Preaching about race: Keeping the big picture in view

March 13, 2017

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.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24