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“Does the Church Have a Responsibility to Provide Sanctuary for Immigrants and Refugees?"

Is the Church responsible for providing sanctuary to immigrants?" Many answers are found in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. Scholars like Hoffmeier argue that today’s translations and use of the Old Testament are not accurate representations. I argue that the current use of sanctuary in the Church follows God’s intention for sanctuary through care ethics and scripture, as shown in the Torah and New Testament teachings of Jesus.

Chad Thomas Beck classifies “ger” or “resident aliens” as people who leave their homes and everything they know to seek a safer life for themselves and their families. Examples include Ruth and her family, who suffers from famine (Ruth 1:1), and the Israelites seeking help from slavery (Exod. 2) (Beck, 133). The biblical stories document Israel’s plight as they leave Egypt searching for a better way of life. The Torah tells the story of an oppressed people seeking help.

The life of Jesus is documented in the New Testament Gospels. The first chapter of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus’s lineage and goes on to tell the story of Jesus’s life and ministry.

The Lord appears to Joseph in a dream as he instructs Joseph to take Mary and the baby Jesus and flee to Egypt. The Lord saves Jesus from King Herod’s genocide. King Herod orders the genocide of all the infant males under two years old living in the city of Bethlehem (Matt. 3:13-18).

The practice of providing sanctuary for the needy dates back to Genesis. Phillip Marfleet cites sanctuary beliefs and practices that date back to Egypt during the Pharaonic era (Marfleet, pg. 442).

In 1623, King James I of England outlawed the practice of the Canon Law of sanctuary practiced by the church for more than 1,000 years; within 66 years of its eradication King Charles II, the grandson of King James I, reinstated asylum or sanctuary for the persecuted Calvinist minority of France (Marfleet, Pg. 1-2, Rabben, Pg.1).

When the practice of sanctuary becomes unlawful, churches and individuals continue to practice sanctuary for the oppressed and needy, as history has proven. During the last two centuries, the church has provided sanctuary to runaway slaves, Jews fleeing genocide in Germany, and men dodging military conscription during the Vietnam War.

By the 1980s, a new movement was formed helping migrants of Central American refugees on their journey to seek asylum in the United States. In 2006, the “New Sanctuary Movement” was created in opposition to the federal government imposing laws that criminalize those who aid undocumented immigrants (Beck, Pg. 137). There are proponents of the argument for both sides, refugees and immigrants.

Scripture provides the foundation for the care and sanctuary provided by the church and its congregations.

The Torah tells the history of Israel, from its beginning as slaves, as refugees who were hungry, oppressed, and in need of help and love.

Immigrants, refugees, and even murders are given sanctuary as established in Numbers 35:11-15,

Select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before they stand trial before the assembly. These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge. Give three on this side of the Jordan and three in Canaan as cities of refuge. These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites and for foreigners residing among them, so that anyone who has killed another accidentally can flee there. ~Numbers 35: 11-15, NIV

God orders the Israelites to set up sanctuary cities. As Christianity and Judaism grew beyond Palestine, eventually worldwide, so does the need for places of sanctuary.

  • The problem is, who should be provided sanctuary?

  • Only murders?

  • What about others seeking protection and the bare essentials of life?

Stassen and Gushee ask a similar question, “What does the Lord require? (Mic 6:8),” as they argue that the question should be asked and answered within its current context of need (Pg. 82). The Lord feeds and provides for all the Israelites as they flee Egypt. He does not send them away because they were poor, grumble, or seek a better life.

The United States was initially established by refugees, immigrants, and the needy. They were oppressed in England in search of a new life, safety, and rights.

Eventually, one group of immigrants, the first American citizens, enslaved and oppressed others as if they had been persecuted.

They captured and enslaved an innocent group of people, forcing them into slavery, hunger, and fear.

Didn't Americans flee England and their oppressive homes for a better life? Many forget the teaching of the Lord and Jesus.

James H. Cone argues that the Lord liberated Israel, but he also commanded the Israelites to take care of the weak and oppressed, as he took care of the Israelites (Pg. 425):

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless." ~Exodus 22:21-24 NIV


“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God." ~ Leviticus 19:33-34 NIV

The Hebrew Bible provides other instances where God reminds the Israelites to help the needy. Proverbs, Psalms, and Isaiah contain several examples of the Lord’s commandment to care for the needy.

