The Virtue of Hospitality  

  Welcoming Strangers with Wisdom

Hospitality is a moral duty, especially for Christians (e.g., Job 31:32; Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:8-9). Few would reject this claim. But the term’s emotive appeal has made it easy to exploit, allowing some to extend it far beyond what moral duty requires, especially in the political context. To demonstrate the proper use and improper abuses of hospitality, I will explicate the definition of hospitality (according to the confines of moral philosophy), showing its limits, conditions, and relation to other moral duties.  

Explicating the definition 

I will begin with a definition:  

Hospitality is an act of generosity in which a community hosts an outsider and regards him as a virtual member (or guest) of the community in order to share with him the benefits of its symbiosis (i.e., living-together).

This definition governs all types of hospitality—familial, national, and ecclesial—though each has its specific features. I explain the elements of the definition below.  

an act of generosity 

Since hospitality is a species of generosity, we should begin with a discussion of generosity. Generosity, as a general virtue, is the proper sharing of surplus resources for the good of another. A proper act of generosity requires us to consider both the good of the recipients and the hierarchy of our moral duties. The former is necessary because not all seeming acts of generosity are good for the recipients, such as giving money to drug addicts. The latter is important, because we cannot evaluate any supposed generous act without considering its effect on our ability to fulfill other obligations. That is, generosity (and thus hospitality) is but one part of a coherent and hierarchical web of moral duties.  

Which brings us to this moral principle: No one has a moral duty ascribed to him by the law of nature to give to others such that his actions harm those closely bound to him. In other words, you are not required by nature to act such that you render yourself incapable of fulfilling your higher obligations, such as duties of maintenance and preservation of yourself, family, friends, nation, etc. Generosity must be understood as giving from what is leftover—or what I will call “surplus resources.” These resources exceed what is necessary to meet higher obligations. Accordingly, proper generosity is the giving only of one’s surplus resources to the right person at the right time in the right manner. 

in which a community hosts an outsider

For this reason, we cannot determine what is “proper” in hospitality without considering the  sphere of obligations in which it is conducted. Hospitality requires a person or society to host another, who by the act of hosting makes another a guest. The guest is received into a community of pre-existing obligations, whether the community is familial or national. And these obligations are not only prior but higher obligations; that is, they preempt any act of hospitality that might cause one to violate or be unable to fulfill them. As I said, you have heightened obligations toward those who are closer to you, as the Christian tradition largely affirms.1 Furthermore, these surpluses arise from the sort of good order, discipline, mutual affection, and reciprocity made possible by fulfilling these higher obligations. A well-ordered, well-fed, and well-loved household, for example, is the type of household that can receive guests well and thereby be appropriately hospitable—which is not to suggest that a perfectly ordered household is a strict prerequisite for acts of hospitality. So the rightness of any act of hospitality depends on whether it negatively affects the fulfillment of prior obligations.

Familial Hospitality  

All of this is evident in family life, so I will now turn to it. Familial hospitality is a species of hospitality in general and is defined as the following: 

Domestic hospitality is an act of generosity in which a family hosts an outsider and regards him as a virtual member (or guest) of the family in order to share with him the benefits of its symbiosis. 

The family, as a collective entity, has a distinct symbiosis. Its members freely share all things in common, and beneficence flows from deeply cultivated affection (viz., the husband/wife relation) and purely natural affection (viz., parent/child relation). The life of the family, being fundamental for living well, trumps any duty of generosity that would undermine or destroy what is vital to family life. That is to say, the family has no duty to act for its destruction. Imagine if such a duty did exist—think of the moral chaos and incoherence that God would have instituted in this world by creation of the natural family (Genesis 1:28, 2:18-24, 9:1; 1 Corinthians 11:12; 1 Timothy 5:8). Under such a duty, the most intimate and necessary of all societies for human good must destroy itself. But, of course, the family has no such requirement. God’s moral law is coherent, and it produces maximal good when its order is followed (Genesis 1:31; Psalm 119:68; 1 Timothy 4:4). Further, said order reflects God’s righteous character and redemptive-historical purposes (Genesis 3:15; Psalm 127:3; 1 Timothy 3:4).  

