes in an article published in rebuttal to Hoffmeier’s article that “the Bible doesn’t mention any laws for restricting immigration”.[20] The only prescriptive statements from God are about welcoming and harboring immigrants!

To make things interesting, Marinov argues that the current immigration laws in the US were originally advanced by politicians who opposed Christianity. It was the conservative Christians 30 years ago who held the opposite view on immigration.  Ronald Reagan championed a generous view on immigration.

Somehow conservatives, and specifically conservative Christians, have allowed the roles to be reversed on us. Liberals and progressives have taken up the position in favor of more generous immigration, and we find ourselves reacting to it by changing our stance. We have ceded the high ground to the secularists and the liberals.

While our “enemies” quote the Bible at us, we stretch to justify our position in opposition to them. In the process, Marinov says:

“[We] ignore the ethics of the Bible in favor of the linguistics of the Bible, using the linguistics to prove things contrary to the ethics. In short, [we] swallow the camel and strain out the gnat.”

Hoffmeier tries to rest the case for being tough on immigration on the fact that most of the verses that command the Israelites to welcome and incorporate strangers into the fabric of the community use the word “Gēr“, which means a temporary dweller, a resident alien, a protected foreigner. Hoffmeier equates the Hebrew word, Ger, with legal aliens, and the other Hebrew words that are also translated stranger, foreigner or sojourner (Nekhar and Zar))[21], he equates with illegal aliens.

Hoffmeier says that the laws keeping immigrants out should be honored. I think we would all generally agree that laws should be honored, but what if the laws are unjust? What if those laws don’t reflect God’s character or honor the instructions He gave us about how we should live?

In a Democracy, “we the people” have some responsibility for the laws that are in place through the people we have elected. If those laws are unjust, we have some responsibility to change them. We have some responsibility in a land in which we have freedom of speech to speak up.

The Bible is also full of examples of instances in which men’s laws must be ignored in favor of God’s laws. One such example is when the disciples kept preaching the Gospel when they were ordered to stop.

As for the issue at hand, God was so protective about the treatment of strangers in Israel, that He even commanded the Israelites to protect slaves who escaped their masters (and not return them to their masters).[22] In all the various and very specific commands of God to the Israelites, there is not a word on prohibiting strangers (Ger, Nekhar; or Zar) from sojourning in the land.

In short, “[t]he very concept of immigration control is missing; it’s nowhere to be seen” in the Bible, says Marinov. Hoffmeier assumes, without any biblical basis, that Ger means legal and Nekhar and Zar mean illegal, but that distinction isn’t evident in the Bible. Those terms are not defined that way in Scripture. You won’t find that distinction in any Bible dictionary or Concordance either.


In fact, if we dig a little bit deeper, we find examples of words other than Ger used in a similar way as Ger. The word, nokhri, of the same root as nekhar, is used in 1 Kings 8:41-43 when Solomon prays for the foreigners to be welcomed in the Temple. The same word, nokhri, is used by Ruth to describe herself.[23] Ruth is the poster child of an immigrant who was welcomed and treated as an Israelite would be treated.

There are some examples of different treatment. For instance, the word, Zar, is used in Numbers 16:40 to describe an Israelite who is not a descendant of Aaron. In Deuteronomy 15:1-3, different laws were applied to foreigners (Zar) living among the Israelites. In Deuteronomy 17:15, foreigners (Zar) were not to be put in positions of power over the Israelites.

The few distinctions we find, however, are limited. I think it’s a real stretch to say that the Bible makes any distinction on the basis “legal” and “illegal” standing.

In a twist of sorts, Deuteronomy 14:21 applies different laws to both the alien (Gēr) and the foreigner (Zar) compared to the Israelites. Both groups were distinguished from the Israelites, and both groups were were treated in the same way. The distinction was between them and the Israelites, not between the two.

Further, no biblical passage I could find requires sojourners to be expelled or kept out of the land. In fact, all of these statements imply that they were living among the Israelites!

(I note that the initial instruction to Joshua and the nation of Israel on entering the land was to drive out all the inhabitants. This is a one-time instruction. God was establishing His people in the land He gave them and setting them up for a kingdom ruled by God without the influence of foreign gods. The global, universal instructions on welcoming and protecting strangers overrides the time and situation-specific instruction to drive out the inhabitants. I also don’t think we can equate what God was doing with the nation of Israel with the United States of America.)

The terms Hoffmeier identifies do have different connotations, as Marinov discusses, but the difference between legal and illegal is not among the different connotations. All three words are used of strangers living in and among the Israelites, and the Israelites were instructed to welcome them, without distinction, and provide for them.

These clear instructions to the Israelites stand in contrast to the practices of the neighboring, wicked nations around them. The Israelites were specifically ordered to treat strangers differently than the way neighboring nations treated them!

It’s no wonder that Jesus carried that theme forward in the parable of the sheep and the goats, in His admonition to love your neighbor as yourself and in other ways. The larger theme than the gnats we want to strain out is the second greatest commandment! That theme is loving our neighbors, including the immigrants (and even our enemies). Refusing to take them in and to give them safe harbor, especially when they are escaping oppressive regimes at home (not unlike our ancestors) is not loving them.

The Christians who are citizens of this country and who elect representatives who pass the laws of this country are accountable to God for the laws in a free society in which we get to participate – at least as far as it is up to us.

Frankly, given the rather recent history of conservative support for generous immigration reform (think of Reagan and Bush), we have abdicated the moral high ground on this issue, the commandment of God, to the secularists and liberals! They are shoving it in our faces, and so they should. Perhaps, we have been more concerned about opposing them than aligning ourselves with God’s heart and His Word.


[1] ξένος (xenos) – meaning a stranger. We get the word xenophobia from this Greek word.

[2] Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV)(emphasis added)

[3] The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate by James K. Hoffmeier December 2011

[4] Ibid.

[5] Numbers 20:14-21

[6] Numbers 20:20-21

[7] From Got Questions.org

[8] Obadiah 1:15

[9] The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate

[10] Immigration: the Strangers Among Us (This is where I cite the research that led me to change my mind on the issue of immigration.)

[11] Exodus 22:21 (“Stranger” is translated from Gēr – a temporary dweller as a resident alien (“protected foreigner”) – like a sojourner without inheritance rights; to sojourn in a place, or through a lifetime (mēm-locale)).

[12] Exodus 23:9 (Gēr)

[13] Gûr – dwell as a newcomer, like a pilgrim migrating to a new land; a temporary or permanent resident with “no original or inherited rights” (BDB) – yet having more belonging and acceptance than toshab (a “sojourner”); immigrant, stranger, “alien.” Gûr relates finding a permanent place to live, especially after being a wanderer or nomadic.

[14] Leviticus 19:33 (Gēr)

[15] Leviticus 19:18

[16] Deuteronomy 4:5-6

[17] Gēr

[18] Zechariah 7:8-14

[19] A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman.

[20] Hoffmeier’s Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate by BOJIDAR MARINOV / NOVEMBER 19, 2014 (Christendom Restored)

[21] Nekhar ; and Zar

[22] Deuteronomy 23:15-16 (“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.”)

[23] Ruth 2:10

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