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What does Scripture Say about Refugees?

A lot of people are arguing about what to do with Syrian refugees. Many people are afraid of terrorism. Others are horrified by the lack of compassion that fear seems to cause. Many want our government to be open to immigrants. Many want it to be closed. Some people want our nation to reflect Christian values. Others do not. And these lines are not drawn in consistent ways.

One focus I haven’t seen much in recent Christian articles is what the Bible actually says about a believer’s response to refugees and immigrants. I’ve seen memes on the Good Samaritan and sarcastic references to Mary and Joseph as rejected travelers. I’ve seen impassioned pleas by Christians for compassion and others warning against it. But does the Bible actually give us restrictive requirements for a Christian’s response to refugees?

Consider first Old Testament Law.

Deuteronomy 10 NAS 17 For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. 18 He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. 19 So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 

Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV 33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 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.

God commanded His children to show hospitality to and solidarity with refugees and immigrants – basically anyone who wasn’t native to their lands – because they too had been strangers in Egypt and should understand the particular struggle that comes from being displaced from one’s homeland.

But these instructions are from the Old Testament Law, and New Testament believers are no longer under the Law. Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul are clear that Jesus fulfilled the Law, and we are no longer restrained by its instructions or the punishments it demands for those who break it. Yet, Christians still don’t believe in murder or lying, adultery or gossip. We still set aside a day to worship the Lord, and we still give a portion of our money to support our churches. Why do such Old Testament ideas linger in New Testament practice? Because these instructions from the Old extend into the New. Even as Jesus says He fulfilled both the righteous instructions in the Law and the punishment for those who break it, He continued to teach what righteousness in the New Covenant looks like, and it sometimes looks very similar to righteousness in the Old.

When Jesus says He fulfilled the Old Testament Law, does He give us any indication of how He wants us to think particularly about aliens/immigrants after His death and resurrection? Does Jesus teach only that we are no longer bound by the Old Testament instructions on aliens/immigrants? Or does He teach that the underlying principle is still binding?

Jesus actually solves this for us quite clearly in the Gospels.

“‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 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, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-40 NASB)

Jesus seems to intensify the implications for care of strangers. He lifts up the act to something done more than just FOR Him. It’s now something done directly TO Him. He gives a sobering assessment of those who forsake this practice as well:

41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’

The author of Hebrews reinforces Jesus’ teaching.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2 NIV)  

In conclusion, we could argue for compassion toward refugees based on the Greatest Command or as an extension of Christian pro-life values. We could argue for treating a refugee the way we would want to be treated using the Golden Rule or make a case for the political value of welcoming refugees as the very undoing of ISIS’ best strategy. But the fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t need to make any such arguments as Christians because we are constrained by something much simpler, the Bible itself. God not only says to care for refugees, He says that when we do it, it is the same as caring directly for Him. That is profound!

The Bible instructs as clearly on treatment of refugees as it does on the murder of babies in the womb. It speaks as clearly about welcoming refugees as it does about fornication, lying, or drunkenness. God’s children obey Him when they care for the displaced, and they disobey Him when they don’t. Thankfully, Christ paid the penalty for the sin of turning away from the refugee and has broken the chains of sin and fear that cause us to ignore these Scriptures. We have now, in Christ, the freedom to obey.

As in my previous post, I want to encourage those who are currently discouraged by the state of the vocal Church on this issue. Again, we have good news in Jesus. God is sanctifying His Bride, and He is growing Her in righteousness. Jesus is not just drawing people to faith in Him, He is also changing them. He’s sanctifying His Church by His grace, and He’s making Her more like Him day by day – including the Church’s reception of refugees. As I observe beyond the vocal minority, way more Christians want to minister to refugees than not, globally and locally. In fact, hundreds of thousands of refugees daily receive help from Christians and Christian organizations.

In the end, Jesus will present His Bride glorious, clothed with the righteous works of the saints. And I believe that among those works adorning her bridal gown will be thousands upon thousands of cups of cold water given to the downtrodden refugee in the name of Christ.

Proverbs 19:17 Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.

