Refugees, the Church & Security

One would think that churches would be clamoring to welcome and support Syrian refugees in the midst of the current international crisis. After all, providing hospitality for these people would mean more of Jesus and more of God among us. Jesus said that when churches welcome those who have nothing, they welcome Jesus himself and enjoy God’s presence (Mark 9:35-37).

Perhaps one factor that keeps us from doing what Jesus says is the felt need for security. “What if some of these refugees are terrorists? What if they are coming into this country to kill us? Isn’t this what happened in San Bernardino?”

These kinds of discussions are not appropriate for the church.

I am not saying that security is insignificant. Just that safety and security are concerns of governments. Service, hospitality, loving and welcoming strangers are the tasks of the church. The church is a distinct entity from any state or nation and it cannot be concerned with security, self-protection and self-preservation.

Jesus stresses this at several points in Mark’s Gospel.


In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus speaks of the word that goes out and finds different kinds of responses. This is the announcement of the cross-shaped kingdom that is led by a cross-directed Messiah and calls disciples to pick up their crosses and to lose their lives.

Some of this seed falls among thorns that grow up and choke it (vv. 7, 19). Explaining this image, Jesus says that “the worries of this age, the deceitfulness of wealth, and desires concerning other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.”

Unfortunately, many English versions translate merimnai tou aiōnos in v. 19 to refer to the “cares of this life,” calling to mind daily hassles faced by individuals. But merimnai are “worries, anxieties, cares” and aiōnos is “the age”—“this present age,” as opposed to “the coming age.” The expression could also be translated as “cares for this age,” referring to the concern to guarantee the present social order, or the preservation of “our way of life.”

Among the “anxieties of the age” are self-preservation, self-protection, concerns about all that we will lose if we respond to Jesus’ call to become Kingdom-oriented communities.

These anxieties – these worries and concerns that have their origin in this age – will choke the word. A community that nurtures impulses for self-protection and self-preservation will not bear kingdom fruit.

There is too much to lose. The cost is too high.

Perhaps this is what Jesus means by “the deceitfulness of wealth.” We imagine that we can secure our possessions if we hold on to them, especially our lives and our security. But Jesus says that if we seek to secure our possessions and our lives, we will lose them.

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul (Mark 8:34-36)?

Jesus calls the church to welcome the needy, serving and loving them. This may cost our lives, but we must remain faithful to what Jesus says at the cost of our personal safety, since following his call guarantees our safe and joyful arrival in the world to come.

The cross shapes the identity of the church, which is a people who have surrendered their rights to their lives and possessions at the start. If we begin to clutch at our possessions and worry about self-preservation and security, we risk becoming communities that do not bear Kingdom fruit. We risk surrendering our place in the world to come.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls the church to a radical form of community life that is at odds with this present age and its values. Counter-cultural communities that embody Kingdom life serve the needy and provide hospitality for the socially marginalized. Having surrendered all rights to our lives by becoming disciples, we cannot begin to speak of safety and security.

15 thoughts on “Refugees, the Church & Security

  1. Kim

    Hi Tim,

    I usually love your writing, but I think you’ve overstepped here rhetorically. I’m with you if the concern for security is motivated by fear of lifestyle loss. But to juxtapose safety and security as concerns of the state over against the church fails to think about all the ways the church is concerned about safety and security because they love their neighbours. From Sunday school teacher screening to banning violent men/husbnads from church buildings to a thousand other scenario’s the church needs to be concerned with safety and security. Popular rhetoric today notwithstanding, I’m guessing the majority of churches are concerned about safety and security for reasons which have much to do with love than self-preservation – although, of course, those voices don’t often get heard.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Kim. I would reframe these valid concerns. Rather than thinking in terms of the church’s concern for safety and security I would still insist on the church’s need to think from the standpoint of the cross, which is the church’s fundamental identity. The church is a body that doesn’t look out for its own safety and security but gives its life for the flourishing of others and for the life of the world.

      So, when it comes to abused women/children, the church sets aside or re-orders other priorities and gives itself for their flourishing, protecting them from abusive people. Even here, however, the church does this at its own risk. Sheltering abused women/children from abusive husbands/fathers may put the church at risk of suffering the assault of an abusive person. Again, this cannot be taken into account. The church cannot say, “well, we may get hurt, even suffering physical abuse if we shelter this woman.” A community claimed by the cross will stand in solidarity with those who suffer.