We must, therefore, reconcile competing duties with a limiting principle. We can say confidently that no family has a moral duty to take violent criminals or rapists or serial arsonists into their homes. Nor must parents expend resources for the good of other children to the detriment of their own children. God does not command us to be like Mrs. Jellyby (in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House) who spends all her energies “looking far away into Africa” to the neglect of her own children and near neighbors. Hence, the limiting principle is this: Families ought to give freely, but only of their surplus resources (as defined above). 

as a virtual member (or guest) of the community

Now, in making someone a guest, the host conditionally renders him a member of the community, granting him certain privileges and benefits of membership. I call this “virtual” membership, relying on an old usage that means being something in effect but not in actuality or inherently. A guest is a member not inherently but in effect—he shares in the benefits of the symbiosis. This is not a sort of temporary adoption, for adoption is not an act of hospitality. An adopted child is a naturalized child in relation to the family, not an indefinite guest. His or her membership is irrevocable. However, the guest’s membership, being virtual, is revocable—conditioned on him not harming the symbiosis of the actual members. In the event of harm, the head of the household (or nation, as we will see) has every right to rescind his status as guest.  

to share with him the benefits of their symbiosis. 

The purpose of hospitality is sharing with another the benefits arising from the totality of relations and activity in a society—i.e., the benefits of symbiosis. The resources of a household, for example, are not merely the products of the breadwinner of the family. They come from the affections, interrelations, and division of labor of the whole. And these “resources” are not limited to material goods, such as shelter and food. They extend to innumerable intangible things like joy, orderliness, enjoyable conversation, warmth—all of which require the prior cultivation of affection and care for one’s home. Perfect hospitality requires, in other words, that you place your family (or nation) first.  

National Hospitality  

The idea that nations ought to practice hospitality presupposes that nations are real entities; that they have a distinct type of living-together (i.e., national symbiosis)2; that they have moral personhood; and thus they have moral duties. I will assume that all these are true.  

National hospitality is a species of hospitality, and is defined as the following: 

National hospitality is an act of generosity in which a nation hosts an outsider and regards him as a virtual member (or guest) of the nation in order to share with him the benefits of its symbiosis. 

The nation has a different symbiosis compared with that of the family, the latter being one of maximal, non-contractual sharing. The nation has a symbiosis arising from diverse vocations (out of which come goods and services) and an intergenerational connection of people and place. In his Reflection on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke famously describes this latter element:  

Society is indeed a contract…. It is to be looked on with reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. 

I discuss people and place in my book The Case for Christian Nationalism. The bottom line, for our purposes here, is that a people is not merely a relation of production and consumption, nor a collection of diverse vocations, but an enduring partnership of the dead, living, and unborn—linked by a handing-down of a way of life and common heritage. National living-together, therefore, is not solely material. It is also immaterial, involving the sharing of particular loves in and for a particular people in a particular place. As John Calvin wrote, “Delightful to every one is his native soil, and it is also delightful to dwell among one’s own people.” National symbiosis is essential to living well and to realize the complete good in this life. For this reason, as with the family, it is natural that nations prefer and prioritize their own people. 

National life produces surplus resources that can serve as a means toward generosity, which might include anything from cash transfers to the commitment of military forces. However, national hospitality goes beyond the devotion of specific resources. It involves the whole of national life, since it is an act of receiving outsiders into that life. Non-native residents benefit directly from the totality of national action–the benefits that arise from the interconnectedness of activity in a nation. For example, the national economy is not merely a bare relation of production and consumption, conducted by deracinated individuals in isolation from national life as a whole. It is but one part of a whole, and thereby is undergirded by immaterial norms, customs, and mutual expectations.  

