River’s Edge Statement on Racism

River’s Edge is a multi-racial community of faith, in both leadership and attendance, that operates by a zero tolerance policy on racism.
Our commitment is to protect this in our original DNA and to have ongoing conversations to improve upon it. We derive our understanding and practice of this, by patterning ourselves after the radical inclusiveness of Jesus, who modelled and taught how everyone is always welcome to Belong Before You Believe.

Slavery & Racism In The Bible



What The Bible Says About Slavery & Racism

Slavery in the Old Testament

It is an unfortunate fact that slavery was an accepted part of life in the ancient world. As a result no early society or literature questioned its existence or necessity.

People in the Old Testament times became slaves in a variety of ways: they were born to enslaved parents (Genesis 17:23), purchased as slaves (Genesis 37:28), or sold themselves to pay a debt (Leviticus 25:39–55). Breaking into a home was punished by enslavement (Exodus 22:3), and prisoners of war were commonly enslaved (Joel 3:6). Even the Israelites enslaved the Canaanites they conquered in the Promised Land (Judges 1:28).

Simply put slaves in Israel were considered property to be bought and sold (Exodus 21:32). However, they were granted protection against murder, permanent injury, or undue physical labor (Exodus 21:20,2623:12). In fact Hebrew household slaves were included at all religious meals (Exodus 12:44). Such privileges and protections were otherwise extremely rare in the ancient world.

But why did the Old Testament not condemn this practice?

In many ways, the practice of slavery was condemned. That is why there were several ways a Hebrew slave could be freed. An individual could be purchased and set free (Exodus 21:8). A slave that was permanently injured by his master was to be set free (Exodus 21:26). Hebrews were also to be held as slaves for no longer than six years and freed on the seventh (Deuteronomy 15:12). The Jubilee Year, which occurred every forty-nine years, was to free all Israelite slaves regardless of how long they had served (Leviticus 25:50).

It’s clear that in the Old Testament, what we see regarding slavery are laws that minimized the evil of slavery, by protecting slaves from physical harm, and provided for their eventual freedom. However, it is in the New Testament that we are provided with God’s complete word on the subject.

Slavery in the New Testament

In the Old Testament era, people were enslaved primarily through war. But in the first century AD, the number of slaves, swelled mainly due to procreation. In fact, many people actually sold themselves into slavery to improve their lives at this time.

Owning and using people as slaves was so common in the Roman Empire that not a single Roman writer condemned the practice. But this acceptance of slavery would begin to change with the growth and influence of Christianity. Slavery in the Roman era was dramatically different from the despicable practice in American history. If you walked through any first-century Roman city, you would not be able to tell most slaves from free people. Slaves performed manual labor, but they were also doctors, nurses, household managers, and intellectuals. They managed finances and cities. They were often given an excellent education at the expense of their owners, with the result that philosophers and tutors were typically slaves.

Even more amazing to us, it was common for people to sell themselves into slavery to secure such privileges. A person who wanted to be a Roman citizen could sell himself to a citizen and then purchase his freedom over time served.

While there is no doubt that many slaves were abused physically, sexually, and socially, many were part of the more privileged strata of society. The total dependence of the Roman economy upon the labor of slaves made it impossible for the ancient world to conceive of abolishing this institution.

As a result, no New Testament writer attempted to end slavery itself, as this was not possible in their time. But several other facts should be noted as well.

One: Paul abolished all racial and social discrimination for Christians:

“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26–28).
All were seen and understood to be equals in Christ Jesus. They were to put in practice this worldview in all facets of life.

Two: Free Christians viewed slaves as their equal. 

Paul appealed to Philemon to see his slave, Onesimus, “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). His intention here was not just in getting him to see him a brother, but to have him set free.

Three: The New Testament church gave those who were enslaved a family and a home. 

This was one reason why so many of the earliest believers were slaves. Pastors and church leaders came from both the ranks of slaves and free. Christians made no distinction between the two, for their Heavenly Father welcomed all as his children.

Four: Not a single New Testament leader owned slaves, even though many had the resources to purchase them. 

This very example is what inspired William Wilberforce and countless other Christians to do all that they could to legislate the abolishment of slavery, and we thank God that they were eventually successful.

Racism And The Bible

The Bible clearly condemns all forms of racism and views every person as equally valuable.

Five Theological Facts

One: We Are All Created By God.

The human story begins in Genesis 1, where God “created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (v. 27). Every person is created intentionally by God in his own divine image. Thus, every person is sacred and equally valuable. Every form of racism, by definition, is to be rejected.

Two: We Are All Descended From The Same Parents.

Every human being is descended from Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28). As a result, “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20).

As Scripture notes, the Lord “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). Because of the Flood, all of humanity can trace our ancestry to Noah as well (Genesis 9:1).

Three: Every Person Is Equally Valuable To God.

