“Jesus was a refugee!”
“The Bible commands us to ‘welcome the stranger.’”
“If you don’t want more immigrants in America, you’re just a fascist.”
We’ve all heard it before — the slogans of the progressive Christian and open borders crowd. What they lack in understanding they make up for in volume. They rip Bible verses out of context and weaponize them for their own woke agenda.
But what does the Bible have to say about immigration that applies to us today? That’s what we must ask if we want to have a biblical worldview on this issue.
However, before we open the Bible, it’s important to situate ourselves in our American context.
In Well Versed: Biblical Answers to Today’s Tough Issues, Pastor James Garlow makes a critical, contextual point: America is the most welcoming nation on earth. He writes:
“There’s no other nation more compassionate, more generous, or more open-armed towards the less fortunate nations than the United States…We allow more immigrants from all over the world to enter our country than any other nation on earth.”
He’s right — we are and we do.
Still, Christians shouldn’t just uncritically accept any public policy position without examining it in the light of God’s Word. Following are three main pillars of a biblical worldview on immigration.
While this might surprise some people, the Bible unapologetically upholds the concept of the sovereign nation-state and the right of that nation to enforce — to secure — its borders.
This recognition of territorial control is seen in various passages in Numbers, Joshua, and Judges. Of note is Numbers 20, when the Israelites attempt to pass through Edom.
First, the Israelites request passage; they do not demand it nor do they just cross illegally (Num. 20:17). Edom ultimately denies their request (Num. 20: 18, 20). Israel complies with their denial and “turned away” (Num. 20:21). While this passage is relevant for us today, it is, of course, not a one-to-one application. Still, it’s instructive that Israelites didn’t presume they had a moral claim on the land simply because they were “strangers and aliens” or just because they showed up at the border.
Garlow echoes this in Well Versed, explaining,
“National borders help governments establish who is a member (citizen), who is a visitor, and who shouldn’t get through the door. This process is similar to church membership. The pastors need to be able to distinguish between who needs to be shepherded and who is just passing through. It doesn’t make visitors less important, but membership establishes clear expectations concerning how authority applies, what resources are available for whom, what privileges can be expected, and where attention is to be concentrated. Like a church, a nation has the right to enforce borders and having no borders means it is no longer a nation.”
Some open borders advocates point to Abraham as an example of a prominent “immigrant” in the Bible. But when Abraham went as a foreigner into a foreign land, what did he do? He respected the sovereignty and customs of the land in which he was a visitor. This is quite evident in Genesis 23 when Abraham buys a burial lot for Sarah. He rises before the rulers of that area, saying, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead” (Gen. 23:4).
In the New Testament, the political reality of sovereign nation-states, who have the right to enforce their borders, is found in Acts 17:26,
“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”
Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, acknowledges that God appoints nations and gives them their boundaries. In summary, one can confidently say this: There is not a single verse in Scripture that speaks against the God-ordained and God-given reality of national boundaries.
Not only does the Bible support national sovereignty and borders, but the Bible also provides principles for thoughtful, limited immigration and emphasizes assimilation. Much of the conversation about how the Bible does this is focused on the meaning of two Hebrew words: ger and nekhar.
In Wise Welcome: A Bible Study on Immigration, Dr. James K. Hoffmeier explains,
“The Hebrew Bible (O.T.) uses several different words when referring to foreigners. The words ger (Leviticus 19:33) and nekhar (Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 1:16; 14:21) refer to two different categories of people…the alien (ger) was a person who entered Israel with permission, and followed legal procedures to obtain recognized standing as a ‘resident alien.’ In contrast, the foreigner (nekhar or zar) was not a legal resident and could be an invading enemy, squatter, temporary worker or merchant, or someone passing through. They are not provided the same legal and social protections as those received by the ger.”
The legal procedures that the ger had to follow to obtain legal standing would be similar to what we call the process of assimilation today; that is, learning English, American history, and civics and adopting a belief in the universal principles expressed in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Such concepts are rarely if ever found in the advocacy of those who hold to the “open borders” position. Rather, they treat both those seeking legal entry and assimilation (the ger) and the illegal invaders (nekhar), who refuse to learn English and instead build communities and subcultures that mirror their home country, as the same. The Bible, however, clearly does not.
Finally, we can derive Biblical principles from both the Old and New Testament that value and uphold the rule of law and instruct governments to prioritize the well-being, safety, and security of its own citizens (the only people for whom it is responsible) over non-citizens.
How can we establish this? First, we see that the laws are to be applied fairly. In Exodus 12:49, the Israelites are instructed that “The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.” Again, in Leviticus 24:22 they are told that they “shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God.”
Thus, we see that the rule of law, applied equally, is of serious importance to the Lord.
In the Old Testament it was the king who was commanded to apply the law fairly and protect his people, as a representative of God’s authority:
“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees.”–Deut. 17:18-19a
But in the New Testament, that role is assumed by the state:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God…For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”–Rom. 13:1-4
Therefore, a government that does not 1) apply the laws fairly and 2) punish wrongdoers is failing in two of the most primary, God-given responsibilities that it has. In the context of immigration, the application could not be clearer. The United States government must “bear the sword” for the good of the natural-born and naturalized citizens who reside under its authority and protection.
In this case, then, fairness and justice mean prioritizing the well-being of natural-born and naturalized citizens over foreigners. It is unjust to the native population of our border cities and states that the federal government is allowing them to be overrun by mass amounts of unchecked illegal immigration.
In 1 Timothy 5:18 we see this command to prioritize those in the most morally proximate relationships to us applied to the family: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This also applies to a nation.
Therefore, failing to secure the border is a complete abdication of the government’s God-given responsibility. Failing to apply all the immigration laws fairly and without preferential treatment also perverts God’s standards of justice.
Treating illegal immigrants with a different standard than natural-born and naturalized citizens, not to mention legal immigrants who have gone through the prescribed application and approval process, goes against God’s moral commands. This is why Christians can’t support blanket amnesty. Allowing states and cities to declare themselves to be “sanctuary cities” in violation of federal law is a violation of God’s moral precepts for government.
Thus, securing our borders, punishing illegal immigrants for their unlawful entry and any subsequent criminality, ending sanctuary cities, and ensuring that no tax dollars collected from American citizens go to fund services for illegal aliens should be the top priorities for all Christian-based immigration ethics and advocacy.
Therefore, as we approach the question of “what is a biblical worldview on immigration,” we must approach it through loyalty and love properly due to our nation and our neighbors. For who is our neighbor? First and foremost, it is our actual, tangible, embodied, citizen neighbor who lives next door. This is a biblical approach to immigration, and one that all Christians should demand from our government.
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Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.