#RacismMatters (Part 5): Interracial Marriage (Acts 6:1–7; Numbers 12:1–3)

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We have spent some time in recent studies examining the very important issue of racism, using as our springboard Acts 6:1–7. In this study, we will conclude our consideration of this important matter by examining biblical principles that govern interracial marriage and interracial adoption.

I want to begin with a fairly lengthy quote from a black pastor in the United States:

I’ve heard it said that “the gospel creates ethics.” I think that’s right, but I haven’t heard many people talking that way about racially charged issues. Forgive me for these generalizations, but I’m using them because they are generally true. But it seems white people feel like black people always play the race card, and black people feel like white people never acknowledge racism.

This has been perplexing, and it has revealed a divided hermeneutic in our churches. How is it that Christians in the same church, looking at the same event and the same Bible are landing in entirely different places? And these landing-places seem to be ethnically divided. Black people in churches feel different about the situation than white people in churches. How is it that our ethnicity is shaping our ethics rather than our Bible or our gospel? Why do we disagree across ethnic lines?

I don’t have an answer for that. I just think it’s something worth considering. It’s strange at best, especially when we look at a text that tells us to have “unity of mind.”

If nothing else, we should be laboring for like-mindedness. Racial injustice is a huge, devastating part of our history, and it affects life today. But the Word of God and the gospel applies because there are things that the church ought to feel together. There are things that the church ought to oppose together; there are things we ought to support and assert together.

And I’m not trying to put a finger on exactly the correct conclusions but rather to emphasize the togetherness of those conclusions. And I think pastors have the responsibility to lead in this effort.

Many white people have had the freedom to pretend like racial injustice is a non-category. Black people haven’t. And both of those mindsets are in our churches. And we want them to be unified.1

We have spent considerable time examining the issue of racism. I trust you will agree that it matters—it matters a lot. It matters because it matters to God.

How do we define racism? At the 2004 Presbyterian Church in America annual meeting, racism was defined as “an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races.” And this matters to God. We have seen that it matters for at least the following reasons:

  • because God’s creative purpose matters;
  • because God’s commandment matters;
  • because God’s church matters;
  • because God’s gospel matters;
  • because God’s commission matters; and
  • because God’s glorious consummation matters.

No doubt, much more can be said. Perhaps it would be helpful to consider that racism matters—and should matter to the church—because God’s justice matters. The Christian is called to love mercy, to do justly and to walk humbly with his God (Micah 6:8). This is not a suggestion but rather a mandate from our sovereign Lord. God told His prophet, and He tells us, that we are without excuse concerning what is good. This is required of us. Certainly, opposing racism as we walk humbly throughout this world with our God would fit this injunction. I confess that I am perturbed when I hear Christian pastors—especially white Christian pastors—dismiss this issue as irrelevant.

I recently heard a white pastor, for whom I have the utmost respect, claim that the church can do nothing about racial injustice. God, he claimed, chose before the foundation of the world each person who will be saved. He chose them from different ethnicities, and therefore we can do nothing about racial injustice. Our task is instead to preach the gospel.

Of course, we should all get it when it comes to the church’s priority: the proclamation of the gospel. But as I have said so often, when it comes to social issues, when it comes to social justice, the Christian is not wedged between either/or but rather lives with the tension of both/and. As I have argued, you cannot be faithful to the gospel without the spill over of practically addressing social issues. The gospel is about God and people. I would therefore argue that practically opposing racism, as we live out the implications of the gospel each day, fits into this mix.

But leaving this aside for the moment, I want to introduce the subject matter for this particular study: interracial marriage and interracial adoption.

Interracial Marriage

In much of the world, including the United States and South Africa, interracial marriage has, for the most part, been historically frowned upon. In fact, in both countries, there was a time when it was not only socially taboo but actually illegal to marry across racial lines. The laws, thankfully, have changed, but for many it is still taboo—including for many in the church.

The question we must address is whether opposition to interracial marriage is biblically justified. If it is, then of course we must oppose it. If it is not, then we are wrong to oppose it. More to the point, if it is biblically justified then we should celebrate it. We should perhaps even promote it.

So, where do we turn? Is there a text that clearly articulates a position on this matter? Or do we need to look at some broader principles and then deduce our position from those? Perhaps we have the luxury of both.

