This question goes very deep with me, because my opposition to interracial marriage was the foundation — at least, the conscious foundation — of my opposition to integration, my opposition to lots of good things and my support for segregation as a teenager in South Carolina when I was growing up. And I think it was the origin of most of my deplorable attitudes towards other races in those days. I wasn’t just taught that it was a sin; I believed it was a sin.
So, I don’t take this struggle lightly, and I very much would love to persuade this young man that biblically his conscience should be clear in marrying a godly, Christ-exalting, otherwise compatible woman, whatever race she is. That is what I hope I can do.
Now, I know — and I was one and I was related to hundreds — I know that among thousands of Christians there is a conviction that this kind of opposition to interracial marriage is grounded in Scripture. The Scripture teaches it is wrong to marry across races. Here is an example from a letter that I got some years ago:
“As individuals, they [blacks people] are precious souls for whom Christ died and whom we are to love and seek to win. As a race, however, they are unique and different and have their own culture. 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. God never intended the human race to become a mixed or mongrel race. So, while I am strongly opposed to segregation, I favor separation — that the uniqueness with which God made them is maintained.”
That is what I believed when I was 15 years old. And it bore ugly fruit. But, of course, we don’t base our behavior or our beliefs — we shouldn’t, anyway — merely on ugly fruit and outcomes of beliefs, but whether they are, in fact, biblical. So, let me give four brief pointers to the way the Bible, I believe, supports the marriage of believers in Christ Jesus regardless of race.
1) All races have one ancestor, Adam, created in the image of God, and all humans following from him are in God’s image such that there is essentially one Godlike human race. “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Then the apostle Paul, rooted in that theology of creation, says astonishingly to these arrogant ethnocentric Athenians in Acts 17:26, “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” And I think the point there, the implication in the context of these proud Greeks who boasted of their ethnic purity over against the barbarians, was that those barbarians out there are family. You better get over this. You are all part of one race, rooted in one great, great, great grandfather, and your arrogance of separation is sinful.
Being human in God’s image compared to any racial distinction is ten million to one in terms of importance. Let me say that again. Being human in God’s image is ten million and any racial distinction is one when you talk about what is important in life. That is step one.
2) Step two in the argument: In Jesus Christ, God is creating a new humanity — you might say a new race — and it is called the Christian race (1 Peter 2:9–10). In Christ, ethnic and social differences cease to be obstacles to deep, personal, intimate fellowship. Colossians 3:11 says, “Here” — that is, in the body of Christ — “there is not Greek and Jew” — those are significant physical and religious and ethnic and traditional distinctions — “circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
So, in the old humanity, the decisive factor in human unity was being created in the image of God. In the new humanity, the decisive factor in human unity is that Christ is all and in all. To make racial and ethnic distinctions decisive in relations is to oppose the truth of what God is creating in Christ.
3) The Bible forbids intermarriage between believer and unbeliever, not between members of different ethnic groups. First Corinthians 7:39 says, “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.” So, there’s one key stipulation: only a believer, only a Christian. That was Paul’s way of expressing the Old Testament concern about intermarriage with pagan nations by the Jews. The issue back then was not race. The issue was faith, religion, allegiance to the true God, Yahweh.
Deuteronomy 7:3–4 says, “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods.” That is the reason. “Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you.” But think now what happens when the people of God is no longer identified with a single ethnic group — namely, Israel — but rather the people of God, the new race in Christ that is being taken from every race, people, tribe, tongue, nation.
Now, what do those prohibitions mean? They mean exactly what 1 Corinthians 7:39 says. “She is free to marry whom she wishes, only in the Lord” because that is the definition of the new race, the new people of God. If you want to talk about a prohibition of interracial marriage, then let it be the biblical talk about the prohibition of marrying outside the Christian race.
4) Finally, there is only one high profile interracial marriage focused on in the Bible that I am aware of — there may be others and I have just missed it — namely, between Moses and the Cushite, a black woman from Africa. And we know she is black because Cush was an area of Africa below Ethiopia and because the very word used for “Cushite” in Numbers 12:1 where this story is being described is the same word used in Jeremiah 13:23 where it says, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin?” So “Ethiopian” there is the same as the word “Cushite.” And you can see what the point is. We can’t change our skin color.
Moses’s sister, Miriam, criticizes this marriage between Moses and the Cushite. And God is so displeased with Miriam and her that he strikes Miriam with leprosy, which the Bible describes as turning her hands as white as “snow” (Numbers 12:10), as if to say: Miriam, you value light skin? I will give you light skin. At least we know from this story that God is not pleased with Miriam’s criticism of Moses’s marriage to a black woman, and there is no other criticism of it.
So, for those four reasons — and there are more — I think it is right to not simply permit or tolerate, but to celebrate the marriage of a godly, Christ-exalting man and woman who are marrying in the Lord across racial lines. It will not destroy like that quote from the letter says it would. It will not destroy any God-appointed diversity in the world. It will, in fact, feature that diversity and the power of Christ in it.