Adoption has become what it is today largely through the ownership of it by the Christian community. It is not uncommon to hear many verses in support of adoption, and it is not uncommon to find many who adopt out of their interpretation of the theology of the gospel. My necessary disclaimer is that I simultaneously hope to speak to the ways we may reform adoption so that it is healthier for all involved and, for Christians, truer to the scriptural picture we see, while also supporting adoptive families and adoptees as they grow up in the adoption structures we currently have. Such change is slow and in the interim, we will continue to see adoption as we know it exist and be pursued by friends and family we love, and that speaking in favor of reform and correction, to be most effective, must be done with patience and love and support for all in all of our many places in this journey.
My hopes are for a future where the church respects the nuances inherent in adoption, where the church becomes as passionate for family preservation as they presently are for modern, American adoption, where we all hold space for adoptees and biological family who go through life with a conflicting multiplicity of emotions and thoughts, and ultimately, where the legalities of adoption see true reform: no more sealed records, amended birth certificates, full-legal adoption no longer being the simplest legal action for struggling families. I would like to see the broadening of our capacity for empathy and compassion, for adoption to no longer be solely thought of in terms of what adoptive parents desire and feel, but where all parties are held equally and given their full humanity in these conversations.
1. James 1:27
"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."
The way this verse seems most often to be read, in my experience, is "adopt young orphans" and "visit the elderly and widowed." That's how I read it for many years and it wasn't until reading David Smolin's work that I realized this "orphans and widows" dyad is a call back to dozens of Old Testament references ("He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow", "Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner...", "You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child", "[give your tithing] to the...fatherless, and the widow..", "they do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them") Usually, we see this term in conjunction with the sojourner and the poor, as together these make up society's most vulnerable. Of course, during the time of these writings, for a family to be without the father meant severe poverty and the risk of death, as we see in examples such as Elijah and the widow at Zarephath. To "visit the orphan and widow", especially when harmonized with the other references in scripture, biblically means to care for, give to, provide for, remember, the single mother and her child in their affliction. It means to be careful not to oppress those on the margins, to hear their cause and to not be those who "snatch the fatherless child from the breast, and they take a pledge against the poor." - Job 24:9
It is also very, very important to understand the concept of anachronism. Anachronism is "an act of attributing a custom to a period to which it does not belong." Adoption as we practice it today did not exist in these ancient cultures. Orphans were most often taken in by other families, yet without the changing of their lineage or of course, without the legalities we know today. This is particularly true for Israelites, where the lineage was extremely important and kept intact, despite displacement or death of the original parents. I point this out because this fact means that there is nothing scripture-ordained about how we practice adoption today, and that is exciting news. It means we are free to creatively reform our practices when we find that they either do not align with what we see in scripture, or when we see that our current practices are dishonest or causing harm. Modern American adoption is a distinctly man-made and culture-specific thing that has already undergone many changes and reforms, and must continue to do so.
2. Paul's use of adoption
If adoption didn't exist in Biblical times, then what does Paul mean when he uses the word adoption? First, Paul is the only writer to use the term, which is significant. As common as it has become to explain the gospel using adoption language, none of the actual gospels use the term.
Four out of five of Paul's references to adoption are emphasizing our being heirs and our inheritance. Contextually, what did exist in the Rome of Paul's time was the adoption of young adult males by wealthy rulers who were lacking an heir (either because they didn't have a son or because the son they had was considered incompetent). Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, Tiberius, Nero, and many more were such adopted emperors. How this played out was more like a promotion of a young adult male who had demonstrated their abilities. It was a definite elevation in social status and the ultimate honor. They became heirs to the throne, however they were never expected to sever ties with their biological family and still fulfilled their obligations to that family as well as to the new one. In Paul's mind, Christians are like these adopted emperors, except to an infinitely greater inheritance, and chosen Israel like the son deemed unfit to rule. When both historical and scriptural context are held together, there is no imperative to read modern, infant, legal adoption as we know it into any of the references we typically hear.
3. Moses and Esther and Jesus
Moses is such an intimately relatable character to me, and if his whole story is read, I think the story answers this question itself: he was raised by his mother until he was weaned, which was likely for at least a couple of years as that was the common breastfeeding practice at the time. He grows up as a wealthy Egyptian by adoption, yet clearly wrestles with his identity as a Hebrew until as an adult, indignant over the affliction of "his people", he murders an Egyptian who he witnesses beating "one of his brethren", at which point Moses flees Pharaoh's family. In Midian, he marries andnhas a son, Gershom, which means "for I have been a sojourner in a foreign land", revealing more of the inner turmoil of Moses.
Many years pass and God chooses Moses as the leader through which God’s people, his people, the Hebrews, will be saved. He chooses Moses as the one through whom God will “strike Egypt.” Repeatedly in chapter three God reveals himself as “the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” When Moses tries to back out, his brother, his “birth” brother, Aaron is called to help, and it is this trio of siblings, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, who we follow throughout the exodus and wandering.
Ultimately, the New Testament writers summarize the story of Moses in this way:
“By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.” – Hebrews 11:23-28
Similarly, Esther is an example of kinship adoption in the face of loss. Esther was taken in by a relative out of an urgent need: the death of her parents. The text emphasizes Esther's parents and Mordecai's relationship to them; not only are her parents not erased or supplanted by Mordecai as we might expect in modern adoption, but Mordecai appeals to her heritage and her "father's house" as the impetus for her responsibility toward the Jews in this story. Esther and Mordecai stand as an example of how to preserve identity, name and heritage in kinship care, whether or not that means adoption.
I occasionally hear Jesus as an example of adoption in the Bible, but strikes me about the story of Mary and Joseph is that Joseph provides an example of family preservation. He does not shame Mary who is pregnant with a child which is not his and instead marries, supports, and enables her to raise her child, thus keeping her from the vulnerability to exploitation as a young unwed mother in that day.
And of course, the main reason I'm surprised by this example being used to perpetuate adoption is that Jesus' entire life and identity revolves around his "original" Father and his loyalty to him.
There is nothing in this story that advocates domestic infant adoption and its current accepted practices. What didn't happen in this story is that a young, unwed, pregnant woman in a vulnerable and shameful situation was not talked into placing her baby with a more stable family who could properly care for the child.
My question is where do we draw the line when determining the biblical pattern for adoption, if we want to assume there is one?
In each of these stories, the child retains identity, name, and preserves their family relationships. We have no examples of the fabrication of identity or children being raised "as if" they were born to another family. We have no examples of anything resembling the Christian adoption movement as we know it today. The similarities in these stories to how we do adoption today are shockingly minor in comparison to the differences.
4. We are all adopted by God
Is God primarily our adoptive father? Despite Paul's texts being the minority against hundreds of references to God simply as Father, I often hear language that seems to suggest we are primarily God's adopted children. The Biblical narrative describes God the Father who creates humankind in his image, has relationship with his creation, and is our natural father. We fall away from God, become alienated from him, he makes reconciliation possible and awaits our return to him who made us through language such as "being born again." First and foremost, the Bible never speaks in terms of modern adoption. And secondly, God is primarily the Creator. He is the origin of all, and we are his creation, a creation with which he has always sought to reconcile.
"To the degree that one wants to pattern mission and ministry after the pattern of our relationship to God, the more obvious ministry would be one that reunites and restores children to their families, as well as one which preserves families against the threat of such loss and separation." - David Smolin
Dr. Erin Heim Book:
Podcasts: Adoption Metaphors in Paul