Biblical Example

The best example we have in the Bible of an interracial marriage, and of tension arising from such a marriage, can be found in Numbers 12. This is the account of Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman. The chapter is brief, and so I will quote it fully:

Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. So they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it. (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.) Suddenly the LORD said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting!” So the three came out. Then the LORD came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam. And they both went forward. Then He said,

“Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings; and he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”

So the anger of the LORD was aroused against them, and He departed. And when the cloud departed from above the tabernacle, suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper. So Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us, in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned. “Please do not let her be as one dead, whose flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother’s womb!” So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “Please heal her, O God, I pray!”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp seven days, and afterward she may be received again.” So Miriam was shut out of the camp seven days, and the people did not journey till Miriam was brought in again. And afterward the people moved from Hazeroth and camped in the Wilderness of Paran.

(Numbers 12:1–15)

In this chapter, Moses is severely criticised by his sister and brother because he had married an Ethiopian woman. Interestingly, they framed their complaint as one against Moses’ prophetic authority, but the text tells us that one underlying motive was discontent over his marriage to this Ethiopian woman. The Old Testament is obviously very Jewish in nature, and Jeremiah 13:23 specifically draws attention to the tone of Ethiopian skin. Their criticism, therefore, was that Moses had married a woman with a different pigmentation. She was African; he was not. The cultural offence was that he had entered into an interracial marriage, and this did not sit well with his family.

As a technical matter, we should observe that some translations speak of this woman as a “Cushite.” The Cushites were descended from the grandson of Noah. They lived in a region south of Egypt, where a black African population thrived for some two thousand years. Clearly, an interracial marriage is in view here.

Many commentators have argued that the marriage was actually just the smokescreen that was being used to challenge Moses’ authority, given that the Lord responds to the challenge to his authority, not specifically to the complaint over the interracial marriage. That may be the case, but as Piper notes, “what you use for a smokescreen reveals your heart. And God was not pleased.”2 God does not here rebuke Moses for the marriage; instead, He rebukes Aaron and Miriam.

I don’t know why they were opposed to this marriage. Perhaps it had more to do with cultural and ethnic differences than it did with skin colour. But whatever the reason, Moses’ siblings were not very happy. They “spoke against” him, and this proved troublesome for them.

It appears from vv. 2–3 that they were questioning his leadership and perhaps even his spirituality. “So, you think that God has a special place for you? Well, your selection of a wife seems to indicate that you are not all that discerning!” For them, his selection of a spouse seems to have brought into question his spirituality and perhaps even his credibility and ability to lead. A black wife, in their eyes, disqualified him from being taken seriously. Perhaps I am reading into that, but perhaps not.

Many have the same repulsive response to mixed marriages in our day. It does not seem “normal” to them. In fact, as social norms go, it is not normal. But this does not make it wrong. And I would remind you, Christian, that little to which Christians are called is considered “normal” by the world!

The Ku Klux Klan states on its website, “Interracial marriage is against God’s law and is a communist ploy to weaken America.” Some black people believe that interracial marriage erodes the solidarity of the African community. One American author writes, “Interracial marriage undermines [African Americans’] ability to introduce our children to black role models who accept their racial identity with pride.”3

In short, there is no biblical command or precedent against an interracial marriage. God’s response to this culturally-driven criticism of Moses and his Ethiopian wife is somewhat revealing of how we should consider the matter: God defends them.

I understand that Moses was a unique leader, and so the argument could be made that God was defending him based on the principle of “touch not my Lord’s anointed.” I’m not convinced that this is the case here. God is beholden to no man. God Himself barred Moses from the Promised Land when he, in anger, struck the rock rather than speaking to it. David was also the Lord’s anointed one, and yet God did not defend him for his sin with Bathsheba. If Moses was in sin here, God would no doubt have rebuked him. It seems quite clear that the Lord was defending Moses’ marriage to his beloved Ethiopian bride.

I believe that this example provides a basis to legitimise interracial marriage. Again, there is no biblical example of condemnation of an interracial marriage, but since there is this one example that defends interracial marriage, then it seems clear that God is not opposed to it.

