Reconciling Scripture and the Problem of Racism

feature-article.gifOne of our world’s current “hot topics” is racism. Corporations posture themselves carefully to avoid any allegation of racism. Politicians, media personalities, and sports stars have ruined their careers with racist remarks. Billions of dollars each year are poured into improving race relations. Churches and religious groups are uniting for the all-important task of “racial reconciliation.”

What do we mean when we talk about “racism”? What race of people are we talking about? What does the Scripture have to say about this problem?

We are all united in the human race.
The idea of “race” is not well-defined in common usage. If we are speaking technically, there is really only one race: the human race. However, generally people refer to “race” as ethnicity or visible distinctions among various people groups. Among the endless possibilities of variation in physical appearance, a few traits have been arbitrarily selected that supposedly mark out different “races.”

Biblically speaking, every person is united as part of the human race. This fact can be proved along four lines.

The human race is united because all have been created in the image of God.
During the first week of history, God created the entire universe and every plant and animal that inhabited it. The plants were created to reproduce “each according to its kind” (Gen 1:11). The birds and sea creatures were created “according to their kind” (Gen 1:21). The animals were all made “according to their kinds” (Gen 1:25). Man was also created by God to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). God created only one “kind” of human being, not many. What set apart the creation of human beings from the plants or animals was that God created man in His image (Gen 1:27). Man is not an advanced animal; rather, he is the special creation of God (Ps 8:4–8).

One of evolution’s most insidious lies is the claim that some “races” of people are more evolved or developed than others. This thinking has fanned the flames of prideful hatred and selfish discrimination against other humans who have different physical characteristics. Yet the Bible claims that man was made in God’s image and still bears that image today—regardless of ethnicity. The image of God was marred, but not destroyed by the entrance of sin into the world. After the flood, God instituted capital punishment for murder and the basis was the image of God in man (Gen 9:6). James condemns hateful words that spew from a prideful heart because of their inconsistency: they bless God and curse a human being made in God’s image (Jas 3:9). We must value every human being as a person created in the image of God.

The human race is united because all have the same parents, Adam and Eve.
According to the dictionary, a “race” is a group of people who have descended from a single ancestor. Therefore, all human beings belong to the same race since every person is a descendent of Adam and Eve. In fact, Adam gave Eve her name because, in his words, “she was the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20).

Those who argue for distinct races among humanity may argue (without biblical warrant) for a division of races after creation, making the parenthood of Adam and Eve a moot point. Paul would disagree. Addressing the philosophers in the Areopagus, he emphasizes the fact that all the nations of the world have descended from one man. Notice his words:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:24–26).

Paul’s point is crystal-clear. As he gives the gospel to these pagan philosophers, he begins with the self-existing and sovereign God’s creation of the universe. Not only had God created the entire physical universe, he created one man (Adam) from whom every ethnicity on the face of the earth descended. That means every individual in the human race is united because of his or her descent from Adam and Eve.

The human race is united because all have sinned.
Furthermore, not only are we all united biologically in Adam and Eve, but we have also been united theologically in Adam. Romans 5:12 lays this fact out in no uncertain terms: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Sin entered the human race through “one man,” Adam. Every human being is born in sin because he is a descendent of Adam. The universal condition of death (the ultimate end of sin) points to the sin of the representative head of our race, Adam. In the words of 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Human beings are not sinners because they sin; they sin because they were born sinners. That sin principle which affects every person is a result of his descent from Adam.

The Bible could not be more clear in its teaching that every individual, whether Jew or Gentile, has sinned, as Paul goes to great lengths in Romans 1–2 to prove. Differences in ethnicity, language, or appearance make no difference, “for all have sinned” (Rom 3:23). Scripture concludes that “None is righteous, no, not one!” (Rom 3:10). This sinfulness is a direct result of our descent from Adam. We are united as one sinful race.

The human race is united because all need Jesus Christ as Savior.
The condemnation of sin and its debilitating effects are not discriminatory (Ps 14:1–3). No ethnic group or tribal clan is exempt from the problem of sin or its inevitable result, death. However, God has made a way to be right with Him, and this way has nothing to do with human distinctions. The way to be right with God is the same for every human being (Acts 17:30): it is by faith in Jesus Christ. Just as every human being, as a descendent of Adam, has sinned and become liable to God’s wrath, so all who come to God by faith in Jesus Christ can be saved. Every human being can be freely justified by a gracious God because of the redemption paid by Jesus Christ (Rom 3:22–24). God shows no prejudice in salvation (Acts 10:34–35)—he can and will save people from any tribe, language, or ethnic group (Rev 5:9), all of whom are accepted equally because of the person and work of Jesus Christ (Col 3:11).