* A friend noted after I posted this that some Christians want to limit these instructions on care of refugees to those who share Christian beliefs. However, Jesus also gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan, which makes clear that both race and religion are not prerequisites for obeying such commands. In fact, the Good Samaritan appears to have no knowledge whatsoever about the character of the person he helped. Again, Scripture is straightforward about our obligations.

21 Responses to What does Scripture Say about Refugees?

  1. Julie November 20, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    We live in Germany, where many of the refugees are coming, and this is something I've been thinking about a lot in the last year (I wrote this in February: I think this is a difficult struggle right now for the developing world, but that Christians need to respond as they have always been called to respond: with both wisdom and compassion, with truth balanced with love. We have had various Syrians in our home and have found them overall to be warm, kind people. While I do have some fears about the overall picture of all these migrants coming into Europe (esp after the events of last weekend), on a personal level we can act in love and not in fear – we can (1) pray for them, (2) give to help with their needs, (3) love the ones who come to our table and across our path. God is in charge of the big picture but we can make a difference for individuals. Thanks for encouraging people to do that!

  2. Wendy November 20, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    It's much easier to philosophize the issue here from the U. S., but you are living it where the rubber meets the road. Thank you for sharing, Julie.

  3. Diane Klettke November 20, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    Thank you for this clear article. It truly defines the response that Christians should have. I have been thinking about how the world's response to this situation is like the holocaust in that so many countries are either closing their doors or limiting access to those who are fleeing for their lives. I know that the political, social, and economic concerns are not to be taken lightly but I can't help but wonder if, in hindsight, we will wonder why we didn't respond with more compassion. In this instance, our lives are not even being threatened as they were for those who acted in WW2. Perhaps I am being naive, since politics are not my strength. In any case, I appreciate the way in which you have clearly laid out the scriptures in a practical response to this current situation.

  4. Anonymous November 21, 2015 at 10:48 am #

    Hi, I agree we should open our border and give shelter to refugees as a Christian duty.
    However the same Old Testament Law also places expectations on immigrants. They are to comply with most of the Law. I think one issue is that Western societies have not clarified what they expect from immigrants, nor specified the consequences of flouting these rules. laws of hospitality are not one sided. I believe love includes generosity and selflessness. But turning a blind eye to people 's bad behavior is not loving, because it is treating them as invisible.
    As a Parisian I'm shocked and amused by the current jingoism over Syrian refugees in thé US. But I think people are entitled to their feelings , I think many are genuinely scared and shaming them out of them is not pastoral. Also there are other, arguably more effective ways for the US to help Syrians. Stop the flow of funds and weapons IS receive via your allies saudi arabia and turkey. Stop the opposition to Assad remaining in power and the stand off with Russia (according to current official US government policy the “biggest threat to international security” ) Give adequate funds to the UN to finance refugees camps in Jordan and lebanon that have run out of funding.
    Look, you as Americans could tea each other apart, or make this issue all about you, how good Christians or Americans you are. Or you could get over yourselves, swallow your pride and start trying to understand the issues in depth and make a positive contribution to the situation in Syria. You wont look Christian but may end up acting like ones.

  5. Curious Thinker November 24, 2015 at 2:54 am #

    Great post I always believed welcoming foreigners including refugees is demonstration a Christ like attitude and am quite perplexed that some Christians don't support refugees. You had so many good points, God Bless.

  6. Curious Thinker November 24, 2015 at 2:54 am #

    Great post I always believed welcoming foreigners including refugees is demonstration a Christ like attitude and am quite perplexed that some Christians don't support refugees. You had so many good points, God Bless.

  7. Louis Mavroff November 24, 2015 at 4:19 am #

    To treat this issue fairly I believe you have to distinguish the difference between “refugee” and “infiltrator”. A refugee is someone seeking protection typically on the basis of religious persecution. An infiltrator deceives in order to do harm. Should we open our doors to such intent? There are other biblical principles to consider like casting your pearls before swine and yoking with unbelievers or being on alert because the enemy prowls like a lion. I don't think this issue is the open and shut case you have tried to convey.

  8. Wendy November 24, 2015 at 4:26 am #

    Except the Bible does not differentiate that way or give us a model for that way of thinking, Louis.

  9. Mindy Stiles November 24, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    I agree Louis, it's not open and shut. The Bible says we are supposed to follow the laws of the land and there are laws for refugees to come or not come into the United States. And Wendy there are lots of verses about being wise in decision making.

