True community is something that develops as the result of interwoven relationships, multiple tightly-knit relationships, and that requires an ethos of hospitality. The modern temptation to individualism is a far cry from being a libertarian answer to collectivism, and is rather one of the central reasons why collectivism has swallowed up so much.
Enslaved societies are atomistic, while free societies are molecular. When every individual is a solitary BB, and you dump all the BBs into a sack — we shall call the sack “the state” — you find that it has all the solidity of a bean bag chair. At some point it occurs to the powers that be that it would be to their advantage to encourage sexual license, and to legalize pot, which is a move that greases all the BBs. Individuals are in no position effectively to resist the encroachments of the state.
For that we need Edmund Burke’s little platoons. Subordinate loyalties give society a molecular rigidity and structure. This means there must be a profound commitment to the covenant of marriage, a real hostility to divorce, a true dedication to bringing up the kids in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and so on. But this by itself, even though it is molecular, is not yet complex enough. In order for real Christian communities to grow and develop, there has a to more. There has to be a real understanding of hospitality.
Layers of Hospitality
In the modern world, hospitality generally refers to the work of the hotel industry — the world of innkeepers. Without casting any shade on the importance of this — having been in really good hotels and really poor ones — it is not where the center of hospitality should be.
We can begin with our responsibility to strangers. In the ancient world, the duty to extend hospitality to strangers was sacrosanct, which is why the treatment of Lot’s visitors by the residents of Sodom was so appalling (Gen. 19), as well as the treatment of the unnamed Levite and his concubine at the hands of the men of Gibeah (Judg. 19). We should also mention in passing that the behavior of Lot and the Levite was also appalling, while at the same time noting that their behavior makes no sense without a backdrop of a strict code of hospitality with regard to strangers.
So modern Christian hospitality should make room for the stranger, for the true guest, for the person who is just visiting your town. This would include traveling missionaries, or refugees from some blue state. They are people you are not necessarily close to, and you actually have no reason to suppose you will ever see them again. It is still important. It means that you are keeping your hospitality muscles in good shape.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)
This element arises when the qualifications for women to be added to roster of those that the church supports. Hospitality most certainly includes showing grace to the traveler.
“Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.”
1 Tim. 5:10 (KJV)
For those in a position to do so, it could be good to build a guest room or cottage that enables you to extend that particular grace. This is what the Shunammite woman did for Elisha (2 Kings 4:9-10).
A related category would be those who are less fortunate, or down and out.
“But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.”
Luke 14:13–14 (KJV)
Jesus here is getting at the heart of how hospitality can go wrong, when it goes wrong. There are obvious limits here — if you have little kids you don’t want to fill up your house with meth addicts — but at the same time we cannot let our understanding of the obvious limits become something that trumps an obvious text.
There is a way of entertaining that gives your guests a show, or a good time, or a magnificent array of new taste sensations in their mouths, all of it designed to make you look good. It is a glorified way of showing off. You put on the Ritz for all your acquaintances, and the way the game is played means that at some point they have to invite you back and try to outdo you. You get two fantastic meals for the price of one.
But there is another way, the way of hospitality, in which you give yourself.
In one world, the gifts are given instead of yourself. In the other world, the world God is fashioning through us, the gifts are tokens or chips that represent something else, and that something else is the giving of the person. Some give gifts so that they don’t have to give themselves — like some kind of extortion payment. Others give gifts as a representation of themselves.
If you show hospitality to those who cannot pay you back, this gets you in shape to show that same kind of hospitality to those who live in community with you — with those who could pay you back, but you were no longer thinking of that. We are building up to the need to weave a true community together by means of having one another in your homes. But in order to do this in a way that actually builds community, you absolutely have to mortify that internal bookkeeper that meticulously counts how many times you invited and how many times you have been invited. “Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality” (Rom. 12:13).
This sort of thing is simply assumed as part and parcel of Christian community. Christian leaders are to be selected with this particular trait in mind.
“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach.”
1 Timothy 3:2 (KJV)
“But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate”
Titus 1:8 (KJV)
Given to hospitality. Lover of hospitality. This is a big deal. Christian leaders are not the ones doing this so that others won’t have to. They are rather to be the ones setting the pitch for the whole choir. They are to be hospitable in such a way that the congregation can consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate them in it (Heb. 13 :7). It is noteworthy that this passage comes just a handful of verses after the exhortation
There are obvious temptations that come with hospitality. Let us just say that not all guests are equally thoughtful, or grateful, or whatever it is they should be. This is why Peter has to tell us that mumbling under our breath is no way to be dishing up the platters. “Use hospitality one to another without grudging” (1 Pet. 4:9). Hospitality is not easy. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
The Lord Will Repay
I said above that we must mortify our internal hospitality bookkeeper. But there I was speaking of our tracking of all our horizontal accounts. We are supposed to give without specific regard for what we might be getting from those we have given to. However we are supposed to look to God for the return.
“He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; And that which he hath given will he pay him again.”
Prov. 19:17 (KJV)
There are many ways in which the Lord will repay us through this. One of them is the growth of true Christian community. As we extend this kind of love, the kind of love that has our brothers and sisters in our homes without any sense of reciprocal obligation, the Lord is engaged in weaving a tight fabric, the fabric of genuine fellowship, genuine community, genuine koinonia.