What Is the Mission of the Church in a Racialized World?

Gospel,+Race,+&+the+ChurchLast year, I joined Nicholas Piotrowski, Charles Ware, and Gus Pritchard for an event in Indianapolis called “Gospel, Race, and the Church.” Through six short messages and six panel discussions, plus a Q & A we worked through many subjects related to contemporary discussions on race and justice in the church. While this subject is fraught with landmines, the overall tenor of the event was positive, biblical, and prayerfully helpful.

To encourage candidness in the moment, the audios were not made public, so I can’t link to those. But what follows is an updated version of my second message. You can find the manuscript of the first message (Is Racial Justice a Gospel Issue?) here.


Here is the thesis that I want to argue: Your race is more important than your ethnicity.

When defined biblically and not sociologically, one’s race is more important for identity formation than one’s ethnicity. And by extension, the mission of the church is to help you make that statement true. Which raises the question. What is race? And do you know what your race is?

As insulting as that question may sound at first, I am going to suggest it is an easy question to mistake—especially if we have fused biblical ideas with worldly ideologies. At the same time, if we can answer this question from the Bible and the Bible alone, then we have hope for knowing and growing the mission of the church. This is the point that I will argue here, and here is how I will proceed.

  1. I will show why the concept of racialization in America is popular and pervasive, but ultimately unhelpful—if not harmful.
  2. I will attempt to draw the lines of race and ethnicity according to the Bible.
  3. With those lines in place, I will demonstrate that the mission of the church helps men and women, who hold PhD’s in ethnic Partiality, ethnic Hostility, ethnic Discrimination, grow up into Christ, who is the head of a new chosen race, redeemed from nation (ethnē).

So that’s we are going.

Racism (Re)Defined as Racialization?

First, we must define racialization.

If you have not seen or heard this word before, you probably have not been reading the newer books on the subject or race and racism. Not that I am counting, but this term has been used by John Piper (Bloodlines),[1] Jarvis Williams (Redemptive Kingdom Diversity),[2] Irwyn Ince (The Beautiful Community),[3] and many others. And importantly, all of these works point to Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in their landmark book, Divided by Faith.[4]

For sake of time, let me cite just one of these authors to show how racialization works, as it has worked its way into the discussion of race and racism in modern America.

Irwyn Ince is a wonderful brother who has been a PCA pastor for years. He has served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCA. And most personally, I met him a few years ago when I sat in on one of his classes at Reformed Theological Seminary. After that, he preached in our church’s pulpit and delivered an edifying message from the book of Hebrews. So I deeply respect Dr. Ince and there are many parts of his book I appreciate. That said I find his use of the idea of racialization unhelpful.

In The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best, Ince describes the effects of Genesis 11 on America. And in that discussion, he cites Ibram X. Kendi and Kendi’s thesis that racist policies in America have always come from racist ideas (pp. 75–76). Affirming this sociological perspective, Ince makes a theological connection. He says,

Put in theological terms, our racialized society is an outworking of our ghettoization at Babel. And the devastating reality is that groups of people still seek to serve the interests of their ghetto.[5]

Ince continues, “Kendi’s point about the changing nature of racialization in America reinforces what Christian Smith and Michael Emerson explained in 2000 when they wrote:

The framework we here use—racialization—reflects that [post-Civil Rights era] adaptation. It [Racialization] understands that racial practices that reproduce racial division in the contemporary United States [they are] (1) increasingly covert, (2) embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) invisible to most Whites.[6]

Without getting into all the details of racialization, we need to consider where this new, Post-Civil Rights racism comes from. If you look at Ince and all the other evangelicals who use this term, almost all of them cite Emerson and Smith. And where do Emerson and Smith get the definition of racialization, the idea of racist ideas hidden in plain sight?

The short answer is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociology professor at Duke and a leading proponent of Critical Race Theory (Divided by Faith, 9–11). What is important about Bonilla-Silva, is that racism after the Civil Rights movement has been transformed and is now embedded in social, political, and legal structures. The result is that racism can now exist without racists. That’s the title of his book (Racism with Racists), now in its sixth edition. This book was published after Divided by Faith, but Emerson and Smith cite an unpublished paper that he wrote in 1997.

Here’s the point. Without getting into the details of CRT, when you use, or hear, or see the word “racialization,” take note, it is not a concept that comes from the Bible, nor is it a word that comes from a sociology grown from biblical stock. Racialization is a term that comes from a view of the world that is wholly inconsistent with the biblical narrative. And thus, Christians should take caution whenever that word is used and should seek a biblical definition of race and ethnicity, as well the universal sins of ethnic pride and hostility.

