To whom are the hospitality commands given?
The original series from May 2016 has now concluded. Reflecting back on those posts, I now realize that I failed to meaningfully address what may be the biggest question: To whom were the sojourner and hospitality commands given?
Well, obviously enough, the commands about how to treat the sojourner were given in the Torah to the nation of Israel. They were to be obeyed by the individual Israelites, but also by the king and the other leaders of the people. The sojourner commands are largely part of the civil law of Israel.
Then again, the OT prophets speak of hospitality more universally. For example, both Jeremiah and Ezekiel condemn Sodom and Gomorrah for, among other things, a lack of hospitality. Sodom and Gomorrah were not part of God’s Kingdom and likely weren’t God worshipers at all. Nonetheless, they violated God’s will — a will that was revealed to them through the culture and traditions of that part of the world. That is, even without having direct revelation from God, such as the Torah, they knew that hospitality was expected of good people.
In the NT, the hospitality commands are given to the church, the Kingdom of God. Paul does not go to Mars Hills to announce the good news of hospitality. In fact, the church was separated from the surrounding culture by its radical hospitality. The church was not like the rest of the Greco-Roman world, nor did the church make any effort to change the world to be like the church. Rather, the church displayed the image of Jesus by being the church, that is, by behaving as Jesus called the Kingdom to behave, and so drew people to Jesus and to his church. And the hospitality of the Christians was a major reason that many pagans found Jesus and his church attractive.
So that has me wondering whether we are called to vote to have our government require non-Christians to act like Christians? For example, it’s one thing for a Christian, because of his faith in Jesus, to decide to risk his and his family’s lives to open his home or neighborhood to refugees. It’s quite another to ask the President or Congress to require non-Christians to do the same thing.
(In the current US setting, it’s very important to distinguish offering hospitality to refugees — people invited in and vetted by the government — as opposed to illegal aliens — people who entered the US contrary to US law. The difference may not matter to you, but the risk profile is obviously very different. And I think the biblical analysis differs as well. I mean, illegal immigration raises the question of obeying God rather than man (and not all would agree that God commands us to offer hospitality to those here illegally, which is not an easy topic) whereas refugees are here legally, there is no question of disobedience to the civil authorities, and the risk that a vetted refugee will be a criminal or terrorist has, historically, been very low but not zero.)
Should we use the government to impose Christian values on non-Christians or Christians who disagree?
Even where Christianity is a minority religion, we expect our government to respect our beliefs and not impose on us obligations that we consider immoral. Christians very reasonably and fairly ask the government not to force them to fund the costs of abortions against their consciences, even when Christianity doesn’t have the votes to force this outcome. To us, it’s not a matter of political power so much as a question of right and wrong and the balancing of government power against freedom of conscience.
Well, that has to be a two-way street. In general, when Christians are in the majority, they should not force non-Christians to violate their consciences either. I mean, freedom of conscience, if it is to exist at all, has to exist for both Christians and non-Christians. Therefore, before the church asks the government to impose any burden on its citizens, we have to ask whether we’re violating someone else’s freedom of conscience. Don’t we?
There are exceptions. I mean, we can’t allow people to commit murders even if their consciences tell them the murders are okay. We can’t allow people to steal even if they are part of a culture that considers theft moral. We don’t allow adults to have sex with underage children regardless of consent. We believe that children can’t meaningfully consent, and so we enact statutory rape laws even when a given culture might allow pederasty with young boys (as in Afghanistan) or marriage of 12-year old girls.
So, yes, we can legislate certain kinds of morality — especially morality that impacts others. Criminalizing “morality” that has non-consenting victims is easily a proper use of government power (Rom 13 would agree), although the line can be devilishly difficult to draw. Muslim honor killings should be illegal even though such killings are considered moral, even obligatory, in their culture. If you want to live in the US, you have agree to live within the boundaries of our prevailing moral culture.
On the other hand, where there are no victims, we generally decline to enact laws even when a majority considers the conduct wrong. Thus, even though there is nothing good about smoking, we don’t ban smoking in private, although we often ban smoking where it would affect non-consenting other people, such as in a restaurant. Just so, most Christians consider premarital sex a sin, but few would vote to criminalize premarital sex (except where there is no consent, of course).
Civil law is not designed to make non-Christians act like Christians. And civil law does not necessarily reflect our moral culture so much as the outside boundaries of what our moral culture can tolerate — not what we aspire to at our very best. That has to come from within. I mean, the highest Christian law is “Love the Lord your God,” and yet it would be pointless to write this into the Code of Alabama because love driven by fear of jail is love of self. Love of God cannot come from the state’s legal system, no more than we can pass a law require husbands to love their wives and children to love their parents. The law can’t touch hearts. That’s why God has given us the Holy Spirit and not a code of laws (Rom 2:27-29; Rom 7:6; 2 Cor 3:5-8).
The intersection of Christianity with political science or public policy is complex because it’s often true that the Christian thing is also good public policy — and so the government quite properly passes laws that parallel God’s teachings for how Christians should behave. But then there are plenty of cases where God’s teachings should not be the law of the land. For example, no one would want baptism or church attendance to be required by law (as was once the case in some parts of Europe and colonial America). Benjamin Franklin was a Deist (and not a Christian) but he regularly attended church on Sundays because the law required it!
And drawing the line between what ought to be required by the government and what is between me and God only is no easy task. But it’s a fact that we haven’t made most of the Ten Commandments part of our civil law. Here’s the list:
- No other gods before me
- No graven images or likenesses
- Not take the LORD‘s name in vain
- Remember the sabbath day
- Honour thy father and thy mother
- Thou shalt not kill
- Thou shalt not commit adultery
- Thou shalt not steal
- Thou shalt not bear false witness
- Thou shalt not covet
Of these, only “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness” are likely found in your state’s laws, and the law against lying will generally only apply when under oath or if amounting to fraud. And “Thou shalt not kill” will have several exceptions, such as self-defense and protection of private property, not to mention state-approved executions and abortions.
So in Alabama, we’ve had several lawsuits and literally millions spent on whether a judge may place a monument to the Ten Commandments in a state courthouse — even though most of the commandments aren’t even a part of our legal system. And yet they are quite plainly commandments from God himself.