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Illegal Immigration: How Should the Church Respond?

Monday, May 21st, 2007

With a bipartisan immigration bill on the table in the Senate, it is important to note that illegal immigration is not just a political issue. It has also become a hot theological debate that has pitted Christian leaders against one another in one of the most confusing discussions in recent memory.

If the newspapers are any indication of the Christian response, it would appear that evangelicals condone the illegal activity that has brought more than 12 million undocumented workers into this country.

The Charlotte Observer published a story at the end of last year that reflected the views of the United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Alex Smithers, co-chair of the Charlotte district Latino Ministries Committee, said, “The big political issue is, ‘Are they legal or illegal?’ But from a religious perspective, that is not an issue. Our focus is to be nice to them.” The same article reported that a Baptist Church in the area provides a job bank for Latinos. The church’s Spanish-speaking minister said they “don’t care” whether their members are legal or illegal.

According to the Associated Press, churches in five big U.S. cities announced plans to protect illegal immigrants from deportation by sheltering them in their sanctuary earlier this month. Rather than upholding the laws of the land, these churches have chosen to actively defend crime. Groups like Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform back these moves with Scripture, saying it is the church’s responsibility to honor the law, but sometimes it is necessary to oppose legislation that is unjust. CCIR cites passages like Isaiah 10:1-4, Jeremiah 7:1-7, Acts 5:29, and Romans 13:1-7.

Many church leaders are saying the system’s broke and that something has to be done with the millions of Latino immigrants who seek employment in the United States. There’s no doubt that policy changes are needed in this issue. The bill that is currently before the Senate looks promising, but it is being stiffly opposed by some conservatives who charge that it amounts to nothing more than amnesty. The cry of “amnesty” is effective at fomenting opposition, but it is an oversimplification of the new bill. The new legislation sets border security as a priority, demands that illegals qualify for a four-year visa and later renew it for another four years, requires a trip to one’s country of origin for a green card, calls for the candidate to learn English, and levies a $5,000 fine.

While Congress debates our nation’s immigration policies what should the church be doing?

1. First of all, Christians everywhere need to remember the purpose of the church. Jesus did not die to protect criminals from the law or to reform government policies. He died to save sinners. The church’s job is to make disciples for Jesus by bringing this message to the world and baptizing believers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19-20). This means more than being “nice” to illegal aliens.

2. We also need to identify the real enemy. Emotional immigration advocates often charge America with corruption, when the real reason we are in the middle of this debate is because of corrupt nations like Mexico. It is known that some Mexican officials support illegal immigration to the U.S. They know that immigrants from their country will send billions of dollars back home to support their families.

People come to America in desparation because they are fleeing unspeakable conditions. Who is responsible for that? This is one problem in the world that Americans did not create!

3. Churches need to make a commitment to the laws of the land. It is true that the apostles disobeyed a law that commanded them to cease preaching the gospel (Acts 5:29). But our nation’s immigration policies, while far from being perfect, fit into a different category than the demands of the Sanhedrin in Acts 5.

Paul commanded Titus to remind Christians “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient” (Titus 3:1). He ordered the church at Rome “to be subject to the governing authorities” and pay their taxes (Rom. 13:1-7). Peter said essentially the same thing (1 Pet. 2:13-17). The attitude of some evangelicals, described above, sounds a lot like the words of Jesus’ enemies in Matthew 22: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus was aware of their malice and responded with the now famous proverb, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (vv. 15-22).

I wonder how many Spanish-speaking ministries uphold the law in their congregations. The gospel calls for sinners to repent (Lk. 13:3; Acts 2:38). How many preachers are asking illegal immigrants to repent of their rebellion by going home and returning to the U.S. through the proper channels?

4. Along with a commitment to the law should go an understanding of it. Should the new bill before the Senate be passed into law, a number of opportunities would present themselves to evangelistic churches looking for inroads into the Hispanic community. For one thing, the law would require immigrants to pass an English test before they can gain citizenship. The Lord’s church could take advantage of this, offering to teach English using the Bible.

It’s long past time for Congress to be working on new legislation regarding America’s immigration problem. When new laws are finally passed, dedicated Christians must find a way both to honor God and show love towards the millions of impoverished sojourners who need the gospel.