In what follows, I will argue that if we are going to rebuild our understanding of race, ethnicity, and the ministry of reconciliation, we must not borrow the idea of racialization. Instead, we need to go back to the Bible itself. We cannot simply employ the tools of the CRT, or any other religious ideology (e.g., White Supremacy, Black Power, or anything else), to assist biblical reconciliation. Instead, we must mine the depths of Scripture to find God’s perspective on fallen humanity, its sin, and God’s plan of reconciliation in Christ. Because Scripture is sufficient to handle any type of sin, importing the concept of “racialization” does not give us a better understanding of Scripture. It only confuses the problem.

For not only does racialization, a concept drawn from the quarries of CRT, identify sin with groups of people—specifically, people with power—but it also ignores human agency in sin. Even more, it gives a view of the world that comes from sociology—and not just any sociology, but a sociology that redefines biblical words and concepts, so that in talking about race, ethnicity, justice, and the church, we end up talking the language of Babel. Therefore, we need to go back the Bible.

One Human Race, Or Two?

With our eyes fixed on Scripture we need to see what the Bible says about race, ethnicity, and the pride, hostility, and discrimination that arises in the heart of every son or daughter born of Adam.

The first thing to observe is that the Bible identifies two races, not just one. This might sound strange, if you have been schooled in the biology of Darwin and his kind, because various Darwinists have argued that different races came from different origins. This was the scientific rationale that supported the racial inferiority of blacks.

By contrast, Paul declares there is one human race, derived from one man. “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26).

Still, this singular human race, with one common ancestor, does not deny a second race in the Bible—namely, a people born from above (John 3:3–8). As Scripture presents it, every child of God has a Father in heaven and an older brother in Christ, not Adam. In Romans 5, these two races are set against one another. There is the human race whose head is the first man, and there is the new human race whose head is the last man. Maybe we do not think of Adam’s family and Christ’s family as two separate races, but we should.

Peter does, just listen to 1 Peter 2:9. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

So, does the Bible teach us about race? Absolutely. Race is a biblical concept. For all the ways that sociology has (wrongly) defined race, there is something in Scripture that speaks to this very issue. The word “race” is the word genos, a word that can mean descendent, family, nation, class or kind. Indeed, it is a word that deserves its own study, but in 1 Peter 2:9, it is clearly speaking of a new humanity, chosen by God, redeemed by the Son, and made alive by the Spirit. And this “chosen race” is set against another “race,” the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

In this way, we should see in Scripture one fallen human race and one redeemed human race, thus producing two peoples, or as Genesis 3:15 would have it: “two seeds.” From the beginning, there was a single divide in humanity, producing two kinds of people. And in the fullness of time (i.e., when Christ came), this divide manifested in the two races referenced in 1 Peter 2:9. Today, all biblical thinking about race begins with this fact—there is not one human race, but two.

A Biblical Theology of Race

Moving across the canon helps us take the next step in a biblical theology of race. If we had more time, we could consider all the ways that the Law divided Jew and Gentile as two “races.” Indeed, if the language of Scripture means anything, it is striking that in Acts 7:19, Stephen speaks of Israel as his “race” (genos) not his ethnicity (ethnos). Indeed, because the divide in the Law separates Jew and Gentile as two peoples, set under different covenantal heads, the division between Jew and Gentile stands in typological relationship to Adam and Jesus. To put it in an analogy,

Jew : Gentile :: Christ : Adam

More fully, we can say that the legal division between Jew and Gentile, did not create a permanent, spiritual, or lasting division in humanity, but it did reinforce the divide created in Genesis 3:15, when God set at odds the seed of the woman against the seed of the serpent. Ever since, the biblical story carves out one people to be God’s chosen race. In the Old Testament, this was the nation of Israel according to the flesh (see Exod. 19:5–6). And during the time of the old covenant, there were two “races”—the Jews and the Gentiles. Typologically, these two races were roughly equivalent to the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, even though not every Israel was truly a seed of the woman (e.g., Saul) and some Gentiles would become members of the covenant community (e.g., Rahab and Ruth).

In the fullness of time, however, this covenantal difference would be brought to an end, and the real, lasting, and spiritual divide, of which God promised in Genesis 3, and again in Genesis 12, would be created in the new race of men created by the firstborn from the dead, Jesus Christ (Col. 1:18). And this again is what makes two races.

