In Part 1, I pointed out a few important differences about the kind of legal adoption Paul had in mind when he used adoption as a metaphor for salvation. Part 2 is about what happens when we confuse Paul’s metaphor with adoption as we know it today.
More things to know about me as you read: I’m a mixed Chinese/German American transracial adoptee. I was adopted at birth to distant relatives of my (white) first mother. I love all my parents.
The painful things I share here are not an indictment of them, but a commitment to the truth of my adoptee experience.
My situation is unique, and I generally think of it positively. I am also a mother of 2 bio kids + 1 through legal guardianship. I am sensitive to the parent experience also. This is the perspective from which I write.
If you’re not familiar with the American Christian (often white and evangelical) depiction of adoption being “the gospel on display”, let me give you the Tiff Notes.
Essentially, the idea is that some human things (like marriage or parenting) are imperfect reflections of the “true and better” thing, which is Christ and the gospel. If you’ve ever read a Christian marriage book that draws lessons for the husband and wife relationship from the image of Christ and the church as ‘his bride’, this is the formula.
In this formula, the gospel (our salvation) becomes the “true and better” adoption. While human adoption is flawed, this perspective claims it’s value is in how it reflects the gospel of Christ. Therefore, choosing to adopt becomes a very Christ-like thing to do. This perspective also makes people very resistant to criticisms of adoption.
Oh and one more thing; Christians often state that “we are all spiritual adoptees.” Usually this is an attempt to relate to an adoptee, to validate or normalize their experience, but often the result is adoptee perspectives are universalized into being a non-issue, and our voices are silenced.
Originally, Paul used the adoption metaphor to tell us something about God. Turning it around, as if the metaphor tells us about ourselves or mandates modern adoption, doesn’t make sense.
Christians do not feel called to vacate charges against the condemned because of Paul’s use of justification as a metaphor, right? So let’s look at how our concept of adoption today leads us to misunderstand Paul’s metaphor.
Most people believe they have a child’s needs in mind when they set out to adopt. But remember, the spiritual adoption metaphor centers the desires and actions of God as our adoptive Father. Attempting to make that metaphor apply to adoption today will tempt us to move from a child-centered approach to a parent-centered one.
And in fact, prioritizing the desires and actions of adoptive parents is exactly what the adoption industry has done. This has caused a huge amount of corruption in modern adoption for over a century.
Centered around the desires of adoptive parents, adoption becomes the response to infertility or someone’s felt calling to help children in foreign countries or “unwanted” babies. This creates a demand that outweighs supply and children are procured in horrific ways. Opportunists will kidnap and sometimes sell children for adoption. We know predatory agencies coerce and trick vulnerable mothers into electing to adopt.
Focusing on adoptive parent’s desires blinds us to how the adoption industry works in opposition to family preservation.
While this was not part of my story, it is for many adoptees. We cannot ignore or dismiss their stories as isolated or non-representative cases. Adoptees often ask “How could God have desired for my family to be ripped apart by lies and deceit so that I could be adopted?” or “Why did God allow this to happen in order to answer your prayer for a child?”. The knowledge that it did not, in fact, have to be this way is a cruel burden that cannot be dismissed by the assertion that it was God’s will.
When we center adoption around the actions of adoptive parents, we tend to celebrate their savior-ism. We often want to comment adoptive parents on their great faith and obedience in adopting. To the listening child, this makes adoptive parents appear to be their saviors who deserve unending gratitude and obedience just as Christ’s actions should stir our hearts toward similar feelings toward God.
Claiming adoptive parent’s actions are Christ-like may not be wrong, but many adoptees and even non-adoptees hear this and assume the child is obligated to be grateful for their adoptive family no matter what.
I realized my adoption was centered around my adoptive family’s good deeds when I started speaking up about racism. I had relatives (not my immediate family) tell me that I was being ungrateful to them for challenging their racist ideas.
They attempted to shame me into silence by claiming they had “loved me like family”. It’s clear they saw my adoption as being about them, a validation of their righteousness. The implication was that I did not deserve their love, which I’ll talk more about in a second.
