Love for the Stranger: The New Testament Imperative

Elizabeth Arnold

Photo by Pexels on Pixabay (CCO).

In a recent campaign speech, Donald Trump referred to immigrants as a “poisoning of our blood,” arguing that immigration weakens and overall contaminates American society. He presents a perspective on immigration that is not uncommon—one of suspicion and preemptive mistrust of foreigners. Even those who are tolerant of foreigners and do not hold such extreme views of immigration see the process as a problem to be solved, a political and social headache that must be addressed. 

Oddly enough, a large population representing both these beliefs—immigration as contamination and immigration as a problem—self-identify as Christian. These self-identified Christians claim that the US was founded as a Christian nation and therefore should operate based on Judeo-Christian principles found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Do these beliefs about immigration find any basis in the Bible, particularly the New Testament which contains the very teachings of Jesus? If not, what orientation towards strangers, refugees, and aliens does the New Testament present?  

Now, to be clear, the writings of the New Testament are religious teachings directed at those who claim to be followers of Jesus. I am not claiming that the biblical material translates directly into certain laws in the twenty-first century US. It is true, however, that many—if not most—Christians claim to make voting decisions, political evaluations, and identity alignments based on their faith and understanding of the Bible.

An accurate portrayal of the New Testament’s instructions on the treatment of foreigners and strangers should then at least inform such decision-making and serve as a rubric for assessing political rhetoric, public policy, and potential legislation. 

The Teachings of Jesus 

We begin in the gospels. In Matthew 25 (NRSVue), Jesus tells his followers a parable—a story in which you see yourself playing some role (and that role can shift depending on where you stand at any point concerning the story). In this parable, Jesus describes the people who follow his commandments as sheep who will be rewarded. Those who do not follow his instructions are labeled goats, and they will be punished. Interestingly, the determining factor for being rewarded rather than punished is not how they directly relate to Jesus: 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt 25:34-36 NRSVue).  

Here, Jesus explains the criteria for someone who is considered his faithful follower. But Jesus not only demands these ministrations be done, he goes on to give the underlying reason for why this practice of care for the stranger is essential—Jesus identifies with and as the stranger:  

Jesus equates the treatment of the stranger or alien to the treatment of his own self. Jesus self-identifies as a foreigner. 

In this parable, Jesus clearly states that the expectation for his followers is active, demonstrable love for those seen as outsiders. Solely based on the language, Jesus requires meeting this expectation to be in fellowship with him—not religious affiliation, not correct ideology, not citizenship status. Interestingly, many of the reasons that politicians give for discouraging immigration—people requiring health care, food, and shelter—are listed in the commanded actions of Christians. 

We can conclude that not only is the negative attitude towards immigrants incompatible with Jesus’s teachings, but such bias prevents believers from performing the very actions deemed necessary for their faith. In other words, not only is extending hospitality to the foreigner a kindness to the foreigner, it also allows believers to actively and authentically practice the faith Jesus commanded. 

The Teachings of the Apostle Paul 

Not only in the teachings of Jesus, then, but also Christian practice in the New Testament follows the instruction to be hospitable to strangers. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes: “contribute to the needs of the saints, and also seek to extend hospitality” (Romans 12:13 NRSVue). What exactly is hospitality? The English word comes from the Latin hospitalis which loses some of the meaning that we find in the Greek word for hospitality.  The word in the New Testament that Paul uses is philoxenia which combines the Greek words philo (love) and xeno (stranger, foreigner, wanderer, alien). Hospitality literally means: “love of/for the stranger.”  

According to Paul’s words, believers can demonstrate fellowship (koinonia) with those whom they know—which is what Paul refers to in seeing to the needs of the community—but can only truly practice philoxenia with strangers, foreigners, and aliens. And Paul says “seek” or “pursue” hospitality. In other words, not only should his readers tolerate foreigners and offer hospitality when encountering them, but they should be seeking opportunities to demonstrate welcome to aliens. 

