Posted on: April 9th, 2007 “Undocumented Citizens” & the Church

Undocumented Citizens & the Church, by Matt Boulter

This essay is an attempt to bring biblical teaching to bear on the thorny question of how Redeemer Presbyterian Church (as an example of a local church body) should treat the undocumented citizens in our midst (both those who, to whatever extent, are already involved in our church community, such as Luis Moreno, and those undocumented citizens who are simply our neighbors in Austin), in light of modern American immigration policy. In so doing it relies heavily upon a certain analogy, specifically that modern American immigration is like ancient Roman slavery.

Before we develop this analogy, however, we should consider what many scholars (both modern and pre-modern) take to be the Magna Carta of the new social order which comes about because of and in Christ: Galatians 3:28. (Already I am assuming that, at the very least, modern American immigration and ancient Roman slavery are similar in that they are both social issues – or social realities – respective of each time and place.)

We must, however, read Gal 3:28 in its immediate context. Verse 26 and 27 of chapter three tell us that all those in the “churches of Galatia” (cf. 1:2b) – and by implication, all those in Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Austin – are “children of God through faith in Jesus Christ” because of their – our – faith in Christ and common baptism into Christ. This teaching on the Church’s common faith and common baptism sets us up for the climax of this passage, verse 28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Paul is instructing us that the old cleavages which formerly characterized human social life have passed away; they have become obsolete. Furthermore he is telling us why these cleavages have become obsolete: they have been replaced by the new reality of oneness in Christ through faith and baptism. And, hearkening back to verse 26, this “oneness” is not some generic unity; rather, it is the oneness of sonship. We (those of us in the Church) are all brothers and sisters, with God as our Father.

Further, this new social order is decidedly eschatological. We know that Paul’s teaching here includes this eschatological aspect because of the pairs of binary oppositions he employs in verse 28 (Jew / Gentile, slave / free, male / female). If there is now no Jew nor Gentile, then certainly this is a new development in the history of redemption. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament (not to mention the Gospels) shows us that, prior to the advent and work of Christ (which, in Paul’s mind, is a fundamentally eschatological event-complex), there was Jew and Greek. Prior to the coming of Christ, in fact, this distinction was central to God’s working out his plan of redemption.

Paul’s use of the male / female pair also points to an eschatological reality, in that the obliteration of this distinction in Christ is the fulfillment of the only original human difference of creation: the distinct sexes (“genders”) of the Man and the Woman, Adam and “Eve.”[1] In a real sense, it may be said that in Christ we are all female, his Bride, the Church.[2]

As for these two pairs of opposites, so also for the one at issue in this paper: slave and free. The obliteration of this category in Christ is a development that, somehow, occurs in the new order which Jesus inaugurates. And just as the other two obliterations require God’s people to walk by faith and not by sight (just think of a first century Jew breaking bread and sharing a cup of wine with an “unclean” – because uncircumcised – Gentile), so also this new reality, the social equality of enslaved people and free people, requires us[3] to walk by faith. In other words, we believe that this unity in Christ characterizes true reality (even though we often fail to see it) and therefore we live now as we know things will be someday, when this eschatological reality becomes “sight.” In terms of slavery, this is how God wanted ancient Christians (like the Galatians) to live, it is how he wanted 18th and 19th century British and American Christians (who lived during a time of institutionalized slavery) to live, and it is how he wants us to live today.

The Scriptures are so rich and efficient! Not only do they give us this “revolutionary” teaching in a discursive way here in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but they also show us a concrete example, an application, of this new social order, this new eschatological reality. This example we find in Paul’s letter to Philemon. Here in this letter we witness Paul, the author of Galatians, practicing this kind of Christian charity, the kind that breaks down social barriers for those who are members of the church (by faith in Christ and baptism into Christ). This letter, the very correspondence of Paul to Philemon on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus, is itself an instance of the law of Christ, which is true Christian love, in action.

Importantly, though, Paul upholds not only the law of Christ (which, again, is love), but he also upholds the law of the land.[4] He submits to the established authority by sending Onesimus back to his master Philemon (Philem 12). The authority in view here is both that of the slave master and that of the state. We know from other Pauline passages[5] that the former was indeed considered by Paul to be an established authority to whom submission was required. In addition, we know from extra-biblical sources[6] that institutional slavery was regulated and enforced by the state. It is crucial to recognize that Paul in this way “fights on two fronts.” He both upholds God-ordained authority (by sending Onesimus back to his master) and practices Christian love (by asking Philemon – who, in all likelihood, was converted by Paul – to give up his legal rights by releasing Onesimus from slavery).

We will, however, miss the value of this letter if we fail to recognize the radical character of Paul’s plea to Philemon in light of his historical moment. First, in the Roman society and culture of Paul’s day, the practice of slavery (or, perhaps, better would be “the industry of slavery”) was foundational to corporate life. As Everett Ferguson points out, slavery was so “basic [an] element in Roman society” that a proposition in the Roman senate that slaves be required to wear distinctive clothing was defeated, lest the slaves learn how numerous they were. It has been estimated, in fact, that one in every five Roman citizens was a slave.[7]

The second way in which Paul’s relativizing of slavery proves to be a radical move has to do with one particular implication of his stance: the resultant possibility that a slave might then hold office in the church, which would then require the submission of a free man to a slave, and possibly to his own slave.[8] In contrast to Judaism, which required a quorum of ten free men to establish a synagogue, Christianity has always held slavery to be a matter of indifference.[9] As James Hurley points out, in fact,

The requirements for elders and deacons make no mention of bondage whatsoever. Slaves could be elders of their masters, as tradition has suggested in the case of Onesimus. Paul’s letter to Philemon suggests directly that he free Onesimus, who has become a brother and been such a help to Paul.[10]

At this point in our reflections it is appropriate to develop the analogy suggested above, that, for the purposes of this paper, the modern American immigration situation is like ancient Roman slavery. First, Paul’s appeal to common sonship (based on faith and baptism) is just as relevant here, in the immigration situation, as it is in the case of ancient Roman slavery. In both cases the oneness in Christ which the Gospel brings transcends the differences between us. Is there any reason why this would hold in the case of slavery and not in the case of immigration? Even in the Old Covenant, before Christ, the covenant bond transcended ethnic nationality. How much more is this true in the New Covenant of Christ’s blood! In this current age of redemption, Christ has broken down the barrier of the wall of division, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2. If there is now no distinction in the Gospel between Jew and Gentile, then how could there possibly be any distinction between Gentile and Gentile, between Mexican and American?

