Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The case of the undocumented deacon

A pastor called me and asked, "Can my church have a deacon that is also an undocumented alien?" Hoping to punt on the question, I told him that absent an employment situation, there is no affirmative legal duty for private citizens to inquire about some one's immigration status. The pastor was unimpressed by my legalese and asked the more penetrating question, "Should my church allow an otherwise qualified undocumented alien to become a deacon?"

Putting aside the humor in a pastor asking a lawyer about ethics, this is a dilemma faced by many churches in Texas and elsewhere. Missions and small churches tend to ask this question the most. For many years, we as Christians have witnessed to, baptized and made disciples of countless undocumented aliens in the United States. These brothers and sisters in Christ are now members, Sunday School teachers, and lay leaders in the church. So what does a church do now?

For starters, I do not believe that a church is breaking any federal immigration laws by allowing an undocumented alien to be a deacon. Such acts do not come within the scope of the unlawful "harboring" or "encouragement" statues. Depending on the circumstances, the potential deacon may not have necessarily committed a federal "crime." For a discussion on whether a "crime" has been committed, see the May 2008 ISAAC Newsletter here:
But, as Paul wrote, "just because something is technically legal doesn't mean that it is spiritually appropriate." 1 Cor. 6:12 (Msg).

One one hand, if the church "looks the other way," does that mean the church is condoning the potential deacon's behavior and legal status? Does this acquiescence unnecessarily harm the testimony of the local church? I know of one pastor who told me he tells his undocumented members to "go back home." I did not detect any hostility in his opinion, but in his view it is impossible to live the Christian witness and remain in violation of immigration law. He admitted that it was a difficult decision and I did not inquire further about what happens if one of his flock decides to stay.

On the other hand, we invite all sinners, including illegal aliens, to "come just as I am." So when an undocumented alien becomes a part of the family of God, what happens next? If we make these new Christians "disciples," then will it not eventually cause some of them to rise up and fill leadership positions within the church? If we do not allow this brother or sister in Christ to take a leadership role because of their immigration status, then what was the purpose of the discipleship? I fear that we may be inadvertently creating a two- tiered discipleship track for some of our church members.

I've looked to the letter of Philemon for guidance but I came away with more questions. Paul writes Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul does not explicitly question Philemon's right to own Onesimus. Indeed, most scholars note that Roman masters could have severely punished and possibly even killed runaway slaves. Rather, Paul's focus is that Philemon treat Onesimus not as a returning slave but as a brother. (Phm 1:16). Scholars debate whether Philemon freed Onesimus or simply forgave him. In other words, did becoming a "brother in Christ" supplant the social structure of the day? Alas, scholars are not exactly sure what happened to Onesimus.

These are hard questions and ultimately, in my denomination anyway, each church will decide this issue individually. What do you think? If any of you have gone through this process, I would love to hear from you.

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