Therefore, “racism,” according to Scripture alone, should be defined as the hostility that stands between seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Indeed, what is commonly called racism today is not racism at all, but ethnic hostility, ethnic pride, ethnic partiality. Moreover, what is called diversity, equity, and inclusion is actually an affront to the very division that Jesus is bringing into the world (see Matt. 10:34).

Now, in redefining racism according to Scripture, I am not trying to ignore the fact that our world is filled with pride and partiality amplified by color-consciousness. America’s history is filled with hatred and violence due to skin color. If there is anything redeemable in Divided by Faith, it is the selective but shocking history of slavery and Jim Crow that it reports. To those who deny the horrors of history, should listen to the testimonies of Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass), Booker T. Washington (Up from Slavery), and Solomon Northrup (Twelve Years a Slave).

That history being acknowledged, however, if we are going to make headway as Christ’s new humanity, we must be wholly biblical. This means we not to see the world according to the sociologists of the nineteenth century, many of whom elevated whites over blacks. And we must not see the world according to the sociologists of the twenty-first century, many of whom seek to re-segregate blacks from whites. Instead, we must come to the throne of God, where humanity again is separated into two groups—neither of which is by color.

If the church is to be on earth what it is in heaven, the church’s mission is to see sons of Adam become sons of God by the preaching of the gospel. More predestinarian, the mission of the church is to find the lost sheep in every fold (i.e., in every nation), and by so gathering God’s elect this increases the divide between sheep and goats. Truly, the truth of two races – one natural, one spiritual – is so important today, because there is a spirit of Babel that wants to unite the human race and eliminate the divide between sheep and goats.  Tragically, however, if you get on the train which calls you embrace unity by way of human diversity you will lose the gospel.

So, biblically speaking there are two races. And this division in humanity is one that we cannot erase, unless we want to oppose God himself.

How Many Ethnicities?

If Scripture identifies two races, then Scripture also gives us seventy nations, or ethnicities (from the Greek ethnoi). Now here, seventy nations is a symbolic number, not actual. Seventy comes from the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, where the seventy nations listed represent all the nations on the earth.

If you remember, Genesis 10 gives us a list of all the nations that come from Shem, Ham, and Japheth and the division between these nations is due to the division of language. The division between nations is also a result of post-diluvian world, which was split by rivers, mountain ranges, and their resulting regions. Space does not permit a consideration of this, but it is worth noting that if we accept a cosmic flood, the terrain of the earth after Genesis 6–9 is far more diverse than what it was before. And if Thomas Sowell is right that cultures, with their migrations and their conquests, are heavily influenced by geography, then we need to consider the way the unequal terrain of the world plays a role in disparities and discriminations.[7]

Sticking with the language question, Genesis 11 reveals that God’s judgment upon Noah’s descendants came when they attempted to make a name for themselves and build a tower into the heavens. Genesis 10:5ff, however, lets us know that the different nations came from the events of Babel. In other words, the division of nations in Genesis 10 was caused by the events of Genesis 11.[8]

This ethnic division via God’s imposition of language produces at least three consequences that begin to prepare the way for God’s work in Christ.

  1. If the division in humanity is created by language, then the multitude of ethnicities is fundamentally caused by God and not by man. This means, that the unification of humanity must also be caused by God and cannot be achieved by man. Babel was man’s attempt to unify the human race, and this invited God’s judgment. Hence, any attempt to unify Adam’s fallen race today will also invite his judgment and oppose his plan to unite his people in Christ.
  2. Ethnic divisions were given as a judgment upon human pride and self-protection. They were not originally given as a blessing. The blessing of God comes in Genesis 12, when he promises a seed who will bring salvation to all the families of the earth. The blessing does not proceed from Genesis 11 and the division of the nation. In other words, when God divided Adam’s fallen race into a myriad of nations, this does mean the division is intrinsically blessed. In Scripture, such scattering is a signature of God’s curse and a sign that he needs to save humanity from itself.
  3. In God’s wise and eternal plan, Christ is the means of this unity, as he creates a new race. Jesus’s death and resurrection does seal the cracks in Adam’s race; Jesus delivers his people out of people and into another. In the fullness of time, Pentecost will come and overturn the language divide—but only partially. In our fallen world, we still await the unity of Christ’s people. And today diverse languages, with their different interpretations, continue to be a barrier between local expressions of faith. This is true with respect to different tongues (i.e., Spanish, Swahili, and English of the Southern variety). But it is also true within tongues, as different English speakers interpret the world in different ways, largely because of different uses of words.