      And the church will always take pains to see that children are never subjected to predators.

      I’d see these issues as consistent with care for and providing hospitality for refugees. They are seeking refuge from being terrorized. Their lives have been shattered and they are fleeing for their lives. This is an ideal situation for the church to offer hospitality and welcome. If we hear that there is a danger to this, that we may be harboring violent people who are bent on destruction, then this is something we ought to be alert to, to some degree, but the risks cannot deter us from simple obedience to Jesus’ commands. This is our identity. There may be risks, but these have to be weighed against Jesus’ words that we have already given up our lives in order to gain them in the world to come.

      Perhaps we ought to say that such risks ought to be seen in the same way that we consider cautions against looking out for an abused woman in a a poor, urban context. “Don’t shelter her. She’s unpredictable and prone to wild outbursts. In fact, that’s probably why she’s been abused. Maybe she deserved it.” Or, again, “don’t take him in. He has a history of alcohol abuse.”

      There is no justification for lack of shrewdness on the part of the church in having a clear-eyed conception of causes of behaviors, and I’m not commending a sentimental approach that enables bad behaviors. Just that in the discussions about refugees I’ve heard to this point, it seems to me that churches have neglected to think from the standpoint of our fundamental identity. Come to think of it, in discussions about how to care for single moms, abused women, shut-ins, the poor, migrant workers, etc., the same thing is true, sadly…

  2. Zach

    Dr. Gombis, please clarify what you mean when you say, “One would think that churches would be clamoring to welcome and support Syrian refugees in the midst of the current international crisis.”

    Do you mean churches should be clamoring to the government, petitioning for more refugees to be allowed into the US? Or do you mean we should be clamoring amongst ourselves to welcome and support those who are already here?

    This is an important distinction if you say that questions of security are not appropriate for the church.

    In the United States and other nations featuring a representative government, We the People are ourselves the government.

    Thus your statement that, “These kinds of [security] discussions are not appropriate for the church” forces believers into fragmented lives where we must act as Christians in the church, but as Americans in the voting booth. In fact, we are American Christians (note that “American” is the adjective and “Christian” is the noun), and need to know how to live as good Christians and good Americans at the same time.

    I think the Church must be teaching believers how to live and think with a Biblical worldview. This necessarily means discussion of the issues of the day. I know you believe this too, otherwise you wouldn’t have written this article.

    Your suggestion to leave questions of security to the government does not adequately address the fact that We the People are our own government, and must vote for people who will enact policies that reflect our interests as Christians and Americans. To be fair, I have yet to see anybody adequately address how to apply scriptural principles on topics related to government when we live in a representative structure where we are the government.

    I’m very much interested in your thoughts on the above. In my opinion, it is in our best interest nationally to adopt immigration policies that seek to ensure our national security, which may mean not accepting Syrian refugees right now. However, I simultaneously believe that it is in our best interest as Christians to welcome and support those refugees, Syrian and otherwise, that are already here. Paradoxical as this may be, to me it is not contradictory, hypocritical, un-Christian, or un-American.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Zach.

      I mean that churches should be doing whatever it takes to provide hospitality and welcome for any refugees that are already here, and advocating for the welcome of more. This could take the form of lobbying local officials to stop the rhetoric of exclusion, like state governors who have wanted to prevent their states from welcoming Syrian refugees. It could also take the form of advocating to the national government to allow more of them to come in, pledging that we would do whatever it takes to put them up, help them find housing and begin to build a sustainable life.

      And I think you’re nailing it on the head when you recognize that Christian believers in America are pulled in two different directions. To my mind, being an American and being a Christian are competing identities, and if I am a baptized Christian, I have pledged my loyalty to Jesus alone and have been made part of his people. I have surrendered all rights, am dead to this world, and am alive to God and to the world to come.

      For most of our daily lives, for most of us, these two identities do not clash. This recent refugee crisis is an issue that is exposing the competing loyalties. As Americans, what is “good,” what is “desirable,” and what “we” will agree to do pulls me in the direction of self-preservation, protection of my stuff, my rights, etc.

      But as a Christian, a member of the church of Jesus Christ that has already surrendered my rights to my life and my stuff, what is good and desirable is determined by being part of an alternative “we,” a different body, the body of Christ.

      All of this is to say that in these conversations, if I am a follower of Jesus, I have already surrendered my prerogative to speak in terms of “national security.” I see such talk in terms of Jesus speaking about trying to hold on to one’s life, therefore losing it.