The New Testament records Jesus teaching care ethics when he takes the laws God gave the Israelites and provides a lens or methodology for care ethics. Instead of using the stories of Israel’s beginning as a lens or perspective, writers of the Gospels use the stories of Jesus’s life.

  • The parable of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help a Jew (Luke 10:25-37).

  • Jesus’s action towards the Syprophenican woman who seeks help for her sick daughter (Mark 7:24-30)

  • Jesus healed the centurion's son through faith alone (Luke 7:1-10).

  • The woman who picks up crumbs from the floor at Jesus’s feet (Matt 15:21-28).

Circling back around to the issue of translation, words and titles matter. The Organization of American Historians published an article by Bryan C. Rindfleisch, who opens his paper quoting James H. Merrell:

“The real reason we have a way to go in understanding [American] Indians…has little to do with how deftly or clumsily indigenous peoples have been stitched into the American tapestry… The root of the problem lies in the very words used to tell stories about olden times.”

“Words…[have] real effects for Native peoples and for the course of American history. They were and are tools in the imperial project of relieving [American] Indians of their sovereignty and their land.” ~ James H. Merrell, “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians.”

Throughout his paper, Rindfleisch argues that the words used to describe the indigenous people help the colonists paint a picture of savage, violent, nomadic, head scalping, dangerous people who need to be conquered.

“The words we choose to write and say have great meaning and power (Rindfleisch, 2017).”

I can relate to this argument as I look back at my life.

I remember when children, co-workers, and even family members described me as an outsider, hateful, repulsive, or ugly. I also remember calling others similar names in an attempt to hurt them, demean them, or raise myself above another.

It has been an aspect of life since the beginning of time. One can only imagine the name-calling after Adam and Eve were removed from the garden of Eden or the childish taunts between Cain and Abel. The Bible provides stories passed down from one generation to another.

A few months my 13-year-old old grandson came into the kitchen with his cousin, saying, “Memaw be saying Bussing.” I had no idea what they were talking about. After several months Avery used the term again. This time I had to ask what “bussing” means, and he stated,

“something good or something great!”

In less than 50 years of my life, the word good or great is now “bussing.”

In that short time, how many new words replaced these two?

The same can be asked about “ger,” “nekhar,” or “zar.”

Is James K. Hoffmeier, James H. Cone, Chad Thomas Beck, or Donald Trump? No one today can provide an accurate translation. But we have a place to start through language, scripture, and care for others.

From my perspective and reading of the Bible, God asks Christians to help the needy, those who are hungry, oppressed, or in need of a helping hand, and even immigrants seeking a better life. My ancestry reaches back to the first immigrants, the pilgrims, to those who wanted a better life. Most Americans can trace their history to an immigrant.

How do you answer the question, "What is the Church’s responsibility to provide sanctuary for immigrants?"


Beck, Chad Thomas. “Sanctuary for Immigrants and Refugees in Our Legal and Ethical Wilderness.” Interpretation (Richmond) 72, no. 2 (2018): 132–45.

Butchaell, James Tunstead. "Community Experience as a Source of Christian Ethics." Chap. 13 In from Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, edited by Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey, 79. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994).

Cone, James H. “Biblical Revelation and Social Existence.” Interpretation (Richmond), vol. 28, no. 4, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, 1974, pp. 422–40,

Gustafson, James M. "The Relationship of Empirical Science to Moral Thought." Chap. 28 In from Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, edited by Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey, 164-71. (Grand Rapids.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994).

Hoffmeier, James K. The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible. (Kindle ed.: Crossway, 2009).

Kaminsky, Joel S. "The Might of My Own Hand Has Gotten Me This Wealth”: Reflections on Wealth and Poverty in the Hebrew Bible and Today." Interpretation (Richmond) 73, no. 1 (2019): 7-17.

Marfleet, Philip. “Understanding ‘Sanctuary’: Faith and Traditions of Asylum.” Journal of Refugee Studies 24, no. 3 (2011): 440–55.

Ottati, Douglas F. "What It Means to Stand in a Living Tradition." Chap. 14. In From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, edited by Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey, 79-87. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994).

Rabben, Linda. “The Quaker Sanctuary Tradition.” Religions (Basel, Switzerland ) 9, no. 5 (2018): 155–.

Stassen, Glen Harold, and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

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