Would you invite a complete stranger into your home? Would it make a difference what color their skin, the language they spoke (or didn’t), or the clothes on their back? How would your answers change if you knew the full depth of biblical teaching on the subject? Joshua Jipp, Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, set out to plumb the depths of the scriptural teaching on hospitality in his newest book, Saved by Faith and Hospitality (SFH).
In the following interview, we discuss topics including the fundamental message of SFH, assessing the boundaries of hospitality, and practical steps pastors can take in their own churches to encourage this essential scriptural discipline. SFH is part of the 41-volume Eerdmans Theology and Biblical Studies Collection, which is now on pre-pub. Help bring this collection to publication and own a superb library of resources for your personal research and reading.
TB: Your title is mildly provocative (the “alone” is missing!), but that made me want to read the book even more. What led you to the topic of hospitality in the first place, and why spend your precious time researching hospitality instead of actually being hospitable? Wouldn’t you rather have a friendly BBQ than sit at your desk alone?
JJ: Good—that was at least one goal for the title of the book! My research into hospitality did not begin with the identification of something that I thought was important for the life of the church. Rather, it began with my doctoral studies at Emory University where I was more interested in how the early Christian movement encountered and engaged their pagan environment. I landed on an odd text—Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta in Acts 28:1-10—and realized I could not make sense of it apart from engaging in some detailed work to understand the meaning, significance, and practice of hospitality to strangers in the Greco-Roman world, Jewish texts, and most of all the writings of Luke.
While reading so many ancient and biblical texts on hospitality, I was also reading some powerful books on theological ethics that engaged hospitality as a critical practice for the contemporary church. To make a long story short, while writing my dissertation I was also frequently thinking about the relevance of this practice for my life, my family, and the church in North America.
Would I rather research and write on hospitality or would I would I rather practice it? Well, first of all, some of it is a matter of stewarding gifts. I wanted to contribute something that made it clear just how central hospitality is in the Christian Scriptures. It is a non-negotiable practice and ethos for all Christians of all ages.
Secondly, who says I don’t enjoy using my time practicing hospitality? Most days, I pray that God would give me eyes to see the stranger in my midst, and I’m constantly looking for opportunities to practice what I’ve written—albeit imperfectly and often not taking as many risks as I should.
TB: What is at stake for the Church (not to mention the individual Christian) if biblically informed hospitality is not practiced inside and outside its walls?
JJ: I argue in the book that the God of the Christian Scriptures is a God of hospitality. God extends hospitality to his people, definitively in Jesus Christ. As a result, God invites and demands that God’s people be a people of hospitality. So what’s at stake? A church or individual that does not practice hospitality misunderstands the identity of the Triune God and, as a result, the very meaning of Christian identity and life.
TB: You make the argument that Christians must extend hospitality because God has (and still does) extend his hospitality to us first. But are we really under compulsion to pay it forward? Can’t we just believe and receive?
JJ: This is another reason for the title of the book. Short answer—yes, if God is a God of hospitality, then, indeed God expects his people to be a people of hospitality. The title of the book may be provocative but no more so than James 2. James argues that divine judgment will be without mercy for those who show no mercy (2:13), that faith that has no works exemplified in the provisions of food and clothes to the needy is a dead faith (2:15-19). Saving faith is seen in people like Abraham and Rahab who demonstrate the kind of faith that saves through their merciful acts of hospitality.
TB: Must hospitality happen in person, or does social media count? And can you back up your answer with scripture?
JJ: Interesting question. When I speak of hospitality in the book, I typically envision it as an initiation of kindness between strangers; this then turns into friendship. In fact, this is the goal of hospitality, namely, the creation of friendship relationships between those who were formerly strangers, or even potential enemies. It’s hard for me to see how this happens on social media. Now perhaps there’s a form of creating friendships through non-face-to-face communication—I think of exchanging letters with those who are incarcerated. I’m having a hard time thinking, though, of how social media could fit here.
TB: You state at one point that most books on Christian ethics lack robust attention (or even ignore) the important of hospitality. Why do you think this is the case?
JJ: I do not know! One of my favorite books of all time is Richard Hays’s Moral Vision of the New Testament. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve recommended that book to students, and it’s one that I turn to frequently myself. But I was surprised that, in a book on NT ethics, hospitality doesn’t play much of a role in the book. Perhaps Richard would reply that he uses other language, such as “love” (one of his focal images).
TB: What, in your opinion, has contributed to the steady decline of biblically informed hospitality in the Church? And is this a global phenomenon, or would you limit the problem to a particular political/social/economic context?
JJ: I’ll just say here that I have experienced incredibly hospitality from people of other cultures than my own and from people in other countries. Some of the best hospitality I’ve received has been from an Iranian family. I am so sad that I lost contact with this family when I moved to Atlanta in 2008. But I used to visit them in their home every Friday for a couple of years. The mother referred to me as her American son and she as my Iranian mother. I learned about Iranian culture, ate their food, and felt a sense of belonging in her home despite all the obvious things that divided us.
Also, many North American minority communities have practices that connect deeply to practices of hospitality. I think of Mexican-American and Korean-American churches (and more) which often share meals together every week. This is an obvious and easy way to connect the practices of the church to biblical hospitality. However, I often struggle to be hospitable enough with my time. For myself and others like me, we are worried about productivity and achievement (maybe, it’s just me), and this is a remarkable impediment to our ability to extend hospitality. So I’m thankful for what I’ve learned about the practice from other cultures.
