In 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision allowed states to legally separate blacks and whites as long as “equal” accommodations were provided for both races. The legal precedent was known as “separate but equal.” In 1954, Plessy v Ferguson was overturned by another Supreme Court case — Brown v. Board of Education. This decision called for schools, restaurants, swimming pools, community centers, and other public spaces to integrate the races.
Of course, having a law tell you something is very different than having the heart to do it. Desegregation, particularly in the southern states, didn’t happen overnight. It was heavily resisted, and many sought to find loopholes that would allow it to continue — because their heart was opposed to the law.
Understanding God's Heart for Races
Sadly, the Bible was used to provide reasons for “separate but equal,” as if God’s heart was to elevate one race over another or to keep races separate …. [W]e’ll look at what God reveals in Scripture about his heart for all races and what that means for how we think about race.
"The God who made the world and everything in it — he is Lord of heaven and earth — does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination" (Acts 17:24-29).
"After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9-10).
We learn about God's heart for all races in these passages. Both the origin and the destination of all ethnicities is together with God. When Paul addressed the philosophers in Athens, he noted that every race came from the first man — Adam, and that it’s by God’s design that those races live to know God.
In Revelation, John tells us that the endpoint of every tribe, tongue, and nation is together, praising the God that rescued them. Think about that. There are only two scenes of absolute perfection and peace in the Bible; the beginning and the end. All races are present in both. Their origin is in the garden of Eden with Adam. Their destination is the new Jerusalem with God.
Racial Reconciliation and the Gospel
In the early church, grace brought Jews and Gentiles together in one community. Issues abounded as they knit these two separate communities together into one family of God. Let’s take a look at how this gospel applies to the way we look at different races, cultures, and ethnicities.
"For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.
"So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh—called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” which is done in the flesh by human hands. At that time you were without Christ, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In his flesh, he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace.
"He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death. He came and proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:8-20).
"But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. Then the rest of the Jews joined his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel, I told Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?
"We are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners,' and yet because we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. But if we ourselves are also found to be 'sinners' while seeking to be justified by Christ, is Christ then a promoter of sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild those things that I tore down, I show myself to be a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:11-20).
All people, regardless of their genetic or ethnic makeup, were at one time outside of the family of God. We were “foreigners to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12). But we, who were once foreigners, have been brought near to God and made part of His family. What’s more, God’s family is comprised of people from every ethnicity and language (Matt. 24:14; 28:18–20; Rev. 5:9–10). Paul rooted his call to racial unity in the gospel because racism is a sin issue, and the gospel is the only message in the world that can fully deal with sin. Where sin divides and pits image-bearers against each other, the gospel brings us together.
Unfortunately, human history is littered with examples of racial sin and injustice — the 1960s American South, Nazi Germany in the 1940s, Japanese internment camps, South African apartheid, the Middle Passage in the 18th century, Rwanda in 1994, the first-century Jews and Gentiles, and the slaughter of Native Americans in 17th century — to name only a few examples. For these atrocities to have occurred, people had to turn a blind eye towards the sin of racism. Even more, unfortunately, many Bible-believing churchgoers were complicit in these historical episodes, both in their participation and their silence.
As Galatians 2 shows us, there’s no room for God’s people to remain dispassionate or uninvolved when sin is in our midst. We must be people of compassion and justice. We must consider how “the image of God” should affect the way we see people of different ethnicities. And we must ask God to continue to reveal areas in our lives where we have considered ourselves superior to others based on our race or ethnicity. Ask God to allow you to see all people as He does — made in His image and of inestimable worth and value.
Understanding God's heart for all races and how His Word confronts us with the sin of racism, [we must] consider how the gospel should shape the way we deal with racism in the world around us.
This content was excerpted and adapted from LifeWay’s The Church and The Racial Divide Bible study.
by Trevor Atwood with General Editors Daniel Darling and Trillia Newbell
In light of racial tension in America, many Christian leaders are talking earnestly about racial reconciliation. The average Christian may not fully understand why racial reconciliation is a gospel imperative. And the average pastor may not know how to pursue it. This Bible study features a multi-voice video series from evangelical leaders (including Dan Darling, Walter Strickland, Trillia Newbell, Juan Sanchez, Russell Moore, and Trevor Atwood) that sheds light on issues of race, culture, and the gospel, and equips small groups to take action. This six-session study addresses: Imago Dei, God’s Heart for All People, Breaking Down the Walls, Pursuing Gospel Relationships, Race and Culture, and Where Do We Go from Here?