  10. Bev November 30, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

    In the verses you quoted in Matthew, Jesus says, “In as much as you have done it to these 'my brothers', you have done it unto me.” All men are not our 'brothers'. God instructs us to compare scripture with scripture. He also instructs us to 'try the spirits to see if they be of God'. I believe that Louis Mavroff is Biblically correct. Can we exercise caution regarding these refugees? The Bible also warns us to “Be sober, be vigilant, because your enemy, the devil, prowls about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. We must pray for God's wisdom in this matter. Bev

  11. Wendy November 30, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

    Well, then Jesus goes on to give the parable of the Good Samaritan to show that our brother/neighbor is a much broader category than the Jews of His day allowed. Plus, a large number of these refugees ARE our brothers in Christ. Finally, Romans 12 extends such practical goodness specifically to our enemies. So I don't think we are left with any logical wiggle room here.

  12. Wendy November 30, 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    I just commented this to Bev as well. Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan to show that our brother/neighbor is a much broader category than the Jews of His day allowed. Plus, a large number of these refugees ARE our brothers in Christ. Finally, Romans 12 extends such practical goodness specifically to our enemies. So I don't think we are left with any logical wiggle room here. Your response is one of fear of the worst case scenario that causes you to shut doors to God's straightforward commands.

  13. Louis Mavroff December 2, 2015 at 1:21 am #

    What part of swine, dogs, prowling lions or vipers do you not understand? (in red letters of course)

  14. Wendy December 2, 2015 at 1:32 am #

    Well, we understand that by reading it in the larger context of Scripture. The Bible is the best commentary on itself. It's clear that if Jesus says the unknown wounded man on the side of the road is our neighbor, then the unknown wounded man on the side of the road is not the prowling lion. If the Law says for us to minister to aliens when they are displaced, then they are not likely the vipers or swine we are warned against by the One who kept the Law perfectly.

  15. Louis Mavroff December 2, 2015 at 2:28 am #

    A little yeast goes a long way too.

  16. Louis Mavroff December 2, 2015 at 2:31 am #

    So if a 100% of the refugees had every intent to harm, like blowing stuff up and killing innocent children, would you feel the same way?

    • Tim Locke February 12, 2017 at 8:55 pm #

      What is the point in speculating about 100% of refugees intending to do harm? Refugees have been forced out of their home country by war, leaving all of their possessions behind, and into squalid refugee camps. They are not in those camps because they are seeking to harm people. They are seeking a safe place to live where they can rebuild their lives. Refugees are very safe to accept.

      If someone had the intent to come to another country to do harm, they wouldn’t spend years in a squalid refugee camp to get there. They would find a much more expedient and comfortable way to do so.

      Additionally, every country carefully vets immigrants and refugees before allowing them in. If they cannot be properly vetted, they are not allowed in. Look up what your country does to ensure immigrants and refugees are safe to allow in. You’ll probably be surprised how rigorous the vetting is.

  17. Louis Mavroff December 2, 2015 at 2:41 am #

    We are not talking about wounded men in need so your argument doesn't fit. We are talking primarily about men of fighting age who hate Christians. My greatest point here is what I have already said; this is not a slam dunk argument. Franklin Graham and Samritan's Purse have done more to reach the refugee, the alien, the foreigner, the displaced, etc. than any organization I know. My wife and I in fact are longtime contributors to the ministry. He unstands this issue than either of us. You should check out what he has said about the issue.

  18. Louis Mavroff December 2, 2015 at 2:44 am #

    Keep in mind, the Good Samaritan paid for an inn. He didn't bring the stranger to his house. By the way, do you lock your car or lock your house? Probably not.

  19. Wendy December 2, 2015 at 3:40 am #

    Aid groups focus on the most vulnerable, and that tends to be widows and orphans. But as the mother of young men, I hope that if they were displaced because of war, Christians would help them in light of what the gospel promises is possible for young men in Christ.

    Louis, I trust God will help you figure this out for yourself.

  20. Laura Tiessen February 11, 2017 at 9:13 pm #

    Thank you, Wendy, for your wise and gentle article and responses.