TB: Are there boundaries to Christian hospitality? To state the question according to Barclay’s taxonomy of “gift,” are we to perfect hospitality to the point of personal danger, that is, welcoming in any and every stranger who knocks on our door, no matter what? How else might hospitality be perfected unhealthily?
JJ: This is a great question. Absolutely there are boundaries to hospitality. I think it was Dorothy Day who said that one of the sad and unfortunate circumstances of practicing hospitality is that there are limits. Sometimes these are of a practical nature – there’s simply no room in the house and it would be inhospitable to have someone sleeping in a cupboard underneath the kitchen sink. Hospitality is all about making room and creating space for someone to be welcomed into a peaceful, welcoming space. If there are no boundaries or limits, then really there is no true hospitality space. And sometimes it’s a matter of realizing that extending hospitality in certain situations would be foolish.
The Didache and the 2nd and 3rd Johannine epistles are fascinating because the church gives evidence that they are practicing hospitality so well, to the point that there now needs to be some limits put in place lest the church be exploited and its good will be taken advantage of. I talk more about this in chapter 4 in terms of engaging the religious “other,” and I heartily recommend Christine Pohl’s chapter in Making Room on this topic as well. Much more could be said, but the impulse should be “Extend hospitality!” The church does, however, need to engage in practical discernment about how to do it, the boundaries, and the limits.
TB: How do you practice hospitality in your various contexts, and how has your personal practice changed since writing SFH?
JJ: This question makes me a little nervous. There are contemporary heroic models of practitioners of hospitality (some well-known and most who are not), and I am absolutely NOT an expert practitioner. I have prayed, though, for small but consistent ways to practice what I preach. A few of these would include teaching academic courses in Cook County Jail here in Chicago, taking steps to care for orphans and vulnerable children, being proactive about caring for students in my class who may be on the margins, and trying to go out of my way to be kind and inclusive to visitors at my church.
TB: The second half of your book touches on three major issues consistently present in the headlines: immigration and economics. Should your conclusions be taken as prescriptive for the church only, for American politics, or as a global standard, and why one and not the others?
JJ: I try to make it clear that my ethical reflections (always at the beginning where I pose a problem, and then in my suggestions for ways forward at the end of the chapter) are not intended as non-negotiable or prescriptive for every church. Honestly, I have a hard time seeing people disagree with my exposition and exegesis of the Scriptures—at least in the major arguments I’m making. But when it comes to ethical and practical reflections, I believe local churches need to engage in ethical discernment together as a community.
Now to some extent, I don’t think my practical suggestions should be all that controversial. A church that refuses to engage in care for and hospitality to refugees that are in its midst? A church that fails to understand the ways in which it is idolatrous to have addictions to consumerism, shopping, and creating identity through what we have and own? A church that fosters stereotypes of religious others (let’s say Muslims) and refuses to look for ways to engage in relationships or friendships with them?
We may disagree on some of the particulars, but I suppose I would argue that the biblical texts have a practical bearing on these kinds of conversations that lean toward hospitality, engagement, and friendship rather than perpetuating negative stereotypes and avoidance.
TB: What are some ways that an individual pastor could encourage a congregation to be more hospitable, especially to people outside of their normal social context?
JJ: Two practical suggestions. One, expose your congregants to the meaning of hospitality and its importance in the Scriptures. I suspect that most people think that hospitality equals Martha Stewart; you must be an amazingly good (and usually female) host. But this is not even close to biblical hospitality. Start with the importance of the practice in the Scriptures and its call for an exciting, enriching life that honors God.
Second, identify one or two specific ways you as the pastor think your church could grow in this area. This will obviously depend on the particular context of the local church. Is there a minority or marginalized people group in your neighbourhood? How could you develop real partnerships and friendships with them? Is your church cliquish and unable to attract non-Christians or outsiders? In what ways could your worship service, liturgy, and personal engagement of guests and visitors be more hospitable? Don’t try to tackle everything, but instead look for one or two tangible ways to help your people live this out.
Pastors, one plea: People need specifics! You may convince them of the importance of the practice of hospitality, but they need help (I need help) in understanding the specifics of how this bears on my life.
TB: So…why haven’t you invited me over to your house for dinner?
JJ: Come on over! Just don’t bring Matt Bates with you.
TB: Finally, what are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it?
JJ: I have a little book called Reading Acts (Cascade Companions) that should be out in October or November. I’m working now on a longer book, not sure if it’s a peculiar kind of NT Theology or a NT Christology book with Eerdmans. The provisional title is “The Messianic Vision of the New Testament: A Contribution to New Testament Theology.” Here’s the first paragraph of the proposal: “In this book I argue that the central and defining feature of the NT is its articulation of Jesus as the incarnate, obedient, crucified, and enthroned Messiah. The primary compositions of the NT are unified in that they are creative expansions upon one of the earliest ‘Christian’ confessions—Jesus is the Messiah.” I hope it will be finished and off to Eerdmans sometime in the summer of 2020.
The Eerdmans Theology and Biblical Studies Collection is an impressive set of 41 resources that should be seriously considered for your research library, as it is vastly less expensive than the physical books copies and fully tagged and integrated with your Logos platform.
Get it now at the low pre-pub price before it ships, and make Salvation by Faith and Hospitality the first book you read upon its arrival.