The Ethics of Interracial Marriage

Session 5

Racial Harmony

The following is a lightly edited transcript

The topic tonight is the ethics of interracial marriage. I tackle this, not only because it’s just a piece of the issue at hand, but because I believe it underlies a lot of other pieces. If we could settle this one in our heads and in our hearts, then I think the plug of power and intensity would be pulled on a lot of other discussions.

Responding to Arguments against Interracial Marriage

I want to address five arguments that have been used, in my experience, to oppose interracial marriage from the Bible, and give a response to them biblically. All of these come out of my background. You can read about some. They will have a lot more clout if you remember them, if you remember relatives who used them, or if you remember how you used to think of them.

This is incredibly relevant for our church, because, not only do we have interracial couples — I think we have about 50 multiracial families/couples in Bethlehem, not only black and white — but we also have many biracial adoptions that have happened here.

My daughter is growing up, and your children are growing up, and they’re going to become teenagers. They’re going to be in the same youth group, and if the same racial anxieties exist when that comes about, as have historically existed in white evangelical churches, or churches that are on their way to becoming less white and more diverse, then we’ll be in big trouble. I think we need to work on this; and it will take time, because your head can sometimes do one thing while your heart is not there yet.

1. Races are God’s will, and therefore, amalgamating them is against his will.

I’ll give you a quote from a letter that I received some time back:

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.

The two texts that are referred to there, Deuteronomy 32:8 says:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of man, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.

Now, I do not know what that last line means, and the commentators that I’ve looked at don’t know either, but that’s not the important clause. The important clause is: “He gave the nations an inheritance, and he separated the sons of man, and he set boundaries of peoples.” So God did that, and the conclusion this man reaches is: Don’t marry across those boundaries.

Acts 17:26 says:

He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the Earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God if perhaps they might grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

The irony of using that passage is that I used that very text a few weeks ago to argue the very opposite, because, in fact, that is the way Paul is using it here. When he says, “He made from one all these peoples,” he’s undermining the Athenian Greek sense of superiority by calling everybody else barbarians, and thus, he is using this saying this to do exactly the opposite of what the man said in the quote I gave you.

Now, what would be some answers to this argument? I have two. First, the proof texts that are used here speak of the separation of peoples along lines much more narrow than race, and prove too much; that is, it would require, for example, no intermarriage among various Germanic tribes, or American Indian tribes, or any of the other thousands of people groups. The peoples in these verses are not divided by racial divisions; but rather, they are Jebusites, Hittites, Canaanites, and so on. There are thousands of ethnic entities like this in the world.

So if you want to follow through consistently, and maybe there are some who do, you’re going to have to follow a lot more than three or four races. You’re going to have to say there’s no marrying across any people group boundaries, even within the same race, because that’s what the texts are talking about. Most people don’t follow that far, so I think these texts are not intended to address that racial issue.

But more importantly, perhaps, is the second answer: The separation of the peoples in Genesis 11:6-9 was by language, not race. The racial distinctions developed probably from the isolation of certain gene pools that were already in our one forefather.

It’s interesting to read various scientific guesses as to how a common ancestor produces various kinds of genetic forms. The one explanation I read that seemed compelling to me, which I don’t know enough about to lecture on so I passed over it, argued like this:

In one common ancestor, there already contained all the genetic material to produce the races. In the Genesis 11:6–9 text, regarding the Tower of Babel, there’s no evidence to suggest that this division of people by language should hinder them from learning each other’s languages, or that they should not intermarry.

The clear teaching related to the Tower of Babel is that people should not conspire to exalt themselves above God. The separation at the Tower of Babel, which is another text that’s brought in to support this argument, does show that people were separated by languages, but very few people world argue that you shouldn’t learn another group’s language because it would be a reversal of God’s decision to separate the nations; as if you would be conspiring against God by trying to establish one people when learning German, or Japanese, or whatever.

In other words, those texts are quite uncompelling to me, but let me read the passage so you can see the text for yourself. Genesis 11:6–9 says:

And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Now, here’s another response to the inference that you shouldn’t intermarry because it would reverse God’s judgment at Babel, and thus set people on a conspiracy to undermine God’s decision and purpose. The argument goes like this: God’s punitive judgments do not become our mandates.

For example, the futility that God pronounced on creation at the fall, referenced in Romans 8:20, does not mean we should not use antibiotics or aspirin; so neither does God separating peoples mean that there should never be the coming together of peoples in various ways, including marriage. That would be a leap beyond the text that I’m not willing to make.

