Orphan Care as a Christian Calling
This is an old article article, being republished for the blog.
How does one become part of a family one was not born into? Adoption. One of the central privileges of the gospel is our adoption into the family of God. We are not children of God by nature; rather, we are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). God, in his glorious grace, adopts us into his family through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:4-5). The eternal Son of God became the Son of Man and suffered and died for us, that we might become children of God, born again by the Spirit into a new family (John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:1). Now, as sons in union with the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, we cry out “Abba” to our Heavenly Father through the work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:15). The Triune God has adopted us, inviting us into his shared life of love and has made a home for us in eternity (John 14:2-4). As adopted and dearly loved children, we have a place at God’s table. We can be assured he provides for our every need, carries our every burden, and protects us from every enemy.
God is the Adopting God. God forms his family through adoption. We love him because he first loved us – and his initiating love took the shape of adoption. Once strangers, we are now sons, with a new status, a promised inheritance, and a family to call our own. But God’s adopting love is much more than a theological reality; it is also a practical model for ministry. The church has a long tradition of imitating God’s adopting love by caring for the orphan. This is how God’s Word defines true religion: “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world “ (James 1:29). The term “visit” here is much richer than we might suspect; throughout Scripture when God “visits” his people, he acts powerfully to rescue them and establish them in a place of safety and peace (e.g., Exodus 4:31, Luke 1:68). When we “visit” the destitute and abandoned, we must work to rescue them from their plight as well. Orphan care is rooted in the requirements of the old covenant law (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:18, Psalm 68:5-6, Isaiah 1:17) and has been in the church’s DNA from the very beginning of the new covenant. Infanticide was legal in the Roman Empire, but Christians regularly rescued infants from exposure. Justin Martyr and Tertullian describe Christians taking collections to care for the poor, especially orphans. The first orphanages were built by Christians, often in close proximity to cathedrals. Martin and Katie Luther took in numerous foster children who had no place to go, providing them shelter in the Black Cloister. While George Whitefield is best known for his amazing oratory as a preacher, he considered his life’s work the founding and support of an orphanage in the colony of Georgia, started in 1740 and known as Bethesda Home for Boys. In the nineteenth century, George Muller famously ran an orphanage on a shoestring and a prayer (quite literally); over eight thousand children were cared for and educated thanks to his vision and labors. Charles Spurgeon was committed to the care of orphans, and joined forces with believers from other branches of the church in his day in an effort to alleviate the suffering of the destitute and fatherless in the rapidly industrializing city of London. Today, Christians are on the forefront of foster care, ministry to women with crisis pregnancies, and the adoption of orphans in America and from abroad. These acts of mercy should be encouraged as tangible applications of the gospel and manifestations of the kingdom.
But we must also provide some needed cautions, particularly with regard to international adoption. In our day, adoption has become something of a fad with countless celebrities adopting children, often from third world countries. We need to be very cautious here, not only questioning the motives of some (e.g., are children being adopted to serve as accessories or commodities, completing the lifestyle of the rich and famous?) but also the methods involved (e.g., is adoption really the best way to care for children in poor countries who appear to have been abandoned by their parents?). While there is certainly a global orphan crisis, international adoption has become a burgeoning industry, rife with corruption. Before pursuing adoption, we ought to ask in any given case if it is wiser to “adopt” a family; that is, would monetary resources earmarked for adopting a child be better spent preserving the child’s natural family, enabling the child’s parents to feed and educate him themselves? There are many parents around the world who have given up their children not because they do not want them but because they cannot provide for them adequately. If we are going to “help without hurting” (to use a now common phrase), we must do so wisely, looking at the problem of orphaned children from multiple angles. We should resist the adoption mythology that has become so prevalent in our day, which assumes that a child will always be better off in middle class America with an adopting family than they could be with their own biological family, properly resourced, in a poorer country.
While we must work through these complexities, we must not give up on our calling to come to the rescue of children in need. Oftentimes, a child’s only hope will be the welcoming love of a family willing to adopt. Millions of children around the globe are in need of adoption at this very moment. When children are adopted, Christian parents may rest assured that God’s covenant promises extend to the child who has been brought into their family from the outside. The administration of the covenant of grace has never been based on bloodlines, but has always been structured by God’s promises made to entire households (cf. Genesis 17:12-13, Exodus 12:43-51). Thus, Charles Hodge argued that children in Christian orphanages could be baptized because they were going to be discipled as believers. What does this mean for adoptive parents? The adopted child should be nurtured in the Christian faith and brought into the life of the church, as part of a covenant household. Having been adopted by a Christian family, the child has been brought within the sphere of God’s covenant mercies. In this way, adoption becomes a glorious mirror of our Heavenly Father’s adopting love.