      1. ZachyeaH

        Thanks for the reply, and for the meaningful conversation! I appreciate you being willing to help me think through these things. Truthfully I am more looking to change my own mind than yours, and deeply value these discussions.

        I understand your perspective on competing identities and the priority of one’s identity in Christ above all other identities. And you’re right, most of the time there is no conflict being a Christian and an American.

        It makes sense to say that as a follower of Christ we must be willing to give up our rights for the sake of the Gospel, we see that pretty clearly in scripture (1Cor9). However, I don’t think this specific issue is that black and white.

        Suggesting that the proper Christian response to refugees should be doing everything we can to persuade the government to open its doors to Syrian refugees has the end result of telling Christians who work in government and national security to neglect their responsibilities for the sake of Christ. Surely we do not want Christians to be known for doing their jobs poorly, especially in such important positions! Likewise, surely we do not want Christians not to work for the government- to the contrary, we need Christians in as many segments of society and government as possible, for there are lost souls in those places too. CS Lewis talks about the idea of Christian shoemakers being the best shoemakers, etc, and that should apply to government and national security jobs as well, should it not?

        Furthermore, I feel like it is an overly simplistic generalization to say that Americans who don’t want to open the doors to refugees in cases where there’s a high likelihood for welcoming terrorists into the country are just concerned with protection of their stuff, their rights, etc. That may be true in some cases, but the idea of self-preservation at a national level is not a bad or selfish thing. We need good governments to fight for the rights and freedoms of the oppressed in the world. If we as Christians take the approach of basically checking out of involvement in government, or actively lobbying for policies that could destroy the country, that is not a positive thing.

        So much good has been done in the world, both in general and specifically for the cause of Christ, because of the United States. The fact that we have this American context, with freedom of religion and so many other freedoms, has lead to greater human flourishing in the world. What would the world look like had Nazi Germany won the war? What if the USSR won the Cold War? Those were godless regimes that actively worked to suppress the knowledge of God. In ISIS, et al, we see the same thing- demonic regimes actively seeking to subjugate the world under their false god. So it is in the best interest of the world, and the cause of Christ, that there be nations that fear the Lord that are willing to fight against evil regimes. America historically has been one of those nations. Are we today? Probably not. But that’s another discussion entirely.

        Anyway, much of that is the stuff of really deep theological/moral/political discussion the likes of which we have seen from Bonhoeffer, for example. You’re probably way more familiar with Bonhoeffer than I am, and my point is not to discuss the particulars of his arguments, but rather to point out that these issues are extremely complex and call for great discernment and wisdom, and many Godly and wise men of ages past have struggled deeply with them.

        This issue is in the same vein as those complicated issues of historical significance. In my opinion it is absolutely critical that we be willing to have these conversations in our churches. We should be encouraging people to live missionally and to see the opportunities for the gospel afforded by refugees being relocated to our cities, absolutely! But we should also be wise as serpents as we seek to be innocent as doves, and self-preservation is not inherently un-wise.

        So yes- concerns of security do in this case clash with concerns of service, hospitality and welcoming of the needy. The answer should not be throw out one in the interest of the other, but to balance the two, to decide what level of risk is appropriate, to find the best middle ground in which we are as secure as possible while still welcoming and serving as many as possible.

        This requires great wisdom.

      2. timgombis

        Thanks for this, Zach. Just a few thoughts:

        First, I’d want to press a bit further than Christians just being willing to give up rights. At baptism, where we identify with the death of Christ, we’re already giving up all our rights. We die and are raised again. We receive a new identity, and it is “in Christ,” and we are citizens of heaven, having our location “in the heavenlies.” Our lives are hidden with Christ in Christ. All of that is to say that our true location, the reality that drives our identity, is our belonging to another world, God’s new creation. We are dead to this world and it does not determine our value nor our values.

        Therefore, our fundamental identities are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, American or non-American, black or white, Westerner or Easterner. And this will put our Christian identity in direct contradiction to our American identity, in which we stress our rights, for which we are willing to fight.

        So, rather than saying that these two identities need to be kept in some kind of balance, we have to actually choose which identity will receive our loyalty. This is nearly impossible to think about in personal terms. It has to be worked out within the corporate entity of the church, it seems to me.

