Pastor-Exegete or Leader-Sociologist? It Matters

As immigration divides the U.S., it seems also to be dividing Christian leaders into two camps: pastor-exegetes or leader-sociologists. (It matters.)

Framing the divide are two books: The Immigration Crisis by James K. Hoffmeier and Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll. Hoffmeier is a pastor-exegete, Carroll a leader-sociologist.

Hoffmeier calls for compassion for those he calls illegal immigrants, but he also calls on the U.S. government to enforce existing laws to monitor and control the nation’s borders. He discusses Scripture passages that demonstrate that border monitoring and control are the right responsibility of any sovereign nation. Monitoring and control were exercised with strength and certainty in the Old Testament era.

Hoffmeier also calls on the Christian church to help illegal immigrants achieve legal status. His book was published in 2009, so it can’t be said with certainty how today’s overwhelming and ongoing illegal immigration would affect his view about the church’s responsibility. The Bible’s references to alien describes a permanent and legal resident of a nation. The word foreigner refers to a traveler passing through a nation for business or other purposes. The foreigner obviously is not a permanent and legally approved resident of a nation. Hoffmeier was born and raised in Egypt and, in 1967, was booted from Egypt with his Canadian parents. He is sympathetic to immigrants, but has no problem using the term illegal immigrants in referring to those who broke immigration law to get into the U.S.

In contrast to Hoffmeier’s argument that a righteous government monitors and controls its borders, leader-sociologist Carroll argues in Christians at the Border that U.S. immigration laws are patently unjust and should be broken. He says U.S. laws deny those outside the U.S. the dignity the Lord demands for all people, regardless of their land of origin or their immigration status. They are made in God’s image and should be afforded rights to live in safety and dignity. Carroll cites sociological realities of the current U.S. immigration rates: the region of origin for most immigrants (Mexico and Central or South America), how many Latinos live in the U.S. (35.3 million as of the year 2000; 40 million as of 2007), the growth rate of the Latino population (50 percent between 1990 and 2000), and how many Latinos are living in the U.S. illegally (between 12 million and 20 million). By those figures, between 30 percent and 50 percent of all Latinos living in the U.S. are living in the U.S. illegally. Carroll calls those millions undocumented immigrants rather than illegal aliens because he rejects what he says is the pejorative term illegal

Carroll asks the reader to feel the pain of these immigrants, who he says live in agony in the U.S. while emotionally tied to their homelands to the south. Carroll argues that most of these immigrants are of Roman Catholic or Protestant heritage. The church in the U.S., he says, must treat them with special care reserved for those in the faith. These immigrants, he says, enrich and energize the U.S. culture. This is not romantic optimism, says Carroll, who adds that he is convinced that change is certain and that it will be fruitful.

Such sociological change in the U.S. seems certain, but it’s not at all clear that it will be positively fruitful. Hoffmeier argues that, although the Lord loves all people regardless of their social and legal status, he also argues that governmental authorities should enforce existing laws that protect national interests as well as the interests of the alien, those living in the land legally. Among those national interests are the security and preservation of the nation’s culture as well as its economic, political and social strength.

Hoffmeier and Carroll see Romans 13 and its application differently. Carroll dismisses the application Romans 13 to the immigration issue, citing that the government’s laws should be obeyed but that a greater law of compassion for all humanity outweighs what he labels as unjust immigration laws of the U.S. He calls for a dialog that can be leavened with grace and any proposed solutions and compromises can be guided by divine wisdom. But the divine wisdom Carroll advocates excludes careful exegesis of the Bible.

Carroll’s quick dismissal of an application of Romans 13 to the immigration issue is particularly troubling. Even though he’s a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, he clearly reveals himself as a leader-sociologist, not a pastor-exegete. Hoffmeier directly challenges Carroll’s arguments. He agrees that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, but says that such a commitment does not mean that a government official or authority should look the other way when a crime is committed. For Carroll’s position to have merit, current American laws must be inherently unjust. I see nothing in Scripture that would abrogate current (U.S.) immigration laws. Carroll’s attempt to equate American immigration law as an example of a conflict between secular and sacred law is a matter of special pleading.

Hoffmeier thoughtfully analyzes the Bible’s description of legal and illegal residence in a foreign land. Although Carroll discusses the biblical issues, he presupposes that a nation’s borders should be completely open because we’re supposed to be compassionate. Carroll delivers an unbalanced application of the Bible that presupposes that borders should not guarded or entry restricted. 

Carroll inflames and condescends in his comments about what he calls the majority population in the U.S. He repeatedly writes sweeping statements that he neither explains nor defends. He wonders how Latinos in the U.S. can raise their children with the positive values of Latin American culture that sometimes clash with those of North American consumerism and individualism. He fails to mention that in the midst of so-called terrible consumerism, most immigrants—legal or illegal—come to the U.S. for a better life. That means more freedom. This more individualism in the U.S. somehow has created opportunity for the millions who push their way in to live in the U.S. They look for freedom and opportunity to determine their own destiny. A better life includes opportunity to earn a decent living, live in a comfortable home and express individual freedom. Carroll insists that Latino immigrants only seek appreciation for their abilities and for their different backgrounds. It seems to me they’re looking for a lot more than that.

Carroll argues that most Latinos are Christian brothers and sisters who share the same values and ethics and are similar to the U.S. majority population. He cites unnamed positive Latin American values that clash with the U.S. majority population’s values.

Carroll is not believable, and his own sociological facts support disbelief. He notes that both illegal and legal immigrants working in the U.S. in 2006 sent $45 billion back to their families and friends in Latin America. (That transfer, of course, hurts the economy of the U.S. and helps Latin American nations where the money is spent.) So, Carroll would allow all to flood into the U.S., get a better job and a better life and send a lot of money back to loved ones in their homeland. Besides that, his quick dismissal of some sections and black-out of other relevant sections of the Bible's teaching on the immigration issue reveals a perspective informed not so much by God's word but far more by man's wisdom.

Hoffmeier the pastor-exegete has the far more complete biblical perspective and properly applies the Bible’s teaching to his own real-life experience. His parental in-laws were legal immigrants from China. He writes: What especially galls immigrants (and those whose applications are in progress) who go through the legal requirements to become immigrants in America is when people do not follow the rules. They think it unjust that while they go through the legal process that can take years, many foreigners enter or stay in the country illegally and benefit from their illegality, being employed, getting social and medical benefits, and seeing their children getting free public education.