How Faith Informs Our Thoughts on Immigration

August 24, 2015

Scripture instructs us to “take every thought captive” to the authority of Christ, which is revealed to us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 (ESV). By our own admission, though, few American Christians have given much thought to how our faith ought to inform our thinking about immigrants and immigration. A recent survey by LifeWay Research found that just 12% of American evangelicals cited the Bible as the primary influence on their thinking about immigration1. When we allow the Scriptures to inform our views, though, we are challenged to recognize immigrants not as a problem to be solved but as blessings to be welcomed.

Many of the heroes in the narrative of the Bible — such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Daniel, and Jesus — were immigrants themselves, but the Scriptures also give us models for how to respond to immigrants. Two contrasting models, found within just a few pages toward the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, mirror closely the competing responses that Americans — including American Christians — have had toward immigrants since our nation’s founding: we can see the arrival of immigrants as an opportunity and respond with hospitality, or we can see immigrants as a threat and respond with hostility.

Joseph was an involuntary migrant, sold into slavery, and forced across a border into Egypt (Genesis 37:12-26); today, we would classify him a victim of human trafficking. While we can learn much from Joseph’s life, though, we also can learn from the response of the Egyptian king, Pharaoh, to this immigrant. Pharaoh recognized that Joseph, an immigrant, was uniquely “discerning and wise,” and that he thus had a lot to offer Egyptian society (Genesis 41:39). He exalted Joseph to be his second-in-command and gave him responsibility for famine relief, a task at which Joseph excelled. When Joseph’s brothers later migrate, seeking food, Pharaoh offers them the best of the land — and yet he is still looking out for an opportunity: he quietly asks Joseph to identify the most skilled shepherds from among his brothers to take charge of his own sheep, and he seeks the blessing of the patriarch Jacob (Genesis 47:5-6, 10). As theologian Justo Gonzalez has observed, Pharaoh recognized that an immigrant like Joseph could present a significant opportunity to the nation that received him, and he thus responded with hospitality.2

In the book of Exodus, though, we find a starkly different response to immigrants. Joseph and his generation died, and “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8, italics mine). Without the context of a personal relationship, this Pharaoh saw the significant numbers of Joseph’s ancestors, and he considered them a threat to his nation’s national security (Exodus 1:10). He didn’t want to deport the Israelites because he benefits economically from their labor, but he is unwilling to grant them the same rights as native-born Egyptians (Exodus 1:11-14). Eventually, this Pharaoh’s fear so escalates that he takes dramatic action, decreeing the genocide of all newborn Hebrew boys (Exodus 1:16). His response to these foreigners is seeing a threat and responding with hostility.

Just as it has been for centuries, American Christians have these same two options in front of us as immigrants arrive in our nation. A 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute3 found that about six in ten Americans believe that immigrants strengthen the country, but a significant minority — and a slight majority of white evangelical Christians — view immigrants as a threat to traditional Americans values.

That evangelicals are actually more prone to view immigrants askance than the population as a whole is ironic, given that evangelicals profess a particular commitment to the authority of Scripture, which frequently and repeatedly calls God’s people to hospitality — literally, in the Greek of the New Testament, to the love of strangers.

Our views of immigrants should be shaped by a biblical anthropology, recognizing that because each immigrant is a person made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), he or she has inherent dignity and remarkable potential. Much of immigration is driven by the desire to work, consistent with God’s design. As Joseph Sunde of the Action Institute notes, “We are made to build and innovate, share and collaborate, and immigrants of whatever skill set from whatever country or political system are born with that same creative capacity.”4

Those wary of immigrants tend to view the U.S. economy from a zero-sum perspective disproven by the discipline of economics. Rather than dividing the pie of the U.S. economy into smaller and smaller pieces for each U.S. citizen, immigrants help to grow the pie, contributing to the U.S. economy as consumers, taxpayers, workers, and entrepreneurs. As columnist Michael Gerson notes, immigrants “are not just mouths but hands and brains. They are a resource.”5 Economists almost universally share this view, with 96% polled by the Wall Street Journal affirming that immigration (and even illegal immigration in particular) has had a net positive impact on the U.S. economy.6

If Christians take the authority of Scripture seriously, we ought to apply the repeated command to “be not afraid” to our approach to immigrants, recognizing instead that the arrival of immigrants presents a unique opportunity. While the economic benefits of immigration contribute to human flourishing, though, I believe the greatest opportunity tied to migration is a missional opportunity.