        I’m not saying that churches should expect that our government should be lax in examining people who are coming into the country, but that we should advocate to allow more people in and churches should put themselves on the line for refugees. We currently have the most stringent rules in the world for allowing refugees in and there is a very low likelihood that we’ll actually welcome terrorists into the country. But even if we did, that shouldn’t matter. What matter is that the church’s commission by the Lord of the church is to welcome others, those who appear dangerous, those who aren’t like us, those who are strange and who threaten our conception of how things should go. The promise is that when we do this, we will have more of God among us and more of Jesus among us. And the promise is that if something bad happens to us, we will be raised to life in the world to which we truly belong.

        I know this sounds reckless and irresponsible, but this is precisely what I’ve been getting at in my last few posts. These were the objections to Jesus’ preaching and the apostles’ preaching and their formation of multi-ethnic communities of peacemaking.

        The impulse to self-preservation is what ruins hospitality. It’s what will keep us from actually putting ourselves out for the alien and the stranger. And, unfortunately, it’s what will keep God’s presence from our gatherings that we call “church.”

  3. conorhanson

    Kim and Zach, both of your responses have revealed aspects of the very mindset/paradigm that Tim is seeking to challenge in this post. Tim is absolutely right, safety and self-preservation discussions are not appropriate for the church. Of course this doesn’t mean we let Sunday school teachers with certain sexual sin to be near children; of course this means we are not just flippant about things. But it means that those things are, for us as Christians, theological issues first that we deal with as a church, not “common sense” or “what all reasonable people do” or “what’s best for America.” We need to think less like Republicans and Democrats and Americans and think like Christians. We are free in Christ to play by Kingdom rules and not by the rules set by liberal democracy or republican values or “the way it has always been.” I recommend looking at some Stanely Hauerwas for more insight into this, particularly a lecture titled “America’s God.” Thank you for this Tim. I’ve deeply appreciated this post and the one responding to Falwell.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Conor.

      Indeed, Hauerwas has been helpful to me, from what I’ve read of him. It’s also been helpful to think through the imperial situation in the first century. Would Christians in the empire have seen Rome in terms of how many American Christians see America today? If we had those sorts of lenses, I think we’d see these things more clearly. Unfortunately, our lives are so good and the political climate so highly charged and fraught with fear that we can’t help but think in terms of being American rather than being Christian. Sadly, many don’t see how those are competing identities.

      1. ZachyeaH

        My question is how do we contextualize what we saw of Christians living under imperial Rome to Christians living in a democratic republic in which we are the government? It’s not a direct correlation.

        With respect to helping people understand the sometimes competing identities of American & Christian, exposure to the Global Church has been extremely helpful for me personally.

      2. timgombis

        I think that the correlation is more direct, actually. According to the nation’s founding documents, it’s a representative republic, but functionally, we’re an empire run by an infinitely confusing web of bureaucratic entities. And the experience of America by many other nations and peoples in the world is not a positive one. Just think of how the native peoples who were slaughtered, driven off their land, mistreated horribly throughout the 19th-20th centuries, and left hanging by broken agreements up through the last few decades might characterize us. Seeing the division between our American and Christian identities is helped by an engagement with the global church. It’s also helped by understanding how our nation’s activities affect the rest of the world. It’s not always positive.

  4. Jackie Whyte

    In our service on Sunday we applied the story of Joseph’s need for a safe refuge for his family, (and how that was found in Egypt) to the Syrian refugees coming to Belfast this week. We also identified fear as a real obstacle to our hospitality- especially the fear of terrorism (ironic in Belfast!) and looked at Ananias’ fear of Saul – the terrorizer’ of Christians. We encouraged each other to listen more for the Word of God in our lives (Joseph’s dreams), and to make the most of every opportunity of opening the doors of the kingdom – because the days bare evil

  5. Ken Dalessandro

    Greetings in the name above all names! I am currently in Iraq ministering amongst the Syrian refugee population. There are more than 5000 Christian refugees seeking to escape the violence that they face daily even in the camps. Today I was in a camp in Erbil and found 75 children that have been orphaned by this conflict. I know the rhetoric of the issue but what can I tell these children and other families about the Church in America being afraid to welcome them? This is a great moment for the church to arise and be the light of Christ to those who are in need! Ken

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Ken! Indeed, what does our posture toward the desperate communicate about the God we proclaim? Do our lives portray a shrivel-hearted god, or one whose love knows no limits nor borders?

  6. Pingback: Halfway out of the dark… yet? | Ben Irwin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s