As noted earlier, Paul stated boldly: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This at a time when many Jews considered Greeks to be unclean and inferior. Some claimed that God made Gentiles so there would be “firewood in hell.” Many refused even to look upon a Gentile in public.

For their part, Gentiles persecuted the Jewish people across nearly their entire history. The Jews were enslaved by Egypt, attacked by Canaanites and other surrounding tribes, destroyed by Assyria, enslaved by Babylon, and ruled by Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Roman Empire destroyed their temple in AD 70 and disbanded their nation after the Bar Kochba revolt in AD 132–135. Nonetheless, Scripture teaches that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” in the eyes of God.

“There is neither slave nor free” was also a revolutionary claim. As we have seen, slavery was endemic in the first-century world. Many viewed slaves, especially those who came from foreign lands, as inferior to Romans.

“There is no male and female” was a radical statement as well. Romans considered women to be the possession of men. A female belonged to her father until she belonged to her husband. Women were either wives or concubines, with few rights of their own.

Galatians 3:28 sounds the clarion call that every form of racism known to Paul’s day was invalid and sinful. The God who made us all loves us all.

Paul repeated his assertion to the Colossians: “There is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

To summarize: “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).

Four: Each Person Is Equally Welcome To Salvation In Christ.

God loves all sinners and wants all to come to faith in his Son: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Our Lord “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

As Paul noted, God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). That’s why the apostle could testify: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

Our Father’s saving love is available to all: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). His grace is universal: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

When we trust in Christ, we become one people: “He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). As a result, “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Peter told his fellow Jewish Christians that God “made no distinction between [Gentile Christians] and us, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). As a result, we are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). “Nations” translates ethnos, meaning people groups. We get “ethnicity” from this word. Every person of every ethnicity is to be brought to Christ through the ministry of the church.

Five: We Are To Love All People Unconditionally.

God’s word is blunt: “If you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9). “Partiality” means to show favouritism or prejudice, to treat one person as inherently better than another. Such prejudice is “sin.”

God told his people: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

Jesus taught us: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). We are to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18).

Peter testified to the Gentiles who sought to hear the gospel: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

Three Common Questions

One: What About The “Mark of Cain”?

After Cain murdered his brother, God sentenced him to be “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Cain protested that “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (v. 14). God replied, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold’” (v. 15a). Then, “the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him” (v. 15b).

The Hebrew word translated “mark” is often, referring to a sign or token. It is used eighty times in the Old Testament; not once does it refer to skin color. Nonetheless, some have identified this “mark” with being black. Since Cain was cursed for his sin against his brother, it was claimed that those whose skin was black were his descendants and were cursed by God. This claim was used to justify the enslavement of Africans.

This line of reasoning is completely wrong. As noted, the “mark” of Cain had nothing to do with his skin color. In addition, Cain’s family line probably died in the Flood.

And note that Moses married a “Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1). Cush was a region south of Ethiopia; its people were known for their black skin (Jeremiah 13:23). When Moses’ brother and sister spoke against him for marrying his Cushite wife, God rebuked them (Numbers 12:4–15). Clearly, the “Mark of Cain” has nothing to do with black people.

Two: What About The “Curse of Ham”?

Ham was one of Noah’s three sons. Ham had four sons: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan (Genesis 10:6). Ham is considered the father of black people, since some of his descendants settled in Africa.

According to tradition, Cush settled in Ethiopia, south of Egypt; Egypt (also known as “Mizraim”) settled in the land of Egypt; Put settled in Libya; Canaan settled above Africa and east of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Bible tells us that after the Flood, Noah became drunk (Genesis 9:21). Then “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside” (v. 22). Shem and Japheth “covered the nakedness of their father” (v. 23). After Noah awoke, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (v. 25).

Note that Noah cursed Canaan, not Ham. Thus, his curse was irrelevant to Ham’s sons who had settled in Africa and their descendants.

Also note that Noah’s curse was specifically directed at Canaan, with no mention of his descendants. If Noah’s curse was applied to his descendants, it related to the Canaanites living in the land that became Israel. It had nothing whatever to do with black people.

Nonetheless, the Old Scofield Reference Bible of 1909 (often considered the authoritative Bible of fundamentalist Christians) interprets Genesis 9:24–25 to teach: “A prophetic declaration is made that from Ham will descend an inferior and servile posterity.”

It is important to note that biblical curses are limited to three or four generations (Exodus 20:5) and are reversed when people repent and return to obedience (Exodus 20:6). Scripture consistently rejects the claim the black people (or any people) are inferior to any other.

Three: Didn’t Slavery Proponents Use The Bible to Justify Their Position?

Tragically, many who supported slavery used the “Mark of Cain” and “Curse of Ham” to justify their position. They also noted biblical statements encouraging slaves to obey their masters.

Like any other book, the Bible can be misused by those who misinterpret and misrepresent its teachings. In responding to racists who misused the Bible to justify slavery, we should blame the racists, not the Word of God.

Pastor Lorenzo DellaForesta