A Biblical View of Race

LIVE WITHIN a few miles of Charlottesville, Virginia—a quiet college town which became the focus of international attention in August 2017. The words “Remember Charlottesville” conjure images  of torch-bearing Neo-Nazis, violent street conflicts, and hatred personified. What happened in this small town was complicated and multilayered, yet it has left an impression on the psyche of the country.
We cannot ignore the issue of race. At the same time, we constantly hear so many different theories and ideas about race and racial justice that it can be hard to know what to think. As Christians,  it is critical that we understand what the Scriptures teach about race, racism, and racial relations.
The concept of race based on physical features, especially skin color, is a relatively modern idea. Historically there were distinctions between people groups, but these were based more on family  lineage, language, or cultural customs; not on physical characteristics. For example, the ancient Greeks considered anyone a “barbarian” who did not speak the Greek language or adhere to Greek  customs. The word barbarian comes from the word barbar, which means “someone who stutters.” This term referred to those who could not speak clearly in the Greek language. In Greek society, skin color was not a major issue. If you spoke Greek, dressed like a Greek, and observed Greek customs, then you were welcome in Greek society.
Another example is the view held by the ancient Jews. To them there were only two classifications of people—Hebrew and the nations. Either you were Hebrew (an Israelite) or you belonged to the other peoples of the earth. The determination was ethnic, but also (and more significantly) religious. You could convert and join the covenant community of Israel, and your skin color or physical appearance would not matter.
Our modern concept of race began in the 17th and 18th centuries with scientific attempts at taxonomy. Taxonomy is the branch of biology that deals with the classification of living things. In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus developed a method of classifying plants and animals that is still the standard. It also was largely due to Linnaeus that we conceived our modern understanding of three distinct races. These racial categories were based on skin color, physical characteristics, and geographic distribution.
However, according to Christianity, there is only one race—the human race. Biblically, all people are part of one family. We all descended from Adam and Eve. This is plainly taught in the  Scriptures. Indeed, the name Eve means “mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20), thus indicating she was the primal ancestor of all human beings. We are also all descended from Noah. During the Flood, all humans except Noah and his family were destroyed (Genesis 7:21-23; 1 Peter 3:20). This is why the New Testament says God has made all the peoples of the earth “from one blood” (Acts 17:26 NKJV), or “from one man” (NIV).
Thus, from a Biblical perspective there are concerns with the concept of there being different human “races.” Further, as a biological term, we must reject the concept of race. It refers to a  subspecies, implying the possibility of a new, different race being formed. This we categorically reject!
“Skin color” also is not a good definition. For example, if we take the usual idea of three races—Mongoloid (Asians), Caucasoid (Europeans), and Negroid (Africans)—there are wide internal  variations. There are light-complexioned brown peoples in sections of Africa. There are Caucasians in India with very dark skin. And both light and dark complexions exist among the Chinese and Japanese. Besides, what is skin color? It is nothing more than a little more or a little less of skin pigment, which we all have. Except for albinos, there are no truly “white” people. All of us have some “color.”
To discuss the distinctions found among various groups of the human family, a better word than race can be used. The Bible speaks of the nations and peoples, or éthne (ethnic groups). The term ethnic group or people group gives a better picture of the Biblical understanding of the distinctions within mankind.
Where, then, did the various people groups of the earth originate? Everyone is descended from Adam through Noah. The various ethnic divisions may be traced to the spread of Noah’s  descendants just after the Flood. This process of ethnic diversification is described in the “table of the nations” in Genesis 10. This remarkable ancient record documents the broad, general  geographic distribution of the various peoples, along with their family origins. Of course, through the millennia there has been much intermingling among the various peoples of the earth, so there are probably few (if any) groups that are completely of one ethnic origin.
Another question that arises from this topic is, Where did all the different languages come from? This is an important question in regard to the nations of the earth, for the most important cultural distinctive between various peoples is their language. More than anything else, language determines the culture of a people.
Genesis 11:1 says after the Flood, people spoke only one language. This unity of language enabled the people to have a unity of culture, society, and government, and they desired to remain unified (v. 4). Consequently, they decided to erect a tower for occult worship and to solidify their union. However, God was displeased with their arrogant, independent spirit (v. 6). Thus, the Lord confused their speech, causing them to speak a number of different languages (vv. 7-9). As a result, the people were scattered and dispersed across the earth.
This confusion of languages is the reason there are a multitude of languages on the earth. It does not mean the people immediately spoke French, German, Swahili, or Chinese. These are modern languages. It probably indicates God created the various primal language families we now recognize as the earth’s root languages.
One thought must be emphasized: The Biblical portrayal of the origins of mankind teaches we are all one family—a single human race. The differences between the various people groups of the earth are secondary to our unity as one human family. There is no particular “race” or ethnic group that is superior to another. We are all the creation of God, with one common blood and one common origin. God loves all ethnic groups equally. Christ died for all people, no matter the color of their skin or their national origin. Every born-again believer in Jesus Christ is a member of the family of God. We are one in His Spirit and one through His blood.
Indeed, the Bible clearly indicates Christ and Christianity broke through contemporary ethnic barriers and destroyed them. Consider these examples:
• The visit of the Magi indicated the Messiah came for all nationalities (Matthew 2:1-3).
• Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman showed our Lord crossing ethnic boundaries (John 4).
• Philip did not hesitate to share the Gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).
• Peter’s vision and visit to a Roman soldier’s house shows the Gospel is for all people groups, not just Jews (Acts 10).
The Apostle Paul said the “middle wall of separation” dividing Jew and Gentile was destroyed by Jesus Christ, and we are “one new man” in the sight of God (Ephesians 2:14-16 NKJV). Truly, God is “no respecter of persons,” including ethnicities (Acts 10:34).
There is no place for racism or racial discrimination in the Christian faith. Anyone who claims to be a Christian and has hatred for any person, much less any group of people, is by that very hatred denying the Christian faith they espouse (see 1 John 2:9-11; 4:20). To manifest racism and racial hatred is to deny Christ and the Gospel. At the same time, we must be proactive in declaring the good news of our Savior to all people everywhere. We must never forget, “For God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16).
Victor Morris is discipleship pastor
for Commonwealth Christian Community,
a Church of God congregation in
Crozert, Virginia. c3people.com