Expecting an adoptee to respond to their adoption like Christians respond to salvation is cruel. It makes it hard for adoptees to acknowledge or talk about any loss or grief they might feel. Reverend Keith C. Griffith said, “Adoption Loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”
Imposing spiritual adoption, where God knew us and chose us though we did not deserve it, onto modern adoption leads us to a wrong view of vulnerable children. We now know trauma is inherent in adoption, even for a newborn. Adoptees frequently struggle with rejection or abandonment and adoption trauma can manifest at any point in our lives.
Talking about adoption in a way that implies adoptees are like the undeserving and wicked sinner is spiritually abusive.
While it is true we do not deserve salvation, we should never state that a child “did nothing to deserve adoption”. Yet I have heard and read this multiple times, even from adult adoptees themselves who have internalized this message.
The truth is, no child deserves to lose their family.
The truth is, all children deserve a loving family.
I could not see the trauma of my adoption until I was pregnant with my first child. Suddenly, I remembered a story my adoptive mom liked to tell about my infant days. I kept pushing her away, she recalls, so she prayed over me and rebuked a spirit and I finally relaxed and let her hold me. This story always made me feel ashamed but I was too young to articulate that. I responded as expected, showing gratitude for my mother’s overcoming love. When I finally understood my adoption trauma I realized my mother’s story is the spiritualized version of a stressed infant, struggling to adapt without my familiar mother and refusing to bond with a stranger.
I no longer feel ashamed by that story. However, it hurts to know that, as a child, I was allowed to get the impression that something was wrong with me. Really, I was normal. I was behaving like any healthy infant would. It was my situation, my separation, that was wrong.
Spiritualizing adoption attempts to make a triumph out of a trauma. Triumph demands praise, but tragedy and trauma require lament in order to heal. I did not begin lamenting my adoption until my 30’s.
Conflating spiritual adoption with modern adoption blurs the lines between God’s family and adoptive families. While we often stop short of equating being under the old authority of sin to the child’s first family, children are good at filling in the blanks. At least I was.
Without being told, I put my first father and the Chinese ethnicity I inherited form him into the place that sin and wickedness occupy in the spiritual adoption metaphor. My child brain took this comparison to places my parents did not intend. They would’ve corrected me if I’d asked, but I didn’t. Instead of questioning, I simply internalized.
I sensed that I should never look back to my first father or Chinese heritage. God had given me a new life through adoption, both spiritually and here on earth, so I should never turn back.
As a transracial adoptee already struggling with internalized racism, this mix up was spiritual proof that Chinese people and culture was inferior and suspect.
A current biblical counseling site still tells adoptive parents to minimize the importance of their child’s heritage. Without the adoptee perspective to shed light on why this is damaging, many Christian adoptive parents don’t think twice about that!
To me, my adoption does not look like the adoption Paul was using as a metaphor for salvation. Making my adoption about the gospel left me unable to see how adoption had truly impacted me. I had pain I did not acknowledge and therefore could not bring to God.
When I began to process this, I realized I had to deconstruct my faith. I had to cut out the lies and correct the half truths. At times I felt like I was losing my faith. I can see why so many adoptees raised in the church grow up and never come back. I don’t believe any Christian adoptive parent would knowingly risk this.
Family, we need to start sitting in the uncomfortable truths of adoptee stories.
This is definitely a topic I’ll cover more, but I want to leave you with a few thoughts right now.
When I think of spirit led actions to help children in need, I think of passages like James 1:27, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
From my adoptee perspective, I see the emphasis on helping vulnerable families through the hardships that cause family separation instead of assuming family separation and jumping to adoption.
I see the doctrine of adoption as a beautiful picture of what God has done for us, but not as a mandate for how we must show God’s love to others. Surely opening our homes and families to children in need is a Christlike thing to do, but there are many ways to do that. Ethical modern adoption is merely one of many options. I would argue adoption should be the last resort, but I’ll save that for another post.
This isn’t the definitive word on adoption in the Bible. Just my thoughts. And I haven’t even mentioned adoption-like stories from the Old Testament (Moses, Esther, Ruth, etc)? I will write about those in the future so please follow my blog and join my reader list.
I wrote this essay for The Art of Taleh for National Adoption Awareness Month. I’m reposting here with additional thoughts and breaking it into two parts. Part 1 is about Paul’s use of “adoption” as a metaphor for salvation in the New Testament. We look at what the legal process of adoption meant in Roman law and culture. We’ll see how Paul’s original audience had a different view of adoption than what we have today. So different, in fact, we should question if our modern practice of adoption can really be related to the gospel of salvation at all (see Part 2).
