Article Mar 13, 2017

Preaching about race: Keeping the big picture in view

About the time I received the request to write this article, a pastor contacted me through social media with some questions. They were sincere and humble questions he had as a white pastor about race and racial injustice—questions he probably did not want to ask publicly.

Here is a small sample of his questions, “As a pastor, my heart breaks when I hear about people dying and being mistreated or taken advantage of. Is there scriptural support showing that God recognizes or validates race as a biblical concept, as defined and categorized by skin color? Is striving for earthly and temporal racial reconciliation stopping short of and obfuscating the true message of the gospel, and promising too little?” I was glad he asked, and I know his questions are ones other pastors have as well.

Is race a biblical category?

Our English word “race” is a subset of ethnicity, and today it is often associated in popular culture with skin color and has been used as a way to classify groups of people. Tragically, this has sometimes been used to argue that some people are superior and others inferior based on skin color. We have typically referred to people who advocate forms of ethno-supremacy as racists, racial supremacists or racial nationalists. Shamefully, churches have embraced and advocated racism on occasion, even attempting to use the Bible to do so.

Scripture views humanity as a single race: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). The Bible emphasizes the unity of humanity as God’s image bearers in both creation and redemption (Gen. 1:28, 5:1-2,12:1-3; Matt. 28:19; Col. 3:11; Rev. 5:9).The primary biblical subdivisions of humanity relate to ethnicity, which are a variety of commonly shared attributes; geographic location, geopolitical identity, dialect, religion, material wealth, education and observational features like skin color (Num. 12:7-9; Song of Sol. 1:5; Jer. 38:7; Acts 8:27, 13:1).

Race is a gospel issue

While we must be careful not to read all of our contemporary ideas about race into the biblical text, we must also understand that it directly and pervasively deals with sins related to ethnicity and race. Scripture confronts “peoples” and “nations” who view themselves as inherently superior to others based on distinctions of culture and identity. The biblical storyline highlights the constant post-Fall danger of using any of these distinctions as a form of sinful self-justification.

Issues related to ethnicity are fundamental, not incidental, to the unfolding gospel story in redemptive history. Sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, notes in The Rise of Christianity that the city of Antioch during the days of Roman rule was divided into 18 different and intensely antagonistic ethnic groups with almost no social integration. It was the followers of Christ in the multi-ethnic church of Antioch who were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26) and who took the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world (Acts 13:1-3). The Greco-Roman world stood in awe of the people who formerly hated each other because of ethnic distinctions and now loved each other as family, worshipping and serving together in the name of Jesus (John 13:35).

I believe the reason many white Christians in America fail to see the implications for issues related to racial injustice in the Scripture is the same reason we often read past famine in the Bible without thinking much of it—we have never experienced it. White Christians are the dominant majority, so we think of ourselves as the insiders, and as the norm. But awareness of and sensitivity to ethnic and racial issues is not some foreign issue for social justice warriors. It is Christianity 101.

The bigger picture in preaching

Preaching on race is not merely a matter of addressing current cultural issues, a few specific biblical texts or an occasional sermon series. While all of those things are necessary, I contend that preaching on issues related to sinful attitudes regarding otherness, including race, racism and racial injustice, are simply a regular part of faithful biblical exposition throughout the canon of Scripture. Addressing specific cultural issues about race, pointing to specific texts and an occasional sermon series on race should be addendums to consistent sermonic reflection on race. The congregation should understand that racial bigotry in the church is the fruit of a spirit—the spirit of antichrist.

The gospel tears down all sinful, self-imposed barriers between God’s image bearers and makes them one new man in Christ—the household of God (Eph. 2:19). Gospel reconciliation is to be proclaimed and on display vertically (God-to-man) and horizontally (man-to-man) in local churches (Eph. 2:11-22). We are to have the mind of Christ, which looks to the interests of others (Phil. 2:3-4). The “others” Paul mentions includes all categories of otherness, including ethnic and racial distinctions. In Christ’s kingdom, the ethnic majority has a responsibility to learn from, honor and be sensitive to the concerns of ethnic minorities.

A genuinely Christian attitude toward ethnic and racial diversity is not one of toleration, but celebration. The inclusion of ethnically diverse peoples in the Church is God's intention, fulfilling his gospel promise (Gen. 12, 15; Eph. 2, 4; Rev. 5, 7). The glory of the triumphantly consummated kingdom of Christ will be demonstrated by the multi-ethnic diversity of worshippers from every tribe, language, people and nation. These categories must help frame our sermons.

How should we preach about race? As a whole Bible issue, related to every aspect of redemptive history: creation, fall, redemption and new creation. Race should be addressed as a gospel issue and racial reconciliation as being at the heart of what it means for a local church to be faithful as the bride of Christ. The Lord Jesus said the most important commandments of all are to love God and our neighbors. So, we must preach and model the Word accordingly.