Evangelicals and Immigration: Another Reason to Distinguish Between Church and State

By Published on April 12, 2024

Immigration in the United States involves a complex array of factors. As Lifeway’s recent report makes clear, the issue is further complicated for evangelicals because immigration is not simply about national security and prosperity or about basic human rights; it is a matter of religious conviction.

That conviction involves a distinction between church and state. It requires the church to acknowledge the state’s legitimate role while pointing beyond it to a way of life only made possible in Christ.

This fundamental distinction should prompt evangelicals to ask at least two questions. First, how might the Bible inform the church’s response to immigration? Second, how might the Bible and the church inform, encourage, and critique those serving in the United States government to respond to immigration?

 The Church’s Response to Immigration

Regarding the first question, the Bible is quite clear. As Jesus notes, we are to love God with all we are and have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40). Drawing on the Hebrew Bible, Jesus says that “all the Law and the Prophets” hang on “these two commandments” (22:40). The commandments are inseparable.

For instance, when God tells Israel to love their Israelite and sojourning neighbors as themselves (Lev. 19:18, 33), the command is in the context of a call to imitate God’s holiness (19:1). It is rooted in the simple assertion that “I am the Lord” (19:4, 9, 12, 14, 18, 34). Israel is not to care for the vulnerable as a task on a checklist to be completed. Instead, Israel (and by extension the Church) is to become a people who cares for those who cannot care for themselves because God cares for those who cannot care for themselves.

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Caring for the poor and vulnerable is a mark of those loyal to God (Is. 1:17; James 1:27). If the church wants to respond well to immigrants entering the United States, we must first cultivate a deep allegiance to God — an allegiance that pushes out all others. Building up the Body of Christ by cultivating this sort of allegiance is something we do for the world’s sake. Discipleship, or learning to live under the authority of Christ, is the first and best thing the church can do to care for immigrants because discipleship will open up opportunities to glorify God by loving our neighbors beyond anything we could ever ask or think.

The Government’s Response to Immigration

So, how might the Bible and the church inform the United States government to respond to immigration? First, the church must offer an alternative to the state that showcases the possibilities made available to those who proclaim, “Jesus is Lord.” Therefore, we build up the Body of Christ for the world’s sake.

Through making disciples of Jesus, we remind the state that its authority and capacity are limited. Through obedience, we point the world not to a renewed sense of morality or ethical action, but to the God whose provision and empowerment allows the church to live self-sacrificially within a broken world.

Second, we need to continually remind our governing authorities that they sit under God’s authority (whether they recognize it or not). It has become fashionable to urge governing authorities to adhere to biblical principles abstracted from their theological context and to advocate for frameworks like universal human rights. While there is certainly nothing wrong with human rights, Christians need to be advocating for Christ. If, for instance, we believe that fearing the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we cannot settle for the appearance of wisdom apart from the fear of the Lord. We cannot stop encouraging our governing authorities to be more just or moral. We must point them toward the Triune God under whose authority they exercise their own.

Governments Can Only Manage the Brokenness of the World

It is not that the state is incapable of making good judgments, but that even its good judgments are insufficient to transform the broken world. They can only manage that brokenness.

As such, when we think about how the Bible might inform the United States to respond to immigration, we need to ensure that the governing authorities understand (a) their position under God’s authority, (b) God’s relationship to the nations, and (c) the inherent limits of even the wisest and most benevolent human rulers. The governing authorities need to recognize that their work with regard to immigration is not trivial, but provisional.

The Triune God Is Sovereign

We need to take care not to encourage the leaders of the U.S. government to view the Bible as a text from which they can selectively draw moral principles. Does the Bible provide a window into God’s order? Certainly. But that order begins with the recognition that the Triune God is sovereign. Taking inspiration from God’s Word to create policy frameworks tends to reinforce the notion that He can be honored by acknowledging that His Word fits the agenda or serves the interests of the United States.

A Prophetic Role

To put it differently, our role with the government cannot be advisory. It must be prophetic in the sense that we speak theologically to our governing authorities. What does this mean?

It means that we refuse to let our nation’s leaders assume that dismantling the Scriptures and applying them in a piecemeal fashion is the same as honoring God. The world is willing to forget the Triune God; Christians can’t be. Caring for the vulnerable among us is important, but such care is insufficient as a ground or aim for the Church because we are not first called to love our neighbor, but to love God with all we are and have.


Dr. James Spencer is president of the D. L. Moody Center. He has written or coauthored half a dozen books, including his latest, Serpents and Doves: Christians, Politics, and the Art of Bearing Witness is available on amazon.com. Currently, Spence is also serving as president of Useful to God.

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