Economist Wilhelm Röpke described the moral conditions of thriving economies. They require 

a society in which certain fundamentals are respected and color the whole network of social relations: individual effort and responsibility, absolute norms and values, independence based on ownership, prudence and daring, calculating and saving, responsibility for planning one’s own life, proper coherence with the community, family feeling, a sense of tradition and the succession of generations combined with an open-minded view of the past and the future, proper tension between the individual and community, firm moral discipline, respect for the value of money, the courage to grapple on one’s own with life and its uncertainties, a sense of the natural order of things, and a firm scale of values.3 

We too often separate the economy and the community, in effect separating the production and consumption of material benefits from the immaterial conditions necessary to do those things well. That is, we think of economic life as something distinct from ethical life, when in fact they are inseparable. Indeed, economic life is subordinate and dependent on national life. As Röpke says, the market economy  

must find its place in a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition. It must be firmly contained within an all-embracing order of society in which the imperfections and harshness of economic freedom are corrected by law and in which man is not denied the conditions of life appropriate to his nature. Man can wholly fulfill his nature only by freely becoming part of a community and having a sense of solidarity with it.4 

The interconnectedness of national life is crucial to understanding the moral duty of national hospitality, and its limits. Most guests, or resident aliens, will find some form of employment, which certainly contributes to the national economy. But such production and consumption are made possible by the nation as a whole, supplying the moral, legal, and cultural norms that undergird it—all or most of which are foreign to the foreigner. He cannot participate fully in national life and so he cannot sustain or contribute to its fullness; he can only benefit from it. And though he is a fully welcomed resident, he remains reliant on the whole of which he has not become an integral part. 

Thus, resident aliens that participate in the economy rely on a socio-ethical tradition that is not their own and in which they cannot wholly participate, nor sustain. This poses no problems when the numbers of such guests are relatively small. But when vast numbers of foreigners are received (or cross in illegally), they disrupt and harm the socio-ethical solidarity of a nation. The Protestant political theorist Johannes Althusius recognized this long ago, writing that 

As the customs of regions often express diverse interests and discernments, so persons born in these regions hold diverse patterns in their customs. Accordingly, they are unable to come together at the same time without some antipathy toward each other, which when once aroused tends to stir up sedition, subversion, and damage to the life of the commonwealth.5

Social science research has repeatedly confirmed Althusius’ (standard) observation, showing negative correlations between cultural diversity and social trust, at both national and local levels.6 

We have, therefore, a limiting principle regarding national hospitality. There is a stress limit that, when reached, moves a nation from generosity to profligacy—when foreigners disrupt and harm the communal life of the nation. Nations generate a sort of surplus that is reserved for hospitality. But there is a limit that is determined by two stress factors: the degree of cultural difference and the numbers received. Both can place unhealthy stresses on the nation.. This limit has nothing to do with bad guests; it is a matter of difference and numbers. Furthermore, the stress level can vary by nation, depending on circumstances. The United States, for example, might be able to receive more than Hungary. 

However, if the guests are bad—lacking gratitude and humility, behaving arrogantly, flagrantly violating social norms or civil laws, showing a dominating spirit, etc.—the hosts can rescind legal residence and deport them. As guests, foreigners must comport themselves with respect for their hosts’ laws and customs. As Althusius states:  

Differing from citizens, however, are foreigners, outsiders, aliens, and strangers whose duty it is to mind their own business, make no strange inquiries, not even to be curious in a foreign commonwealth, but to adapt themselves, as far as good conscience permits, to the customs of the place and city where they live in order that they may not be a scandal to others. 7

Guests of nations have duties, especially the duty not to meddle in or disrupt the affairs of the host nation. They are not citizens, and thus do not share fully in “the rights of the city, its privileges, statutes, and benefits, which make a city great and celebrated,” as Althusius states.  

It should be obvious that a nation—whose healthy communal life is necessary for its complete good—is not morally required by the law of nature to receive foreigners to its detriment. Otherwise, God’s moral law (which is for our good) is incoherent—it requires nations to act to their own destruction, thereby not only harming people but rendering nations incapable of establishing the very conditions necessary for hospitality.  

