Nearly everyone in America is familiar with the word “racism”, and it is no wonder why. Our nation’s history, although full of the grace and favor of God, is also marked by grievous sins such as slavery and the resulting mistreatment of various ethnic groups. Although we have come far as a nation, it still seems at times that these issues have not been sufficiently dealt with. Politicians, news outlets, and others take advantage of the tension, skewing situations to fit their agendas, and no one seems to know how to engage the real issue. This, unfortunately, often extends to the Church.
How should the Church take a godly stance on the issue of “racism”? First, we must consider whether or not we should even speak in terms of “race”. I would argue that terms and words matter. As people of the Bible, we should be in the practice of using biblical terms to engage the issues of our day. By changing how we talk about these issues biblically we bring the right gravity and weight to the conversation.
So what terms does the Bible use concerning ethnicity and the concept of “race”?
“And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him, Yet He is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).
Again in Revelation 7:9-10 it says, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
These scriptures are key for the Church when approaching this topic. The concept of “races” is not an accurate view of humanity — there is only one race.
So what term should we use when we speak about prejudices between groups of people? I believe the proper term is “partiality". Partiality extends beyond skin color. It touches upon socio-economic status, language difference, culture-based prejudices and more.
1 Timothy 5:21 says, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality."
James 3:17 says, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, [and] easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”
Obviously, both Paul and James saw instances of partiality even within the Church in their time. In Galatians 2:11-21, Paul confronts Peter about showing partiality, favoring the Jewish Christians over the Gentile Christians at church gatherings. Yes, even one of Jesus’ closest disciples struggled with partiality and Paul had to address this sin for the sake of the Gospel.
Even today, there are some churches and individual Christians struggling in their faith because of partiality, whether ethnic partiality or some other kind. We have allowed the world to dictate what we should be concerned about and how we should respond to the tensions in the culture around us. However, the scriptures tell us that we should not take our cues from the world. Proverbs 28:5 says, “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand all things.”
We have the Word of God, so there should be no confusion concerning “racism". When we depart from the teaching of the Bible, we allow the error of worldly philosophy to find a comfortable seat within the church.
The Bible is certainly not quiet when it comes to the matter of partiality, which extends far beyond skin color and ethnicity.
“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, 'You sit here in a good place,' and you say to the poor man, 'You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” (James 2:1-4).
“You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15).
When Peter demonstrated partiality to Jews over Gentiles, what if Paul had not rebuked him? He would have been risking the witness of the gospel before both the Gentile and Jewish believers. In this passage of scripture, we learn that the rest of the Jews joined Peter in his hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas fell into the same trap. The same outcome happens today when partiality is unchecked.
In Acts 6 we read about another issue related to partiality in the early church. The Hellenistic Jews had a complaint because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food while the widows of the native Hebrews were being well-fed. The church leadership sprang into action to rectify this, and the position of deacon was created.
The continuing sin of partiality in the church is a real problem, made even more so by the aggravated tensions in our culture. We have to be willing to work hard on these issues, to take these things head-on because, as the people of God, we have the solutions in the Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Engage Magazine.