Many people have crazy notions about what constitutes hospitality. Even Christians have surprisingly odd ideas about it. I remember one church-goer who routinely chided me about the elders of the church not fulfilling their mandate to be hospitable. This person would say unabashedly, “First Timothy three, verse two says elders need to be hospitable. But the elders aren’t inviting me to their house for dinner!” This church-goer was serious. Ironically, this impassioned enforcer of New Testament imperatives was not inviting church elders over for dinner either. For this discontented saint, hospitality was a one-way street. As we talked about what hospitality actually means in the Bible, he was adamant that it meant inviting church people over to your house and providing a meal…and it should begin with the elders setting the example. But the simple reality is that hospitality does not mean having your friends over for dinner. That is a misguided and truncated view of what the Bible actually teaches on the matter.
Other Christians have told me that hospitality means going down to the food shelter regularly and handing out cold-cut sandwiches to the poor and homeless. Others propose it is giving a dollar to the guy at the freeway intersection with the cardboard sign, “WILL WORK FOR FOOD.” Some Christians restrict hospitality to doing good for unbelievers only. But none of the foregoing actually reflect a complete picture of what the Bible says.
Another popular understanding among Christians is that hospitality is simply having people in your home. That is not a definition of hospitality, but it may be an application of hospitality. If you have a few people in your home for a weekly Bible study, that is not necessarily hospitality—that is a Bible study. If you have friends over for prayer and singing worship songs, that is not hospitality—that is fellowship. If you have several buddies over for the Super Bowl and snacks, that is not hospitality—that’s a Super Bowl party.
Another popular but mistaken view of hospitality taught by Christians is the notion that hospitality is one of the spiritual gifts given by the Spirit to certain believers, making a few more suited to employ hospitality than others. This is not true. Hospitality is a mandate God has given to the whole Church collectively and to every Christian individually. If you are a Christian and you are averse to practicing hospitality, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the gift; rather, it may mean that you are ignorant, have a bad attitude toward this obligation, or simply are holding onto a sinful attitude. All Christians are susceptible here. With regard to spiritual gifts, it is true that there are spiritual gifts (Eph 4:7), and the Spirit does sovereignly distribute the gifts (1 Cor 12:11) to every Christian (12:7). And no Christian has all the gifts (12:29). But hospitality is not a gift; rather, it is a universal ethic, practice, virtue, and obligation. Just as love, prayer, evangelism, discernment, the “one-anothers” and all the other imperatives of the New Testament are not specialized gifts, but rather commands given by God, so hospitality is a command for all.
In addition to pop Christian renditions of “hospitality” are widespread secular notions. The English Oxford Dictionary is typical, which defines “hospitality” as follows:
The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers. Relating to or denoting the business of entertaining clients, conference delegates, or other official visitors.
The emphasis in this secular definition is on entertainment. It’s from this kind of definition that the chasm grows even wider, distancing the modern understanding of “hospitality” from a biblical notion. Today many universities offer degrees in “hospitality management” which focus on hotel and restaurant management. For example, the Ivy League school, Cornell University in New York, is considered by many to have the best hospitality major in the country. But with this kind of “hospitality” we are far adrift from the biblical mandate of what God meant when He obligated the saints to live hospitable lives.
One English dictionary defines hospitality as “friendly treatment of guests.” This definition is based on the Latin root which is hospes—meaning “guest.” This Latin root is the basis of related words like host, hostel, hotel, hospice, hospital (originally meaning “guest house” then over time morphing into “care of the sick”). But all these words have a slightly different nuance than the fully-orbed biblical concept. In your modern English Bible, you will find the word “hospitality” only three or four times (cf. NASB, ESV) and the word “hospitable” two times in the New Testament. You won’t find the words “hospitable” or “hospitality” at all in your English Old Testament!
Hospitality Means “Stranger-Love”
Why so few references of the word “hospitality” in the Bible? It is because the literal biblical expression for the concept at hand is “stranger-love,” not “hospitality.” The Bible commands believers to “love strangers.” The actual biblical word is picturesque and beautifully descriptive. When I hear the word “hospitable” I think of a big, cold hospital building made out of cement and cinder blocks, painted white. When I hear the word “stranger-love” I imagine Christ showing care and concern to an ostracized Samaritan woman alone at a water well. So, with respect to the imperative to be hospitable, the Bible does not call us to be “nice to our friends,” but rather to “love strangers.” There’s a big difference. Scripture is clear and consistent from Genesis through the end of the New Testament in defining hospitality and illustrating it in action.
First Peter 4:9 says, “Be hospitable to one another without complaint.” In the Greek text here the verb “be” is understood and the word for “hospitable” is the compound word philoxenoi. “Philo” is from the verb phileo meaning “love.” Xenos means “stranger.” The fear of strangers, “Xenophobia,” is the opposite of “stranger-love.” We could translate the verse above in 1 Peter 4:9 as, “Exhibit stranger-love toward one another.” Phileo is one of two common words in the New Testament for “love.” The word Philadelphia, “brotherly love,” comes from phileo plus adelphos which means “brother.”
The other common verb in the New Testament for “love” is agapao or agape the noun. Phileo is used about 25 times in the New Testament and agapao occurs over 140 times. They are both translated in English as “love,” so they are indistinguishable in your average Bible. They are different words, so they do have a nuance of difference in meaning, although they also have some overlap as well. Agapao is said to be thoughtful (or volitional) love whereas phileo is affection. On occasion the two words seem interchangeable. The immediate context always determines their meaning with each occurrence.
“Stranger-Love” in the New Testament
“Stranger-love,” or philoxenia, is used five times in the New Testament: three times as a command to all Christians and twice as a requirement for elders.
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor, not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality (philoxenian).Romans 12:10-13
Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers (philoxenios), for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.Hebrews 13:1-3
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable (philoxenoi) to one another without complaint.1 Peter 4:8-9
An overseer, then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable (philoxenon), able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.1 Timothy 3:2-3
For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick- tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable (philoxenon), loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled.Titus 1:7-8
Wrapping It Up
The goal of this article was to simply define biblical hospitality. Being hospitable is a command for all Christians, not just an option. Hey, Christian—stop, pause, and evaluate. When was the last time you practiced “stranger-love”? And how often do you do it? Is it a pattern of your Christian life or a rare occurrence? Or is it non-existent? Biblical hospitality is showing fervent, welcoming love and affection for fellow believers who are strangers in our midst and have special needs of food, shelter and care by virtue of their transient status. We need to remember that “strangers” in this context are members of the Body of Christ—they are fellow spiritual family members, precious children of God, who we need to tend to in light of our relationship with Christ.