Over the past decade numerous writers in North America have promoted hospitality as a spiritual discipline or a means of evangelism, sometimes combining the two. Generally hospitality is defined as extending help to strangers and enabling them to experience God’s love in a safe place. And often it is proposed as a means of sharing the gospel with people you do not know well. Now, I am not wanting in any way to deny the importance of Christians showing care and generosity to those in need, nor to dissuade Christians from using their homes and good meals as contexts for building relationships and sharing the good news about Jesus. That is all good, but I would suggest that this is not, by and large, what the New Testament (NT) means when it talks about Christian hospitality.
We will first consider the New Testament’s terminology for hospitality and the contexts in which it occurs. We will then consider several teachings of Jesus which tend to get used to illustrate what Christian hospitality is all about and see whether teaching hospitality to non-believing strangers is really their intent. Then I will offer several conclusions based on this research that will, I hope, provide a clearer understanding of the New Testament teaching about hospitality.
Greek Terminology and Its Use
The Greek terms used by NT writers to talk about hospitality are grouped around the adjective xenos. According to the standard lexicon of the Greek NT (BDAG, 684.1), this adjective has two essential meanings. First it pertains “to being unfamiliar because of something being unknown, strange.”. For example, some Athenians claimed that Paul was introducing “strange gods” (xenōn daimoniōn, Acts 17:18). In 1 Peter 4:12 the writer warns his audience not to regard imminent persecution “as something strange” (hōs xenou). However, it can also refer to someone who is unacquainted with something (followed by a genitive) and so they are unacquainted with or strange with respect to this element (e.g., Ephesians 2:12 — xenoi tōn diathēkōn “strangers to the covenant”). The adjective can also be used as a noun to describe “an entity involved in [an] experience of unfamiliarity” (BDAG, 684.2), i.e., a stranger or foreigner. The Jewish leaders used the money Judas returned to buy a field eis taphēn tois xenois “for the burial of strangers” (Matthew 27:7). According to Hebrews 11:13 the patriarchs regarded themselves as xenoi…epi tēs gēs “strangers on earth” (cf. Matthew 25:35, 38, 43, 44; Acts 17:21; Ephesians 2:19; 3John 5). And then in one context it seems to refer to the person who is hosting (Romans 16:23 Gaios ho xenos “Gaius, my host”) and thus extending hospitality to a stranger. So the semantic range of this adjective encompasses the ideas of someone or something strange/foreign or that seems strange, i.e., a stranger/foreigner, or someone who assists a stranger. All of the other terms used in the NT and related to hospitality are in some sense related to this adjective.
A cognate verb xenizō has an –izō ending that usually marks a causative or performative sense and in this case it means “show hospitality, receive as a guest, entertain” (BDAG, 683.1). Peter shows hospitality (xenisen) to the messengers from Cornelius (Acts 10:23). Cornelius reveals to Peter the message he received in his vision and describes Peter as the person who is xenizetai “receiving hospitality” in the house of Simon the tanner (Acts 10:32; cf. 10:6). When Paul is in Judea and on his way to Jerusalem from Caesarea, friends lead him to the house of Mnason, with whom he and his friends receive hospitality (xenisthōmen, Acts 21:16; cf. a textual variant at 1 Corinthians 16:19). When Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Miletus, a wealthy man named Poplios (Greek form) “showed him hospitality” (exenisen, Acts 28:7). The author of Hebrews encourages his audience to remember philoxenias (hospitality) because in this way they might “show hospitality to messengers/angels” (xenisantes aggelous, Hebrews 13:2), presumably referencing Abraham’s experience (Genesis 18:2ff). This verb can also mean “to cause a strong psychological reaction through introduction of something new or strange, astonish, surprise” (BDAG, 684.2). This usage occurs in Acts 17:20 where some people in Athens declare that Paul is introducing “some strange things” (xenizonta…tina). The writer of 1 Peter employs it twice in 1 Peter 4:4 (xenizontai) and 12 (xenizesthe) to describe the reaction of people to strange or unusual things. As you can see, the most frequent usage describes the action of showing or receiving hospitality and those who show hospitality are both non-Christians and Christians. However, it also describes people’s reaction to something they regard as strange or unusual. A related verb xenodoxeō occurs once and means “show hospitality” (1 Timothy 5:10). One of the criteria for a widow to be enrolled officially as a widow with a church is that she shows hospitality. These actions seem to be practiced particularly in the context of the house church .