Oddly, in June 2018, when the former Trump administration was criticized for the protocol and conditions at immigrant detention centers on the US/Mexico border, Attorney Jeff Sessions also quoted Paul’s letter to the Romans to justify the practices in question: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1). This verse has no explicit connection to immigration, and yet Romans 12:13—just a few paragraphs before—specifically states that those reading the letter should aggressively practice loving strangers and foreigners. 

The Writer of Hebrews    

Not only does the New Testament present hospitality as a commandment to believers, but it also makes the case that hospitality to strangers benefits not only the receiver but the giver of hospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2 NRSVue). What is meant when it is stated that people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it? This is likely a reference to a story in Genesis 18 (NRSVue).  Abraham and Sarah—Israel’s founding patriarch and matriarch—greet and welcome strangers who appear at their door one day. They feed these strangers and offer them shelter, and in doing so receive the news that they will have a child together and that God’s promise to them will be fulfilled. The result of their hospitality was not only their son Isaac, but eventually the people of Israel itself. 

By referring to Genesis 18, the writer of Hebrews argues that indeed Christians should demonstrate hospitality to strangers because it is the righteous thing to do for the stranger. Additionally, it is the best thing for those showing hospitality. To refuse a stranger shelter and safety is to risk refusing a blessing. In a recent sales launch of the God Bless the USA Bible, Donald Trump also told viewers that “we need to ask God to bless the USA again.” Such desire for God’s blessing and simultaneous rejection of foreigners and aliens would then seem counterproductive at best. 

Interestingly, this relationship between sheltering the stranger and accepting blessing is further strengthened by the agreement of economists that immigration boosts economy rather than harms it:   

Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth. The inflow of labor supply has helped the United States avoid the problems facing other economies that have stagnated as a result of unfavorable demographics, particularly the effects of an aging workforce and reduced consumption by older residents. 

So while followers of Jesus are called to sacrifice on behalf of others, this principle of treatment to strangers decidedly benefits those who practice philoxenia

The writer of Hebrews instructs Christians on how to treat such people with the same rationale that Jesus uses in Matthew’s parable—Christians are supposed to welcome strangers because they identify with them. The Christian tradition presented in the New Testament builds on the foundational belief developed in the Old Testament that God’s people are identified by being strangers and aliens: “…they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland” (Hebrews 11:13-14 NRSVue). In other words, God’s people always share something fundamental in common with all other aliens and immigrants—they know what it means to forsake one place to search for something better.  

This ability to see the kinship between immigrants in our society and followers of Jesus plays out in another important way. Contrary to the popular myth that Christianity is on the decline in the US, in recent years, the US has seen an increase in people self-identifying as Christian due largely to the migration of people from places such as Latin America with large populations of Pentecostal and Catholic worshippers. In a serendipitous way, by welcoming the stranger, Christian communities can find that the stranger is family. 


What we have witnessed in this survey of the New Testament topic of hospitality to strangers offers us an orientation towards outsiders. While the New Testament offers a variety of perspectives on other issues (for example, James condemns those with money and Luke’s gospel applauds the rich who use their money generously), the offering of hospitality to the foreigner is a position held by the New Testament.

Seeing the stranger as an enemy and working toward keeping them away is incompatible with the teachings of the New Testament. For those who claim the Bible’s teachings to be authoritative, the New Testament’s unified command to treat the stranger hospitably should be the lens used in considering matters around immigration.  

While the New Testament does not give a comprehensive guide to implementing such hospitality, it does offer a solid place to have more positive, constructive, and hopeful conversations about how we consider policy, evaluate our actions, and hold our leadership accountable should they claim Christian principles as rationale for their handling of this issue. ♦

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Arnold  is the Scholar-In-Residence for The Candler Foundry and teaches New Testament at Candler School of Theology (Emory University). She is an ordained minister in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Recommended Citation

Arnold, Elizabeth. “Love for the Stranger: The New Testament Imperative.” Canopy Forum, May 02, 2024.

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