By Cap Stewart, Crosswalk.com
In the early nineties, CCM artist Michael W. Smith released his album Change Your World. It had several catchy and memorable tunes, including the song “Color Blind.” The chorus went like this:
Why can’t we be color blind
You know we should
Be living together
And we’d find a reason and rhyme
I know we would
Cause we could see better
If we could be color blind
Decades after the release of this song, there remains a proclivity for colorblindness within the church. For example, Trillia Newbell, a Christian author and friend of mine, says she hears it all the time: “When I speak with adults about ethnic and racial diversity it’s not long before I hear this: ‘I don’t see color,’ they say. ‘I’m colorblind! My parents taught me not to see color.’”
On its head, the point of “not seeing” race, or ignoring skin color altogether, seems obvious: to push back against a prejudiced mindset (which tends to see nothing but skin color). After all, if an overemphasis on melanin goes hand-in-hand with hateful attitudes and actions, it would seem both logical and loving to de-emphasize skin color to such a degree that it becomes a non-issue.
Same Term, Different Definitions
In addressing the concept of colorblindness, Christian apologist Neil Shenvi makes a helpful distinction between two definitions of the term:
- Free from racial prejudice (something to which we should all aspire)
- Ignoring race, or “not seeing” race (illustrated by Newbell’s example above)
Because there is near universal agreement that Christians should be free from racial prejudice, this article will focus on Definition #2, which is more ambiguous and controversial.
In reference to this second definition, Shenvi points out how some “argue that the church ought to be ‘colorblind’,” and how they say things like, “I don’t think we should talk about race.” Furthermore, Shenvi says, “Proponents of colorblindness will indeed root their arguments in texts like Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:11.”
The question, then, becomes this: does Scripture provide an adequate and convincing case for the colorblind (i.e., the “I don’t see color”) thesis? Since the above-mentioned verses in Galatians and Colossians are nearly identical, we will limit ourselves to examining only Galatians 3:28.
What’s Race Got to Do with It?
In his letter to the Galatian church, the Apostle Paul writes the following: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The first thing to note is the complete absence of any mention of skin color. Instead, Paul addresses three specific categories: Jews and Gentiles (ethnic or cultural), freeman and slaves (social and demographic), and men and women (gender). In vain will the reader extract from this verse a conclusive reference to race.
It is odd that proponents of colorblindness would anchor their position to verses like this, especially considering how they would be the first to argue that the concept of race—as we understand it today—isn’t a legitimate biblical category. To quote Neil Shenvi again, “[W]hile ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture’ are biblical categories, ‘race’ is not. As [even] critical race theorists will vehemently affirm, ‘race’ is a social construct. Thus, it would be incorrect to claim that ‘race’ is on par with ‘gender’ or ‘ethnicity.’”
And yet, by citing Galatians 3:28, proponents of colorblindness elevate the modern concept of race (which this verse doesn’t acknowledge) to the level of biblical concepts like ethnicity, social status, and gender.
Relying on Galatians 3:28 to promote colorblindness also reveals a faulty hermeneutic. When interpreting various Scripture passages, our exegesis errs if we fail to recognize the difference between justification and sanctification. To confuse the two is to confuse the very nature of salvation, as well as our relationship with God. Part of the confusion in the debate on colorblindness stems from the use of Galatians 3:28 as a sanctification passage (how we should relate to others), when it is actually a justification passage (how we are made right with God).
Looking at the context of Galatians 3:28, it becomes clear that Paul is talking about our justification before the court of heaven. As he said a few verses earlier, “no one who relies on the law is justified before God” (v. 11). The people of Israel, as well as other nations, are all “under the control of sin” (v. 22), and “all [become] children of God through faith” (v. 26). Salvation is a matter of grace, not merit. As such, “[we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28).
Commenting on Galatians 3:28, nineteenth-century theologian and abolitionist Albert Barnes writes, “[W]hatever [one’s] birth, or rank, or nation, or color, or complexion, all…who enter into heaven, will enter clothed in the same robes of salvation…[and] redeemed by the same blood.”
The point of Galatians 3:28 is not that there are no distinctions between people, but that those distinctions don’t affect a person’s status or access to God. “This is the sole point under discussion,” Barnes asserts, “and the interpretation should be limited to this. It is not a fact that people are on a level in all things, nor is it a fact that the gospel designs to break down all the distinctions of society.”
