By definition, a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. In other words, a refugee had no other choice but to leave his or her home country in order to save his or her own life. There are currently more refugees in the world than at any other time in recent history. It is important to note that how governments should view refugees or form public policy is a different discussion than how Christians should view refugees personally. This article only discusses how to form a biblical personal view on refugees because governments have been given different biblical mandates than individuals. There are a few things to consider as Christians seek to have a biblical view of refugees.
First, Christians must keep in mind that refugees are persons. Genesis 1:27 tells us that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." Every human bears the image of God and, thus, has inherent dignity. God knit refugees together in their mothers' wombs; each refugee is fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13–14). As a creation of God's own hand, made in His image, James warns his readers not to "curse people who are made in the likeness of God" (James 3:9). Christians need to view refugees as creations of God who bear His likeness and therefore talk about and treat refugees with the dignity due every human being.
But the Bible has more to say about refugees beyond just the general way every human is to be treated. The Israelites were told to identify with the sojourner. Leviticus 19:34 says, "you shall love him [the sojourner] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." The Israelites were to recognize their own and their ancestors' history as foreigners so that they could treat strangers in their own land better than they (or their families) had been treated. In fact, many characters in the Bible had been forced to flee their homes: Abraham (Genesis 12:10; 26:1), Jacob's sons (Genesis 47:4), and Naomi (Ruth 1:1) due to famine; Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 4:4) and Rahab (Joshua 6:25) due to war; and David (1 Samuel 21:10), Elijah (1 Kings 19:3), and Jesus (Matthew 2:13–15) due to persecution. Christians should view refugees as people in need the way our ancestors in the faith also experienced this need.
Furthermore, God uses this concept of foreigners and citizenship as a metaphor for how He rescues each of us. Paul explains in Ephesians 2:12, "remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." He continues, "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (Ephesians 2:13, 19). In a spiritual sense, every Christian had been a refugee in need of God's rescue to become a welcomed citizen of His kingdom. Understanding our spiritual ancestors' historic experience as refugees and our own personal experience as strangers to God should help us love the refugee as God would have us to.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, which is literally "the love of strangers." Romans 12:13 tells believers to "Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality." Hebrews 13:2 says, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." Showing love and kindness to strangers is certainly not a concept exclusive to the Old Testament.
God also gave the Israelites more specific commands about how foreigners living in the land were to be treated. Zechariah 7:10 commands, "do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart." James 1:27 echoes, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." Refugees should be protected from oppression and unfair practices. Deuteronomy 24:17 says, "You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner." James 2 speaks against showing partiality. Refugees should be treated justly and have legal standing when they have been wronged. Romans 13:1–4 says that government has "been instituted by God . . . [as a] servant for your good." Good governments should ensure that refugees have freedom from oppression and legal recourse when they have suffered injustice.
Additionally, refugees are to be provided for. Deuteronomy 26:12 explains, "paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled." Foreigners were to receive enough to be filled. But God's commands even included arranging a way for foreigners to provide for themselves. Leviticus 19:9–10 calls for God's people to purposely leave produce in the fields so that sojourners could come to glean the fields themselves and thereby provide for their own families the way Ruth did for Naomi in Boaz's field (Ruth 2:3). Malachi 3:5 warns God's people saying, "I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against . . . those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts." In Matthew 25:31–46 Jesus talks about future judgment. In part, those who knew Christ will have demonstrated that by what they did to the "least of these." He said, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me" (Matthew 25:35–36). Provision and justice for the foreigner, including refugees, is incredibly important to God.
Furthermore, many refugees are fellow Christians. Between 2003 and 2015, 340,000 Christians were admitted to the United States as refugees, more than any other religion. And Christian refugees were admitted to other countries during this time period as well. Paul explained to the Corinthians, "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit . . . that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Corinthians 12:13, 25–26). Christians should be concerned for their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are fleeing their homeland; we should be eager to relieve that suffering in any way possible. According to one estimate, eighty-six percent of the immigrant population in North America is likely to either be Christian or become Christian, a significantly higher percentage than the national average. Refugees who are already Christians can help spread the gospel wherever they are moved, carrying out Jesus' command to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). And refugees who are not yet Christians are more likely to accept the gospel than native-born citizens. Welcoming refugees can be viewed by Christians as an opportunity to spread the gospel.
Finally, Christians can learn from refugees. Because they were forced to flee their homeland, refugees often carry in their hearts a longing for their country of origin, even as they integrate into a new country. Paul explained that as Christians "our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20). Christians are to remember that our primary identity is as citizens of God's kingdom and that our current country here on earth is not our true home. The author of Hebrews says the ancestors of the faith "having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland . . . But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11:13–14, 16). Refugees, whether they are Christian or not, can teach us what it looks like to seek the good of this land while remaining ever conscious of our true homeland.
According to the Bible, Christians should be speaking about and treating refugees with dignity. By identifying with their plight we can love refugees even as we love ourselves. That kind of love includes ensuring that refugees are treated justly, providing for their needs, sharing the gospel with them, and learning spiritual truths from their lived experiences. In short, refugees offer Christians an opportunity to show Christ-like love and share the good news.
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