Read Part 1.
On the topic of racism in America and in American churches, some things are debatable and some things aren’t.
Debatable: how pervasive racism is in American society and Christian churches. Not debatable: the fact that some individuals and groups do misvalue and mistreat people based on their race or ethnic background, even in gospel-preaching churches. Also not debatable: the issue continues to be a hot one in our culture.
Scripture has plenty to say against the thinking and behavior that underlies racism. But we’re not all well taught on the subject, and we’re not all as mindful of it as we ought to be. This article continues a look at biblical reasons to reject racism.
6. We are encouraged by example to welcome those unlike ourselves—especially those ethnically unlike ourselves.
If you walked into a gathering of believers in the early months after Jesus’ ascension—and happened to be a Gentile—you’d soon feel very out of place. In those days, the church was almost entirely Jewish.
Two fascinating incidents recorded in Acts began to change attitudes, and they speak well to our need to be welcoming toward different ethnic groups today.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said “… brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” (ESV, Acts 6:1–3)
Even among the Jews, there were some ethnic tensions. The “Hebrews” were Aramaic-speaking Jews, and the “Hellenists” were Greek speaking Jews—and the languages reflected different ethnic histories. The Greek-speakers felt, as we say today, discriminated against.
The apostles took the conflict seriously, and the congregation followed through, apparently with vigor—all seven of the men chosen to oversee the effort had Greek-sounding names and were either Hellenists themselves or were from families that included them.
This would have sent a pretty clear message. Among other things, it said, “We’re not going to have a Hebrew church and a Hellenist church—we are going to be one.”
Later in Acts, Peter has a beautiful ethnic epiphany. Following a series of disturbing visions and uncomfortable challenges to his assumptions, Peter is led by God to personally welcome a large number of Gentiles into the church. He expresses his attitude adjustment in these words:
You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. (Acts 10:28–29)
Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34–35)
7. We are taught that rejecting groups of people is incompatible with the gospel.
Peter’s struggle to fully accept the Gentiles seems to have not ended with that epiphany. Later, Paul had stern words with him regarding some compromises Peter had made with an anti-Gentile faction.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Gal. 2:11–13)
Paul then takes this confrontation in an interesting and important direction: He indicates that Peter’s decision to exclude people based on their ethnic background conflicted with the gospel itself.
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal. 2:14)
How was Peter’s error “not in step” with the gospel? The view that best fits the information we have seems to be this: A group of false teachers with insincere devotion to the Law (Gal. 6:12-13) cherry-picked rules from the Law and said these had to be kept in order to be justified (Gal. 2:16, 3:11). Which rules did they select? Among others, dietary laws. The significance of whom Peter ate with has to do with who was eating the right foods and avoiding the right foods.
The dietary laws, and the customs that went with them, created a substantial barrier for Gentiles who wished to enter the believing community. As a result, the error in Galatia was anti-gospel in two ways:
- It taught that obedience to the Law was necessary for justification, and
- it taught—in practice—that having the right ethnic background gave you an advantage in finding acceptance with God.
8. We’re discouraged from being intellectually lazy, especially in our thinking about people.
When we were kids, Mom and Dad used to take us for rides in the countryside and through small towns. In the back seat, my siblings and I would often hear things like, “What a beautiful old Victorian!” as they pointed out old houses.
But I couldn’t appreciate that much at the time. Where someone well-informed and attentive to details saw Victorian, Italianate, Craftsman Bungalow, and Cape Cod, I just thought, “House… house … house … house.” To me, they were all the same.
Human beings simplify, and lump together, and categorize by nature. Sometimes it’s necessary. Often it’s either immature or lazy—especially when we’re aware that if we went to the trouble, we could probably see and appreciate differences and distinctions.
The Bible doesn’t give us permission to be obtuse and oblivious to the world around us—especially when it comes to human beings and groups of people.
Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:46)
Philip has the right attitude. Take a closer look. Maybe Nazarenes are not “all the same.”
Paul takes the matter to a deeper level:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. (2 Cor. 5:16)
Clearly, there is a fleshly way to evaluate people—a natural way, a way that is presumably easy, but wrong. We’re called to a higher way of thinking, to biblical wisdom.
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16)
Much of our looking down on groups of people with different backgrounds goes beyond mere laziness. It’s rooted in pride: either a sense of superiority or a desire to feel superior (the worst bigots seem quite insecure about their supposed superiority!).
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Rom. 12:3)
We sinners have a built-in tendency to think, “I’m like this and you’re like that, and so I’m better than you”—sounds pretty juvenile when we put it that way, but as we age, we just dress it up more. The Scriptures call us here to exercise “sober judgment.” This is the opposite of lazily or proudly lumping people into groups and thinking of them all in terms of their worst representatives.
9. We’re commanded to treat others as we would want to be treated.
Does anybody want to be dismissed, undervalued, or hated because he happens to look a bit different or come from a different place? The answer is obvious. So, even by itself, this principle would enough reason to reject racism—with enthusiasm.
… . This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37–40)
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 7:12)
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement electronic library service.