As such, when Paul says things like, “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile” (Rom. 10:12), he does not mean there are no literal or functional differences between Jewish and Gentile peoples. What he does mean (which he says in the very next verse) is this: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 13). In other words, the Lord redeems all types of people—not just some. No one is barred from heaven because of nationality, social status, or gender.
When relating to people of different skin colors, we are engaged in a sanctification issue (how to grow in love for one’s neighbor), not a justification issue (how to tell if your neighbor is genuinely converted). By relying on verses like Galatians 3:28, many proponents of colorblindness have confused justification with sanctification. As such, they have misinterpreted Scripture and forced it to imply much more than it actually does.
Photo Credit: ©Sparrowstock
If Galatians 3:28 legitimately endorses the act of ignoring another’s skin color, it endorses much more than a proponent of colorblindness would care to admit. As proof, let us briefly evaluate each of the three pairs of distinctions Paul addresses in this verse.
1. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile”
If Paul is teaching us to ignore differences between skin colors, he’s also teaching us to ignore differences between Jews and Greeks. But that is not a stance we see in other Pauline texts. Quite the contrary, actually.
While preaching to the Jewish community, he “became like a Jew,” and while ministering to those not under the law he “became like one not having the law” (1 Cor. 9:20-21). Depending on whether he was proclaiming the gospel to Jews or Gentiles, he changed his approach to accommodate his audience’s unique distinctions. “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some,” Paul wrote (see 1 Cor. 9:22). When the gospel is at stake, it is important to note and accommodate—not ignore—cultural and ethnic distinctions.
2. “[There is] neither slave nor free”
If Paul is teaching us to ignore differences between skin colors, he’s also teaching us to ignore differences between freemen and slaves. But that interpretation doesn’t square with Paul’s teaching elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, in Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul addresses slaves and masters separately, acknowledging the differences between their statuses in the Greco-Roman world.
Furthermore, to ignore the difference between freemen and slaves would be to ignore the evils of human slavery—which Paul also did not do. (See the book of Philemon, in which, as John Piper says, “Paul’s way of dealing with Philemon works to undermine the institution [of slavery] across its various manifestations”).
3. “Nor is there male and female”
If Paul is teaching us to ignore differences between skin colors, he’s also teaching us to ignore differences between men and women. In other words, if Galatians 3:28 teaches colorblindness, it also teaches gender-blindness. Or, in the words of our day, Paul would be saying, “I don’t see gender.” But any serious student of Scripture knows Paul believed and taught no such thing.
In fact, some of his most controversial statements are related to gender distinctions, not the least of which is his teaching on the different roles of husband and wife (see Ephesians 5:22-23). The husband, he says, is called to lead his wife with love (not to be served by her, but to serve her sacrificially), and the wife is called to submit to her husband. In no way does Paul assert ignoring the functions and roles of—as well as the differences between—the sexes.
With Eyes Wide Open
If by “colorblind” proponents mean simply “Free from racial prejudice,” there are numerous biblical passages that would speak, even if only indirectly, to the goal of being prejudice-free. In that sense, one could say the Bible does promote colorblindness.
However, there is a lack of Scriptural support for “ignoring or not seeing race.” And if passages like Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 are the best that can be offered in defense of this position, we can safely conclude that such colorblindness is based on a misunderstanding and misapplication of Scripture. As such, saying “I don’t see color” is unbiblical and untenable.
In reality, colorblindness overcompensates for color-hatred. Ignoring skin color may dutifully avoid the pitfall of amplifying certain distinctions, but it stumbles into the pitfall of trivializing them. And just as it is a sin to amplify and hate God-ordained differences in other people, so it is a sin to ignore and trivialize those differences.
Put another way, unilaterally ignoring skin color is an affront to God himself. All humans are created in his image, and denying the distinctive features he has given others is to deny the distinctive ways in which he has chosen to glorify himself. As well-intentioned as colorblindness may be, “not seeing race” is a position that is both uninspired and error-ridden, failing to adequately reflect the inspired and inerrant Word of God.
Photo Credit: © Pexels/Matheus Viana
Recognized by Zondervan Academic as one of the top Christian thinkers on sexualized entertainment, Cap Stewart is a contributor to the anthology Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues, released in 2019. His cultural commentary has appeared in several print and online publications. Cap has been writing about theology and the arts at capstewart.com since 2006.