A second point of analogy (between modern American immigration and ancient Roman slavery), is that, just as Paul “fights on two fronts” with respect to slavery, so also it is quite feasible for us (the modern church) to do the same with respect to the issue of immigration. In God’s providence, he has made it fairly easy for our church to adopt such a posture. That is, just as the apostle Paul found a way to remain faithful to earthly authority and to the law of love in the church, so can we. How can we, the twenty-first century American church, “fight on two fronts” in this Pauline sense? The short answer is that, in the eyes of the state, we as a church may fully integrate Luis Moreno into our community.

To support this claim, I appeal to the electronic correspondence which I have had with an immigration attorney, David Simmons, who lives in Denver, Colorado. The first relevant point which emerges in this correspondence is simply that current immigration law is exceedingly difficult to understand, largely because it seems itself to be confused and convoluted. To quote Mr. Simmons:

[Immigration] is one of the most complex area of U.S. law – so much so that it takes an entire wall chart to list all of the possible scenarios under which one would be considered a United Statescitizen.[11]

Secondly, Mr. Simmons believes that we as a church have no legal obligation to report individuals who are in the U.S. without documents. (Such reporting would be compromised by the fact that we lack the expertise needed to determine who is legal and who is not. Mr. Simmons even stated that many immigrants who believe themselves to be illegal are actually legal.) The church should not pretend to be enforcers of the civil law. Spiritually admonishing an individual to comply with the law (which, as a pastoral issue, will ordinarily take place over an extended period of time), is a very different thing altogether.

Third, many forms of assistance to undocumented citizens are permitted by law. One important form of this is to combat the many forces which oppress undocumented citizens, such as, for example,

“employers who do not comply with federal wage and working conditions requirements, individuals who promise to ‘arrange papers’ for a fee, and spouses who use an individual’s lack of documents in order to dominate and control.…”[12]

A fourth consideration in our attempt to fight on these two fronts is that the law (whether the Ten Commandments, or the law of the civil government, or whatever) must never be applied and enforced apart from Godly wisdom. Along these lines the responsible church will recognize that the I.N.S. has enforcement priorities. As we seek corporately to submit to our God-appointed civil magistrate, we will share these priorities, and work in concert with the I.N.S. to implement them (assuming that they are righteous priorities, which I think they are, given all of the factors with which the I.N.S. has to deal). According to Mr. Simmons the following concerns are at the top of the I.N.S.’s list of priorities: the removal of aliens who commit crimes, the prosecution of alien smugglers, the prosecution of false document manufacturers, and the prosecution of those who employ undocumented workers to the detriment of either those workers themselves or American workers. A realistic approach to this complicated problem of ministry to undocumented citizens will take this set of priorities into account.

In conclusion, I believe that, in God’s providence, it is possible for us as a church to follow the astonishing example of the apostle Paul, who understood (and passes down to us his understanding) that the church’s unity (as expressed in our common faith in Christ and our common baptism into Christ) transcends the divisions which result from the Fall. At times the living out of this deeper unity is exceedingly challenging to the church. At times it results in awkward situations, such as a free church member submitting to his slave who is also his presbyter. In the situation at hand, however, the road ahead seems relatively clear, for such a life of unity in Christ is always possible, challenges notwithstanding. Indeed, it is always necessary.

[1]Her true name before the Fall was “the Woman.” The name “Eve” was given to her only after the Fall. (It is, thus, a redemptive name.)
[2] See C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1965) p. 316.
[3] This is required of us in a somewhat different way than it was of our ancient fathers in the faith, since for us explicit, institutional slavery is not so fundamental an aspect of society, although modern forms of slavery are still with us. Some examples of this include economic bondage to credit card companies and bondage to the well-fare state or to neighborhoods infested with drugs and gang violence.
[4] Of course, an authentically Reformed ethics will insist that there is no ultimate tension between the law of Christ (rightly understood) and the law of the civil magistrate (rightly understood).
[5] I Cor 7:21 and Eph 6:5-8 are just two examples.
[6] See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 56-58. [7] Ferguson, p. 58. [8] Writing in the context of Galatians 3:28, evangelical biblical scholar F.F. Bruce states, “This could mean for example, that someone who was a slave in the outside world might be entrusted with spiritual leadership in the church, and if the owner of the slave was a member of the same church, he would submit to that spiritual leadership. There is sufficient evidence that this was not merely a theoretical possibility.” F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians: a Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 188-89.
We should at this point also note that church history (specifically, a letter of Saint Ignatius) has it that this slave Onesimus actually ended up in the office of Bishop of Ephesus. Some modern scholars even maintain that, as Bishop of Ephesus, Onesimus proceeded to collect and publish the letters of Paul, “including the one to Philemon in which he had such a personal stake.” Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Louisville: John Knox, 1991), pp. 139-40.
[9] James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Leicester: IVP, 1981), p. 158.
[10] Hurley, pp. 158-9.
[11] Taken from personal correspondence with Mr. Simmons.
[12] Mr. Simmon’s wording.

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