Biblical Principles

When addressing this issue, the safest way is to examine biblical principles that would apply. And in doing so, we need to begin by looking at principles regarding marriage before we consider, more specifically, interracial marriage.

God lays down the rules for marriage. It would seem that, if these rules are adhered to, the racial mix of a marriage is irrelevant. What are these rules? Let me briefly state several.

Marriage must be between a natural born man and a natural born woman. The man must leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. It is a covenantal relationship and is heavy on companionship. It is binding until the death of one partner. It is a creation ordinance that is to reflect the principle of kind partnered with kind. Humans are therefore to marry humans, unbelievers to marry unbelievers, and believers to marry believers. For Christian, marriage serves the purpose of the Great Commission, which includes, if the Lord blesses, raising a godly seed.

As you consider these principles, it is clear that the racial makeup of the husband and wife receives not a single word from God. If God is obeyed in the matters He has revealed concerning marriage, then we had better be careful about prescribing restrictions where He has not spoken.

But having noted this very important principle, we need to consider some others.

First, marriage almost always involves the mixture of different cultures. One of my daughters, born American, is married to a very Afrikaans South African man, and they are raising three children—one adopted transracially—on the mission field in another continent. Talk about mixing cultures! Both spouses are white, but there is a clear mixture of cultures involved.

Marrying someone from a different city or state may well bring cultural conflict into a marriage. Conflict is introduced when a wealthy person marries a poor person. A Presbyterian marrying a Baptist will introduce some interesting challenges, as will marriage across other theological spectrums: a postmillennialist, for example, marrying a premillennialist. The equation is simple: Every marriage—or at least virtually every marriage—involves a cultural amalgamation of some sort. We should not be naïve

Second, we need to consider the fallenness of the world in which we live, and therefore the challenges that will arise from an interracial marriage. This might make marriage even more difficult than it “normally” is.

Let me be blunt: People can be stupid and can behave stupidly. Such stupidity is sometimes manifested in how people treat couples that are racially mixed. Some people erroneously think that the Bible is opposed to such unions, and so they treat with contempt interracial couples. Forrest Gump was absolutely correct when he said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” This should be our response to such erroneous views on interracial marriages. Nevertheless, such marriages may well have trouble in the flesh.

Interracial couples may experience mistreatment by others. They may be subject to cutting remarks and even open shunning in some settings. Relatives may cut them off. None of this is right, but it is a reality.

Additionally, there will be cultural challenges arising from the marriage of people of two different ethnicities. This is simply a reality. Our response should be a faith-filled one. Every marriage involves the marriage of different cultures and attendant expectations. But, by the power of the Holy Spirit, any marriage can be a beautiful picture of Christ and the church. In some ways, the more the challenges, the more beautiful the picture. Christians should not be intimidated by the world—or by stupidity.

Finally, I suppose that the biggest concern, at least as I would view a mixed-race marriage, is the effect that it may have on the children.

People are not only at times stupid, but also very cruel. I know that children are supposedly colour blind, but they are still sinners. And even if they are not sinfully racist, in many cases their older siblings and parents are! The child of an interracial marriage may become the object of hurtful words. What do we say to this?

While acknowledging this, good parenting can at the same time use it to the child’s healthy development. Wise parents can teach their children how to respond in a way that is biblical and can even help them to understand the gospel as they use this situation as a shepherding opportunity.

Bullies are everywhere. That is life. We can’t protect our children from all the injuries that a sinful world may bring about, but we can use such hardships to point them to the truth and to the one who was despised and rejected because of the truth.

It is interesting to examine how Moses responded to the unjust treatment. Verse 3 highlights that he was the meekest man on the planet. He responded to cruel prejudice and racial malice with meekness. God came to his rescue and he (and his wife) were vindicated.

The bottom line is that there is not a shred of biblical prohibition concerning interracial marriage. On the contrary, I would argue that an interracial marriage is in fact good—both for the gospel and for the church. In his excellent book Bloodlines, John Piper writes of interracial marriage,

Opposition to interracial marriage is one of the deepest roots of racial distance, disrespect, and hostility. Show me one place in the world where interracial or interethnic marriage is frowned upon and yet the two groups still have equal respect and honor and opportunity. I don’t think it exists.