Some things (about me) to know up front: I’m an adult adoptee. Mine was a domestic/kinship/open adoption. I have 35 years of intimate experience navigating the pros and cons of human adoption. In other words, I can speak with authority on the nuances of adoption today, especially in American Christian culture, as I have lived it. It is from this lens that I dove into researching adoption as a metaphor in the Bible.
We Christians like to see adopting a child as an example of what Christ has done for us. Hashtag #adoptionisgospel. In addition to the Biblical mandate to care for “orphans and widows”, the language of adoption in the New Testament is a go-to for validating this perspective of modern adoption.
However, adoption in the Bible is a metaphor, not a mandate. The wrongful use of Scripture to spiritualize the adoption journey is harmful to adoptees in various ways; contributing to feelings of shame when we think about our birth parents or ethnic background, making it difficult to verbalize the painful aspects of our experience, and often walking away from God altogether. I’ll cover that in Part 2, but first let’s look at what the concept of adoption is in the Bible and appreciate Paul’s artful use of this legal metaphor.
In the New Testament, Paul the Apostle uses the Greek word “Huiothesia”, which means “placing as a son”. This is translated to “adoption” in English. Paul uses it five times to illustrate what Christ has done for us in salvation.
Remembering Paul wrote to Christians struggling to find unity across ethnic and cultural lines is interesting. Were the Jews who had grown up in Greek culture Jewish enough? Did the gentile converts have to become Jewish (get circumcised) in order to be saved? Who belonged? Who didn’t?
As a transracial adoptee, I feel the sting of doubting whether or not I belong because of ethnic difference.
Can I embrace my ethnic heritage, embody my faith differently from my white adoptive parents, and still be saved? Yes! I see how the adoption metaphor would further inspire oneness and unity within Paul’s audience, even if it wasn’t his main reason for using the metaphor.
Romans 8:15*: the God-given “spirit of adoption” contrasts with the “spirit of slavery” that keeps us in fear and condemned.
Romans 8:23: they are “waiting eagerly for our adoption,” aka the future hope of complete redemption when Christ returns.
Romans 9:4: Paul discusses the Israelites, “to whom belongs the adoption” if only they would have faith in Christ.
Galatians 4:5*: “adoption as sons” contrasts with being a slave, a state from which Christ redeems us.
Ephesians 1:5*: God’s choice is highlighted as “He predestined us to adoption”.
*In these chapters, Paul also connects being a child of God with being an heir of God. Inheritance is a recurring theme. The ideas of predestination and God’s will are also mentioned in Romans chapter 8.
Even in these woefully brief summaries we see familiar salvation concepts highlighted in the adoption metaphor; the change of position before God from a bad state (slave) to a good state (child/heir), and the emphasis on salvation being God’s will and for his purpose, not ours.
What did “huiothesia” mean to the original, intended audience? A few details about adoption in Roman law shows us why Paul’s use of this metaphor is brilliant!
The legal process of adoption in Roman law allowed a wealthy man (e.g. the emperor) to place a younger man as his son in order to have an heir. Wealthy patriarchs who had no sons (or at least none they trusted), could appoint their own successor through adoption.
In other words, adoption in the Bible was not about giving a family to orphaned children. Adoption was about securing an heir for a wealthy man. Those who did take in orphaned or unwanted children would not likely have gone through a legal process of adoption as it wouldn’t have been necessary in order to simply provide for the child’s needs.
Why is this important? This picture of adoption is more closely tied to inheritance than our picture of adoption today. This metaphor enables Paul to explain how our salvation (or adoption) means that we inherit all that is God’s (i.e. the earth, His glory, redeemed bodies). Often this idea of inheritance helped Paul’s readers put their trials and sufferings into perspective (Romans 8:17).
This adoption metaphor is also smart because it focuses on the desire of the wealthy man (God) to choose an heir (us, through and along with Christ). It reminds us that our salvation is for God’s purposes and glory, to carry on His name, and is not centered on us.
A wealthy man seeking an heir could be reasonably sure a that younger man in his 20’s had the desired traits and skill set, unlike a child who was still a question mark. Some commentaries say that an adopted son, being chosen, could not be disowned like a natural born son. After all, a natural born son could always turn out to be a disappointment.