All in all, the basic cause of division is linguistic and related to various languages. In Genesis 10–11 God set one nation against another to prevent them from being unified. God knew that with different languages the fallen people of Babel would come to possess different locations, interests, food, dress, and worship. Add to this various spiritual realites (see below), and it is not surprising that nationalities formed separately and antagonistically.

Today, we can see that language continues to be the greatest source of division. In addition to the fact that languages still divide local churches, the difference between languages can be seen culturally and  generationally. Why does every generation chafe against the one before it? A simple but profound answer is that they speak different languages and inhabit different cultures. This is true for first and second generation Korean congregations who weigh the use of Korean or English. And this is true for every family, where the children express themselves differently than their parents.

On this same idea, there are some people whose outward appearance doesn’t match their expected culture. Why? Again, the reason is that they speak a different language. When God confused the language of Adam’s fallen race, he shattered the unity of humanity, so that only God could bring reconciliation and peace.

One More Source of Division: Don’t Forget to Add in the Powers and Principalities!

Before getting to the solution of humanity’s division, we need to see one other thing. According to Deuteronomy 32:8–9, when the nations were divided, God set different angelic beings, what Bible calls Sons of God over all the nations.

8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. 9 But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

As Moses records, each nation was placed under the power of some angelic being. Confirming this reading, we find that Daniel 10:13 says the prince of Persia resisted Michael, the archangel, when he came to visit Daniel. This passage teaches us that different peoples are led by different spiritual powers, who are different sons of god offering different spiritual lies. These powers are demonic spirits, who have deceived peoples and led them to war against one another.

This is our fallen world. And while I do not believe we can map out the powers and principalities, we should know that division between various nations and peoples is not just material; it is also spiritual. And because of that, no human system of thought, no effort of man, no scheme of sociology, no push for diversity, will ever reconcile the seventy nations. Again, because the nations offer impure thoughts and unclean words—to borrow imagery from the Old Testament—the church cannot employ things like racialization without bringing into the church ideas that harm the church.

In truth, the human race has been shattered by God. And only God can undo the shattering. And as we learn in Scripture, he does not repair Adam’s race by means of laws and inclusive language. Rather, he has sent his son to remove his people out of one race, fallen in Adam, to raise them to life in a new race, created by the death and resurrection of his Son. And because God has given such a clear and powerful way of reconciliation, the church would be foolish to import any worldly strategy for unity!

One New Man!

Finally, we come to the last number to consider. So far we have seen two races and seventy nations. Now we see the number “one,” which comes from Ephesians 2:14, a verse which speaks of the way Christ’s death removed the legal barrier between Jews and Gentiles.

Often this passage is directly applied to matters of ethnic unity and what is called “racial reconciliation.” But in context, the unity described here is a matter of tearing down the old covenant, a covenant wherein God himself divided humanity between Jew and Gentile. Listen to how Paul puts it in verses 11–15,

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,

In Ephesians 2 Christ’s death, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit have created one new man—one unified people who are forgiven and made one in Christ. As verse 19 goes on to say, “Those who were once divided because of the Law are now fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

This unity was planned by God the Father, purchased by God the Son, and given by God the Spirit. Later in Ephesians 4, Paul builds on this foundation and he encourages this one new man to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This means unity is not something the church makes. It is something we receive and something we maintain in the Spirit, so long as we do not attempt unity by means of the flesh.

For this reason, ethnic reconciliation cannot be a mission of the church. Why? Because Christ has already given unity to the church in something greater than ethnicity. The church, as Paul puts it, is one new man, which is to say, the church is one new race! And this is why your race matters more than your ethnicity!

If you remember, Jews were set apart from Gentiles, as God’s holy seed. They were a special race, not by their merits, but by God’s grace. And until Christ came, Israel was exceptional. Ephesians 2:11–13 makes this point, as does Romans 3:1–9 and Romans 9:5. But when Christ came, he tore down the covenantal division between Jew and Gentile, which means he tore down the temporary and typological racial division that the Law created within Adam’s fallen race. And now, in place of the Law, God has created one new by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection one new man. Yet, this unity also created a racial division—one that stands between the people of the Spirit (Christ’s one new man) and the people of the flesh (Adam’s offspring whether Jew or Greek).

Indeed, in the fullness of time, Paul reduced the racial category of Jew to an ethnic category. And he said to the Jews, like all the Gentiles, you must not do the works of the law. Instead, you must receive by faith the finished work of Christ, so that you can be a living stone in God’s temple.

