I have worshiped with a number of congregations in which I have heard the complaint that there was a lack of visitation among the members. Situations have been related to me in which families have been members of a congregation for as much as two years and have been invited into only one or two homes out of a congregation of two hundred people. The same problem exists among many smaller congregations. What usually happens is that each family becomes intimately associated with one or two close friends and are perfectly happy with associating with each other to the exclusion of all other saints. The old-fashioned virtue of hospitality is sadly missing among the saints in many congregations.
What Is Hospitality?
The Greek word from which "hospitality" is translated is philoxenos, a compound word composed of philos (love) and xenos (stranger) which means "love of strangers." To understand what this virtue is, we need to study how hospitality was practiced during biblical days. Too, the social customs of those in the Middle East are enlightening as to what genuine hospitality really is.
When an Arab greets a stranger, he greets him with the saying, "My house is yours" as a part of his salutation. One of their proverbs was, "The guest while in the house is its lord." Furthermore, the guest was inviolable. What that meant was that he could not be harmed while in the house of the host. Even if the guest was the host's meanest enemy, so long as he was in the house no one could hurt him. The practice of hospitality is still held in high esteem among Arabian people.
With this background, let us look at some biblical examples of hospitality. When Abraham dwelt by the oaks at Mamre, he received a visitation from the Lord. Three men appeared to him while he dwelt there. When Abraham saw them, "he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, 'My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by' " (Gen. 18:2-3). This shows us how Abraham practiced hospitality and, thereby, "entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb. 13:2). When these same men went to Sodom, they met Lot sitting by the gates of Sodom; he said, " 'Now behold, my lords, please turn aside into your servant's house, and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way.' They said however, 'No, but we shall spend the night in the square.' Yet he urged them strongly, so they turned aside to him and entered his house; .and he prepared a feast for them, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate" (Gen. 19:2-3). As another case of an hospitable person, consider Job. When he was being charged with gross misconduct, he protested saying, "The alien has not lodged outside, for I have opened my doors to the traveler" (31:32).
From these biblical references and the knowledge of the customs in the Middle East, we can better understand what hospitality is; it is the receiving of strangers into our homes. "The hospitality of today, by which is meant the entertainment of friends or relatives, hardly comes within the Bib. usage of the term as denoting a special virtue" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. III, p. 1433). However, we see just how bad the situation is with reference to hospitality when we notice that many congregations are not even entertaining relatives and near friends, much less strangers!
Hospitality Is Commanded
The dedicated Christian has no choice as to whether he will practice hospitality or not. To practice hospitality is a commandment of God; hence, he can only choose to obey or to disobey. Let us consider some of the passages which speak of hospitality as a command. As one of the virtues by which we present our bodies as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1-2), Paul said that Christians need to be "practicing hospitality" (12:13). Peter commanded, "Be hospitable to one another without complaint" (1 Pet. 4:9). The author of Hebrews wrote, "Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it" (13:1-2). When Jesus gave the parable of the separation of the sheep and goats, He showed that one's treatment of the stranger was a determining factor in the eternal destiny of man. The saved person was the man who treated Jesus as follows: "I was a stranger, and you invited me in" (Mt. 25:35); the lost man was the man who treated Jesus as follows: "I was a stranger and you did not invite Me in" (v. 43). Of course, the one who treats his brother in the way described has treated Jesus that way. Hence, how we receive strangers will affect our eternal destiny.
Elders are to be "given to hospitality" (1 Tim. 3:2). Inasmuch as the elder is to be a man who has a goodly quantity of each of the virtues listed in 1 Tim. 3:1-8, he should be a man who habitually practices hospitality. He should be an example of an hospitable man. The elder who invites only his relatives and close friends into his home for his own social entertainment is not meeting this qualification! He is to be a man who invites the stranger (such as the member of the church who just moved into town or the person who was just recently baptized) into his home. Inviting one's close friends into one's house on Friday night to play cards is no special virtue.
The woman who can be put on the church roll for regular support must be one who has shown hospitality. Among the qualifications which the "widow indeed" must be able to meet are the following: "if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints feet" (1 Tim. 5:10). In twentieth century life, we have grown to depend upon social security for support in our old age. We have nearly forgotten the role which the early church played in supporting aged widows. I' fear that we have also forgotten at least some of the virtues which qualified the "widow indeed" to be placed on the church's roll. Since the one who does the work of making the home fit to receive guests is the woman, this was one of the qualifications for a "widow indeed." Christian ladies, how many of you are going to be qualified to be a "widow indeed" in this area?
How To Exercise Hospitality
1. Regularly. Inasmuch as being hospitable is a part of Christian living, the Christian should regularly practice hospitality. The Christian who does not invite people into his home is guilty of sin; he is disregarding a commandment of God just as surely as Adam and Eve were when they ate the forbidden fruit.
2. One to another. Peter said, "Be hospitable to one another . . ." (1 Pet. 4:9); hence, hospitality should be practiced within every local congregation. Paul commanded Christians to "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). This demands a level of intimacy which cannot be had by greeting each other at the door on the days on which the church assembles for services and never seeing each other at any other time. Just saying, "Good morning! It's good to see you out today!" is not sufficient contact with our brethren to be able to share their joys and sorrows. We need to get to know each other better than that. This will demand constant association with each other.
3. Without murmuring. Again, Peter said, "Be hospitable to one another without complaint." Sometimes hospitality is practiced because no one else will do it. I have known of congregations who scheduled a meeting but had no one willing to "keep the preacher." Finally, someone begrudgingly said, "No one else will keep the preacher, so I guess that I am going to have to do it." That, my brethren, is not the proper kind of hospitality. Today, in our affluence, we simply put the preacher in a motel. Personally, I think that it is a move away from a virtue commanded by God (i.e. to practice hospitality) when so many saints within the congregations have such ample facilities to receive a brother who is a stranger into their homes. I consider my home most richly blessed by the opportunity to keep a visiting preacher for a week of gospel meetings.
4. Not for recompense. On one occasion Jesus said, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous" (Lk. 14:12-14). Too much of our hospitality is of the "theyhad-us-over-so-we-should-have-them-over" variety. This is not the kind of hospitality which Jesus asked of us.
Frankly, I have always found that inviting a person whom I am trying to convert into my home has been advantageous to winning that person to Christ. Too, new members of the congregation should be quickly received by the saints. Through this kind of reception of strangers, the Lord's church can be aided in its growth. I cannot understand a situation in which a visitor goes away from the services of the Lord's church feeling that the church was not friendly. If that happens, something is wrong, assuming that the visitor did not make a mad dash for the door.
Furthermore, let me add that the virtue of practicing hospitality does not belong to a select few in the congregation; it belongs to every saint. I say that because I have generally found that those who complain the loudest about the fact that no one has them over generally have no one over. Somewhere down the line, this complaining Christian is going to have to look at himself. Does he not have an obligation to serve just as much as any other saint? God did not send us to be served; He sent us to serve. Hence, if the congregation where you attend is not hospitable, quit complaining and get started doing something to correct the situation!
Truth Magazine XXI: 32, pp. 499-501