What if I told you that Christian hospitality was a necessary key to reclaiming our culture for Christ? It may sound a bit extreme, but if you think about it for a minute it makes sense. Influence flows over time to those who serve. As Christians more effectively show hospitality by opening their lives to and serving others they will begin to affect their surrounding communities and culture at a very fundamental level.
This came home to me last week as my family and I were travelling out of town over a Sunday. We found ourselves in a small church in which the richness of community was apparent. Following the time of worship we fellowshipped with the congregation during their weekly meal together. The invitation for fellowship was extended beyond the lunch and later that afternoon we found ourselves in the home of one of the families. The spontaneity on their part was quite planned in that they set aside each Sunday not only for rest but making merriment with others in their home. Their extension of Christian hospitality was both enjoyable and meaningful.
This experience occurred during the time my wife has been making her way through a book entitled, “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition” by Christine D. Pohl. Being recent recipients of such hospitality, I decided I would pick up the book myself. Where there may be some nuances of the content I take issue with, I can say with confidence that I heartily recommend it. The book provides a helpful overview of not only the practice of hospitality from a Biblical perspective, but also how the practice is seamlessly linked with the world of charity from which the church has grown so woefully distant. Pohl states,
For the most part, the term ‘hospitality’ has lost its moral dimension and, in the process, most Christians have lost touch with the amazingly rich and complex tradition of hospitality…we rarely view it as a spiritual obligation or as a dynamic expression of vibrant Christianity. ((Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 4.))
This “expression of vibrant Christianity” was characteristic of the church early on in her history. In the late 300s, the Emperor Julian ordered that hostels be established in every city for needy strangers. He did this chiefly to combat the spread and influence of the Christian faith as well as to reestablish Hellenic religion. The church was active in providing hospitality and charity and he rightly observed how effective it was for advancing her cause.
For it is disgraceful that when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort. ((Ibid. 44.))
In her book, Pohl demonstrates how these practices find their root in scripture.
The epistles provide strong evidence for the practical importance of hospitality in early Christian life. Paul instructs believers to practice or pursue hospitality (Rom. 12:13), the writer of Hebrews reminds believers not to neglect hospitality (Heb. 13:2), the author of 1 Peter challenges the community to offer hospitality ungrudgingly (1 Pet. 4:9). ((Ibid. 31.))
These instructions to early believers stem from the reality that Christian hospitality is central to the gospel. Without Christ, we are all destitute strangers. In his grace, he takes us in, opens his table to us, and offers fellowship. He expects his people to emulate this act of grace. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:13-14 ESV) Pohl comments,
God’s guest list includes a disconcerting number of poor and broken people, those who appear to bring little to any gathering except their need. The distinctive quality of Christian hospitality is that it offers a generous welcome to the “least,” without concern for advantage or benefit to the host. ((Ibid. 16.))
A shared meal is the activity most closely tied to the reality of God’s Kingdom, just as it is the most basic expression of hospitality. ((Ibid. 30.))
If the practice of hospitality is encouraged in scripture, practiced during the early advancement of the church, and so closely linked to the gospel – what happened? Why has the practice seemingly disappeared? As a permeating distinctive within the church, it has been absent for quite a while. The original intent of the practice became distorted early on.
In the Middle Ages, grand hospitality became an important means for extending power and influence in the church, monastery, and lay society. Hospitality was often deliberately connected to the host’s ambition and advantage. ((Ibid. 34.))
While pockets of the more genuine practice were always and are still present, the focus moved from extending hospitality, to entertaining peers or those from whom one could further social advantage.
Surprisingly, as early as the mid-sixteenth century, John Calvin mourned the demise of ancient hospitality. “This office of humanity has…nearly ceased to be properly observed among men; for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories, is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodations for strangers.” ((Ibid. 36.))
By the eighteenth century, the term “hospitality” had been emptied of its central moral meaning and left only with its late-medieval trappings of luxury and indulgence. ((Ibid. 38.))
These tendencies produced a growing need for someone to address the “strangers” and needy.
With major socioeconomic changes, hospitality became less effective as a primary means for caring for the poor and strangers. Later, hospitality became highly commercialized as travelers increasingly depended on inns to meet their needs for shelter and food. Hospitality to the needy became bureaucratized in social services provided by benevolence organizations and the state. And in the churches, hospitality had little moral, spiritual, and physical significance. ((Ibid. 35.))
Centralized and specialized institutions took the place of decentralized and more personal communities of support. Certainly, specialized support was not all negative and many times was a result of Christians seeking to provide a high level of support during times of acute need, but all such centralized efforts could not replace the support system provided through an open Christian community.
Although the development of hospices and hospitals emerged from early Christian impulses toward hospitality, these institutions were unable to capture and express some of the most fundamental, personal dimensions of hospitality. Poor people and strangers were frequently cared for at a distance and in large numbers. Personal hospitality was increasingly reserved for visiting dignitaries. ((Ibid. 45.))
Perhaps the death knell came with a number of other dynamics that emerged during the industrialization of society and the all-consuming “busy-ness” wherein we find ourselves today. Samuel Johnson said, “In a commercial country, a busy country, time becomes precious, and…hospitality is not so much valued.”1 He made this statement in the 18th century. Given the current pace of life, it is no wonder we find ourselves at a place where opening our home, extending hospitality, and providing charity is something that seems impossible to carry out. It is much easier to let specialized institutions – private and state-run – take care of the charity. And as for our homes, they have “become smaller and more private… a cherished retreat from the world into which one admits few strangers.”2 After all, we have to protect the limited time with our families, right?
This would be all well and good if it were not for God’s Word providing us a different picture. To not roll up our sleeves and engage at a very personal level would be an affront to Christ himself. “For 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 ESV). This was certainly on the minds of early reformers.
In the Reformation period, Martin Luther wrote that when persecuted believers were received hospitably, “God Himself is in our home, is being fed at our house, is lying down and resting.” “No duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God” than hospitality to religious refugees, promised John Calvin, who viewed such practice as a “sacred” form of hospitality. Calvin encouraged believers to see in the stranger the image of God and our common flesh. ((Ibid. 6.))
Christian hospitality and charity are indispensable to the mission of the church. If we truly want to expand our cultural influence we will have to regain an understanding of this important truth. These are practices that cannot be fully streamlined so as to exclude a majority of families within the church. Surely there will always be those more given to hospitable and charitable activities as well as those who are at stations in life that involve legitimate barriers. That said, we must begin grappling with the practical implications of restoring these traditions. Listen to Pohl once again.
Recovering hospitality will involve reclaiming the household as a key site for ministry and then reconnecting the household and the church, so that the two institutions can work in partnership for the sake of the world. ((Ibid. 58.))
If it is true that the front door of the home is the side door of the church3 then we need to reevaluate who comes over the thresholds of our houses. Transforming our culture for Christ will involve transforming our homes. One key aspect of this transformation will be going beyond entertainment to the extension of true, Christian hospitality. It will be an open table for our covenant community as well as “strangers”. It will also involve charity on the part of individuals and families. As we reengage these practices we will witness the growth of God’s Kingdom through the service of his saints.