Christian leaders who note that we are in the midst of a growing Orphan Care Movement are praying that this will be more than a trend, but rather that it will become an integral part of our culture. I believe the movement does have such staying power, but I think the momentum is not rooted in an ethical mandate about what we must do. Instead, the real long-term drive for this movement is rooted in our view of God. As a former pastor and theology professor, and the father of two adopted children, I believe that the Christian theology of adoption transcends ethics, and is inherent to the very character of God. As Christians come to recognize the inherent link between God’s character and adoption, our efforts toward orphan care will remain inherent to actions as well.
Let me illustrate the link between adoption and God’s character with an analogy from the field of economics. When I was a child, I was drawn to the idea of communism, because in the way that I understood it: “everyone gets an equal amount of stuff.” I suppose most kids are preoccupied with equality and fairness. I also believed in God, and my thoughts about communism got me thinking: “If God is all powerful, and he wanted everyone to have an equal amount of stuff, he could have distributed it that way from the beginning, and could have saved us a great deal of trouble.” In short, I saw a paradox between God’s power and the lack of equality in the world. Years later, I had an epiphany that helped me make sense of this paradox. Perhaps God is not only concerned about the end product, but also the process. God takes pleasure in watching the redistribution take place. God could have made every person equally wealthy, but this would have robbed Him of the pleasure of watching people give generously (and would have robbed us of the pleasure of doing it). Sometimes through adversity beautiful traits emerge. If the world were perfect, we would understand some of God’s attributes: perfection, goodness, love, etc. But without some measure of pain, sin, or difficulty, we would have no knowledge or experience of other attributes, such as God’s mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, etc. The display of beautiful character is occasioned in many ways, but specifically through human interaction during difficult times. Admittedly, the display of ugly character is also occasioned through our interactions. In regard to money, we are often concerned with the end result: that each person gets what he needs or wants. But God seems to have a different economic principle. God’s economy does not measure an increase in Gross Domestic Product, but an increase in God’s Display of Character.
Now that I am the father of two adopted children, and the director of an adoption agency, I have pondered a question similar to the distribution of goods: “Why didn’t God just put all the kids in the homes where they would end up, and save us a great deal of trouble.” This seemed strangely familiar to my childhood musings, and I now realize that God also has a peculiar “economy of adoption.” God is certainly powerful enough that He could have ordained the universe in such a way that adoption would never be necessary. Every child could have just been born in the home he or she were meant to end up. But God didn’t design such a universe. Therefore, I reasoned He must have a purpose in the process of adoption.
Christian philosophers are committed to the idea that the way things work out in the world must be the result of God’s wisdom and goodness: a part of a great plan. The seventeenth century philosopher Lebinitz pondered whether this world is the best of all conceivable worlds that God could have created. Later, Voltaire scoffed at the idea, noting that the presence of suffering and evil seem evidential that God could have done better. There is ample reason to doubt that this is the best of all possible worlds. But Lebnitz rightly pointed out that if God could have done better, and chose not to, then God’s goodness is at stake. So the philosopher concluded that this is the world that best served God’s purposes. Because I am thoroughly convinced of the goodness of God, I agree.
And the reality is, that this is a world with adoption. Families, among other things, are in disarray, and need our intervention to bring about justice, health, or peace. Perhaps that means that a world with adoption is a world God intended; a world that best serves His purposes. Using Lebnitz’ terminology, a world with adoption is the best of all conceivable worlds. Why is this world better off with adoption? Because it is through adoption that many of God’s marvelous attributes emerge. By participating in adoption, we emulate these same beautiful character traits. The process of adoption occasions traits of unconditional love, rescue, provision, unmerited grace, long-suffering, and beautiful sacrifice.
Adoption makes great story—just look at the attention Hollywood has given to the theme. One might not have expected Disney’s nature film Chimpanzee to be a tear-jerker, but as an adoption story it feels very relevant to humans. And The Odd Life of Timothy Green is another powerful adoption story. These are only two examples among many recent films with a prominent adoption theme. What makes them great stories is that beautiful character traits emerge. In Chimpanzee, the audience is moved by the clan patriarch’s tenderness, humility, and sacrifice. In Timothy Green, we are touched by the couple’s ability to let their love transcend unmet expectations. These stories illustrate that our lives are enriched by the challenges that adoption brings and the unique opportunities for love that it offers.
Adoption makes a great story in the Bible too. The Bible favors adoption as a forum for God’s character to dramatically unfold. Adoption serves as a central New Testament metaphor for our own salvation. Paul writes, “The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8.15). We receive all the rights and privileges afforded to children in God’s family, even though we were not born as such, simply because God was delighted to adopt us. There are many places where we can dramatically watch God’s character traits acted out by his people, and adoption serves as an excellent stage.
Having established a theology of God that is inherent to the process of adoption, the Christian Orphan Care Movement can then develop an ethic. The ethical imperative is easily found in scripture. We read in Psalm 68.5, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” As God’s people, we are to, “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed,” (Psalm 82.3). Scripture is replete with commands to care for the orphan. Most Christians are familiar with the Great Commission, where Jesus told his disciples to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. This Great Commission is found only twice in the Bible, yet serves as a central mandate for Christian behavior. But the command to care for the fatherless appears more than 39 times in the Bible. I think it is no exaggeration to say the Bible has an “adoption/orphan care mandate.”
The question for the church is not whether to be involved in orphan care, but how? Not every Christian is called to adopt. But every Christian is called to orphan ministry. Sometimes when missionaries speak in churches, Christians protest that they do not feel called to “Go” to the uttermost parts of the earth. This does not indemnify them from some role in bringing the gospel to all nations. They must find what role in “going” they are called to; whether it is in supporting missionaries financially, or in going somewhere closer to home. Likewise with orphan care, Christians who do not feel called to adopt are not exempt from caring for the fatherless. They can financially assist someone else in their adoption. I have often observed that God gives one family the desire to adopt, and another family the financial means. This all fits within God’s economy. One adoptive parent expressed God’s peculiar economic principle well: “God lets it be so expensive so that no one can do it alone.” In addition, Christians can support an orphanage, or visit an orphanage on a mission trip and bring physical assistance. Those trained in counseling or education can give post adoption support to families who are struggling. And all Christians can promote the cause of the orphan by speaking about the great need.
If Christians merely see adoption as an afterthought in God’s design, or an inferior but necessary solution to a problem, the orphan care movement will not have staying power. IF it is to be a sustained movement, it needs to be fueled by more than an ethical imperative. The continuing drive will be rooted in a conviction that adoption is beautiful, and that it serves a grand purpose in God’s display of his glory. Adoption is not an afterthought; it is inherent to this world’s design. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1.3-5).
Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D.
President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions