Issues and Answers: Race and Ethnic Relations
In a 1993 Christianity Today article by Rev. Billy Graham, the renowned evangelist declared, “Racial and Ethnic hostility is the foremost social problem facing the world today,” and he went on to state that “Racism—in the world and in the church—is one of the greatest barriers to world evangelization1.” Graham was correct in 1993, and sadly, he is just as correct today. Many evangelicals have tried to ignore the issue and pretend that it is not a problem in the church and in the world, but racial disunity and de facto segregation indeed exists within society and within churches. The issue is complicated, emotionally charged, and difficult to rectify, but a Christian’s heart should be the same as Graham’s, who in closing his article proclaimed:
The issues that face us are complex and enormous, and simply wishing they would go away will not solve them. I do not pretend to know the full answer. But let those of us who claim the name of Christ repent of our past failures and, relying on the Holy Spirit, demonstrate to a weary and frightened world that Christ indeed “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility2” (Eph. 2:14-15).
The issue within society may be complex, but God despises all forms of racism and ethnocentrism, because they incite discrimination, promote selfishness, and belittle the reality and beauty of His Creation. God seeks unity, humility, and love from His Creation, but racial discord simply promotes anger, arrogance, and bitterness. The sins of racial and ethnic prejudice have a deep history both in America and across the globe. Past and present sins of discrimination, segregation, and racial pride have caused this subject to be extremely tenuous. Many believe that racial and ethnic discord is such a deep and hurtful issue that they do not know where to begin. But when the world has no answers, God has the solution. He points the way toward restoration through confession, repentance, and reconciliation, and He leads us to the ultimate truth of race and ethnic relations through His Word.
The Problem in American Society
The problem of racial and ethnic discrimination has grown in American society for numerous reasons, the most prominent being the institution of slavery and legal discrimination and segregation during the century following the Civil War. Additionally, the treatment of Asian Americans during World War II, the hostility against Native Americans, and the mistreatment of Jewish, German, and Hispanic peoples are only a few examples of sinful actions by some of the American populous and government. And, tragically, many American Christians and churches have been involved in perpetuating stereotypes, promoting segregation, and outwardly discriminating against people of other races and ethnic backgrounds. While numerous Christians have fought against slavery, racism, discrimination, and segregation in the past three centuries, the numbers of those who have directly promoted racial disunity or simply stood silent while fellow human beings were being greatly mistreated is harrowing. Both promoting racial discrimination and neglecting to resolve it are sins. The former is a sin of commission, while the latter is a sin of omission, and God demands repentance for such actions.
The Ultimate Answer: The Image of God
The theological basis for equality of the races is derived out of the Creation narrative in Genesis, where God says, “‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26-27 NIV). Carl F. H. Henry provides the foundational details of the imago Dei (man being created in the image of God). Henry declares, “Christianity speaks of man, not as a rational animal merely, but rather as a creature bearing the Creator’s image… . Man is a rational, moral, spiritual creature, pre-eminent among the animals as gifted with dominion over them3.” God created man in His image, and this gives man the position of having dominion over Creation, but it does not allow room for certain racially or culturally distinct people to have dominion over other people. All human beings are created in the image of God. As Wayne Grudem warns, “If we ever deny our unique status in creation as God’s only image-bearers, we will soon begin to depreciate the value of human life, will tend to see humans as merely a higher form of animal, and will begin to treat others as such4.” Grudem is entirely correct. There is no room for evangelicals to stand firm on pro-life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research and continue to treat those of a different race as second-class people. Every embryo, fetus, and adult, no matter the skin color or heritage, is created in the image of God. They all find their inherent worth in the truth that they are designed by a holy God and made in His image. Racial and ethnic prejudices are self-centered, arrogant, and blasphemous against the Creator, and they have no place within Christianity either.
The Ultimate Problem: Man’s Sinfulness
Within the Creation narrative, God makes no distinctions between races and ethnicities. Race is not even mentioned when God creates mankind. In fact, while all races and ethnicities derive themselves from the same two people, Adam and Eve, the only distinction God makes during the first two chapters of Genesis is between men and women. However, in Genesis chapter 3, man opens the door for the coming racial and ethnic disunity through his sin. The Fall of humankind into sin is the only reason that racial and ethnic discrimination develops. Discrimination is sin, and since Genesis 3, all people have inherited a sin nature. This is the root of the problem of racial and ethnic disunity, prejudice, and discrimination.
From Genesis 3 to Genesis 11 the grave effects of sin on mankind are revealed. After the initial Fall in Genesis 3, Cain murders Abel, wickedness increases, and God sends the Flood. Despite the consequences of the Flood, man continued in his wickedness and self-centeredness, and in Genesis 11 the event of the Tower of Babel is recounted, where the people declared, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). However, God saw the sinful attitudes in this man-made creation, and He scattered the peoples all over the earth and confused their language (Genesis 11:8-9). When God confused their language and scattered the peoples in Genesis 11, He increased the likelihood that cultural distinctiveness and disunity would occur, but man’s sinful nature is the true root of the problem. Gleason Archer states that God’s action was a reaction to man’s sinful pride. He declares, “Their mindset showed a certain approximation to modern-day attitudes that assume that man can get along very nicely without God and successfully solve all their personal and societal problems simply by working together5.” He then claims that the “result of human self-pride is mutual alienation6.” Nevertheless, God anticipated this result and had a plan for racial restoration.
God’s Promise for Restoration and Unity
While God punished man for his sinful pride at the Tower of Babel, His promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 was the beginning of restoration and unity among all the peoples of the earth. The Lord declared to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). J. Daniel Hays states, “The promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 is God’s gracious response to the human catastrophe of Genesis 3-117,” and even though God’s covenant was given to Abraham’s racial and ethnic group (His descendants—the Jews), the covenant with the Jews was designed as a vehicle for carrying out God’s redemptive plan, which was designed for all peoples, not just Jews. For example, in Exodus 19, the Lord declared to Moses, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6a). However, this was not simply a community of racially and ethnically distinct peoples who descended from Abraham. During the exodus, it is said that “many other people,” along with the enslaved Israelites, left Egypt (Exodus 12:38), and God made provisions to incorporate them as full participants in the community, as long as they accepted God’s covenant (Exodus 12:43-49). Thus, there became a distinction between foreigners who accepted Yahweh and those who did not, and those who accepted Him and obeyed the covenant were treated equally with the Israelites in all religious aspects8.
To further prove this point, Matthew’s gospel mentions four women in the genealogy of Jesus, and, while that is significant in itself, it is even more noteworthy that at least three of the four had Gentile origins. Rahab and Tamar were Canaanites, and Ruth was a Moabitess. Additionally, Bathsheba, whose ethic origin is unknown, was married to Uriah the Hittite, so at the very least, she was united in marriage to a Gentile9. Matthew uses this genealogy to display Jesus’ royal, Davidic lineage, and even though there are women in Jesus’ line who are not racially Jewish, they were adopted into the community by their faith. Paul is furthering this same point when he declares, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart” (Rom. 2:28-29). Outward circumcision was the visible sign of God’s covenant with Israel, but what God truly desires is circumcision of the heart—personal intimacy between man and God.
It is through personal intimacy with God that He restores sinners to their created purpose—to worship and honor the Lord—and this restoration brings unity among believers. Most people who discriminate against others do so because they believe they are better than someone simply because of their genetic makeup, but the Gospel gives a completely different message. John declares in the opening chapter of his gospel, “[Christ] came to that which was his own but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13). Race makes no difference in the eyes of God. He offers people of all races, tribes, and tongues adoption as His children, if they will accept Jesus Christ by faith. The ultimate bloodlines that truly matter are the bloodlines associated with the atoning sacrifice of Christ. There is no place for racism at the foot of the cross, because through Christ each has been given the opportunity to move beyond physical ancestry and move into the family of God.
God’s Plan for Missions: The Unity of Diversity
Racial and ethnic discrimination also spurns God’s redemptive and missiological plan. As seen earlier, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. As previously discussed, the members of that nation were not necessarily ethnically or racially Jewish, but everyone was assimilated into the family of God. In the same way, John makes it clear that through Christ everyone has been offered the opportunity to become children of God. This demands the destruction of racial and ethnic barriers. However, the mission of the Gospel goes beyond destroying barriers; it also celebrates racial and ethnic distinctiveness. It can be seen through missiological passages that God delights in the unity of people from many races and ethnicities worshipping Him. Therefore, to achieve the fullness of missions, Christians must have a properly ordered ethic of race and ethnicity.
The understanding of the magnificence of racial unity in relation to missions can be best seen in two passages. The first is the Great Commission, where Jesus says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:19-20). It is from the phrase “all the nations,” or panta ta ethnē in the Greek, that John Piper develops a key understanding that the Great Commission is not solely about the number of people converted, but also the types of people converted. Piper gives a full and careful evaluation of this phrase, proving from both Old and New Testament usage that “all the nations” does not mean political groups but actually means “all the ethnic groups,” which emphasizes cultural and language diversity over political diversity10. Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, agrees with Piper, stating, “These ‘nations’ of the Scripture (sometimes translated ‘Gentiles’ to distinguish all other people groups apart from Israel) refer not to the geographic-political entities we know as nations today, but the pante ta ethnē or all the ethnic groups of the world11.” This promotes the need not for missionary and evangelistic color blindness but for missionary and evangelistic color appreciation and a determination to bring the Gospel to differing cultures and peoples.
The evangelizing of all the ethnic groups of the world is a fulfillment of God’s covenant promise with Abraham. God declared to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2-3). The New International Version (NIV) uses the phrase “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” but the New King James Version (NKJV) instead uses “families,” denoting small ethnic groups. The NIV focuses on all kinds of peoples, but not necessarily on small, culturally similar units. However, the term “families” used by the NKJV is a more exact rendering, as the Hebrew term used in Genesis 12:3 is kol mishpehot, meaning “all the families12.” This understanding helps make it more obvious that the Great Commission’s directive to take the Gospel to all the nations is directly connected to the Abrahamic Covenant and its focus on cultural family units that may be ethnically distinct.
Along with the Great Commission, the second passage that has significant relevance to the racial and ethnic aspects of missions is what worship will be like in the future kingdom. Revelation 5:9-10 states, “And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.’” Similarly, Revelation 7:9 declares, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” These two passages communicate a similar message. God clearly desires and foresees a multitude of people from all ethnicities and races worshipping Him in Heaven, and this is clearly a factor in the Great Commission. As Piper describes, it is this unity of diversity that increases God’s magnificence and greatness13. He desires and will receive worship, not just from a multitude, but from a diverse multitude. It is clear from the descriptions of Revelation that God will be worshipped by a multitude from all tribes and nations. Thus, Christians need to align themselves with God’s plan and take the truth of the Bible to every people group.
Another aspect of Revelation is that it reverses the disunity that developed because of the curse of Babel. The Great Commission and the work of the early church to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles were movements toward reversing the alienation that resulted at Babel. These were the beginnings of the restoration of the Creation order and the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant, which will be fulfilled when Christ returns and people from every tribe and tongue worship God in heaven.
Racial and ethnic pride and prejudice are sinful. They are the direct result of man’s sin at the Tower of Babel, and they have been perpetuated by sin throughout the ages. However, as seen from Scripture, God has a much greater plan for the differences in race. Racial distinctiveness enhances His glory. For too long the Western Church has allowed racial divisions and prejudices to exist and even flourish. But God commands that Christians confess and repent of their sins and move toward reconciliation.
The Ministry of Reconciliation: Practical Implications for Christians and Churches
In 2 Corinthians, Paul highlighted the ministry of reconciliation that believers should promote. “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view … [God] reconciled himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:16-18). Christians need to put away the sinfulness of the world and begin the reconciliation process with both Christians and non-Christians alike. Reconciliation may occur in a multitude of ways. It may include public or private confession of past sins, apologies to individuals who have been wronged, reaching out a helping hand in brotherly love, or churches fostering racial and ethnic unity. Christians and churches need to be proactive in improving relationships between races and ethnic groups, being cognizant that every human being is created in the image of God and that God offers solutions to problems that the world and government cannot provide.
Also, Christians and churches need to confront those who are perpetuating racial and ethnic discord within churches, communities, countries, and the world. When Paul recognized that Peter was being hypocritical in the way he acted around Jews and Gentiles, he “opposed [Peter] to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Galatians 2:11). If Christians and churches do not oppose people who are acting sinfully over racial and ethnic issues, they will also be committing sins of omission, just like the priest or the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
Additional ways Christians can support the ministry of racial and ethnic reconciliation are through celebrating the unity of racial and ethnic diversity and gaining a glimpse of what it may look like in heaven where people of every tribe and tongue will collectively worship God. Churches can promote multicultural and multiracial events and partner with churches from different backgrounds. Also, if a church wants to build a multicultural congregation, it should equally consider hiring a racially and ethnically diverse staff to further secure its desire to celebrate in the unity of the diversity of Creation. Finally, and most importantly, Christians and churches should love people for being God’s Creation. Love should abound outside comfort zones and should carry Christians beyond stereotypes. There should be a clear and consistent evangelical message that God loves all people, no matter the age and stage of life, color of skin, income level, or family heritage, and this message should be broadcast in both words and actions by His followers.
1 Graham, Billy, “Racism and the Evangelical Church,” Christianity Today 4 October 1993, 27.
2 Ibid., 27.
3 Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1957), 148.
4 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 450.
5 Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 226.
6 Ibid., 226.
7 J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 163.
8 Ibid., 69.
9 Ibid., 159.
10 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 161.
11 Jerry A. Rankin, “The Present Situation in Missions,” in Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions, ed. by John Mark Terry, Ebbie Smith, and Justice Anderson (Nashville: Broadman & Holman 1998), 41.
12 Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, 168.
13 Ibid., 198-199.