Read Time: 7 min

by John Hutchins

In 2016, prominent evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem jumped into the political spotlight with three articles on why voting for Donald Trump is a morally good decision (here, here and here). With evangelicals receiving more criticism for supporting immigration restrictions, two weeks ago Grudem doubled down in an article titled “Why Building a Border Wall is a Morally Good Action.” Grudem makes ethical and biblical claims, but supports his opinions with prooftexts instead of philosophical or theological reasoning. In fact, the USA’s border walls and immigration restrictions do not match up with God’s commands to love both neighbor and immigrant alike.

Is a Border Wall Ethical?

Grudem states that in the Old Testament “walls gave peace and security” (Ps. 122:7) and are a sign of God’s favor (Ps. 147:12-14). He compares Trump to Artaxerxes, in that both allocate resources to wall construction (Neh. 2:8). In Revelation 21 Grudem again finds walls symbolizing peace and security for their inhabitants (v. 12).

The article does not apply a consistent historical-grammatical hermeneutic. OT walls surround cities not nations, protect from invaders not immigrants, and are likely constructed voluntarily by a community and not coerced through tax dollars (cf. Neh. 4:6). The Bible also uses “swords” as metaphors of God’s protection, yet swords can also be used unethically. We must look to the Bible’s clear commands, not peer through poetic language to discern God’s precepts.

Grudem concludes by responding to objections including, “We should be a nation that welcomes immigrants,” “The Bible tells us to care for the sojourner,” and “These are good people who are just seeking a better life,” with the curt rejoinder “if they come legally.” In so doing he seems to authorize the state with prime authority and God with secondary authority, whereby we only have moral obligations to those the state grants with legal status, even if God’s commands specify a universal application. When it comes to methods for determining morality, Grudem seems to rank pragmatism first, state policy second, and biblical commands third. One would expect a theologian to put priorities in the opposite order.

Scripture on Immigration

Leviticus 19:33-34 neatly summarizes the two sides of the duty of love that God’s people owe to immigrants: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” In fact, this command fits into a broader section dealing with loving your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18).

Jesus takes up the command to “love him as yourself” in the Gospels. A lawyer asks the same question Grudem hints at: “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29). Jesus redirects that question to “be the neighbor” with the parable of the “good Samaritan” who served one foreign to him and in need of help. Jesus’ answer and the exhortations in Lev. 19 make clear that we must love everyone, near or far, as ourselves.

Two Sides of Love

The Bible’s teaching about love contains both “negative” and “positive” exhortations. Negatively, we must do no harm to the neighbor (Rom. 13:10). This command is universal and connects with our own sense of fairness of what it looks like when someone injures us (sometimes called “judicial sentiment”). One standard of justice exists that is both reciprocal and consistent to all. God’s command to “do no harm” is an objective principle, just as he communicates his command through the fixed media of written and spoken word. The content of the principle is applied in the Ten Commandments and can be summarized as not aggressing against a person, including his body, relationships or justly acquired property. Since this basic standard exists, each person may equally expect to live free from aggression. If someone causes injury, the victim has a legitimate claim of justice (cf. Rom. 13:7; 1 Cor 6:7-8). Some call this concept “negative rights” or “civil liberties” and the Declaration of Independence eloquently describes it as “inalienable rights.”

God’s command also has a “positive” side, summed up in doing to others as you would have them do to you (Mt. 7:12). We have a positive command to provide for the needs of others we encounter (1 Tim. 6:17-19; 1 Jn. 3:16-18). The positive duty has a different nature than the negative rights. Violating a negative right produces an enforceable claim for the victim (for example: if you steal my stuff, you must give it back). However, a failure to live by the golden rule does not create an enforceable claim for the one who needed help (for example: one may not say, “you didn’t feed me when I was hungry, so the government or I are entitled to fine you”). If it did, such a claim would itself violate the command to “do no harm” because it would involve taking by force. The principles of God’s commands fit together consistently as an objective foundation for an ethical system. So although God gives all people the duty to help others, this command cannot be justly coerced. The law-breaker will have to answer to God alone (Ja. 2:13). In fact, freedom empowers people to reach out to others with generosity (cf. Gal. 5:13-14).

Freedom to Immigrate

What do these two sides of love mean for immigration and border security? Like us, the immigrant may reasonably expect to not have his right to life and liberty constrained, and also has a positive duty to live in such a way as to benefit those around him. Violations of the “negative” side of the command create enforceable claims, but violations of the “positive” side of the command do not.