And as long as we disapprove of it, we will be pushing our children, and therefore ourselves, away from each other. The effect of that is not harmony, not respect, and not equality of opportunity. Where racial intermarriage is disapproved, the culture with money and power will always dominate and always oppress. They will see to it that those who will not make desirable spouses stay in their place and do not have access to what they have access to. If your kids don’t make desirable spouses, you don’t make desirable neighbors.

Oppose interracial marriage, and you will help create a situation of racial disrespect. And then, since there is a situation of disrespect, it will be prudent to oppose interracial marriage.

Here is where Christ makes the difference. Christ does not call us to a prudent life, but to a God-centered, Christ-exalting, justice-advancing, counter-cultural, risk-taking life of love and courage. Will it be harder to be married to another race, and will it be harder for the kids? Maybe. Maybe not. But since when is that the way a Christian thinks? Life is hard. And the more you love the harder it gets.

It’s hard to take a child to the mission field. The risks are huge. It’s hard to take a child and move into a mixed neighborhood where he may be teased or ridiculed. It’s hard to help a child be a Christian in a secular world where his beliefs are mocked. It’s hard to bring children up with standards: “you will not dress like that, and you will not be out that late.” It’s hard to raise children when dad or mom dies or divorces. And that’s a real risk in any marriage. Whoever said that marrying and having children was to be trouble free? It’s one of the hardest things in the world. It just happens to be right and rewarding.

Christians are people who move toward need and truth and justice, not toward comfort and security. Life is hard. But God is good. And Christ is strong to help.

There is so much more to say about the challenges and blessings of interracial marriage. Suffice it to say now by way of practical conclusion: At my church, we will not underestimate the challenges of interracial marriage or transracial adoption (they go closely together). We will celebrate the beauty, and we will embrace the burden. Both will be good for us and good for the world and good for the glory of God.4

So, there you go!

Interracial Adoption

Once you cross the biblical bridge from bigotry to the other side of acceptance of interracial marriage, the matter of interracial adoption pretty much argues for itself. In fact, this argument could work in reverse. Once you accept the beautiful legitimacy of interracial adoption, the same acceptance applies to interracial marriage.

Biblical Example

I am not aware of any over biblical example, precept or precedent for interracial adoption. There are some examples of cross-ethnic adoptions. Moses, a Jew, was raised in an Egyptian home. The ultimate cross-cultural adoption, of course, was Jesus in the home of Joseph and Mary!

But perhaps the silence speaks volumes. It is not an issue in the Bible precisely because it is not an issue!

Biblical Principles

God expects His people to show loving and practical compassion to the orphan and He never stipulates their culture or colour. Some forty times in the Old Testament God commands His people to care for the fatherless and the widow. James 1:27 summarises it well: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Our template in Acts 6:1-7 speaks of responsibility for all kinds of widows. We can assume that the same applies to orphans.  We are to love our neighbour as ourselves– practically. And if an interracial adoption is a way to do so, then by all means, adopt interracially.

Biblical Precedent

When you think about it, there is biblical actually precedent for interracial adoption. There is a Father in the biblical record who adopted children from every tribe and kindred and tongue and culture. He adopted those who were very different from Him to belong to Him and to His family.

Of course, I am speaking of God and His gospel adoption of sinners to be in His very interracial, multi-cultural family.

In a very real and sobering sense, to argue against interracial adoption is (at least consistently) to argue against the gospel. For apart from adoption there is no salvation (Romans 8:15, 23; 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5).

We, the family of God, are together by adoption. We are therefore to be together for adoption—both spiritual and physical.

The church has a wonderful opportunity to display the multi-faceted, many-coloured grace of God. Let us not allow cultural blinders to make us so colour blind. Rather, let us take our Bible in hand and in our heart and live out its radical and even revolutionary implications. Racism matters. And our biblical response to racism matters. It matters a lot.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Brian Davis, “How Do We Respond to Cultural Crises Over Race?” https://goo.gl/0E3vfV, retrieved 13 November 2016.
  2. Alan Cameron, “The Difference Jesus Makes,” https://goo.gl/mvwzFy, retrieved 13 November 2016.
  3. Piper, “Racial Harmony and Interracial Marriage,” https://goo.gl/IPECde, retrieved 13 November 2016.
  4. Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), Kindle edition.