The warning of the judgment is: Never come together to exalt yourselves in the sight of God. That you can infer from the Tower of Babel, but to never come together for other reasons would not follow anymore than the logic of not using medicine, since God ordained that there be sickness in the world as a result of the fall; or not using pain relievers, since women have pain in childbirth because of the fall.

The punitive judgments of God are not mandates for our behavior. One of those judgments (in Genesis 3) is the husband shall “rule over” the wife (Genesis 3:16). That's not a mandate for behavior. In Jesus Christ, curses are lifted (as in Colossians 3:19, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them”). We'll come to that in a minute. They're lifted finally in the end, and they're lifted incrementally now. That's my response to argument number one.

2. God forbade the Jews from marrying other peoples.

My first response is that the reason for this prohibition is not racial, but religious. All the texts I can find that prohibit intermarriage with non-Jews are religiously grounded, not racially grounded. Let’s read some of them.

Exodus 34:12 and 16 says:

Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going or it will become a snare in your midst…And you might take some of his daughters, or your sons and his daughters might play the harlot with their gods and cause your sons also to play the harlot with their gods."

The issue here is not color. It’s not language. It’s not race. It’s gods.

Deuteronomy 7:1-4 says:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you…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. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.

So the motivation for this stipulation on the Jews as they entered the promised land is religious, not racial.

1 Kings 11:1-2 says:

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love.

Again, the motive is they’re going to turn your heart away to their gods.

Nehemiah 13:25–27 says:

And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?

The illustration of Solomon as the example is because the foreign women caused him to sin.

Ezra 9:11-14 says:

And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ’The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness.

Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations?

So here you have, not the issue of race, but the issue of ceremonial and religious uncleanness, as God had set it up for his people. It’s not because they’re a certain color, but because these other nations were going to lure them away. So my first answer to this argument was that the prohibitions on marriage are religiously based, not racially based.

The second answer is that the only marriage constraints put on a believer are: A) that he or she marry a person of the opposite sex (Genesis 2:14; Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 5:22–32), and B) that he or she marries a believer. There’s the issue. That was the issue at the bottom in the Old Testament, I believe, and that’s the issue in the New Testament, as is plain from these next couple of texts:

1 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.

And 2 Corinthians 6:14 says:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?

The Bible makes it very clear that if you’re already married to an unbeliever, you stay there, or if one becomes a believer later, you don’t leave. But if you are outside marriage thinking about moving into marriage, you dare not, as a believer, move into marriage with an unbeliever. That is disobedience to God.

I have come to these things in stages, and I was reading over a lesson that I gave in 1991 this afternoon to Bethesda Baptist, which is the black Baptist Church down the street. They invited me over one time to talk on this issue back. As I was looking at my notes, I recalled that I was telling them my story of how little by little I was having insights into these things.

One of them was in 1967, and the other one was in 1970 when I wrote a paper in my ethics class on interracial marriage and settled my own convictions at that time. However, three years before that, you might say I was still “in process.”

I remember going to InterVarsity Urbana with Noel. We were not quite engaged, but essentially we were. There were 15,000 students at this missions conference, and there was a panel. Believe it or not, they took questions from the audience in those days. They set up microphones around the gallery, and any student that wanted to could go to the microphone and ask a question of the panel.

One of the panels was with John Alexander, who became the president of InterVarsity. They asked him two questions. One was about predestination. I won’t say what he said about that here, though it was also good. The second question they asked was about race. He had served a term, I think something like 20 years, in Pakistan.

A student came asking about the issue of race on the mission field, I think relating it to children who grow up on the mission field and therefore go to schools, and think, “This is our home. These are our people,” so they will marry one of them in all likelihood. So the student was asking, “What if your daughter fell in love with a Pakistani and wanted to marry him?” I remember his answer was so powerful and so clear. He said, “Far, far, far better” — he was very forceful — “that she marry a believing Pakistani than an unbelieving American.”

That just landed on me like a ton of bricks. There was a crystal clear set of priorities in that man’s life. One thing mattered for him on that topic. Will she marry a believer? Everything else is negligible after that; though that’s a little bit of an overstatement. I have sons that are moving towards marriage someday, and I don’t think other considerations have no place. We’ll come back to that.

My third answer in response to this issue is that there are approved inter-people marriages in the Bible. I say inter-people instead of interracial, because that’s even more delicate. I mean if you’re going to use the Bible to oppose mingling in races, you’ve got to talk about people groups, not just races.

