Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Theology of Adoption

This article in Christianity Today notes that their website in December put "adoption" as number 6 on the list of Top 10 Theology Stories of 2010. Adoption theology is about connecting a person's adoption of a child with God's "adoption" of people:

But more often, I hear people talking theologically about adoption, highlighting it as the act that most directly mirrors God's actions toward us. I don't hear many guilt trips or apocalyptic warnings. Instead, I hear echoes of one of J. I. Packer's comments in Knowing God: "Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption."
A longer article in Christianity Today by Russell Moore, author of Adopted for Life, furthers that theological argument:
The gospel of adoption challenges us, first of all, to recognize ourselves as spiritual orphans. The gospel compels us to see our fallen universe—and our own egocentric kingdoms therein—as not the way it's supposed to be.

* * *

The Abba cry of our adoption defines who we are and what family we belong to. That's why Scripture's witness to the doctrine of adoption has everything to do with church unity, away from the divisions of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor (Gal. 3:28).
No one will be surprised that I'm uncomfortable with this representation of adoption. I don't find it theologically sound -- an analogy to adoption is not an adjuration to adopt.  And James 1:27 says we should care for widows and orphans -- and there are lots of ways to care for orphans without adopting them.  And if we're going to equate care with adoption, then I want churches to start arranging marriages for widows, too!  I also worry that the theology of adoption paints adoption as a way to "save" children, which I think is completely corrosive to adopted children's self esteem, dignity, identity.  I also worry that when the focus is on saving children, the requirements of ethical adoption weaken for those with an ends-justify-means mentality.

I recently ran across a brilliant blog post at My Fascinating Life, by an adoptive mom, that sums up beautifully some problems with equating adoption by God and adoption by mortals -- and does so from a Christian perspective:

Having adopted two tiny humans, I have become so much more aware of what God did when he adopted me - not because of the similarities, but because of the differences. . . . 

Here are five reasons that I think overdoing the links between human adoption and divine adoption can be confusing - for us, our children, the church, and the rest of the world.

1) When God adopted me, he adopted someone who is totally unlike himself.

* * *

2) When God adopted me, my adoption was a totally good thing.

No grief, no pain, just rejoicing. Out of darkness, into light. How could I not be grateful and glad?

I'm hoping that I don't need to explain how this is different from our children's human experience of adoption. . . .

3) When God adopted me, I needed to be adopted because of my own sin.

All too often, adoption is surrounded by human sin. . . . But it's pretty much never because of anything the child themselves has done. . . .

4) When God adopted me, there was no other way that I could have been saved.

* * *

5) When God adopted me, I was also born again.

* * *

Let's challenge ourselves - as Christian individuals, and as a Christian adoption community, to think hard about the way we talk about adoption. Let's never use Christian adoption as an excuse to be lazy about adoption ethics. Let's celebrate our families, but not confuse ourselves with God.
I hope you'll go read the whole thing.  It's a nice reminder of the hubris of humans who want to be closer to God by mistakenly equating our human behavior to his.


Claudia said...

Thanks for the link! Quite a surreal feeling to find bits of my own post in my google reader :)

I find it so hard to talk about these things without coming across as ungracious (which I try not to be), or anti-adoption (which I'm not) but I do feel like sometimes there's a bit too much mutual back-slapping and a bit too little thinking about all this. (And yeah, that probably sounded ungracious. Sorry!!)

By the way, LOVED the post on arranged marriages for widows. Heh.

Bukimom said...

I saw a summary of the CT article a few days ago, and as I was reading it, a lot of the same thoughts came to my mind as your mind, Malinda. We are definitely overdue for a Christian theology of orphan care that embraces more than just adoption.

Anonymous said...


So do you raise the girls to be Christians, or do you let them choose?

Sandy said...

Melinda - thank you...the theology of adoption is so different than child adoption that there is no comparison...Not one.

If Christians wish to focus on adopting as a way to give back then they need to adopt the entire family - not just the child - no Christian should be purposely severing the biological link that God created...God told them to care for all humanity...not just the little ones...

Mama said...

There is so much I could say about this post, but I won't. Instead I'll stick to one thing: one of the reasons I enjoy reading what you write is because you use words like hubris.

Rock On, Sister!

YoonSeon said...

I hate how adoption is so closely linked to religion. The two have nothing to do with one another, if you ask me.

Mirah Riben said...

Another great post! I too (not surprisingly) am extremely irked by the thought of comparing child adoption to the saving of sinners. And as you brilliantly pointed out, this encourages situations as those we have seen in times of war and natural disasters when so-called missionaries go rushing in to scoop up helpless converts.

My writings on this topic appear at: http://familypreservation.blogspot.com/2010/07/update-on-religion-and-adoption.html

with links back to previous posts on the subject and biblical quotes such as: They pluck the fatherless from the breast, and take a pledge of the poor.
Job 24:9:

New International Version (©1984) The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.

Bible in Basic English
The child without a father is forced from its mother's breast, and they take the young children of the poor for debt.

More at: http://familypreservation.blogspot.com/2010/05/job-249.html

And it seems all these theologians simply ignore the story of Moses who returned to HIS PEOPLE of birth.

Melissa said...

Excellent post. As an adult adoptee, I truly appreciate an honest discussion of this topic. Thank you for posting this.

And Sandy, wow, true & insightful point that you make, "If Christians wish to focus on adopting as a way to give back then they need to adopt the entire family - not just the child - no Christian should be purposely severing the biological link that God created...God told them to care for all humanity...not just the little ones..."

Do you mind if I quote you at some point?

Steve said...

That reference in Job is hauntingly evocative of relinquishment adoptions. OUCH

One other concern I have when hearing or reading about the God adopts us/ we adopt orphans comparison is that it subtly equates the adoptive parent to God, and so any discord between the child and parent has an undercurrent that the all wise/ all knowing "God/parent" savior is right, and the very human parent loses the ability to even consider how they may be at fault.

Good " biblical" theology indicates that even bio kids are a gift from the Lord, and the parents merely ( or rather, privileged to be) stewards of these precious images of the divine.

Mei Ling said...

Yes - if a parent says Fate/God caused the adoption, then that leaves no room for argument.

Elaine said...

Ah yes. I'm actually both an adoptive mother and a theologian who is totally squicked out by adoption theology from both sides. My own writing on the subject has yet to be as coherent as Claudia - very well said - or yourself, but know there are other voices out there as well. When people ask me if we adopted because of our faith, I usually say NOPE. Though that's not entirely true. My faith and my theology require that I work for justice and nonviolence and so I can say that IF you are referring to justice, yes. If you are referring to salvation and all that whatnot. NOT AT ALL. I have also said that becoming an adoptive mother has taught me everything that I know about Grace - unmerited love and also, very importantly, about how *costly* that grace is - the costs that my children had/have to pay - So great. And so often glossed over in adoption theology.

See. Not yet coherent. But getting there.
Thanks for your post.

Sandee said...

Pretty much all the references in my bible are to:
- caring for widows AND orphans (moms and their kids, together)
- Jesus comforting those who have been separated from their kin. CONSOLE. If the separation weren't painful, why would Jesus be consoling people?

I've taken this to mean "keep moms together with their kids", rather than leave the mom and snatch the baby because Jesus told me to.