Right now, in this post-holiday season, many of us are recovering from offering hospitality to disagreeable family members: aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and in-laws, whose personalities, or politics, clash with our own. (I am fortunate in this regard. My extended family is generally adept at avoiding these clashes.) Given the forced isolation that cast a pall over the previous two Christmases, however, the mere possibility of offering and receiving hospitality this time around is something to celebrate, even if family conflicts are not.
Hospitality, a word that we use less and less without the appendage “industry,” and the more contemporary idiom, “welcome,” are generally framed as gestures of love. I may not like my relatives, or my relatives’ politics, or my relatives’ ways of doing or being in the world, but I invite them into my home, make dinner for them, and give them a place to sleep because I love—or at least think I ought to love—them.
As in the home, so in the church. We welcome others because, in Christ, we love them, or because we should love them, or because we believe God loves them even though we do not. John Wesley’s comment, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” (from his sermon 39, “Catholic Spirit”), has been sloganized for the twenty-first century.
Framing hospitality and welcome as works of love certainly has merit, but it also raises thorny questions. Am I being disingenuous or insincere if I offer hospitality but do not really love the person? If I welcome someone who has done, or does, or endorses doing, despicable (and not just disagreeable) things, am I, by a sentimental kind of love, tacitly approving those despicable things?
(For a deep dive into how difficult these kinds of questions can get, see Edgardo Colón-Emeric’s excellent article on a related practice, tolerance: “Human Sacrifice: Religious Act or Vicious Desire? Testing the Limits of Tolerance with Vitoria and Las Casas,” Journal of Early Modern Christianity 4.2 : 227–61.)
Near the end of Romans, Paul offers an alternative framework for Christians to offer hospitality without either acting disingenuously or becoming practical latitudinarians. In Rom 15:7, Paul says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (NRSV). This instruction echoes what Paul writes in both Rom 14:1: “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions”; and Rom 15:1: “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Love is not absent from these commands to be hospitable and tolerant of fellow Christians (Rom 14:15 reminds us of the importance of “walking in love”), but love is not the primary theological virtue of Rom 14–15.
That distinction belongs, instead, to hope, and this is particularly true of the command to welcome one another in Rom 15:7. In the context of this instruction, “hope” occurs four times: in 15:4 and 15:12, and twice in 15:13. Hope, as the framing of welcome, is further buttressed by the repetition of “steadfastness and encouragement” (15:4–5) and by reference to God’s “promises” (15:8–9). Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome are not to welcome one another in love, alone, but also, even primarily, in hope.
We must never set the theological virtues against each other, since they are fundamentally united by the work of the Holy Spirit, but we can nevertheless see how privileging hope over love might be beneficial in how we frame hospitality and welcome today.
With hope as a starting point, welcoming someone whom we genuinely do not like does not mean we need to set aside or even play down our judgments. This means we can avoid the dangers of insincerity and indifference. Instead of welcoming people out of love we already have (or feel we ought to, but do not, have) for them, we may welcome them out of hope for the love that has been promised in Christ Jesus. With hope, facing our differences, even our disagreements, intensifies our hospitality, rather than threatening it.
As Paul underscores in Rom 15, the point of such hospitality is not to draw attention to how hospitable or welcoming we are. Welcoming one another is “for the glory of God.” Hospitality as an act of hope says, “Look how sure the promises of God are! Look how faithful God has shown himself to be, that those who would otherwise be estranged can share a common house, a common table.”
To offer genuine Christian hospitality, whether at home or at church, we do not need a neutral common ground, a setting aside of differences, or a big tent. We need hope—hope that the disagreements that divide us now will be resolved in Christ. Hope that promises of unity in Christ will be fulfilled. Hope that the love which we cannot muster now will one day flow among us as easily as it has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.