In this regard, Paul’s idea of adoption is pretty different from our idea of adoption today. We’d see legally adopting an adult as a pretty strange and rarely necessary because we can name anyone in a will. Well, it’s likely Paul would think it just as strange and unnecessary for us to legally adopt children in order to simply love and provide for them.
Why does this matter? First, Paul uses the adoption metaphor to instill confidence salvation is secure, that God’s promises will be fulfilled! Second, this metaphor reinforces the supremacy of God’s choice and love.
God knows exactly who we are, how broken we are, how undeserving we are. There is no question as to whether or not we’ll turn out deserving of salvation. Paul is telling his readers, “God adopted you with eyes wide open, knowing exactly who you are, as you are.”
God knows us completely and yet He still saved/adopted us, not because He was certain of our worthiness, but because of His certain and unquestionable love.
In Roman law, a son was the property of his father; he had no possessions of his own and, legally, the father could sell him as a slave or even put him to death if wanted too. Roman adoption transferred a son from the complete authority of one father/master to another father/master. The son could no longer inherit from his first father and, many commentaries say old debts were cancelled.
I bet you can already see how brilliant Paul is again in using adoption in Roman law as a metaphor. It emphasizes the clear cut transition from being owned by/ a slave to sin to being a debt-free child of God, no longer condemned (Rom 8:1) or obligated to sin (Rom 8:12), but able to call God our Father because of Christ!
Why does this matter? The frighteningly total authority of a family patriarch in Roman culture and law is a little lost on us today, I think. No one I know thinks any father has a right to kill or sell their child with impunity. However, if we can just imagine this for a horrifying moment, we may see how the metaphor of a legal adoption would help Paul’s readers grasp how their salvation in Christ completely severs them from the frighteningly total authority of sin and death.
Can you feel a weight lift off of your spirit? I can. What an encouraging message! Good work, Paul.
In many ways, it is the DIFFERENCES, not the similarities, between Paul’s “huiothesia” and our concept of adoption today that make this metaphor the most meaningful.
I feel I need to gently mention why this metaphor often gets interpreted and applied with a bias before I send you to Part 2, where I’ll lay out what twisting this looks like and the impact on adoptees.
Well-known theologians, pastors and Christian podcasters promoting modern adoption are typically adoptive parents themselves. Perhaps they didn’t do a deep dive into this adoption metaphor until they already felt the “call to adopt”? Perhaps the adoptive-parent centered perspective is so elevated in our world that we rarely question whether or not there is (or was) any other view or form of adoption?
Many Christians come to these scriptures already assuming that modern adoption is the right/ Godly thing to do. And that’s normal! We all come to scripture with a lens, with biases that are difficult to see. So I understand how it would be easy for Christian authors and influencers to downplay or all out miss the glaring and important differences between the Biblical metaphor of adoption and the reality of modern adoption.
Another possible why: Many adoptive parents who write or speak on adoption do this when their children are still…well, children. Five or ten years into being an adoptive parent definitely gives them experience that has value. I don’t deny that. However, at this point in their relationship with their child, these adoptive parents still control the narrative. They have not yet seen how their child’s entire life continues to be shaped by their adoption in ways they never anticipated, in ways that are often deeply painful.
These parents have not yet wrestled with an alternative and equally valid perspective (their adult child’s) that counters their own as adoptive parents.
It’s not a leap to state that pastors and Christian influencers who are adoptive parents may (not always, but often) come to these scriptures seeing what they want to see. And those who see it differently rarely challenge this bias because, after all, their heart is in a good place, right? Unfortunately, this has led many to speak/write on adoption with a dangerous blindness to own their biases.
The next post will lay out how we get it twisted as I share examples from my own story on the negative impact this can have on adoptees’ view of God, family and self.
Before you read that, though I hope you chew on some of the things I shared here. I invite you to reflect on the excellence of Paul’s adoption metaphor and what that meant to the believers in Rome and Galatia and Ephesus, especially the non-Jewish believers.
How does a better understanding of “huiothesia” strengthen your understanding of your own salvation?
If you’re already in the adoption constellation (meaning you are a first parent, or an adoptee, or an adoptive parent, or know and care for someone who is), how does this look at Biblical adoption sit with you right now? What feelings, thoughts and questions does it bring up?
I’d encourage you to be self-reflective and prayerful before reading Part 2. It’s a little heavy.