Systemic Racism and the Church


What is systemic racism? How does it pertain to the Church? Before we get to “systemic racism,” let’s define racism.

Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against persons because of their ethnicity. Imagine that I see a Hispanic male I’ve never met and know nothing about. If I assume he is a criminal or an illegal immigrant simply because he’s Hispanic, that is racism. Racism assumes that everyone from a certain ethnic background shares a set of negative traits. (Racism has another side: showing undue favoritism or giving unjust preferential treatment to a particular ethnicity, but that’s not my focus here.)

Let me be as clear as I know how: Racism is not just a social issue; it is a gospel issue. It is a sin issue. One cannot be racist and love others.

First, according to Scripture, all humans descended from Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:20; cf. Acts 17:26). Therefore, there are no different “races.” There is only one human race. Racism denies our shared identity.

Second, according to Scripture, every human person is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen.1:27; 9:6; James 3:9). That means all humans are inherently valuable. Racism denies our shared equality.

Third, God loves all humans regardless of ethnicity (John 3:16) and provided His Son as an atonement for the sins of all humanity (1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:10). That means all humans are redeemable, loved by God, and potential members of Christ’s body. Racism denies our shared sinfulness, redemption, and sonship.

Fourth, we are called to love everyone (Lev. 19:18), even those who hate us (Rom. 12:19-20). Love assumes the best about others (1 Cor. 13:7). Racism fails to assume the best about others.

Racism is not just a social issue; it is a gospel issue. It is a sin issue. One cannot be racist and love others.

When racism is embedded into systems that unjustly discriminate against particular ethnicities, it is called systemic racism. Systemic racism may be obvious—a school district requiring all board members to be Caucasian. Or, it may be less obvious—a denomination requiring all members to tithe more than $2,000 per year. If the only people who can’t do that come from a particular ethnicity, then the denomination has a system that discriminates against them.

The phrase “systemic racism” is often misused to explain any disparity between ethnicities. For example, has a one-minute video that lists a series of facts about financial disparities between whites, Hispanics, and African Americans. They (wrongly, I believe) claim that these disparities prove systemic racism. We should freely admit that systemic racism has caused ethnic disparities. We should not, however, assume that disparities between ethnic groups are necessarily caused by systemic racism.

I’ve heard it said that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday is the most racist time in America. The implication seems to be that churches that are primarily one ethnicity are essentially and necessarily racist. I’ve also heard it said that a failure to actively pursue racial integration within every church is essentially racist. I don’t believe Scripture justifies either of those claims. The human inclination to associate with those of similar interests, preferences, and beliefs need not be a function of fallen self-centeredness. Refusal to associate with those who are ethnically different, on the other hand, is sinful.

We should ask ourselves questions like: What do Scripture’s directions to love resident aliens (Deut. 10:19) imply for our views of, attitudes toward, and responsibilities to immigrants and minority ethnic populations? How could our church be more accessible and welcoming to ethnic minorities? How can our church better reflect whatever level of ethnic diversity exists in its community? How might we interact with other churches of other ethnicities that will reflect our unity in Christ through fellowship, encouragement, and mutual support?

Past and present racist treatment creates wounds, wounded people require special care, and humility learns to avoid hurtful words and ways.

If we find ourselves balking over having “those people” around, our hearts aren’t reflecting the Holy One who said, “You shall treat the alien who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am Yahweh your God” (Lev. 19:34).

My friends from other ethnicities have encouraged me to recognize these truths: (1) past and present racist treatment creates wounds, (2) wounded people require special care, and (3) humility learns to avoid hurtful words and ways.

Caring about justice for all, especially the oppressed, and speaking the truth in love is being like Jesus! I want to be like Jesus!



Revised from an article published in God’s Revivalist.

Philip Brown
Philip Brown
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).