As our country experiences a resurgence of race discussions, it is important to return to what the Bible actually teaches about race (see here for a more thorough treatment of possible responses to race issues). This biblical understanding may not fully address the political or socioeconomic issues that many feel should be resolved, but it should at least inform us on how to treat those with whom we differ (both in appearance and opinion).
What does the Bible actually teach about races?
All of Mankind is One Race
When Paul was in the ancient city of Athens, he preached a message applicable to all mankind: a universal Gospel. The people of Athens, however, were both religiously and culturally diverse. In his sermon, Paul not only challenges their pluralistic theology (many gods), but their heterogeneous (diverse) view of humanity:
“God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;Acts 17:24-26
Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation”
Notice that the Bible teaches that God is the Source of “all life, and breath” (v. 25) and that “all nations of men” are “one blood” (v. 26). This is, of course, the message of the very first book of the Bible and the consistent message throughout the Bible. God is the Creator.
Notice also, that Paul recognizes the divisions of mankind into people groups (or nations). Obviously, mankind is divided by nations with their unique cultures, languages, and laws (this current arrangement began at the Tower of Babel). However, despite our ethnic distinctions, we are a single race (“one blood”).
This idea apparently contradicted the current Athenian way of thinking. Matthew Henry states that:
“The Athenians boasted that they sprung out of their own earth, were aborigines, and nothing akin by blood to any other nation, which proud conceit of themselves the apostle here takes down.”Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Acts 17:22-31
A.T. Robertson notes further that:
“What Paul affirms is the unity of the human race with a common origin and with God as the Creator. This view runs counter to Greek exclusiveness which treated other races as barbarians and to Jewish pride which treated other nations as heathen or pagan… The cosmopolitanism of Paul here rises above Jew and Greek and claims the one God as the Creator of the one race of men.”A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Acts 17:26
Differences between individuals and people groups do and will exist. However, it is sinful to hold opinions of superiority/inferiority because of superficial characteristics (skin color, eye shape, etc.). As a single race (human beings), we all carry within us certain equalities, and potentials for achievement.
All of Mankind is One Family
Though the doctrine of the “universal Fatherhood of God” denies certain fundamentals of the Christian faith, a “universal brotherhood of mankind” is most certainly taught. All peoples on the earth today are descendants of a single family, Noah’s. Going back before them, we see that all human beings descended from the same parents: Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 2:24; Genesis 3:20).
Obviously, people across the world look different from each other. (For a more complete discussion on the origin of the concepts of race and racism, and the origin of distinct physical appearances, see the article “Are There Really Different Races?”) However, as Albert Barnes notes,
“This passage affirms that all the human family are descended from the same ancestor; and that, consequently, all the variety of complexion, etc., is to be traced to some other cause [i.e., genetics] than that they were originally different races created.”Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Acts 17:26
Barnes adds that,
“The design of the apostle in this affirmation was probably to convince the Greeks that he regarded them all as brethren; that, although he was a Jew, yet he was not enslaved to any narrow notions or prejudices in reference to other people.”
It is important to realize that what we understand today as racism or racial prejudice, which is really based on someones physical appearance, was unknown in Bible times. The differences between people groups were largely viewed as national, religious, and cultural. Their prejudices were no more justified, but we must be careful not to draw one-for-one comparisons between their circumstances and ours. (Jonah and the Ninevites, for example, had to do with nationalism and fear).
NOTE: Part of the reason that we fail to know how to relate to one another or treat one another is due largely to the breakdown of the family. It is within the family that we learn how to treat others outside the family (see First Timothy 5:1-2).
All of Mankind is Equal
Discussions of “race relations” in our country have hinged largely on the issue of inequality. While there is a political debate that needs to be had about that very topic, the Bible teaches that all men are fundamentally equal, and should be treated as equals. Paul’s sermon, again, makes that clear.
“It follows from the truth here stated that no one nation, and no individual, can claim any pre-eminence over others in virtue of birth or blood. All are in this respect equal; and the whole human family, however they may differ in complexion, customs, and laws, are to be regarded and treated as brethren.“Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Acts 17:26
Showing partiality, or preference, based on economic status and ethnicity (language, culture, etc.) is denounced in the Bible.
“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.James 2:1-4
For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;
And ye have respect to him that weareth the [good] clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:
Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?”
The penultimate demonstration of human inequality, enslavement, is also denounced in the Bible (contrary to some opinions). For example, Amos preached judgment on both the Philistine and Phoenician nations because of their involvement in slave trading.
“Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they carried away captive the whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom…
Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Tyrus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they delivered up the whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant”Amos 1:6, 9
The “brotherly covenant” referred to here is most likely God’s covenant with Noah, established when Noah emerged from the ark after the Flood. It was a universal covenant with all of mankind. The equal treatment of mankind (especially in the case of murder) was based upon each human being bearing the image of God (Genesis 9:6). By tying slavery to the violation of this covenant, God shows human slavery to be as heinous as murder: it dehumanizes a person and therefore strikes at his image bearing status.
Although there have always been (and always will be, Mark 14:7) disparities between individuals and people groups, all human beings share fundamental equalities. All human beings are equal in bearing God’s image, in their responsibility to God, in relation to one another, and in the opportunity for salvation.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”Galatians 3:28
Far from teaching that Christianity obliterates all distinctions, Paul is stating that ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or gender offer neither advantage or disadvantage in the opportunity for salvation. All may share equally in it.
There are not many races. There is one race. Ethnicity is one thing, but to separate ourselves into categories of race denies the fact that all humanity derives from a single Source, God and descends from a single pair, Adam and Eve.
Whatever our superficial differences, we are one race and we are fundamentally equal.
This means that we see another human being as an image bearer, someone who is like God in some ways and who represents God to His Creation.
This means that when there are differences of opinion, we will listen and try to understand (recognizing in a fallen world, we will not always find agreement).
This means that we will treat each human being with the dignity that they rightly deserve.
Though our society has a long way to go in reclaiming this biblical perspective, viewing one another this way will bring us closer to judging a person by the content of his character rather than by the color of his skin.