Hospitality is one of the basic Christian duties. It is a central duty because it embodies the gospel of Jesus. At the same time, because it ought to embody the gospel, it is worth thinking through carefully so that we are not thoughtlessly embodying a false or distorted gospel. It’s striking that in the context of urging Christians to practice hospitality and visit prisons and remember the afflicted, Christians are also warned about fornication, adultery, and discontent (Heb. 13:1-6).
The Texts: Paul says that Christians are to pursue or literally “persecute” with hospitality – the word “hospitality” is two Greek words that mean the “love of strangers” (Rom. 12:13). Peter says that we are to love one another in the church, and be “hospitable” to one another without grumbling (1 Pet. 4:8). In Hebrews, it says not to neglect hospitality (Heb. 13:2). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus commends the sheep who took in the stranger, for doing it unto the least of these my brethren was doing it unto Him (Mt. 25:35). Elders and pastors are to set the example for Christians by being hospitable (1 Tim. 3:2, Tit. 1:8, cf. 1 Tim. 5:10). These commands are rooted in the Old Testament law: “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34). “He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Dt. 10:18-19).
Boaz & the Moabites
Perhaps one of the greatest biblical examples of hospitality is found in the story of Ruth, where Boaz married Ruth, the Moabitess, at great sacrifice to himself for the good and blessing and protection of a “stranger” in the land, a foreignwidow. One of the lesser known genealogical facts of the Bible, that really should get more airtime, is the fact that Rahab the Harlot was the mother of Boaz (Mt. 1:5, Ruth 4:20-21). Boaz knew how to love a stranger sacrificially because his own mother had been the recipient of such sacrificial love. But there is actually quite a bit more to the story. Moab was one of the sons of the incestuous unions of the daughters of Lot (Gen. 19:35-38). The sexual sin continued in the family: Even though Balaam failed to curse Israel when he was hired by the king of Moab to do so, the women of Moab successfully seduced many of the men of Israel (Num. 25:1), bringing God’s curse in the form of a severe plague that was only averted by the well-aimed javelin of Phinehas (Num. 25:7-8). Likewise, it was during the days of the judges that Eglon King of Moab oppressed Israel and was assassinated by Ehud (Judg. 3). So, hold all of this together: it was within living memory that many Israelite men had gone to the Moabite red light district, and it was within living memory that Israel had been oppressed by the Moabites. And it was in thosedays, during the judging of the judges, that a destitute Moabitewoman shows up in Bethlehem. There would have been plenty of talking going on in town – and a certain bit of it was wise and godly talking.
Strangers & Strange Women
One of the famous warnings of Solomon in the book of Proverbs regards the “strange woman.” “To deliver thee from the strange woman, even from the stranger which flattereth with her words, which forsaketh the guide of her youth, and forgetteth the covenant of her God” (Prov. 2:16-17). “For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: but her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword” (Prov. 5:3-4). We may note here that the OT routinely uses two different words for strangers (one for immigrant, one for pagan), but the NT sometimes uses the same word for both, inviting this comparison. Solomon knew well from personal experience the dangers he warned of: “But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites, of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love… And his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kgs. 11:1-3, cf. Dt. 7:1-4). This same principle is repeated in the New Testament: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?… And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord” (2 Cor. 6:14-18). Likewise, “ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Js. 4:4). So on the one hand, God urges His people to love strangers, to welcome them into the covenant of God, to feed and clothe them. But on the other hand, God repeatedly warns about being assimilated to their ways (Heb. 13:4-5). Jesus was/is a friend of sinners and prostitutes, precisely because He refuses to be drawn into their sin and insists on them leaving their sin behind. There is no neutral, common ground where Christians and non-Christians may meet and discuss matters “objectively.” After the Fall, our “common humanity” is sinful and rebellious, and God’s common grace restraining our evil does not erase the fundamental antithesis. We are enemies with all unbelief, and all unbelief must surrender to Jesus. So this is Christian hospitality; this is the gospel embodied in love for strangers.
These principles have a number of applications in a number of different directions: entertainment, friendship, learning from pagans, marriage, and evangelism. In the early church one of the images the church fathers used to describe how Christians should interact with pagan culture was the “war bride” law (Dt. 21:10-13). God prohibited men acting on impulse in the middle of war (as is common in pagan warfare) and required that if a man wanted to marry a captive woman, she was to shave her head, trim her nails, put off the clothing of her captivity and be allowed to mourn for a full month before he could marry her. The church fathers said this was a good analogy for sorting through pagan cultures since the gospel has come to cast down strongholds and take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). The “strange woman” needs to be naturalized or assimilated into Israel, and this cannot be done impulsively or thoughtlessly, and she must leave behind her pagan gods and cleave to the God of Israel, like Rahab did, like Ruth did.
A caution and an encouragement: Remember that it is a fundamental Christian responsibility to provide for those of your own household first (1 Tim. 5:8). Many Christians in the name of mercy ministry/hospitality/evangelism sacrifice marriages and children on the altar to this strange god. But the first rule of Christian hospitality is to create no new orphans or widows or strangers. In other words, the first strangers you are called to feed and clothe and love are the ones living in your own house. The encouragement is that as you do this well, your family will be spiritually thriving, and you will be practiced in hospitality and ready to give to those in need.
The ground of all of this is the gospel: “That He might reconcile us to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity…Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Christian hospitality is an overflow of this grace, of this fellowship, and therefore it is fundamentally His work through us.