In Christ, it is your new spiritual race that defines you and tells you who you are. It is your status in the chosen race of God that teaches you how to think about your ethnicity. And this is why your race matters more than your culture, ethnicity, or tribe.

Even more, because Christ has removed his people from the race of Adam—whether Jew or Greek—and placed them into the race of Christ, all God’s children, whatever their ethnicity in Adam, now inhabit a Spirit-born, Spirit-filled, Spirit-led race, of whom you are one body, one bride, one people, one flesh. Wonderfully, out of the many ethnicities, Christ has created one new man who share the same life of Christ—independent of where we came from before.

To put it simply: In the flesh, we were born into a nation and a culture formed by the languages of this evil age. Moreover, we were misled by evil spirits, as they taught us to worship ourselves, our peoples, and the gods of this age. And worse, all of us, Paul says in Ephesians 2:1–3, gladly participated in the ways of this world. When we are born again by the Spirit, however, we were transferred from the kingdom of this age and its fractured cultures. Now, in Christ, we have been brought into a church whose racial identity is greater, weightier, and more important than our ethnic background.

And this I am arguing is what informs the mission of the church. We are to go and make disciples of all the nations, so that they might learn from the Spirit all that Christ has commanded.

The Mission of the Church

In this essay, I have sought to spend most of my time contrasting the difference between the racialized sociology of CRT with a biblical theology of race, ethnicity, and the church. And now as I return to the question at hand, What is the mission of the church in a racialized age?, I offer this surprisingly simple answer.

The mission of the church is the same regardless of culture. No matter what happens in the world, Christ’s commission is the same.  In truth, the God-given, Christ-commanded, Spirit-empowered duty of the church should never be changed by the fleeting needs of the day. Instead, the command which Jesus gave his disciples to give to all who obey their gospel is this: Make disciples of all nations. Or more completely, because Christ has received authority over all nations and all powers and all places, we can

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19–20).

Indeed, making disciples is the imperative of the local church and this makes sense because the church is Christ’s helpmate. Christ’s bride is not called to go and do great things on her own, like some liberated woman. She is called to be the mother who nurtures and instructs all the children she receives from her Lord (2 John 1). To put this together, the mission of the local church is to proclaim Christ, teach his Word, practice church discipline, and celebrate the ordinances. And by this rhythm of gathered worship and instruction, the church will send out individuals who go into all the world and who will do many good works.

These good works will include all kinds justice, care for the poor, and advocacy for the downtrodden. But most importantly, when the church remains true to the gospel and the Word of God, that church will not be driven along by every wind of sociology. Instead the true disciples of Christ will remain his word (John 8:32) and will refuse to join the flavors of the world to the solid Word of God..

Rather, taught rightly, members of Christ’s church will weigh their heavenly race over and above their earthly ethnicity. Does the latter matter at all? Yes it does, but in the full content of Scripture and eternal counsels of God such an earthly assignment of ethnicity is less important than one’s identity in the family of God.

In Christ: Your Race > Your Ethnicity

Today, racialization is teaching Christians to weigh “race” heavier than the Bible does. And the result is that the mission of the church is changing, if only by addition. Yet, Scripture gives us another way, and it begins by understanding what the Bible says about two races, seventy nations, and one new man. This is the biblical theology that must be foundational for all biblical justice and Christian ethics. And until we listen to all that God’s Word has said on race and ethnicity, we need to encoding our Christian speech with words and concepts foreign to the Bible.

To that end, let us continue to trust the sufficiency of Scripture, so that we do not deviate from God’s mission for the church. But instead, let us “take every thought captive to obey Christ,” and let us expose as darkness all those ideas that are masquerading as light. Racialization is one of those ideas. And for as much harm has been done by Christians, and those posing as Christians, with unbiblical views of humanity, we need to let Scripture speak, so that we do not make the error over overcorrection by way of extra-biblical sociology.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo Credit: Indianapolis Theological Seminary


[1] John Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 76, 77, 272.

[2] Jarvis Williams, Redemptive Kingdom Diversity: Biblical Theology of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 3, 7.

[3]   Irwyn Ince, The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2020), 76–77, 160, 166.

[4] Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford, 2000).

[5] Ince, Beautiful Community, 76.

[6] Ince, Beautiful Community, 77; citing Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 9.

[7] See Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture: A World View (New York: Basic Books, 1994), ch. 2.

[8] This a fundamentally different reading of Genesis 1–11 from someone like Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism. Wolfe argues that God’s design was always the proliferation of nations. I would argue that God is glorified by redeeming from all the nations, one multi-ethnic bride who has become his one true, chosen race.