Babel Was Not a Model for Segregation

Segregation Signs

Last month, the Presbyterian Church in America officially repented of its members’ involvement in racial discord in the Civil Rights era and beyond, including “the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that ‘love does no wrong to a neighbor’ (Romans 13:10).”

Jemar Tisby, who is the director of the African American Leadership Initiative and Special Assistant to the Chancellor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, explains what encourages him about the PCA’s resolution.

The problem with not having an explicit statement repudiating racism, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, as a Southern Presbyterian denomination is that African Americans and other ethnic minorities will always wonder, “Are these folks still cool with racism?” That’s putting it bluntly, but there’s truth to it. As a black person in an overwhelmingly white branch of the church, I have to constantly evaluate whether I’m truly welcome here or not. A strong statement repenting, not just of racism generally, but the more recent lack of vocal support for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement, is necessary because silence about the matter tacitly communicates either support or indifference.

One charge related to the PCA is the view by some founders and members that racial segregation is a biblical directive. 

That view persists today, and some people (who may or may not be Presbyterian) are supporting it in response to the PCA’s actions. Pastor Gregory Ward of Redeemer PCA in Austin, Texas, has written an examination of the arguments put forward by one of the PCA’s founders, Dr. Morton Smith of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Smith argues that despite the problems the practice of segregation has had over many years, a Christian should work to love his neighbor while encouraging him to stay in his place. We have our place in society because God has ordained the forming of nations and organizing of races. A fully integrated society, Smith says, leads to crime, largely black crime, and didn’t God break up the city of Babel by segregating people? He observes, “One wonders, when he looks at the parallel of the great city planned at Babel, and the intervention of God to prevent sin’s growth, and the modern large cities with their high crime rates, whether the principle of separation started at Babel should not be continued today.”

Ward replies, “While Smith uses terms like ‘seems’ and ‘may,’ he assumes the connections are valid without exploring the difficulties.” Smith suggests that God’s segregating of Babel is a deliberate endorsement of the principle of segregation, as if he was illustrating how a godly society should operate.

Ward writes:

[Smith] rightly describes God’s action both as divine judgment and as a form of common grace, “Thus God, by his common grace intervened, and by his act of judgment intensified the diversity or pluriformity that was inherent in his creation.”10 There are several problems here.

First, God did not intensify ethnic or racial pluriformity. He intensified linguistic diversity. One may argue that this then resulted in ethnic, or racial, diversity, but the two are not the same thing and should not be assumed to coincide. We have numerous examples in the modern world of different races that speak the same language and conversely of people of the same race who speak different languages. It does not follow that just because God intensified linguistic diversity that he necessarily caused an increase in ethnic or racial pluriformity.

This is the way Smith argues throughout, so Ward continues to point to context and biblical intent for proper understanding. Yes, God did set the Jews apart as a holy people, but as a people of faith, not of racial purity. The segregating walls in the old temple complex, including the one between everyone and God himself, were torn down by Christ Jesus. There’s no biblical reason to argue for white Gentiles to replace the Jews in a new church complex and for all other believers to replace the Gentiles in some kind of outer court.

Ward concludes:

Black people and other minorities have been economically oppressed in this country for years, and even since the Civil Rights Movement, by redlining, racial profiling, and other methods. Any principle of segregation is not loving, but hateful. Further, to attempt to reinforce segregation by means of an appeal to an authority like Scripture is among the worst forms of racism, because it is systemic in nature. Kinism is a sin. This is why Overture 43 was passed to begin with.

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