Biblical Perspective on Interethnic Marriage
In an age where British royalty married a mixed-race woman from Los Angeles, it’s hard to imagine that there are people who still believe that interracial marriage is a controversial idea.
But then . . . you get people saying things like this, from a woman (Jean Cramer) who tried to run for city council in Michigan a couple years ago said that interracial couples are a problem. Her reason? Because…the Bible.
More recently, Monique and I interacted with a young woman who wanted advice about her new boyfriend. She explained that he was an advocate for something called “kinism,” which is an ideology, popular among a small group of Protestants, that claims there is a biblical case against marrying outside one’s racial group.)
While most of us might simply dismiss such sentiment as morally backward, I think few stop to ask the question of why we consider this ideology—and statements such as Jean Cramer’s—to be so repulsive. After all, although interracial marriage is legally allowed in the U.S., it hasn't always been that way. Why have opinions shifted so dramatically? Many would chalk this change up to "progress" or moral evolution. Or maybe a lot of us have simply changed our minds.
But our modern acceptance of interracial marriage isn’t just a nice idea of progressivism. I believe there is much more to it, namely that the Christian worldview provides a strong theological foundation for interethnic and intercultural marriage. This foundation rests on three points.
1. There is an essential unity of humanity
One of the many unfortunate ideas coming out of the Enlightenment was the introduction of racial categories. Prior to Kant, the idea of dividing humanity according to physical features such as skin color was not a common practice. In fact, the Bible is simply not concerned to describe humans according to modern racial categories. It does mention ethnic differences (e.g., Sythians, barbarians), differences according to regional origin (e.g., the Samaritan woman, Ruth the Moabite, Simon of Cyrene), and cultural differences. But categorizing humans according to race is a foreign construct. To read the Bible through a racialized lens is anachronistic.
The Bible teaches that all races are unified because all humans share two common ancestors, Adam and Eve. The historic Christian position is that every human being who has ever lived came from this first pair (see Gen. 1:26-27; 3:20).
The apostle Paul reaffirmed the teaching of Moses when he preached the gospel to the Gentiles in Athens. He builds part of his case for the universal need for Jesus as a Savior on the Genesis creation account.
From one man he [the Creator] made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. (Acts 17:26)
Why does Paul mention the first human within the context of a gospel presentation? I think Paul may have been explaining how the Christian worldview directly confronts the ethnocentric sensibilities of the Athenians. In effect, he is telling these proud Greeks, "Those barbarians out there are part of your extended family. You are all part of one race, rooted in one great-great-great-grandfather. So if you’re going to believe in Jesus as your Savior, part of the deal is knowing that there is only one race, and that’s the human race."
The Bible also teaches that all races are unified by the fact that all humans—and only humans—are created in the image of God. As beautiful as it is to appreciate a sunset or enjoy our pets, only one of God's creations has been made in His image: humans. This feature binds us together and is the source of dignity, value, and worth for all humans. This is the theological foundation for the idea of "human rights."
2. Christians form a new sub-group of humanity
Through the covenant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Hebrews became God’s special people. God called them to be a light to the Gentiles, a priestly people to show the nations how to love God and neighbor. Thus, the dominant way of categorizing humanity prior to the coming of the Messiah was as Jews and Gentiles.
But even so, the Old Testament foreshadows God’s bigger plan: to eventually invite Gentiles to become part of His covenant people. But the Father’s plan is not fully revealed until Acts 10. No longer was the primary designation between humanity one of Jew and Gentile, but rather those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and those who do not. This is what Peter means when he sees the Holy Spirit fall on Cornelius (a Gentile) and his household, “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). Because of the work of Jesus, a new identity now connects God’s people together through Christ. Whether Jew or Gentile, all humans are invited into believing in Jesus as their Messiah.
This new identity “in Christ” is a supernatural identity, created in the spirit realm and expressed in the physical realm through the global and local church. Those who place their trust in Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit now form a new sub-group of humanity.
Here are a few key Scriptures to support this idea:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) (emphasis added)
In Christ, ethnic and social differences cease to be obstacles to deep, personal, intimate fellowship with members from different cultural or regional backgrounds. God is forming an entirely new nation of people who are united by critical unseen realities.
"Here [in the body of Christ] there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." (Colossians 3:11)
In other words, those things the world sees as significant physical, religious, ethnic, or traditional distinctions take a back seat to a greater reality: our spiritual connection through Jesus.
In Ephesians 2:11–22, Paul makes a more extended comment about the end of cultural divides in the church. God is calling people from among the nations to become a living Temple, a spiritual family, and a representation of Him on the earth until He returns.
When we get to the book of Revelation, we see a series of verses that describe God’s people as consisting of people from “every tribe and language and people and nation.” Revelation 5:9 says that Jesus’ blood “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The racial and ethnic diversity of the new creation will be proof that the Great Commission has, in fact, been fulfilled. The gospel will have reached the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:19).
Jesus is building a new humanity through His church. To make racial and ethnic distinctions a source of division in relationships is to oppose the truth of what God is creating in Christ. When we become Christians, ethnic and cultural distinctions ought to take a back seat to our identity in Christ. In other words, I shouldn’t think of myself as an American first, or a white person first, or a Dutch person first. I think of myself as a Christian first. And when I look at other Christians, I should see them first as brothers and sisters.
3. Christians ought to marry Christians
Now we can turn more specifically to the issue of marriage. A key stipulation for identifying a qualified candidate for marriage is that a Christian ought to only marry another Christian.
A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39)
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)
That was Paul’s way of restating the Mosaic law against intermarriage with pagan nations. The issue in the Old Testament wasn’t ethnic intermingling. The issue was faith, and the person’s allegiance to the one true God.
In light of these scriptures, I would argue that God’s primary concern about whom we marry is that the other person is a genuine and committed follower of Jesus. As far as I can tell, the Bible doesn't forbid marriage between members of different ethnic, cultural, or even socioeconomic groups. We are all equal at the foot of the cross in terms of our need for forgiveness of sin.
The biblical framework for thinking about spiritual differences among humanity would be better understood as those who are “in Christ” and those who are “in Adam.” Whereas, the biblical framework for thinking about physical differences would be better understood as ethnic, regional or cultural differences, not race. In my opinion, a Christian interethnic or intercultural family provides an earthly picture of the new creation where members of every “nation, tribe, and tongue” will worship the Lamb.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be challenges to interethnic or intercultural marriages. There might be practical considerations when it comes to language barriers or cultural distance between families. (Have you ever seen the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding?) We should also acknowledge that we live in a sinful world. In at least one instance, Scripture highlights some of the problems people face due to ethnic prejudices (e.g., Moses and his Cushite wife). Any Christian couple who chooses to engage in an intercultural or interethnic marriage may face certain challenges the couple will need to work through. But if they are willing to endure these challenges, they ought to be supported and cheered on by their friends and family.
Let’s settle it in our minds, once and for all, that the controversy about interracial marriage is the result of sinful human culture. In God’s economy, there is beauty to be seen when people from diverse backgrounds display the reality that Jesus’ work on the cross is the great unifier of His people.