How does the Bible define race? This is a very important question. Unfortunately, it has the potential to be a controversial subject, but it doesn’t have to be. It can actually help bring us all closer together. Let’s discuss how Christians should think about race, and navigate issues pertaining to race, in ways that are in harmony with the Bible and the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Simply put, the Bible does not define race, as we think of that term, because race is a relatively new concept. Modern racial categories have only existed for a few hundred years. The theory behind race was that humanity could be naturally divided into distinct groups based on certain physical characteristics.
One early example of racial categorization is the work of Francois Bernier (1684). Bernier divided the globe and humanity into four groups:
- Europeans, North Africans, and Indigenous Americans
- Sub-Saharan Africans
- Lapps (northern Scandinavians)
About fifty years later (1735), Carl Linnaeus divided and color-coded humanity into four races:
- “Red” (Indigenous Americans)
- “Yellow” (Asians)
- “Black” (Africans)
- “White” (Europeans)
As if these divisive categories were not bad enough, they were accompanied by value judgments about each race’s supposed superior or inferior characteristics. This sort of racial categorization is not supported by the Bible and is also rejected by modern anthropologists:
“Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation. It was never accurate in the past, and it remains inaccurate when referencing contemporary human populations. Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters.”American Association of Biological Anthropologists
The Bible does not define race, because it is a human innovation. Humans have the ability to bring both good and bad things into existence.
Race versus Ethnicity
To be clear, race and ethnicity are not the same. Ethnicity is about shared culture, language, nationality, history, etc. The Bible has plenty to say about ethnicity, but not race.
In the Bible, we can see all sorts of different ethnicities (Jews, Samaritans, Greeks, Romans, Ethiopians, etc.). These people groups had different customs, languages, and cultures. And sadly, they often experienced conflict with people of other ethnic groups.
But most of the ethnic tension in the Bible did not rise to the level of racial categorization. They did not typically use physical features, like skin color, to categorize other people as unhuman or subhuman. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that this kind of racial ideology really took hold.
The History of Race
We cannot discuss the meaning and history of race without discussing racism, exploitation, oppression, genocide, and slavery. Racial ideology allowed people to justify stealing land, labor, and liberty from Native Americans, Africans, and others. The only way they could justify this sort of inhumanity was by dehumanizing their victims. It was taught in the courthouse, schoolhouse, and even church house that certain races were created by God for the purpose of servitude.
This, of course, is an aspect of history many of us would rather not remember. We would rather pretend this simply didn’t happen. Unfortunately, it did happen. Our current racial categories and divisions are a consequence of this historic reality.
History reminds us that ideas have serious consequences. The lie of racial categorization has had serious consequences. But our battle is not against the people who’ve believed these lies, but against the lies themselves and against the demonic forces behind these lies (Ephesians 6:12; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6).
The Modern Reality of Race
Knowing that race has no basis in the Bible or biology, we may be tempted to say, “Race doesn’t exist.” But that is an oversimplification.
Race exists today as a social construct. It exists because racial ideology permeated government, academia, science, and religion for hundreds of years. Wars were waged, laws were passed, lines were drawn, families were formed and separated, communities were built, and institutions were created around this ideology. Racial groups exist today not because of the Bible or biology, but because of history and society.
Thankfully, we have come a long way in exposing racial ideology for the destructive lie that it is. We have broken down many barriers and repaired much damage. But there is still work to do. And sadly, there are still plenty of actual racists in the world.
A racist believes the lie that humanity is biologically divided into superior and inferior races. I recently discovered the blog of a self-proclaimed “Church of Christ Millennial” who continues to teach this ideology under the description, “race realism.” As long as these lies are believed and perpetrated, we cannot say it is no longer an issue.
Christians and Race
I reject race as a biblical or biological reality. But I acknowledge that the lie and the damage of racial ideology continue to be a reality in our world. I wish it was not a reality, but wishing does not make it so.
The question is, what will Christians do about this reality? ignore it? throw money at it? hope the secular world will solve it? pretend Scripture has nothing to say about the healing of the nations? assume Jesus has no relevant word to speak about sin, transformation, forgiveness, grace, and unity? stand idly by as those on the Left and Right bite and devour one another? Or boldly proclaim the Good News of God’s kingdom?
The damage caused by Satan and his lies is not our only reality. The Spirit of truth is revealing an eternal reality, the kingdom of God. The present world, with all of its sin and brokenness, will pass away. But the kingdom of God will remain and endure forever. Until that Day, the citizens of the kingdom are to be vessels of God’s truth and instruments of his healing for the nations.
Jesus has offered himself as an atoning sacrifice, paying the price for humanity’s evil. His death brings peace not only between us and God, but between the warring parties of the world (see Ephesians 2:14-16). For all those who accept his atonement, we live as forgiven and forgiving people. We must take up “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21); not out of guilt for what humanity has done, but out of gratitude for what God has done.
We must avoid the extreme of thinking we can fix all the brokenness sin has caused. The present world will remain broken until it passes away. But we must also avoid defeatism and fatalistic thinking. God is healing the nations even now through the work of the Spirit and the preaching of the Good News.
The kingdom of God is here. So, let’s show the world what united humanity looks like.
I love you and God loves you,