The necessity of understanding the unity of the human race becomes even more obvious when we examine the person and work of Jesus Christ, who became part of the human race in order to die for the human race. This is why both the deity and humanity of Jesus are essential: if Jesus were not God, he would be liable for his own sin in Adam. At best, he could only die for himself. As fully God, Jesus offered his perfect life as an infinite sacrifice for sinful human beings. On the other hand, if Jesus were not man, he could not take our place. He shared in our flesh and blood so he could suffer in our place (Heb 2:14). Jesus did not die for the race of angels, but for human beings (Heb 2:16–17). To admit the possibility of multiple races begs the question, for which of those races did Christ die?

Jesus Christ has uniquely joined individuals from the human race in a new body: the Church.
The human race is united because humans are created in the image of God, are descended from Adam and Eve, are sinners in Adam, and need salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. The work of God in this dispensation is to form one new body out of individuals with varied backgrounds: the Church. The New Testament highlights the work of Christ in the formation of the Body of Christ, the Church.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:14–16).

The Body of Christ is made up of redeemed people from every linguistic, ethnic, and socio-political group. We are “one new man.” Believers are accepted by God, not on the basis of their appearance, lineage, or social status (Acts 10:34–35), but as those who are “in Christ” (Eph 1:6). The diversity of the Church is recorded by John as he hears the new song sung in heaven:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9–10).

Notice the designation of the different groups united by Christ in his Church. God has saved through faith in Jesus Christ human beings from every tribal group, language, nationality, and ethnicity. God has accepted each one of them in Christ regardless of their ethnicity, social status, or gender. Therefore, Scripture says that in the Church “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The Church unites humans not around ethnic backgrounds, geographic location, or linguistic similarities, but through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Our response to physical differences
What then of our differences? Although God can and will save people from any race, language, or ethnic group, these distinctions still remain. While ethnicity, gender, and social standing do not advance us before God, we still retain these distinctions even after we are saved. Physical distinctions such as skin color cannot be obliterated (Jer 13:23). One does not stop being a “Jew or Gentile” upon salvation any more than he ceases being “male or female.”

Where have these physical differences come from? Why is one person’s nose bigger, his skin lighter, or eyes colored differently than another? Who has made us that way? Clearly, a sovereign God has created us the way we are since he determines our physical appearance (Ps 139:13–16). Furthermore, at the tower of Babel, God put in place the different languages that separated and scattered each family group (Gen 11:6–9). Differences in physical appearance, language, and skin color are created by God.

The Christian must battle sinful pride.
The problem of “racism” that is most obvious to human eyes is prejudice. Treating people badly on the basis of their physical appearance is wrong, most would agree. But what makes it wrong?

Looking down on those whose appearance is different than our own manifests a self-exalting pride in assuming that we are superior to others. The Bible calls on the Christian “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Rom 12:3). A proud heart is an abomination to God (Prov 6:16–19). Ultimately, this pride refuses to acknowledge or submit to God’s sovereignty in creation. 1 Corinthians 4:7 says, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” Everything we have, all we are, anything we can do, is because God has given it to us. God is the one who colors man’s skin, shapes his eyes, or gives him his language. To look down on someone simply because of how God has made him reeks of self-centered pride.

In his personal life, a Christian should not discriminate against another individual based on external appearance or social standing (Jas 2:1–9). This does not mean he fails to discern character or ignores sinful behavior (John 7:24). Rather, he ought to model the justice of an impartial God (Rom 2:11; 1 Pet 1:17), who does not discriminate against people based on outward differences, but instead looks on the heart (1 Sam 16:7). As a church, Christians should guard against a spirit of prejudice toward those who have different physical appearance. The church assembly should not be a closed group, but a friendly, evangelistic, loving community of believers.

The Church has been given a ministry of reconciliation.
What part does the church play in “race relations”? According to the Bible, the church has an essential responsibility to the world: the ministry of reconciliation. As we have already seen, the greatest need of the human race is not to be reconciled to each other, but to God. Therefore, the mission of the church is not “racial reconciliation” or trying to mend the differences between ethnic groups. Rather, the focus of the church should be on the reconciliation of the human race to God (2 Cor 5:18–21)! Reconciling people to one another is a happy effect of reconciling people to God, but not the mission or mandate of the church.

Missions is the church’s ministry to all the ethnic groups and cultures of the world. Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples “of all nations” (Matt 28:19). The ethnic differences we see around us must not hinder us from proclaiming the Good News that God, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, is forgiving sinful men and women and reconciling them to himself (2 Cor 5:19).

March 2009


1 Response to “Reconciling Scripture and the Problem of Racism”

  1. 1 Sound Words: Only In the Lord (on Inter-Racial Marriage) « My Two Cents Trackback on June 30, 2009 at 5:12 pm
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