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Evangelicals and immigration: Church and state have different roles

An illegal migrant man crosses through the banks of the Rio Grande to be processed by the Border Patrol El Paso Sector, Texas, after crossing from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on May 10, 2023.
An illegal migrant man crosses through the banks of the Rio Grande to be processed by the Border Patrol El Paso Sector, Texas, after crossing from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on May 10, 2023. | HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Immigration in the United States involves a complex array of factors. As Lifeway’s recent report on immigration makes clear the immigration issue is further complicated for evangelicals because immigration is not simply about national security and prosperity or about basic human rights. It is a matter of religious conviction. That conviction involves a distinction between Church and state. It requires the Church to acknowledge the state’s legitimate role while pointing beyond it to a way of life only made possible in Christ.

This fundamental distinction should prompt evangelicals to ask at least two questions. First, how might the Bible inform the Church’s response to immigration? Second, how might the Bible and the Church inform, encourage, and critique those serving in the United States government to respond to immigration?

Regarding the first question, the Bible is quite clear. As Jesus notes, we are to love God with all we are and have and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:36-40). Drawing on the Hebrew Bible, Jesus says that “all the Law and the Prophets” hang on “these two commandments” (22:40). The commandments are inseparable. For instance, when God tells Israel to love their Israelite and sojourning neighbors as themselves (Lev 19:18, 33), the command is in the context of a call to imitate God’s holiness (19:1). It is rooted in the simple assertion “I am the Lord” (19:4, 9, 12, 14, 18, 34). Israel is not to care for the vulnerable as a task on a checklist to be completed. Instead, Israel (and by extension the Church) is to become a people who cares for those who cannot care for themselves because God is a God who cares for those who cannot care for themselves.

Caring for the poor and vulnerable is a mark of those loyal to God (Isa 1:17; Jam 1:27). If the Church wants to respond well to immigrants entering the United States, we must first cultivate a deep allegiance to God … an allegiance that pushes out all other allegiances. Building up the body of Christ by cultivating this sort of allegiance is something we do for the world’s sake. Discipleship, or learning to live under the authority of Christ, is the first and best thing the Church can do to care for immigrants because discipleship will open up opportunities to glorify God by loving our neighbors beyond anything we could ever ask or think.

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So, how might the Bible and the Church inform the United States government to respond to immigration? First, the Church must offer an alternative to the state. As I argue in Serpents and Doves, the Church “must be an alternative political community that showcases the possibilities made available to those who proclaim, ‘Jesus is Lord.’” Again, we build up the body of Christ for the world’s sake. In building up the body of Christ through the making of disciples, we remind the state that its authority and capacity are limited. Through obedience, we point the world not to a renewed sense of morality or ethical action, but to the God whose provision and empowerment allows the Church to live self-sacrificially within a broken world.

Second, we need to continually remind our governing authorities that they sit under God’s authority (whether they recognize it or not). It has become fashionable to urge governing authorities to adhere to biblical principles abstracted from their theological context and to advocate for frameworks like universal human rights. While there is certainly nothing wrong with human rights, Christians need to be advocating for Christ. If, for instance, we believe that fearing the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we cannot settle for the appearance of wisdom apart from the fear of the Lord. We cannot stop encouraging our governing authorities to be more just or moral. We must point them toward the Triune God under whose authority they exercise their own.

It is not that the state is incapable of making good judgments, but that even its good judgments are insufficient to transform the broken world. They can only manage that brokenness. As such, when we think about how the Bible might inform the United States to respond to immigration, we need to ensure that the governing authorities understand a. their position under God’s authority, b. God’s relationship to the nations, and c. the inherent limits of even the wisest and most benevolent human rulers. The governing authorities need to recognize that their work with regard to immigration is not trivial, but provisional.

We need to take care not to encourage the leaders of the U.S. government to view the Bible as a text from which they can selectively draw moral principles. Does the Bible provide a window into God’s order? Certainly. But that order begins with the recognition that the Triune God is Sovereign. Taking inspiration from God’s word to create policy frameworks tends to reinforce the notion that the Triune God can be honored by acknowledging that in this or that instance, His word fits the agenda or serves the interests of the United States.

To put it differently, our role with the government cannot be advisory. It must be prophetic in the sense that we speak theologically to our governing authorities. What does this mean? It means that we refuse to let our nation’s leaders assume that dismantling the Scriptures and applying them in a piecemeal fashion is the same as honoring God. The world is willing to forget the Triune God. Christians can’t be. Caring for the vulnerable among us is important, but such care is insufficient as a ground or aim for the Church because we are not first called to love our neighbor, but to love God with all we are and have.

Dr. James Spencer currently serves as President of the D. L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel and challenging God’s children to follow Jesus. He also hosts a weekly radio program and podcast titled “Useful to God” on KLTT in Colorado.  His book titled “Christian Resistance: Learning to Defy the World and Follow Jesus” is available on He previously published “Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody,” “Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind,” as well as co-authoring “Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.”

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