By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Source: desiringGod.org
Fifty years ago, on June 12, 1967, the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional all state laws that prohibited interracial marriage. The case was called Loving v. Virginia. Mildred Jeter (who was black and Native American) and Richard Loving (who was white) were married in 1958 in Washington, D.C. When they returned to their hometown of Richmond, Virginia, they were arrested. They pled guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” To avoid jail, they moved back to Washington.
They wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy to start a legal action against their conviction. He referred the case to the American Civil Liberties Union. The original judge, Leon Bazile, who had handed down the conviction, refused to reconsider his earlier decision. He argued,
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix.
The Supreme Court was unanimous in favor of the Loving family, observing that laws against miscegenation were “designed to maintain White supremacy.”
At the time of the Supreme Court decision, sixteen Southern states still enforced laws prohibiting interracial marriage. South Carolina did not amend its state constitution on the issue for thirty years (1998), and Alabama took until 2000.
Important as Ever
This is a court decision worth celebrating. But far more important than the legalization of interracial marriage in one nation is the fact that God’s revealed will for the world is not undermined but advanced when a man and a woman from different ethnicities marry in Christ. That is a startling and controversial claim in the face of diverse opposition to interracial marriage in our own day. (The following quotes appear in Bloodlines, pages 204–205.)
From the black community, one spokesman says, “Interracial marriage undermines [African-Americans’] ability to introduce our children to black role models who accept their racial identity with pride.”
From the white community, another spokesman says, “We are seeing the death of the American and his replacement with a non-European type. . . . White people . . . are going to have to struggle mightily to survive the Neo-Melting Pot. . . . Call it what it is: Genocide and extinction of the white genotype.”
From the white evangelical community, another says, “I would never marry a black. Why? Because I believe God made the races, separated them, and set the bounds of their habitation (Deuteronomy 32:8; Acts 17:26). He made them uniquely different and intended that these distinctions remain.”
Against all of these objections, I believe it is as important as it ever has been that Christians settle it in their minds that interracial marriage in Christ is not only a beautiful picture of Christ’s marriage to his church, but also a flesh-and-blood incarnation of the unity Christ achieved by his death and resurrection.
Moreover, I agree with Daniel Hays that “the common cultural ban on intermarriage lies at the heart of the racial division in the church” (From Every People and Nation, 23). I would go further and say that opposition to interracial marriage is one of the deepest roots of racial distance, disrespect, and hostility in the world. Show me one place in the world where interracial or interethnic marriage is frowned upon, and yet the groups still have equal respect and honor and opportunity. I don’t think it exists.
Add to this that, since the recent presidential election, the ugly forces of hateful and angry white supremacy have felt empowered to show their colors in America more openly than for the last forty years. Just two weeks ago, I spoke with a friend whose Korean parents have lived as American citizens in the same neighborhood in California for decades, only to find their house, soon after the election, for the first time ever, spray-painted with racial slurs telling them to get out.
Search Your Heart
I remember from the time I was a teenager growing up in South Carolina how the arguments from “nature” were used, and carried the day for most of us in our blindness to the fullness of biblical truth. “Red birds mate with red birds, blue birds mate with blue birds. This is the way God meant it to be. So, it’s against nature for different races to mate.”
Flowing from all these arguments against interracial marriage is an inevitable pressure on all social structures to keep ethnic groups separate, especially among young people who might fall in love, if they hang out together. So, that includes neighborhoods and schools especially. No matter how much love or goodwill you may have, if my son or daughter is racially unacceptable as a spouse for your son or daughter, then you will keep your family at a distance from mine. And the social order will reflect that distance. And the desire for that distance will inevitably breed disrespect, suspicion, and antagonism.
For all these reasons, Christians of every race should search their hearts and search the Scriptures, and bring their hearts, by the power of God’s Spirit into line with God’s word.