The freedom to immigrate is a consequence of our God-given right to freely associate or trade with others. Rights that God gives us cannot be legislated away; they still exist (even if in a stifled manner). Because there are citizens who want to connect with people from a far-off place to hear their ideas, sell them goods, rent living space to them, or pay them for services, the citizens should be free to do that and the immigrants should be free to come (as long as their entry does not violate someone else’s liberty). It is neither moral nor just for a government to erect a wall to stop the free flow of ideas, goods, or people. Such obstacles constitute an aggression against the citizens’ and the immigrants’ right to enter into relationship with each other as they wish (provided that they do not injure, cause trespass damage or interfere with another’s enjoyment of private property).

All human action involves movement. Each person has freedom to move about as he or she wishes and engage in relationships because each has free will. Any entity who draws geographical lines to circumscribe the freedom of movement or association is threatening something fundamental to personhood. Some assert scriptures such as Acts 17:26 to justify closing borders against immigrants. But these passages communicate that God is sovereign over all things and works to bring people to himself. We should not interpret them at odds with what the Bible teaches as the precepts of love.

We must also remember that immigrants and citizens alike have an ethical responsibility to help others, but generosity cannot be coerced. Many Republicans wrongly suppose that the government may require virtuous, productive, and patriotic behavior as a precondition for immigration, and Democrats that the government may redistribute resources to the immigrant. A healthy and biblically sound approach recognizes the freedom of immigrants to come into the country as they wish and as they are, and also upholds a citizen’s freedom from being coerced by government to pay for them.

Once here, immigrants can show love by participating in trade and culture (among other things); citizens can by willingly sharing the truths and freedoms they enjoy with others, generously helping the immigrants get established in their new environment, and treating them justly without prejudice. Such interactions are best accomplished through a free and willing exchange in society and not through legislation. Grudem himself recognizes that a class of illegal immigrants threatens justice: the immigrants may not enforce any valid claims of justice they have, because they fear the claims will be rejected and they will be deported. Grudem ignores the obvious approach of upholding justice for the immigrant and instead suggests they not come in the first place.

Are Open Borders Practical?

I would also challenge the prevailing assumption that open borders would be bad for society. Grudem assumes the USA has some kind of maximum capacity that open borders would exceed, but cannot put forward an empirical case. What is the ideal population density according to Grudem? How many people does he suppose will live in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 7:9; cf. Mk. 4:32)? The population density of the USA is approximately 88 people per square mile. Some nations or cities with population density more than 50 times that of the USA rank highly in income per capita.

Grudem caricatures an open borders policy by saying that half of the world’s population would immigrate, multiplying the USA population by ten times. Even if there were billions of people who have both the desire and ability to come to the USA, the free market would welcome the increased demand and expand to provide services for the immigrants, even as the immigrants themselves engage in gainful employment.

It is pessimistic and unproven that higher populations would be bad for society. More relationships and exchanges in a society mean more production and ingenuity. Nations should not restrict population to a “superior” group. Not surprisingly, the first USA immigration quotas came about in the late 1800’s and had racist progressive motivations. We must always resist the view that growth and diversity could be harmful to a society.

Immigrating into Israel

Finally, although commands like “love your neighbor” apply universally, civil laws given to ancient Israel do not easily translate to USA policy. For example, immigrants in Israel were subject to religious observances, dietary restrictions and keeping the Ten Commandments. We cannot square specific commands about Israelite governance with USA policy and its history of religious freedom because the civil laws God gives are for Israel alone, not any 21st century nation. In his death and resurrection, Jesus embodied and fulfilled the entire law (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 8:3-5), including the religious requirements of immigrants. By his cross, Jesus brings the foreigners and enemies of God past all walls and barriers into a full participation of union with God by faith (Eph. 2:13-20).

God doesn’t teach us about walls to demonstrate moral living or good governance. He does it to preach the good news that there is no longer a national or racial boundary keeping us from joining the people of God. Today, we immigrate to Israel by believing in Christ through the gospel, not by moving to any earthly country. We may enter his presence in “the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (Heb. 10:20). Jesus is both our wall (Zech. 2:5) and our gate (Jn. 10:7), the one through whom we come, who both protects and provides.

We don’t know whether there will be walls in heaven (cf. Zech. 2:5; Rev. 21) but we do know all the faithful will be free to come into Christ’s presence. Scripture does not advocate border wall construction as an ethical action. Rather, it teaches about the basic human rights of immigrants and encourages an evangelical message of inclusion in the kingdom of God.