Baptist Church questions Christian obedience to immigration laws

Flight Into Egypt: Jesus was not an illegal immigrant. Jesus was not a refugee.

A church plant funded by Southern Baptists questioned subjection to America’s immigration laws during an August sermon.

Cottage Grove Church questioned if Christians should obey immigration laws. In a sermon preached by Chris Saldanha, Christians were told to question immigration laws for the sake of the Gospel. The sermon advanced two attacks on immigration restrictions. First, it asserted Christians routinely disobey laws for Gospel promotion. Second, that immigration provides a missional opportunity.

Saldanha asked, “We have no problem breaking cultural and civil laws in other nations for the sake of the Gospel. What about our law that is so sacred?”

Cottage Grove of Des Moines, Iowa is a Southern Baptist Church plant. It was started in 2016 as part of the Salt Network led by Cornerstone Church of Ames, Iowa. Cornerstone and its Salt Network work with the North American Mission Board’s Send Network. So, your conservative church’s CP dollars and Annie Armstrong offerings are supporting these highly political church plants.

The pastor admitted handling the legality issue was complex. He said it was “the aspect I’m most nervous to talk about right now.” He rightly noted we cannot “reject law and authority” since these are for our good. The sermon attempted to navigate the complexity by asserting Christians should submit to the law but be driven by compassion, and not blindly follow the law.

Saldanha said,

“Our job is not to enforce the law. As citizens of the household of God, our first appeal is to Kingdom Ethics of who God called us to be. We have to start there. The call for us is to submit to the law. Yes, but also be driven by compassion. To not blindly submit to the law. We need to acknowledge the system as it stands right now is clearly broken. There are problems. Where human laws have been created that stand in opposition to Kingdom Ethics, we have to speak out about the unjust nature of those laws.”

That’s not so bad. Speaking against unjust laws would be a Christian’s obligation. (Though, it is doubtful the US and its lax immigration laws are unjust. However, that is a conversation reasonable people could have.)

Yet, notice the sermon’s transition. It goes from speaking against to examples of resistance. Namely, Daniel in the OT and the early Apostles in the NT.

“Whether it is Daniel and his friends choosing to honor God or the king, whether it is Jesus extending mercy to the woman caught in adultery, whether it is the early Apostles being arrested for preaching the Good News when they were told to be quiet. Not to mention, we have no problem breaking cultural and civil laws in other nations for the sake of the Gospel. What about our law that is so sacred? (applause from the congregation).”

He continued, “Just like the people of Israel, we shouldn’t look at this like an immigration problem. This is a missional opportunity,” he said.

The sermon later repeated this. He appealed to reaching new immigrants as the justification for how Christians should think about immigration.

“If we care about souls entering the Kingdom of God, this reality should blow us away. This is a missional opportunity. It is not because of good church marketing or strategic initiatives. They are finding their way into the church. They are being exposed to the truth of the Gospel. It might be the greatest mission strategy on the planet. And you don’t even have to leave your neighborhood.”

Christians are called to mercy; the state is called to justice

This sermon illustrates everything wrong with modern evangelical Christianity. First, it isn’t exegesis. If it were exegesis, it would deal with the complex Hebrew language and notice how different the words used for stranger, foreigner and sojourner are—these words carry complex legal standing within the Old Testament. (See, Prof. Hoffmeier’s excellent book on the matter dealing with the use and abuse of Bible in the Immigration debate.)

Second, it conflates the kingdom of this world with Christ’s kingdom. Or, to put it another way, it confuses the personal commands given to the Christian with God’s commands to the state. This not only ignores the testimony of Scripture, but is dangerous.

The point of government is not missional.

You won’t win people to Christ if the government’s focus is on mercy. Those are good things for individual Christians to practice. We should be generous and merciful.

However, Peter and Paul and the entirety of the Old Testament bear witness that God created government for one purpose and individuals for another purpose. Humanity is to worship God. God created government to establish order by the means of punishing evil and rewarding good.

This is an important point.

The great New Testament Scholar C.E.B. Cranfield explained that the state fulfilling its role provides an aid to the Christian preaching the Gospel. He said this was part of God’s plan. He wrote,

“It is implied that God wills the state as a means to promoting peace and quiet among human beings, and that God desires such peace and quiet because they are in some way conducive to human beings’ salvation. It is God’s purpose that the state should, by restraining chaotic tendencies of human beings’ self-assertion, maintain those outward conditions under which the gospel may be preached to all and sundry without hindrance.

If the state through influence of Christians exchanged justice for mercy, then the restraining work of the government would collapse.

Christians must examine policies not in view of our individual Christian virtues, but in view of God’s purpose for the state—order. Immigration policy follows this. Can rewarding illegal immigrants bring about greater order? Or, does the breakdown in the rule of law destroy the government’s restraining influence?

Remember: the Christian should never foist off personal responsibilities on the state. God wants His people to fulfill His commands.

Also, Christianity should influence government.

But not in the manner some suggest. We must avoid attempts to immanentize the eschaton.

This allows us to explain how the pastor’s comments are close to right. Individual Christians should treat immigrants (legal and illegal) with mercy and love. We should minister to them. They should hear the Gospel. This is good.

Yet, we must not view the governmental issues through a missional lens. Our mission aims do not allow us to question: “We have no problem breaking cultural and civil laws in other nations for the sake of the Gospel. What about our law that is so sacred?”

This is inappropriate. This is not how Christians judge ethics. We do not judge an action on its Great Commission utility. Rather, we judge the action on its relationship to God’s commandments.

Nations have borders. God created them as such. According to Acts 17:26, “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.”

Even the examples the pastor gave of the movement of peoples in the Old Testament such as famine leading Jacob’s sons to Israel for food. However, Hoffmeier illustrates Jacob’s sons asked permission of the Egyptians. Also, Hoffmeier explains that during the nineteenth century B.C., Egypt even required passports for foreigners. He writes,

“A celebrated tomb scene from a governor of middle Egypt during the nineteenth century B.C. shows a band of Semites entering his territory (Figure 4). The leader’s name is given in hieroglyphics as Abishai, which is Northwest Semitic, and he bears the title “foreign chieftain.” He is followed by men, women, children, and donkeys that bear their gear. Their hairstyles, beards, and clothes contrast with those of the Egyptians in the same painting, revealing their different ethnicity and foreign status. In front of the chief an Egyptian official presents their credentials, the Egyptian equivalent to a visa authorizing them to be there.”[1]

A second example the pastor gave was the flight of Jesus into Egypt.

However, this example ignores that moving between the Roman province of Judea and the Roman province of Aegyptus isn’t an example that fits immigration or refugees in the modern world. Both areas were under Roman political control—they were all part of the Roman empire. You can read more about why Jesus was neither an illegal immigrant nor a refugee.

Ultimately, this sermon illustrates the serious dangers facing Christians. There is a temptation to conflate the individual with the corporate.

However, as citizens in the U.S., we are Citizen-Kings. Sovereignty rests with the people. As such, when we vote and consider political activities, we must vote and behave in accordance with God’s purpose for the state.

This yields healthier politics. But we must do so with caution. We can never realize the eschaton.


[1] Hoffmeier, James K.. The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible . Crossway. Kindle Edition.

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