Biblical Beauty of Interracial Marriage
I have written and spoken about this issue, including Chapter 15 in Bloodlines. So, here let me simply give five summary pointers to the kind of arguments that show the biblical beauty of interracial marriage in Christ.
1. The biblical description of how so-called racial differences emerged from one pair of human beings, Adam and Eve, shows that interracial marriage does not contradict God’s purpose for diversity in this world and the next.
I agree that ethnic diversity is God’s good plan for humanity, and that it serves to glorify God more than ethnic sameness would have. This ethnic diversity will mark the people of God in the age to come. Our salvation in Christ does not obliterate all ethnic and cultural differences. He redeems, refines, and enriches them in the togetherness of his kingdom. The final image of heaven is “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9; 7:9).
Some have argued that God’s will for racial diversity, therefore, rules out interracial marriage, which “dilutes” the differences. They speak of the offspring of interracial marriage as “half-breeds” and a “mongrel race.” They speak of the “melting pot” where all God’s intentions for racial differences are destroyed.
The first thing to say in response to this view is that we must not overlook the fact that all races came from one human pair. God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). This is important because in the sad history of racial “science,” which justified prejudice on the basis of blacks having a different origin than whites, “the message of the Christian Scriptures constrained the development of polygenist ideas of multiple human origins” (Colin Kidd, Forging of Races, 271.). For all the misuses of the Bible to justify racial separation and subjugation, the teaching of a single common ancestor for all humans has been a massive deterrent to such abuses.
Second, in response to the notion that interracial marriage dilutes distinctions as God willed them, we should observe that the so-called “races” have never been pure or well-defined. The human lines that flowed from the sons of Noah after the flood (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) have flowed into far more diversity than three or five racial and ethnic types of human beings. There is no reason to think that diversification has stopped.
Just one example: After the flood, Noah’s three sons became the fathers of the human race. But look what happens to these racial fountainheads. Genesis 10:6 says, “The sons of Ham [are] Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan.” But the ethnic and “racial” differences between Canaanites and Cushites and Egyptians were physiologically pronounced. In other words, “race” is a fluid concept with no clear boundaries.
God seems to delight not just in three or five, but in thousands of variations of human beings. In fact, many today would argue that the concept of race is unhelpful altogether because there are no clear lines that can be drawn, and the ones that are drawn are not genetically or morally significant. It is significant that when God foresees the ethnic diversity of the coming kingdom in Revelation 5:9, he does not speak of three or five “races,” but of “every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Canaanites (Arabs) and Cushites (black Africans) emerged from one line (Ham). At what point did intermarriage within this line become destructive to God’s ordained diversity? After the flood, God set in motion a process of increasing diversification of ethnicities. “From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations” (Genesis 10:5). He is not concerned with limiting diversity to a few racial or ethnic groups. According to the text, he planned the multiplication of increasing numbers of peoples.
This leads me to conclude that the offspring of inter-ethnic marriages add to the diversity of the human race, rather than diluting it. The scope of the world’s peoples is so huge that there is no serious possibility that intermarriage will reduce the diversity of peoples. There is no melting pot. There is only a stew pot. And there always will be.
2. The Bible forbids intermarriage between believer and unbeliever — not between races or ethnic groups.
The point of the Old Testament prohibitions of intermarrying with the pagan nations was not to protect racial purity. The point was to protect religious purity. For example, in Deuteronomy 7:3–4, Moses said,
“You shall not intermarry with [the nations]; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you.” (my translation)
The issue is not color mixing, or clan identity. The issue is this: Will there be one common allegiance to the true God in this marriage, or will there be divided affections? The prohibition in God’s word is not against interracial marriage, but against marriage between the true Israel, the church (from every people, tribe, and nation) and those who are not part of the true Israel. That is, the Bible prohibits marriage between those who believe in Christ (the Messiah) and those who don’t.