The cognate noun xenia means “hospitality, entertainment” or “guest room.” It seems that in the NT it is the second meaning that occurs in Acts 28:23 and Philemon 22 (although scholars debate the meaning in this context).Two other compound lexemes reference the idea of hospitality. The first is a noun philoxenia “hospitality” (BDAG, 1058). It occurs twice in the NT and in both contexts the writers are giving instructions. Paul urges his audience (Romans 12:13) “practice hospitality” (tēn philoxenian diōkontes). Similarly in Hebrews 13:2 the writer encourages his audience “not to forget hospitality” (tēs philoxenias mē epilanthanesthe). Several NT writers also employ the cognate adjective philoxenos “hospitable” (BDAG, 1058). In two contexts (1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8) this adjective defines a characteristic of those who might be eligible for leadership in the early church. In 1 Peter 4:9 it defines one of the ways in which believers show love to one another, i.e., philoxenoi eis allēlous (“be hospitable to one another”).
Contexts and Application of this Terminology in NT Documents
The adjective xenos generally describes someone or something that seems strange or unusual to a person. It describes strange phenomena (Acts 17:18; 1 Peter 4:12). People are defined as “strangers” by this term in Matthew 27:7; Hebrews 11:13; Acts 17:21(foreigners living in Athens)). In several contexts it refers to non-Jewish people who did not participate in the Jewish covenant (Ephesians 2:12, 19). However, it seems that in 3John 5 it refers to Christians who come from other places and are therefore unknown to a local house church. The usage in Matthew 25:35, 38 is particularly challenging. I would note that in the context the speaker defines such “strangers” as “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine [Son of Man v. 31].” Who are these “brothers and sisters of the Son of Man, i.e., “the King.”? In my opinion, it is contexts such as Matthew 18:15-35 and 23:8 that define for us the sense of “brother and sister” in chapter 25. The Messiah evaluates how his followers assisted one another when they experience difficulties, whether physical, legal, or spiritual. The explanation in Matthew 25:34-40 is addressed to “the sheep,” i.e., loyal followers of the Son of Man in that context. So this is not an instruction to show hospitality to all and sundry, but rather the evaluation of the way Christians treated other believers. I think that the instruction in 3John 5 fits within this parameter also. In one context the adjective describes a Christian who hosts another Christian (Romans 16:23) who is engaged in mission activities.
The verb xenizō describes general actions of hospitality and context determines who is involved. Peter shows hospitality to the messengers from Cornelius (Acts 10:23) and Paul receives hospitality from a Roman when he is shipwrecked on Malta (Acts 28:7). However, in many cases these expressions of hospitality are shown by believers to believers, e.g., Simon the tanner to Peter (Acts 10:6, 32); Mnason to Paul and his friends (Acts 21:16) and possibly in Hebrews 13:2. The use of this verb to describe the reaction of strangeness to unknown entities is not related to hospitality (Acts 17:20; 1 Peter 4:4, 12).
The characteristics that define a Christian widow in 1 Timothy 5:10 include the demonstration of hospitality. The question is to whom this hospitality is expressed — any person or specifically people in the Christian community? Certainly the next item “washing the feet of the holy ones” focuses upon fellow-believers and quite possibly also the next one that describes her actions to help those being oppressed or persecuted (thlibomenois). This verb in 1 Thessalonians 3:4 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7 describes Christians being afflicted by non-Christians (cf. Hebrews 11:37; 2 Corinthians 4:8). In my opinion, the hospitality that such widows demonstrate occurs primarily among those who are needy in the faith community, especially those being mistreated because of their faith by the surrounding community.
Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:13 to “practice hospitality (philoxenia)” is preceded by the encouragement “to share with the holy ones who have need.” However, it is also followed by the command “bless those who persecute you (12:14). So we have to decide whether the injunction to practice hospitality is defined by what precedes, or prepares for what follows. The NIV starts a new paragraph in Romans 12:14, indicating a disjunction between vv. 13 and 14.