Like adoption into families, naturalizing foreigners into citizenship is not an act of hospitality, for citizenship (formally, at least) integrates one fully into national life, and his or her new status is irrevocable. The new citizen has all the rights and privileges not afforded to aliens and has the duty to positively conserve the whole of national life, not simply to avoid meddling. No resident alien should expect naturalization, and the same conditions for residency apply for naturalization, and even more strictly, since naturalization demands full integration and grants irrevocable citizenship.

Lastly, the duty of hospitality and its limits remain fully operative in Christian nations, since grace does not destroy nature. Christian nations ought to prefer Christian foreigners, though the same principles that I outlined above still apply. It follows as well that any supposed duty of grace to receive all Christian foreigners must be false, since it would contradict the demands of nature regarding human good.  

Ecclesial Hospitality  

Ecclesial hospitality is a species of hospitality that should be addressed by the theologians, since the instituted church is a divine order; this species does not fall under moral philosophy but revealed theology. But I will say a few things about it.  

What is not ecclesial hospitality? It is not inviting church visitors to one’s house after church; that is familial hospitality. Nor is it when a Christian nation receives Christian immigrants; the nation is not itself a church. Nor is it when a Christian parachurch ministry aids refugees, since all such associations are best understood as religious civil associations and fall under national hospitality and fall under civil regulation. Ecclesial hospitality must be distinctly ecclesial. 

There are two distinctly ecclesial forms of hospitality. Both are spiritual and occur simultaneously in the event of worship. The first occurs when the congregation hosts a herald of the kingdom of Christ, who comes to bring a message and lead in the worship of God. That is to say, the pastor—acting in his capacity as minister of the kingdom of Christ—comes to the congregation and greets them in the name of the Lord. This is evident in the “salutation,” common in the beginning of Presbyterian and other liturgies (Rom. 1:7). But in the act of greeting, the guest from the kingdom—who signifies the presence of God among them—renders the congregation a guest of the Lord, who hosts His own worship in the heavenly places to the benefit of His people (Eph. 2:6). This is the second form. Thus, the event of worship has a twofold act of hospitality, performed by God and his people, though the people do not, properly speaking, host God, who needs nothing. Rather, the congregation hosts His servant, who is but a man with a divine commission.  


In our day, we are too hospitable and not hospitable enough. Families lavish themselves with stuff, expending resources that could be used for the good of others. At the same time, Western nations often recklessly receive foreigners to the detriment of native populations, their peoplehood, and their cultural heritage. But God’s moral law demands that the heads of households and governments act according to the proper order of loves. Just as self-love is the precondition of loving others on an individual scale, on a collective level, loving your own first is the necessary condition for loving others well.  

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 7 footnotes
  1. As Augustine said, “since one cannot help everyone, one has to be concerned with those who by reason of place, time, and circumstances, are by some chance more tightly bound to you.” See De Doctrina Christiana, 1.28. Calvin likewise states, “Among men, in proportion to the closeness of the tie that mutually binds us, some have stronger claims than others.” See Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:471 (on Matt. 10:37). Aquinas states that “we love more those who are more nearly connected with us, since we love them in more ways.” See Summa Theologica, II–II.26.7.
  2. I’ve borrowed “symbiosis” from Johannes Althusius: “Politics is the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them. Whence it is called ‘symbiotics.’ The subject matter of politics is therefore association (consociatio), in which the symbiotes pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life.” See Politica, §1.
  3. Wilhem Röpke, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, 98.
  4. Ibid, 91.
  5. Althusius, Politica, XXIII.14.
  6. Here is a recent meta-analysis. Social science Robert Putnam once said that “Community connectedness is not just about warm fuzzy tales of civic triumph. In measurable and well-documented ways, social capital makes an enormous difference in our lives…Social capital makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.” See Bowling Alone, 290.
  7. Althusius, Politica, V.10.
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Stephen Wolfe

Stephen Wolfe is a Christian political theorist. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and children.