The Elder and Hospitality

What qualities do you think make for good leaders in the assembly? Perhaps words like “caring” or “godly” or “integrity” come to mind. Or maybe you think in terms of what an elder shouldn’t be: someone who is “not arrogant” or “not a womanizer” or “not hot-tempered.” Actually, we don’t have to guess as the Holy Spirit has set out the qualifications for elders in both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Not surprisingly, the qualifications include moral requirements, like being “the husband of one wife,”[1] “self-controlled,” “not a drunkard” and “not a lover of money.” However, buried in the list of characteristics is an attribute often overlooked – the requirement to be “hospitable” (1Ti 3:2; Titus 1:8).

What does it mean to be “hospitable”?  The word in Greek is philoxenos (philo meaning “love of” and xenos meaning “foreigners”). In English, people who are biased against foreigners are often accused of being xenophobic, or having a fear of strangers. This is the opposite of the love of strangers. While we often refer to having fellow Christians over for dinner as showing hospitality, the hospitality referred to here is really quite different.

Loving strangers means providing for the physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, support) of those we don’t know and who, to all appearances, have no potential way to repay us. Strangers might well include unbelievers and would most certainly include fellow believers. “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Rom 12:13). “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1Pe 4:9). In the context of first-century testimony, many believers were scattered by persecution, losing their homes, businesses and support of extended family. Fellow believers might arrive at the assembly with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. To show hospitality then involved personal cost in terms of money and time, with no expectation of repayment.

Why would being hospitable be one of the requirements for assembly leadership? On a basic level, it would be a clear demonstration that the man has a generous spirit and is not greedy or covetous. Showing hospitality to the needy is costly, requiring both time and money. The cost of practicing hospitality occasionally includes being taken advantage of by those who prey upon the generosity of others. The lack of a hospitable spirit is often evidence of a miserly spirit and a failure to appreciate the grace of God in one’s own life.

Secondly, it is a requirement because it reflects godly character. The Lord Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luk 6:35-36). While strangers are not enemies, the principle of blessing others without regard to what we can receive in return holds true. When we give to those who cannot repay we are actually demonstrating the merciful character of God.

Thirdly, being hospitable is a vital quality that enables the elder to fulfill his divinely given responsibilities. It is a genuine way to win the hearts of the believers under his care. James wrote that “if a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (Jas 2:15-16). If an elder is unwilling to help those with basic material needs, how can he be trusted to care about the spiritual needs of the assembly? By showing hospitality the elder is able to tangibly demonstrate a shepherd’s heart for the believers.

Hospitality to the unsaved is often a necessary part of evangelism. The Lord provided food for thousands without regard to whether they could pay Him back or even put their faith in Him. The gospel has always found a greater audience with the poor than with the rich. James reminded the believers that God has “chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith” (2:5). In our affluent society it is often the poor and the immigrants that are most receptive to the gospel. Both groups are much more likely to require financial and material support for the basic needs of living. Any assembly engaged in children’s work, ESL activities, or outreach work in the community will undoubtedly find it necessary to provide funding for the material needs of some of the individuals and families with which it interacts. An effective elder must be willing to support such efforts through wise distribution of assembly funds and often out of his personal funds.

In the political discourse of the author’s country, many decry the immigration of individuals from other countries and cultures. While acknowledging the economic burden and the cultural impact of mass migrations on our own society, the believer and especially assembly elders should be characterized by a love of foreigners. While the great commission is to go into the world to preach, we should recognize that in many ways God is bringing those who have never heard the gospel to us. A spirit of hospitality will open doors for evangelism among them.

Finally, the elder should show hospitality because we never know how God is at work in our own lives. The writer to the Hebrews said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). This is likely a reference to the hospitality that Abraham showed to the three strangers that appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18, one of whom turned out to be the Lord. Did the Lord or the angels need food that day? No, but Abraham’s generosity provided God an opportunity to bless Sarah and him with news of a son to be born and gave Abraham the opportunity to intercede on behalf of Sodom.

Hospitality is commanded of all believers (1Pe 4:9; Rom 12:13), but it is an essential requirement for assembly leaders. By showing hospitality we reflect the character of God, we demonstrate our care for fellow believers, and we open hearts to receive the gospel message.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.