The other NT context in which this noun occurs (Hebrews 13:2) conveys a list of instructions to the Christian audience. After urging his audience “keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” (philadelphia), the writer commands them “to show hospitality.” NIV adds “to strangers” but this is not in the Greek text. He provides a rationale by reminding them that others in the past have shown hospitality to angels without being aware of it. Here again, I think the writer is encouraging the practice of hospitality among believers, particularly those in prison and suffering for their testimony, a group that might include some of their leaders (vv. 3, 7-8). This does not seem to be an instruction to practice hospitality to everyone.
Finally, there are the two occurrences of the adjective philoxenos (1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8) as one of the key attributes of people who might be eligible for leadership roles in the Christian community. While I cannot be dogmatic, this trait seems to be something that people in the house church have observed over time and so must have been demonstrated within the community, but perhaps also within the external society. In Titus 1:8 this adjective follows the observation that the “leader” (episkopos 1:7) has to manage God’s household and so this requires that he be “hospitable.” The focus seems to be on the internal ordering of the house church.
This adjective also occurs in 1 Peter 4:9, but in a series of instructions that apply to all believers. In 4:8 the writer has urged them to a self-controlled life, demonstrated in sincere love for each other. Then in v. 9 they are “to be hospitable to one another without complaining.” The following instruction requires them to use their divine gifts and resources to serve one another within the Christian community (4:10). It seems clear that this writer focuses upon the practice of hospitality within the Christian body.
In my opinion, the leaders in the early church primarily were concerned that believers show hospitality to one another, i.e., to other believers, as demonstration of their oneness in Christ. Such assistance included a wide range of helps, such as provision for the needs of those in prison, caring for visiting apostles and prophets, and sharing their resources with those who have need. I think we see this principle demonstrated in the various stories in Acts where the Jerusalem church looks after the needs of widows among its number (Acts 7) and the selling of property and gifting of the proceeds to the church to care for the poor within the Christian church. We should not underestimate the social and economic disparity in the early church, nor the tensions that existed between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. The practice of hospitality was a visible demonstration that all were one body in Christ (Ephesians 2-3). If Christians cannot express hospitality to other believers, then this invalidates the essential gospel message. And so Jesus commands his followers to “love one another” (John 15:12-13). This is their priority (cf. Galatians 6:2 – “bear the burdens of one another and in this way bring to fulfillment the Messiah’s law.”). Paul’s project to collect funds from non-Jewish churches to assist the Jewish Christians in the church at Jerusalem would be an example of such hospitality.
As I read the NT, I do not find one context where hospitality is used in evangelism or believers are instructed to use hospitality as a means of evangelism. However, this cannot be the last word. We know that Jesus urges his followers to make disciples and presumably all legitimate means should be employed to respond to this mission. This might in some contexts include the demonstration of compassion to non-believers and other strangers who have specific needs, as we seek to fulfill the second commandment to “love our neighbour as ourselves.” This is where Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) might find application. Having said that, we should not lose sight of the primary context in which hospitality must be displayed, according to NT leaders, and that is in the expression of care for believers within the body of Christ. If it is not happening in this context, then efforts to use hospitality in evangelism will probably produce meagre results. When believers fail to demonstrate and practice hospitality among themselves, it invalidates the message of the Gospel. Further I find no indication that early Christian leaders regarded the demonstration of hospitality as a “spiritual discipline.” They expected believers to be generous with one another because of the transformation they had experienced in the Holy Spirit. Hospitality is not included in the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) nor in lists of spiritual ‘gifts’ such as 1 Corinthians 12:27-31. What Paul does suggest is that the practice of hospitality will be the natural expression of agapē.
I would offer one other observation. Given the practice of hospitality in the early church to support travelling apostles and other church leaders, perhaps we might consider our giving to support missions as one of the primary ways in which believers today show hospitality towards one another. If the Western Church were to embrace the practice of hospitality (not entertainment) among believers, it would “cover a multitude of sins” as the apostle Peter claims (! Peter 4:8) and generate a much richer network of relationships and stronger ties among believers. If faith communities are to be demonstrations of Kingdom culture, then their people and leaders particularly must be engaged in hospitality within the body.