Recently, the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA voted for our church to become a sanctuary denomination. We are the first church body in the country to do this, so it is probably a little confusing as to what the distinction of “sanctuary church” actually means. On the one hand, the distinction likely seems redundant. We worship in our “sanctuary” every week, so aren’t all churches already sanctuaries? On the other hand, the distinction may appear to be overtly political. There are sanctuary cities and sanctuary states in the United States that are opposed to the federal detainment and deportation policies of the Trump administration. Is the church trying to be like sanctuary cities and states?
I am sorry to say that when media sources like Fox News and CNN reported on our decision, they failed to get some key facts straight about what the decision actually means. They interpreted the decision along political lines instead of putting in the work to understand our church’s process of prayerful theological and Biblical deliberation. So, what does it actually mean that the ELCA has declared itself to be a sanctuary church?
1. The Assembly’s decision was a theological, Biblically grounded decision.
In these heavily politicized times in which we live, many of us are pressured into interpreting every public action along partisan lines. The Assembly’s decision to declare the ELCA a sanctuary church body, on the other hand, was a Biblical decision made with deep theological contemplation and discussion. Leviticus commands, “ The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34, NRSV) and Deuteronomy echoes, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19, NRSV). (In the original Hebrew, stranger and alien mean immigrant and refugee.) Not only are the people of God commanded to welcome immigrants and refugees, they are also to fear divine vengeance if they fail to do so. “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27:19, NRSV). The same books of the Bible that give us the 10 Commandments declare that we are to be generous and hospitable to immigrants and refugees in our country…or else.
If you think that these are just laws of the Old Testament that were deemed irrelevant under the cross of Jesus Christ, I call your attention to a few verses from the New Testament. Paul, in the same letter to the Romans in which he commanded Christians to obey governments and their laws, commanded Christians to “extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13, NRSV). In doing so, the Apostle Paul echoed our Lord who said that how we treat immigrants is how we treat Jesus himself. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35, NRSV). Showing generosity and hospitality to immigrants and refugees is Biblical, plain and simple.
2. We will not be breaking the law.
Though there were times in European Christian history when churches could provide legal sanctuary from government authorities to anyone who requested it, many of those laws did not cross the pond in the formation of the United States as a constitutional democracy (at least to the best of my knowledge). Many people at the Assembly (myself included) were concerned about voting in favor of calling the ELCA a sanctuary church because we were unclear of the legal implications of this declaration. Yet, we ultimately voted the distinction through on the amended motion that we commit to researching the full meaning and limitations of what kind of sanctuary our church can offer immigrants and refugees within our legal system.
Our church confesses that governments, in their various forms across time and place, are institutions that God uses to order the world so that peace, harmony, and justice might prevail among us. This does not mean that everything governments do is holy or sacrosanct – sometimes quite the opposite. There are many times in which we are called to resist evil actions, tyrannical governments, and oppressive policies, and there are many instances from our own history in which the U.S. resisted these things for the good of all (i.e. fighting with the Allied powers against Nazi Germany, confronting apartheid policies in South Africa, fighting against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, etc.). Our church confesses that our government’s sovereignty is to be respected and the government’s sovereignty in our system lies in the rule of law, even while we seek to change laws that we do not agree with.
3. We are called to love immigrants and refugees as ourselves.
Jesus said that the second greatest commandment for Christians, after the command that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). Many interpret this command to involve only private actions that apply to one on one, family, and immediate community relationships. Yet, throughout the Gospels, Jesus made clear to us that we cannot genuinely claim to love our neighbors if we do not look out for their well-being in public ways (e.g. turning over the money changing tables in the temple was an act of love for the people exploited by the temple priests). As a church, we believe that the command that we love our foreign neighbors as ourselves should be reflected in the laws of our nation.
4. Our congregation is free to interpret the Assembly’s decision on its own.
Faith Lutheran Church in Ronan, Montana, is a member congregation of the ELCA, but that does not mean that the Assembly can force its will on us. We are free to interpret the Assembly’s actions and decisions for ourselves. What does it mean for us to be a sanctuary church in Montana? That is for us to discern through prayerful deliberation grounded in Biblical interpretation and theological tradition.
Part of our church polity is that we are to engage in theological discernment for our part of the world. In my experience around here, when it comes to immigration, our conversation should probably focus more on how we welcome Canadians from Alberta and Saskatchewan than people from Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Mexico. The decision made on the national level is entrusted to us to interpret on a local level and I hope you will join me in Biblical discernment about how we treat our foreign neighbors.
5. Christ is in the least of these.
Christ sides with the least among us and declared that how we treat immigrants and refugees is how we treat Christ himself. The decision to declare ourselves a sanctuary church goes far beyond politics, forcing us to focus directly on our vulnerable neighbors in the nations around us.
It is true that some people crossing over our borders smuggle drugs across with them and commit crimes when they are here. It is natural and good to want to protect our families and our friends from these bad actors. But it is also true that many people crossing the border do so because they are poor, vulnerable, and looking to escape evil forces like gang violence in their home areas. Jesus said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). We are called to treat the immigrant and the refugee like Christ himself, for they are among the least whom we are commanded to love; the least in whom we encounter the one who came to save us all.
As is the case with many of our denomination’s statements, I do not expect everyone to agree with the process or the positions our wider church took this year. However, I do hope that you will recognize that the Assembly’s deliberation and actions were carried out prayerfully and faithfully. The Holy Spirit seems to blow the church around mightily sometimes, and it appears that God is unsettling our church once again.
If you have further issues or concerns, please connect with me directly to discuss things.
Rev. Seth Nelson
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.