Christ’s Great Commission compels us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). While some certainly are called to join in God’s mission by going, we would be shortsighted to not recognize that “the nations” are present within our own communities. God’s work through migration — what missiologists call “diaspora mission”7— is multi-directional: many immigrants who arrive in the U.S. are already Christ-followers, and, as Juan Martinez of Fuller Theological Seminary notes, immigrants are agents as well as objects of mission.8 Others migrate to the U.S. as non-believers, or as adherents to other religions. In fact, by one estimate, there are more “unreached people groups” present in the United States than in any other country besides India or China.9

While there are important geopolitical and economic forces that have led people to migrate to the United States, the Apostle Paul suggests that above all these realities is the sovereign hand of God in the movement of people: “From one man made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27 NIV 1984, italics mine).

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson observes that immigration may actually represent the hope of Christianity in the U.S.:

Much has been written about the way that growing numbers of “millennials” are walking away from the church. Yet while millennials are walking out the front door of U.S. congregations, immigrant Christian communities are appearing right around the corner, and sometimes knocking at the back door. And they may hold the key to vitality for American Christianity.10

Missiologist Timothy Tennent makes a similar observation:

86% of the immigrant population in North America are likely to either be Christians or become Christians. That’s far above the national average… The immigrant population actually presents the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America. We shouldn’t see this as something that threatens us. We should see this as a wonderful opportunity.11

We should see this as a wonderful opportunity. But too few do: less than half of American evangelical churches are involved at all in serving and reaching immigrant communities. Just one in five American evangelicals has ever been challenged by their local church to reach out to immigrants in their community. I suspect that is because, having taken our cues from media and politicians, rather than Scripture, many have misperceived immigrants as a threat.

The text does not tell us precisely how the story ends for the Pharaoh of Genesis, who saw the opportunity presented by the arrival of the immigrant Joseph and responded with hospitality. But, as we read on in Exodus, we learn things did not go well for the Pharaoh of the era whose response to foreigners was one of fear and hostility. If we are to take Scripture seriously and join God in his mission, we should recognize that immigration presents an opportunity, and therefore respond with hospitality.

Dig Deeper

Hear more from Matthew Soerens on the topic of immigration during Dordt College’s First Mondays Speakers Series on Monday, September 7. All are invited to attend a morning lecture in the BJ Haan Auditorium at 11:00 am, as well as an evening event starting at 7:30 pm in the Science and Technology Center.

About the Author
  • Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the U.S. Church Training Specialist for World Relief.

  1. Evangelical Views on Immigration

  2. Justo Gonzalez, Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996, pp. 96-97 

  3. Public Religion Research Institute, p. 13-14. 

  4. Joseph Sunde, “The Poison of Anti-Immigration Protectionism,” Acton Institute, June 12, 2015. 

  5. Michael Gerson, “How the Dream Act transcends politics,” Washington Post, December 7, 2010. 

  6. Tim Annett, “Illegal Immigrants and the Economy,” Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2006. 

  7. Enoch Wan, Diaspora Missiology: Theory, Methodology, and Practice, Institute of Diaspora Studies, 2012. 

  8. Martinez, Juan, “Latin American Theology,” Wheaton College Theology Conference 2011: Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective, April 7, 2011. 

  9. J.D. Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration & Mission, InterVarsity Press, 2012, p. 63. 

  10. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Commentary: The Hidden Immigration Impact on American Churches,” The Washington Post, September 23, 2013. 

  11. Timothy Tennent, “Christian Perspective on Immigration,” uploaded June 22, 2011. 

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  1. The main concern I have with immigration is illegal entry into the country, which you touched on briefly. If a person is intent on living in America and enjoying the numerous freedoms and blessings we enjoy, why should they not be expected to uphold the laws of the land? Why should immigrants not follow protocol of obtaining citizenship? It insures a commitment and identity with the USA. Are we the only country which require visas and naturalization?

    1. Canadians and Latin Americans are “Americans” too. 🙂

      Nothing in this article address your questions, but nothing in it suggests the law should not apply to immigrants. It does indicate a biblical stance of generosity and kindness that might focus on the normal human needs of all resident foreign people. This population is composed of almost 50% legal, naturalized citizens. (See Should the rest be treated less generously? Before responding to a person’s needs, should we try to find out of they are following the law to our satisfaction? says the undocumented immigrant population in the US is about 3-4% of the total population (but over 5% of the labor force) and that proportion has been stable. Nearly all of the documented and undocumented immigrants say they would like to become citizens but face many barriers. Even if they have the knowledge and money to begin the process, it usually takes a very long time — up to 25 years. Maybe we should help them with this?