For example, the Moabites would be among those with whom marriage was not allowed for religious reasons, but a converted Moabite was in the line of Jesus’s forebearers (Matthew 1:5). Her name was Ruth, of course. Here’s what Boaz says about Ruth:

Moreover, Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day (Ruth 4:9–10).

The ground of that, I believe, is given in Ruth 1:16, which says:

But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

She moved away from her gods, and she moved away from her people with their gods, and she moved with Naomi. Then Boaz, being a just and godly Jewish man, married her, and her name is listed in Matthew 1:5 as one of the descendants leading to Jesus.

It’s very interesting that Matthew would choose to mention Ruth the Moabitess and Rahab the Canaanite in the lineage of Jesus. I mean, that’s kind of in your face. It says something about women and it says something about outsiders in this esteemed line. If you really wanted to communicate, “Don’t you ever intermarry with such folks,” that would be an odd thing for Matthew to do.

That’s my second response. I would say this is an approved marriage. If this is an unapproved marriage in the Bible, I don’t know how to read the book of Ruth. I think it’s just a magnificently beautiful grace that Boaz bestows upon this very godly convert.

3. There is a curse on Ham, the son of Noah, from whom the black race came, and they are destined to be inferior and enslaved.

Now, this is huge. I’ll try to tackle the issue of slavery later, because one of you, gave me a book. I knew there were such books; I read about such books, but she gave me this book, which is old and tattered, and she said she found it in her grandmother’s attic or something. It’s a book defending slavery from the Bible, especially the innate propriety of enslaving blacks. The book says they’re destined to be enslaved.

Not only do you have marriage, but you have slavery argued for from this Hamitic issue. Maybe you’ve just kind of heard by the hearing of the ear there is such an argument. I grew up aware of these arguments. I knew about them. They were used in my milieu in South Carolina. So what are we to make of the argument?

My first answer is that the curse was on Canaan, who was Ham’s son, not on Ham. Canaan was not the father of the black race, but of other Semitic tribes. I’ll read it to you so that you can see it for yourself right now.

Genesis 9:18–27 says:

These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed. Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.

Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”

It leaves open, for the time being, whether or not this curse on Canaan does imply somebody somewhere is always supposed to be somebody’s slave. Also, the reason there’s a connection in some people’s minds between Ham and the black race is because Cush is also mentioned in Genesis 10:6, which says:

The sons of Ham were Cush, Misraim, and Put, and Canaan.

Cush is probably somehow connected with Ethiopia, and Misraim is somehow connected with Egypt, so the conclusion was drawn that these African peoples, perhaps being connected to Ham in that way, are under that curse on Canaan.

Well, it’s really it falls apart when you look closer, because Canaan isn’t the one who bore the black races, if any of them did, but rather Semitic. These were Canaanites. I think the first response is just structural. On the face of it the argument is weak. It doesn’t connect.

Here’s the second response. Again, this is a principle I think we need to get hold of. As before, the curses of God are not the mandates of his people. If God pronounces a curse on somebody or a group, that doesn't mean, “Thou shalt treat them badly or avoid them.” That does not follow any more than the fact that women should be avoided because they suffer so much in childbirth as part of the fall, which is God’s design. He subjected the world to futility (Romans 8:20), among which was our diseases and other things.

Even if there were a people whom God had judged, the call of the Christian is to love them as they love themselves. In Jesus Christ, God’s curses are lifted; ultimately in principle, and incrementally in experience. In other words, Christians are to be about lifting curses, not joining God in curses. That’s what Christians are to be about.

Christ is the bearer of every curse. Everyone who is in Christ is free from all curses. Christ bore their curse. So as people come into Christ, and they’re the only ones you’re interested in marrying, I hope, all curses are irrelevant after that. I’m not even persuaded that we should think of any racially identified curse there, or that that curse was meant to be permanent.

4. Would not interracial marriage tend toward the lessening of the diversity that makes the world as colorful and God-glorifying as it is?

This is the one that I bought as a teenager. I couldn’t figure Ham out. I couldn’t ever figure that out. But when I thought about design — if God intended there to be races, then for me to marry a black girl, would mean I would, in principle, water that down. My kids would be light-skinned, halfway between. You’ve got this nice, God-willed whiteness and this nice, God-willed blackness, and my kids are going to be brown, so that must not be God’s will, which would mean you shouldn’t do it.

Now, what would be our response to that? There are two things: First, this would carry weight perhaps if there were the real possibility that interracial marriage would significantly diminish global diversity.

