A Biblical View of Race(s)

The topics of racism, social justice, and racial reconciliation have been hotly debated topics within the Church and on social media for some time now. One of the questions that I have routinely encountered from Christians in these debates concerns the appropriateness of the word "race." The question usually goes something like this: Is the idea of "race" simply a sociological construct, or is there any Biblical support for speaking of people as belonging to different "races"? 

Some brothers and sisters have suggested that the Bible teaches that all of mankind is a part of one "race" and, because of that, we ought not to speak of people as belonging to different "races," but only as belonging to the one "human race." To be sure, there is something appealing about this idea. It eliminates the perceived differences between us, and allows us to focus upon the unity that we all share together as those who are created in the image and likeness of God.

Yet when we look at the New Testament, we see support both for speaking of one overarching race and for speaking of many different races of people as well. In this article, I would like to sketch out the Biblical support for these two ideas and then draw a few conclusions from our findings that may well bring the contemporary debates on the subject into a different light.

The first thing I would like to point out is that the Bible teaches that mankind belongs to one "race." We see this idea in Acts 17:26, which states that God "made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth." The Greek word that is translated "nation" in this verse is ethnos, from which we get our English words ethnic and ethnicity. It is frequently translated as "Gentiles" but is also rendered "nation" or "people" in many situations. In the context of this verse, Paul is clearly pointing to the unity of the human race. All of us, no matter who we are or where we live, are descended from one and the same individual, our forefather Adam. 

The interesting thing about this passage is that a few verses later, Paul acknowledges that every individual is "God's offspring" (vv. 28-9). The word that is here translated as "offspring" is the Greek word genos, which is variously translated in the New Testament as "kind," "family," or "race." Paul's point in these verses is not only that all mankind is descended from one person (v. 26) but also that we all constitute one and the same "kind" or "race." We are God's "kind," God's "race." In other words, we are all created in His image and likeness. And we all have that in common. Thus, it would appear appropriate for us to speak of all people belonging to one overarching "race" or "kind." We might refer to this as an ontological use of the word race.

But the Bible also teaches that Christians, in particular, are to be considered as a unique "race" or "kind." In 1 Peter 2:9, for instance, we read that those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are "a chosen race" (genos) and "a holy nation" (ethnos). This means that it is appropriate not only to speak of all men as belonging to one human "race" but also to speak of Christians as belonging to one "race" or one "ethnicity." If there is a unity of the entire human race by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God, there is also a unique unity among believers, who are all united to Jesus Christ and, therefore, united to one another.

We are part of the same mystical body, and that is why we are all one "race" or "ethnicity." Thus, when we sing the words, "He left his Father's throne above (so free, so infinite his grace!), humbled himself (so great his love!), and bled for all his chosen race," from the well-known hymn "And Can It Be That I Should Gain," we are singing and celebrating exactly what Peter lays out for us in 1 Peter 2:9. Christians really are God's chosen "race," His holy "ethnicity"--and this is true regardless of what we may look like on the outside or what culture we may come from.

The second thing I would like to point out is that the Bible also teaches that there are different "races" or "kinds" of people within the one human race. In Mark 7:26, the Syrophoenician woman is said to be of the Syrophoenician "race" or "kind" (genos). In Acts 4:36, Barnabas is said to be of the "race" or "kind" (genos) of Cyprus. In Acts 18, Aquila is described as being of the "race" (genos) of Pontus (v. 2), and Apollos is described as being of the "race" (genos) of Alexandria. And Paul repeatedly refers to himself or the nation of Israel as being of the Jewish "race" (see Acts 7:19; Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:5). The point is that the Bible clearly advocates something that is very similar to the modern-day concept of race and indicates that there are many different "races" that exist within humankind. We might refer to this as an existential use of the word race. 

But what does all this mean? Well, the unity of the human race means that there ought not to be any discrimination or injustice among us based upon where we live, what we look like, how we talk, or what color skin, hair, or eyes we have. And there is no doubt that we have failed here as a people. The history of the human race is, in one sense, a history of discrimination and injustice against those who are not like us. Many groups, nationalities, and races have been looked down upon and mistreated through the ages all around the world because they looked or talked differently. The unity of the human race means that Christians ought to speak against this injustice when we see it and to do what we can to correct it.

The unity that exists specifically among believers means that Christians ought not to tolerate discrimination or injustice within the Church. Christians ought to love one another and care for one another as we would love and care for our own individual bodies. We wouldn't allow one part of our body to fight with or be unfair to another part. That would be ridiculous. We only have one body. Eyes, ears, hands, arms, legs, and feet all have to work together in unity, because they are all part of the same human body. Each part has a vested interest in the health and prosperity of the body. If there is a problem with one part, the whole body suffers--just ask anyone who has ever broken a bone or lost an arm or leg in an accident. Paul says that the same thing applies to the body of Christ as well (1 Cor. 12:12ff). All the members of the body have a vested interest in the health and prosperity of the body as a whole. 

If we had a son or a daughter who was being treated unfairly in school, we would most assuredly do something about it. We would make an appointment to see the teacher, and, if that didn't work, we would take our case to the principal and perhaps even the superintendent of the school district. The point is that we wouldn't stop fighting until we were sure that our child was no longer being treated unfairly, and we would do this precisely because we love him or her. The fact that Christians can see brothers and sisters in Christ being treated unfairly in the world and not do anything about it shows that we do not really love our brothers and sisters. And if it is true that we do not really love our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we may never have actually experienced the love of God ourselves. That is John's whole point in 1 John 3:11-18.  

The fact that Christians can be considered as a unique "race" or "ethnicity" has tremendous implications in light of the increased intolerance and persecution that we are experiencing all over the world--and even in the United States. There is a new "racism" afoot in the world today, and it has little to do with "race" in the traditional sense and everything to do with "race" in a 1 Peter 2:9 sense. Christians are increasingly being singled out as the subjects of discrimination and persecution. We would do well, therefore, to seek to learn from those "races" who have been living with this kind of mistreatment for generations--most especially those who are also a part of the Christian "race."

We can also say that the diversity that exists within humankind in the Bible means that it is appropriate for Christians to speak about different "races" in the world. The concept of "race" is not simply a sociological construct. It has a Biblical basis as well. We can rightly acknowledge the differences that exist between us, and we can rightly acknowledge that some "races" or "kinds" have historically been mistreated by others. If we focus solely on the unity of the human race and deny the existence of different "races" or "kinds" of people, we may well minimize the very real impact of racism; we may also miss the corporate or systemic dimensions of it and see racism simply as a matter between individuals alone.

Only when we acknowledge the Biblical basis for both the unity and the diversity of the human race, can we fully appreciate the picture in heaven presented to us in the book of Revelation. More than once in Revelation we are told that the Church triumphant will be comprised of people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 10:11). The diversity of the human race will be evident in heaven as God's people gather together side by side in unity to worship the Lamb who was slain.

Oh, what a scene that will be!   

Guy Richard (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA.

Related Links

"The Church's Answer to Racism and Sexism" by Jason Helopoulos

"The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 12, Race/Ethnicity" by Craig Mitchell

"The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 14, Racism" by Darrell B. Harrison

A Common Heritage [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]