    2. Sharon, I think you raise some very reasonable questions. I didn’t have space to address policy responses or the unique challenge of how to respond to immigrants whose presence is not lawful in the U.S., but my primary point in this piece is that, while those distinctions are important for the government, I believe the Church’s role is to focus on sharing the love of Christ and the hope of the gospel–which we can do while fully complying with the law (no law, at present, would require a pastor or other church member to report someone whom they suspect of being unlawfully present).

      In terms of public policies, my attitude toward this question used to be, “those people just need to go back and come the legal way.” But when I became a legal counselor, I learned that the legal options for migration are dramatically limited, such that for many individuals who wish to migrate, there is no legal option, no matter how long they would be willing to wait or how much money they would be willing to pay (for a brief explanation of the legal system and its history, see If they manage to come unlawfully, though, they very quickly find work in most cases, which to me suggests that our legal system, most of which was written in 1965, is out of touch with the needs of our labor markets. Rather than adjusting our immigration system to match those labor needs, for decades our country has looked the other way as individuals entered unlawfully or overstayed visa, leading to an erosion of the rule of law.

      To address this, I’ve joined many Christian organizations in advocating for Comprehensive Immigration Reforms that would do three basic things:

      1) Make it harder to immigrate illegally, by improving border security and systems for ensuring that temporary visa conditions are followed (in response to Judy’s comment below: no, I do not advocate open borders)

      2) Make it easier to immigration legally–not without limit, but to meet the needs of our labor markets, to ensure that immediate families can be kept unified, and to continue our country’s honorable tradition as a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution

      3) Establish a process by which those who are present unlawfully could pay a fine (which I believe would distinguish this policy from amnesty), then, if they can pass a criminal background check, be granted a temporary legal status. With that status, they could earn permanent legal status and, eventually, citizenship if they can show they are paying taxes, avoiding criminal problems, and meeting other conditions over a period of several years.

      The larger point of my piece here, though, is that I believe many Christians have only thought about immigration as a political issue, and in some cases have quickly associated all immigrants with those who have entered unlawfully, even though in reality they represent less than 20% of all immigrants in the U.S. (an additional percentage are undocumented because they overstayed a valid visa). The polling I cited asked evangelical Christians about their views of immigrants, without any reference to their legal status, and yet the responses were still significantly negative. And my concern is that a knee-jerk negative response to immigrants is simply not consistent with the view of immigrants given to us repeatedly in Scripture, and it creates a barrier to us seizing the missional opportunity the immigration presents to the Church in the U.S.

      1. Thank you for that explanation. I would love to see immigration reform that would allow laws in place to be upheld and that would contribute to returning to a state of lawfulness instead of what I feel is present now: chaos. I am happy to belong to a church family that has worked with world relief. It has been a blessing for me. I also want our country to be safer against the bad apples that come here without intent to assimilate to our laws. Thank you for this written piece and your reply to the above question.

  2. Very interesting article and I agree with the comments of Sharon Moss above. You make no distinction between immigrants who have followed the law to come here and those who are here illegally. We are a country of laws and people who break the law should not be rewarded. If you do not agree with the law or think it should be changed there is a process to follow. Do you think the answer is open boarders?
    I will welcome immigrants with open arms if they are here legally.

    1. Before helping anyone who has obvious needs, do you ask them to prove they are citizens? If not a child, why not an adult? If not a person who looks “American” to you, why not someone who doesn’t? We are note INS employees first and Christians second, right?

      Do you think Jesus would make a distinction between “legal” and “illegal” people who are “deserving” and “undeserving?” Would he see it as “rewarding” people to show them grace and love? This suggests they must merit it, and that is utterly opposed to his gospel.

      Prostitution was unlawful and shameful in his society as it is in ours, yet Jesus did not condemn them and focuses his time and compassion on all the marginal and despised people of his time.

      My ancestors did not come to the US “legally;” they took land from native Americans who they conveniently decided had no souls, no rights, and no legal protection. And then they created a forced labor supply from African slaves. The rights and privileges I now enjoy motivate me to want to extend them to others since I do not “deserve” them and my ancestors certainly did not.

  3. Did Jesus welcome and love sinners and lawbreakers? Did God tell his people to welcome the stranger and the alien if and only if they were following the law? Why should we be legalistic about showing love to God’s children?