But is it a real possibility? Does it, or might it, in fact, increase diversity? It’s not obvious to me that if you affirm interracial marriages, you will thereby wreck diversity in the world. It’s not clear to me at all that that would happen, or that we’re at all in danger of that happening because of the quantities of people that are involved in it. That’s my first response.

Second, the statement of relational and social unity among the races is as important as the biological differences. This is helped by affirming interracial marriage, and hurt by opposing it.

If you marry another race, you make a statement. You make a statement about that person’s humanity, that person’s lovability, that person’s worth, that person’s acceptability, and that person’s equality with you. You make a loud, clear statement of your own conviction about the nature of that human being. That statement that you make of the relational, social, human unity and equality among the races is as important as this concern right here that biological differences are going to be lessened in your children. They’re going to look different than the more pure white or more pure black. They’ll look brown.

This statement about the unity of races is helped by affirming interracial marriage and hurt by opposing it. So, I believe, as you weigh the possibility that God’s designed for diversity is undermined by interracial marriage, you better ponder alongside it, not the possibility, but the reality that to oppose interracial marriage in principle delivers a message which in our culture and in history communicate something vastly more destructive than this problem over here.

If I have to choose between the possibility that a marriage would produce this kind of child instead of those kinds of children, over against what it clearly says and does in our culture, what I watched it do for my years growing up, and the kinds of things it underlay in culture and in society, there’s no question which side I’m coming down on on this issue.

5. Do not the cultural differences make interracial marriage wrong?

This is a pragmatic argument. Answer number one: the question here is not one of right and wrong, but compatibility for the sake of kingdom effectiveness.

In other words, if you’re saying why the background of a black person, or a white person, or a yellow person, or red person, whatever their ethnic group, their background is going to be so different that when these two backgrounds get together, it’s going to be nothing but trouble all their life, and therefore, it’s just wrong to encourage that, quite apart from the biological issue.

I’d say, no; don’t use right and wrong there. Talk about it in terms of marital compatibility based on the facts, not the color.

My second answer is that there are some same race couples that would be less culturally compatible than some interracial couples. The issue is not race, but sufficient spiritual union, common conviction, and similar expectations to make the marriage workable.

I talked to him on the phone today, and he said, “ Are you going to use me as an illustration?” I said, “Is that okay?” He’s dating a Brazilian. Now, I don’t even know what that means. I know her. We’ve had lunch with her and love her. But he thought of that because she looks different. The issue there for me has zero to do with race.

When I sit with a couple in my office and one says, “My parents are divorced, and none of my family are believers,” and the other one says, “My parents are still together. Everybody in my family is a believer,” that’s way bigger than race. It’s not a stopper on the marriage, but it’s something that should make them think twice. That’s painful to say, because it’s exactly their situation. I’m not sure how to think about race. A couple of books I’ve read say there’s no such thing as race. There’s just one race: the human race, with all these contours.

When it comes to helping people decide whom to marry, you base it on sufficient spiritual union — they have to be a Christian, and I don’t mean the guy saying, “Well, sure. If that’s what it takes to get you.” Watch out for that. Every woman should want a man ahead of her in the Spirit, not behind her. So many women settle for a half-baked confession because they want to be married so badly. Men do the same thing sometimes, not that you want them ahead of you, but you want someone who is right on your heels, pushing you hard. I think men should be leaders in their relationship spiritually. I think women love it when that happens.

The issue is not race, but sufficient spiritual union and common conviction. That’s what dating, courting, and engagements are for. Do we share enough to make this thing work, or are your ideas always going this way and my ideas always going that way? You have that conviction about race, and I have this conviction. You have that conviction about politics, and I have this conviction. You have that religious conviction, and I have this religious conviction. You have that way of rearing children, I have this way of rearing children. You have that way of getting entertainment, I have this way of getting entertainment. Ultimately it comes to the point where you say, “You know, you’re very pretty, but that’s just not enough.”

And lastly, it helps to have similar expectations. That’s one thing that breaks marriages right there, and makes them miserable. There’s no marriage that I know of that has two people who came together with the same set of expectations, but it sure helps. The more common expectations there are, the better. It’s just an innate way of thinking based on how you grew up and the way you’re wired, that you expect him to be this way and he expects you to be this way.

You expect dinner to work like this, dates to work like this, movies to work like this, discipline to work like this, and housecleaning to work like this. If every one of those expectations is different, you’ve got war, and it can last. In fact, it can get deep because of the war, as many of you will testify. But on the front end, those are the issues to think about for marriage: spiritual, convictional, and expectational, not racial.