Illegal Immigrants in the Church
Walking a 'fine line between compassion and conformity'

Late last year, we released "Illegal Immigrants in the Church," from Church Law & Tax Report. In it, Richard Hammar and Ann Buwalda, an immigration attorney, review the details on what churches need to know about immigration law as it relates to welcoming undocumented immigrants into church and recruiting them to work or volunteer. They explore commonly asked questions by churches, and provide information to help churches understand their legal responsibility towards undocumented immigrants in church.

In February, this question surfaced again when Christianity Today asked three distinguished voices about how churches should respond to illegal immigrants who are in their midst.

Below are excerpts of the responses from Mark DeYmaz (directional leader at Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas and coauthor of Ethnic Blends: Mixing Diversity into Your Local Church), M. Daniel Carroll Rodas (distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible), and Matthew Soerens (U.S. church training specialist for World Relief and co-author of Welcoming the Stranger), as well as links to their full responses.

Read their takes, then tell us how your church is addressing this question.

Mark DeYmaz:

"When it comes to meeting the spiritual, material, and physical needs of immigrants, there is strong biblical precedent for getting involved (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 27:19). But New Testament teaching also makes it clear that as followers of Christ, we are to honor the law and respect the rulers of our land (Luke 20:23-25; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). How should we resolve this apparent tension?

Out of concern for this member and what his decision might mean for the church, I met with local immigration officials to discuss the situation. I learned that a church is in no way restricted from ministering to people based on their legal status or expected to know who within the congregation is and is not properly documented."

Read DeYmaz's full response.

M. Daniel Carroll Rodas:

"The original question can make issues of legality the overriding focus. These issues obviously are important and must be dealt with. But they should not be the starting point of the discussion or the defining dilemma.

An appreciation of the full biblical witness concerning immigration redirects our attention to the complex needs and wonderful potential of these newcomers, made in the image of God and coheirs in the body of Christ. A very different conversation is generated with another set of questions:

* Is the present immigration system compassionate and just?

* How can churches serve as a constructive moral voice in the national debate and express the love of God to immigrant families?

* What steps can be taken so that both majority-culture churches and immigrant congregations learn from one another?"

Read Rodas' full response.

Matthew Soerens:

"The church's Great Commission is to "make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19), and immigrants—regardless of their legal status—present a mission field at our doorstep. Churches should welcome immigrants, recognizing a divinely appointed mission opportunity.

Welcoming immigrants who are here unlawfully, of course, raises new questions for many churches. First and foremost for many is, Are we breaking the law by helping? In general, the legal answer is no. In most states, it is entirely lawful to preach the gospel to undocumented immigrants as well as compassionately meet their tangible needs. We can minister effectively and still be fully in submission to God-ordained governing authorities.

As laws change, though, Christians in some states may need to wrestle with whether their mandate to love immigrant neighbors requires civil disobedience."

Read Soerens' full response.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."


Displaying 1–6 of 6 comments

Pastor Dan

March 28, 2011  9:27pm

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Do you think God has put them in your path to love them or judge them?

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Clark Coleman

March 24, 2011  10:24am

You obtained three opinions from three men who obviously, based on their past writings, have the same general perspective on illegal immigrants. You made no attempt to get a balanced discussion of the issue.

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Bruce Strom

March 23, 2011  12:20pm

The answer is not an either/or proposition but exposes the intricacies and often contradictions in our legal system. Administer Justice is one of the leading Christian Legal Aid organizations in the country bringing gospel hope and legal help to the widow, the fatherless, the alien and the poor. For the alien this often means encouraging obtaining lawful identification (ITIN), reporting such with wages to the government to correct any identity theft, while serving the individual and systemically addressing our broken systems. Very few people understand the legal area and working with a Christian Legal Aid is a great place to start to provide practical help and gospel hope to our neighbors in need.

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March 22, 2011  5:10pm

Part of preaching the gospel is calling the sinner to repentance. If an illegal immigrant has been deceitful and dishonest in obtaining paperwork in order to work, what "fruits of repentance" he should demonstrate in order to please God? Can we look the other way? Can the immigrant who wants to have a genuine relationship with God look the other way? Does God look the other way? Lots more questions than answers it seems. May God grant us wisdom and discernment.

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March 22, 2011  6:49am

Thinking specifically about Central American history and politics, many, many illegal immigrants from places like El Salvador and Guatemala are here as a direct result of US intervention in those countries (and others) based solely on self interest. Much US assistance, military and otherwise, for example, supported a genocidal Guatemalan military regime and allowed for a civil war lasting for more than 30 years. Is it any wonder that people were desperate to flee from those kinds of circumstances? I think that if the US government is going to behave like that, they–and we–are obligated to bear the consequences, and welcome 'illegal' immigrants with open arms. it is the least we can do. And the church, ideally, should be at the forefront in terms of compassion in these cases.

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March 19, 2011  7:27pm

So what should the response be if the church knows an illegal immigrant is breaking the law? For example, if a Christian knows that an illegal immigrant used forged identity papers to get a job, should that person report the crime? Or should he/she be compassionate and look the other way?

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