October 21, 2017

Ministering among Illegal Immigrants

David Shumate

Those with opportunities to minister to immigrant groups are often confronted with the question of illegal immigration. This social and political problem often complicates what would otherwise be a straightforward ministry response. Although the problem most often involves people from Latin America, it is an issue that applies to other groups as well. What should be the response of the Bible-believing congregation, the pastor, or the individual believer to this situation? A complete answer involves many different issues and goes beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, it is important that we establish a Biblical framework, one that begins with our obligations under the Great Commission and then considers other salient Biblical principles. The result of this study is to reinforce our commitment to aggressively pursuing the Great Commission in a manner that gives due honor to the laws of our nation.

The Great Commission and Illegal Immigration

In this study of the Great Commission, we will follow the text of Matthew 28:18–20, bringing in other passages as necessary to augment the discussion.

The Universality of the Great Commission

The Great Commission given in Matthew is an appropriate place to begin this study because of its comprehensiveness. First, it is based on Christ’s universal, supreme authority (“All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth”). Because the Commission comes from the King of kings, it applies regardless of human difficulties, legal or otherwise.[1] Second, Christ’s words are binding on all believers throughout the Church age (“Go ye therefore, . . . Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world”). Finally, we are confronted with an obligation to reach all people everywhere, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, or language.[2] It is a temptation for churches and individuals to reach those we like (or those we think will like us!). As social hostility toward certain groups increases, this in no way excuses withholding the gospel. In fact it opens even greater opportunities and responsibilities to love and reach those who are hated and rejected by others.

The Framework of the Great Commission

Applying the Great Commission to the situation we face helps us understand our plain duty. This duty includes reaching everyone we can; baptizing those whom we reach; and instructing them to know, accept, and obey all of Christ’s commands.

Christ commanded us to disciple all nations. Neither the preaching of the gospel nor the call to repentance and faith is conditioned upon the hearer’s moral or legal status. If anything, it seems that those regarded as the worst sinners were often the most responsive to the message (Matt. 21:31, 32).[3] Christ came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:10– 13). Therefore our proclamation of salvation in Christ to a person should not depend upon whether or not he has a Green Card.

Christ also ordered us to baptize those whom we reach. Although churches follow different procedures with regard to conditions placed on baptism, the order of the text strongly implies that baptism does not depend upon any mandatory level of Christian growth but rather upon a credible testimony of faith in Christ.[4] There is a good argument, therefore, that determining a person’s legal status should not be a condition for baptism.

We are obliged to instruct all those saved and baptized. This is an ongoing process that brings them into transforming contact with the Word of God and leads to their obeying its commands and living by its principles. Included in these commands is the responsibility to honor and obey civil authorities. Therefore, churches are duty bound to help those who come to Christ to understand, accept, and comply with their legal responsibilities. How quickly and forcefully a spiritual leader deals with believers about this is a matter of Spirit-directed wisdom.[5] It should be noted here that a necessary component of the discipleship process is the requirement that believers congregate for mutual ministry and edification (Acts 2:42–47; Heb. 10:24, 25). Throughout church history believers have been willing to suffer persecution at the hands of governmental authorities for obeying this command. Therefore, regardless of the legal climate, churches may not exclude anyone from Christian fellowship because of their legal status (except of course as a result of exercising legitimate church discipline).

Other Biblical Principles and Illegal Immigration

Although the Great Commission provides the basic framework, we must still consider other Biblical principles in order to respond properly to certain questions.

Obedience to Civil Authority

The Scripture makes it plain that believers must obey the government (Rom. 13:1–5; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13, 14). The only exceptions are where compliance with a dictate of the government would require the believer to disobey a clear Scriptural duty (Dan. 3:18; Acts 4:19, 20; 5:29). Even in these cases the Christian has an obligation to diligently seek a way to fulfill his obligations both to God and to government, to make a wise appeal, and to maintain a respectful spirit toward Godordained authority throughout. We have asserted that believers have a direct, undeniable, Scriptural obligation to make disciples of Jesus Christ regardless of the legal status of the recipients. To the fullest extent possible, however, the manner in which we fulfill these responsibilities must be in accord with the law.

The main federal statute in question is 8 U.S.C. §1324, which prohibits acts of importing, harboring, transporting, or hiring illegal aliens. Federal law also requires that employers obtain certain documents from every person hired, proving the right to work in the country.[6] In addition to federal law some states and localities are considering prohibiting other activities, such as renting to illegal immigrants. Certainly churches should not be in the business of bringing illegal aliens into the country or trying to help them evade authorities. Moreover, neither churches nor individual Christians should knowingly hire illegal aliens.[7] The laws in question are complex, are subject to interpretation, and may change. Therefore churches that are involved in ministering to this group should seek guidance from immigration officials and local law enforcement agencies, and they should develop contact with competent legal counsel. The principle should be to comply with all laws as far as possible without violating a clear Christian duty. One thing we must not do is allow the legal difficulties to deter us from our Great Commission responsibility.[8]

Leadership

First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 both require that a pastor be “blameless.” The term in Timothy comes from a word picture that means “without handles,” that is, that there is nothing someone can grasp as a reason to challenge the pastor’s leadership. The term in Titus is different, meaning not liable to being called into account. In both passages, however, the idea is one of maintaining a public testimony that does not hinder the ministry. An illegal immigrant who is a pastor would have a serious problem with his testimony and would be hindered from preaching obedience to governmental authority. The same restriction would apply to the position of deacon, since deacons must also be blameless.

