Radical Hospitality

When we talk to friends and family members about Safe Families, it always takes a while to explain what it is. Is is foster care? Is it adoption? Is it just free baby sitting? I think it’s difficult to explain because it doesn’t fit into any of our normal categories.

Safe Families is built around the idea of “radical hospitality.” But what does this mean? It’s kind of trendy for Christians to claim to be “radical.” Makes us sound serious, on fire for Jesus, and (let’s be honest) maybe a little superior to our less-radical friends. But “radical” is related from the Latin word radix, which means “root.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “radical” can be used as either a noun or an adjective.

As a noun, “radical” refers to someone “believing or expressing the belief that there should be great or extreme social, economic, or political change.” As an adjective, (describing something else) “radical” means “causing or being an example of great change; extreme.”

So, yes, in the Safe Families movement, we do believe that there should be “great or extreme” social and economic change. We also want to be agents of great and extreme change. But, how do we hope to accomplish this? Through hospitality.

Hospitality is another misunderstood word. Hospitality doesn’t mean just having friends from church over for a Sunday roast, or watching the game with the guys. Understood Biblically, and from the standpoint of the historic Christian tradition, hospitality is truly a radical idea.

The word “hospitality” has a long and interesting history, which I will not bore you with now. However, it does go back to Latin, and came to mean a “charitable institution to house and maintain the needy” by the early 15 century. Our word “hospital” obviously comes from this word.

And this might help us to see the difference between our use of “hospitality” and its use in history. Do you go to a hospital to hang out with others from your same socio-economic bracket? Or do you (sick, hurting, or maybe critically injured and hanging on to life) rush to a hospital and expect to be cared for and healed, no matter what your background, race, or life circumstances are? Obviously the latter. This is the kind of hospitality that fuels the Safe Families movement.

Safe Families reaches back into our shared Christian history and seeks to revive this older meaning of the word “hospitality.” It was, after all, Christians who started the first hospitals. Following the example of Jesus, the Great Healer, Christians established centers where the sick and dying could go and receive treatment, free of charge. This was a revolutionary event in human history.

Biblical Hospitality

When we turn to the Bible, we see an even more shocking use of the word we translate as “hospitality.”

Hebrews 13:1-2 commands us: “Let brotherly love continue, Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The word translated as “hospitality” is φιλοξενίας which is basically derived from philos (love) + xenos (“stranger”) = “love of strangers”. We also see this Greek word used in two other passages in the New Testament. Titus 1:8 tells us that a leader in the church must be, “hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.” 1 Peter 4:8-9 urges us,  “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

Jesus captures this radical hospitality in Luke 14:12-14He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Biblical hospitality is costly. It is hard. When we open our homes to strangers, we are showing the deepest love possible. It is easy to love someone who is like you, who has it all together, who has given you favors or expensive Christmas presents. It’s quite another thing to love the homeless mother and her sweet babies who are used to sleeping on the floor, who throw their food on the floor, and scream for hours instead of taking a nap. That is costly love. That is loving strangers. That is welcoming the poor into your home. That is Biblical hospitality.

Christian History

We should not only be motivated by the Bible; we should also be inspired by the heroic example of our Christian brothers and sisters in the past.

Christians have always been pro-life and pro-family. We have always sacrificed our time, our energy, and our resources for the sake of others. This was counter-cultural and ultimately deeply persuasive to the pagan culture of the 1st century. In ancient Rome, for various reasons, it was acceptable to practice “infant exposure” for unwanted children. Whether because of poverty, or because girls were devalued, it was legal to leave an unwanted child on the trash heaps and left to die. Many of these abandoned children were also collected and sold into slavery and prostitution. Historian Larry Hurtado notes that although philosophers and writers frowned upon the practice, they did not make “any serious effort to bring infant abandonment to a halt” or to “dissuade the wider populace from it.”

It was the Christian community which stridently opposed the practice and actively tried to rescue these abandoned children. Hurtado again: “So far as we know, the only wide-scale criticism of the practice, and the only collective refusal to engage in infant exposure in the first three centuries AD, was among Jews and then also early Christians.”  

Callistus of Rome was an amazing hero who rescued children from this terrible fate. A former slave in the 2nd century A.D., he helped to organize “Life Watches,” where Christians would patrol the city of Rome and rescue abandoned children and take them into their homes. Because of his faithful labors on behalf of the “least of these,” he was eventually chosen to lead the entire church of Rome as its bishop.

Redemptive Suffering

So, we are motivated to invest in the challenging work of loving strangers through Biblical hospitality by the Bible itself, and by the examples of other faithful Christians in history. But our final, ultimate motivation comes from Jesus Christ. Our Lord and Savior taught us: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

To show Biblical hospitality–to welcome little strangers into our homes, and to care for their parents–requires sacrifice. We must die to ourselves in order to say “yes” to the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of others. But when we do that, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus, who took up His cross, and suffered on our behalf.

We were not the “deserving poor.” We did nothing to earn this grace, this love, and his Divine Hospitality. Jesus suffered for us, and he calls us and challenges us to suffer for others. But we dare not do this out of a grudging sense of Christian do-goodism. We don’t do this to earn approval, or to prove how holy we are. We do this because of the joy. We do this because of the joy that waits for us at the end of this process. We get glimpses of it when children learn to sleep in beds, when they don’t throw food, and when they scream less, but our joy ultimately comes because we know we are sharing in the joy of Christ.

Why did Jesus endure the tortuous suffering of the cross? Hebrews 12 tells us:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

We are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses. We have a “founder and perfecter of our faith.” Let us run the race. Encourage each other. Learn from each other. Let us run this race with joy–knowing that our Lord Jesus Christ is pleased with us when we love these little ones and their parents, all in His name.


by Gregory Sonderberg

Gregory serves as the Academic Dean at LAMP Seminary RDU and is a Proctor for the BibleMesh Institute. He has 16 years experience teaching various subjects in the humanities, and is studying for a Ph.D. in historical theology at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. He and his wife Cynthia have five amazing children, all of whom love to help take care of kids in Safe Families. He writes regularly at gregorysoderberg.wordpress.com.