A stereotype is an oversimplified, widely held belief about a person or group of people. Stereotypes are firmly held assumptions based on generalizations (whether true or not), limited interactions with a person or group, or even hearsay. Some examples of stereotypes are “French people are the best lovers,” “women can’t drive,” and “all Irish people eat potatoes.” Some stereotypes sound positive, such as the statement that all Asian people are gifted in academics or all women are nurturers; however, stereotypes are most often negative and smack of racism and sexism. There is no question that racism and sexism are sinful, as both are motivated by hate or willful ignorance. Believers are called to love, not hate (Mark 12:30–31; 1 Corinthians 13:4–8, 13; Ephesians 4:2) and to be informed, not ignorant (Matthew 10:16).
Sometimes, stereotypes contain a grain of truth—which is why they are used and accepted by so many people. The apostle Paul quoted a pagan poet who stereotypically described the people of Crete: “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true” (Titus 1:12–13). Paul was not saying that such a blanket statement is universally applicable to every Cretan, only that Titus needed to be aware of the evil proclivities that existed within the culture where he ministered. Elsewhere, Paul says that the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Obviously, not every Jew stumbled at the gospel, and not every Gentile saw the message as foolish (or no one would ever be saved); Paul’s point was not to establish a stereotype but to acknowledge the general response that people of different cultures had toward the gospel. We must understand the culture we are trying to reach in order to effectively evangelize it.
While even negative stereotyping may have a kernel of truth, there is always danger in making a sweeping judgment about a group of people. Stereotypes are purposeful generalizations (and often exaggerations), but God created each of us uniquely; no two people are exactly the same, even if they are part of the same gender, race, or culture. A certain group may share a language, skin color, style of dress, or even the same mannerisms, habits, or speech patterns (such as the colloquial use of the word y’all), and such similarities can lead to stereotypes. But every group is still comprised of individuals with varying character traits and physical features. Stereotyping takes the rich history of an entire culture or race and boils it down to simplistic and often unfair notions of what individuals are like.
Believers should always take stereotypes with a grain of salt. We must be aware of the proclivities, trends, and general characteristics of the people we minister to, but we should also strive to know people as individuals. When we hear a stereotype, we should recognize it as such and discern if it is fair or unfair, remembering that “the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). As Christians, we are to become more and more like Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:1; 1 John 2:6), which means seeing others as He sees them and sharing His heart for them (see Matthew 9:36). As we walk in obedience to God, we will be able to release our preconceived or unfair notions of others and “judge correctly” (John 7:24).