Church Membership

One question often asked is the proper policy regarding church membership. Should a person be asked if he or she is legally in the country before being received into membership? Should the church adopt the policy of not asking any questions and dealing with the issue only if it arises? The answer to these questions is not as clear as to those above. Although the Bible provides a principled basis for the practice of local church membership, the author is not aware of any specific stipulations regarding the reception of members. Some churches view membership as essentially commensurate with baptism, taking the position that baptism makes a believer a member of the local church in which he is baptized. Others require an extended period of instruction and even evidence of Christian growth. In this regard, the matter should be one of conviction for each local church. Of course, a church should act consistently in the matter, not treating the legal status of an alien differently from other issues of equivalent moral and spiritual import in the lives of candidates for membership.

Conclusion

This article has not addressed the question of what should be government policy toward immigration in general nor the proper response to the current immigration crisis. No doubt Scriptural principles apply to these concerns as well. Churches should first deal with their own response to the situation in which they find themselves, often surrounded by spiritually hungry people who may or may not have a legal right to be here. The Scripture plainly teaches that we have a Great Commission responsibility with reference to these souls for whom Christ died. We also have to teach and practice a right response to civil authority— honor at all times and obedience whenever possible without disobeying Christ. Although ethical dilemmas will undoubtedly arise, we must face them squarely if we wish truly to render what is due unto both God and Caesar.


Dr. David Shumate is the Executive Director of Mission Gospel Ministries International in Phoenix, Arizona.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. The Apostles’ response to the Sanhedrin that we must obey God rather than men came specifically in the context of their preaching Christ, at His command, and contrary to the express dictate of human authorities (Acts 5:28, 29). []
  2. The universality of the gospel proclamation is expressed or implied throughout the New Testament (e.g., Mark 16:15; Luke 3:5, 6; John 3:15, 16; 11:26; 12:46, 47; Acts 8:4, 5; 10:35; 13:38, 39; 17:30; Rom. 1:16; 10:4, 9–15; 2 Cor. 4:1, 2; Col. 1:23, 28; 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:8; 1 John 5:1; Rev. 5:9). []
  3. At this point one might raise the issue of the nature of repentance as part of conversion. Without entering this debate, it is sufficient here to state that no orthodox person holds that a person will stop all sinning upon receiving Christ. Repentance is a lifetime process for the Christian. It may well be the case that someone in the country illegally who trusts Christ might come under the immediate conviction that he needs to return to his country and respond in obedience. However, this cannot be expected universally. []
  4. This will certainly involve making sure that a person truly understands the gospel. In some societies it may also require making sure that a person must forsake his idols, former religion, and anything else he is trusting in for salvation. However, this condition is materially different than expecting a new convert to correct all sinful behavior before permitting him to be baptized. []
  5. First Thessalonians 5:14 teaches that the response of the spiritual leader depends in large measure on the attitude of the follower. This passage as well as 2 Timothy 2:24, 25 enjoin patience on the minister as he seeks to bring people along to Christlikeness. In this regard, one must understand (although not excuse) the mindset that some immigrants may have toward governmental authority. In many countries in the world the real law is not what is written but what the governmental official decides it is. Because of American governmental and social ambivalence toward illegal immigration over the past decades, many immigrants have the idea that lack of legal status is not morally culpable. Therefore, dealing with such individuals (whether or not they are in the country by permission) is a matter of transforming their attitudes by Biblical principles and not merely a matter of insisting on external obedience. Just as in many other areas the patient teaching of Biblical principles is usually required in order to bring about the necessary transformation. []
  6. The brief discussion here is not offered as legal advice but to orient the reader to some of the issues involved. []
  7. Ethical difficulties could potentially arise when the church or individual Christians want to provide practical help such as giving a family a place to stay or taking a child to the doctor. If these actions were taken with knowledge that the person helped was illegally in the country, would they be deemed “transporting” or “harboring”? Such questions turn on the interpretation given to the statues. Even if such activities were deemed contrary to the law, would believers nevertheless have a duty to help their fellow man and especially their Christian brothers in some of these ways? These are issues that must be faced squarely. []
  8. Every pastor knows that the legal complexity of the ministry continues to increase. The ministry today is affected by tax law, tort liability law, insurance law, and family law, just to name a few. Nevertheless, the Lord expects us to continue to occupy until He comes. []


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