In recent years, I’ve heard several well-meaning Christian leaders assert that there is a sharp difference between fellowship and hospitality. They say that a person is not practicing biblical hospitality if he only has friends present to receive his expressions of welcome and love. The basis of the claim is the etymology of the Greek word for “hospitality,” which is, “love of strangers.” Where this assertion has been made, I’ve also seen faces fall. Faces of men and women who have self-sacrificially opened their homes and their lives to serve, but are now discouraged and perhaps feel guilty that their efforts do not qualify as hospitality much of the time.
But there is a difference between the etymological definition of a word and the biblical meaning of a word or concept. Context matters more than mere etymology. For instance, Peter writes to the saints dispersed abroad in 1 Peter 4 urging them to love and serve one another in a variety of ways. He reminds them in verse 9, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” These believers were to practice what is etymologically “love of strangers” towards those they already knew and loved. Why? Perhaps it is because, even within the church, it is so easy for people to drift to the margins and feel like strangers.
We need to love one another in the body of Christ through words such as, “Don’t be a stranger. Come for lunch today, or drop by anytime.” That expression of kindness can do wonders in the life of a brother or sister. God says hospitality can and should be shown to Christians we already know and love. If you are practicing this currently without grumbling, you should be encouraged to know that God is pleased with your hospitable heart and practice.
Of course, the word can and does mean that we are to host and to love strangers, as Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained strangers unaware.” We need to be stretched to love others whom we do not yet know and those with whom we might not be most comfortable initially. Experience teaches us that one of the best ways to grow in this practice is to invite friends and those who are yet unknown to us into our lives and homes simultaneously. When we practice the “love of strangers” to people we know and to people we don’t know, people feel loved without distinction.
Proposing a more rigid distinction between hospitality and fellowship also begs the question, “When does the one end and the other begin?” After I’ve known a brother for one minute? Two days? Three weeks? Further, if the distinction is so sharp, we might wonder, does Jesus show hospitality? If so, how long Jesus does show hospitality to a person, and when does he stop hospitality and begin fellowship? When he meets them? At their conversion? The very thought of these questions drives us back to the heart of the matter.
It seems that the essence of hospitality depends not so much on the person who receives our love, but is rather the quality of love in our hearts. A hospitable person loves all kinds of people and wants to be sure that no one in the room feels like a stranger. Indeed, the great irony of a hospitable man is that people say of him, “He's never met a stranger.”
I'm unsure who began to popularize the idea, but I heard something similar again most recently from Rosaria Butterfield. Though I take issue with this one point, I'm deeply grateful for Rosaria's work and am thankful that she and Kent are on the front lines of hospitality ministry and are discipling the rest of us in it. ↩︎