We see this most clearly in Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:39, “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” The person a Christian marries must be “in the Lord.” Hence the command, “do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). This is the New Testament application of the Old Testament prohibition to Israel against intermarrying with the pagan nations.
Even in the Old Testament, this meaning was revealed in various ways. One was the story of Boaz’s marriage to Ruth, the Moabitess. This was one of the most celebrated marriages in the Bible, because it gave rise to the line of king David, and finally to Jesus (Ruth 4:21–22). Ruth, though a Moabitess, was a lover of the true God and came under the wings of his covenant with Israel (Ruth 2:12). This faith and this marriage and the offspring that came from it were so remarkable that the New Testament Gospel of Matthew included Ruth as one of the four women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).
3. In Christ, our oneness is profound and transforms racial and social differences from barriers to blessings.
In Christ, ethnic and social differences cease to be obstacles to deep, personal, intimate fellowship, including marriage.
You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:9–11)
This does not mean that every minority culture gets swallowed up by the majority culture in the name of unity. God does not obliterate all ethnic and cultural differences in Christ. He redeems them. The point of Colossians 3:11 is not that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences have no significance. The point is that that they are no barrier to profound, personal, intimate fellowship.
When Christ is our all, and when Christ is in all, ethnic differences change from being barriers to become blessings. Even “barbarians” — and the most distant of them, “Scythians” — are in the new “race,” the church. The head of this race is no longer Adam, but “the last Adam,” Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:45). God aims that in this new “race” of humans, all ethnic groups in the world will be included (Matthew 24:14). Inter-ethnic marriage in this new humanity is one manifestation, and one means, of Christ being all in all.
4. God severely disciplined the critics of one interracial marriage.
Moses, a Jew, married a black African and was approved by God. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1). Cushite means a woman from Cush, a region south of Egypt, and known for their black skin. We know this because of Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian [the same Hebrew word translated Cushite in Numbers 12:1] change his skin or the leopard his spots?”
What is most significant about this context is that God does not get angry at Moses; he gets angry at Miriam and Aaron for criticizing Moses for this marriage. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.” God was not pleased with this criticism, and what happened next is startling. God defends his servant Moses from false charges, and then he strikes Miriam with a terrible disease that turns her skin white — white as snow. “When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow” (Numbers 12:10).
5. In Christ, the good effects of interracial marriage are worth the challenges it can bring.
Will it be harder to be married to another “race” than to your own? Will it be harder for the children? Maybe. Maybe not. But since when is that the way a Christian thinks? Life is hard. And the more you love, the more painful 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 diverse 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 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 supposed to be trouble free? It’s one of the hardest things in the world. It just happens to be right and rewarding.
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, countercultural, risk-taking life of love and courage. 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.
Who knows what blessings through pain God may have in store? Interracial marriage has an amazing potential for great joy and peace. Yes, there are exceptions: a white father may never speak to his black son-in-law. But another wonderful possibility exists. Indeed, it comes to pass over and over in interracial marriages.
A once-bigoted group of relatives is forced to see as a person the “outsider” who just married their “insider.” The newcomer into the family is not just a race any more. Over time the suspicions and prejudices and hostilities die away, and something beautiful is born: reconciliation and respect and harmony, spreading out beyond the marriage in ways no one thought possible. The once-angry father now views all his ethnic colleagues at work differently.
Shine with the Glory of Christ
It is good that laws against interracial marriage have disappeared in America. But civil laws are not the main concern of the church of Jesus Christ. Our primary citizenship is in heaven, not America (Philippians 3:20). Our main aim is not to constrain the behavior of unbelievers by laws. Our aim is to bring the new, redeemed humanity — the church of Christ — into conformity with his will.
Our aim is to magnify Christ in this world. The freedom and the beauty and peace of interracial marriage is one ray of the glory of Christ that should be shining from this new humanity — this “chosen race” (1 Peter 2:9) — which Jesus Christ died and rose again to create.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Reading the Bible Supernaturally.