Adoption has been an important feature of the Church from antiquity. Throughout the centuries believers have adopted children in a variety of circumstances, and adoption has become a powerful picture of the Gospel to the world.
After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the movement of Christ-followers that became known as the Church began to spread over the known world. The dominant Roman culture of the age did not value human life in the same way as the growing Christian movement.¹
Christians understood humanity to be created in the image of God and thereby each person had value and worth, including “unwanted” children. While Roman historians differ in reasoning why Roman culture was comfortable with discarding children, historical and archeological research tells us that the Romans had no qualms about abandoning children for any reason, whether due to gender, deformity, or family situation. Unwanted children were regularly deserted outside ancient cities.
But Jesus’ followers, motivated by the doctrine of the image of God and love for people, became known for taking in these unwanted children.² From the very beginning of the movement, the Church has been known (at least in part) for the adoption of children.
But what led these believers to this kind of care for orphans?
I think there are two great answers to this question.
First, God makes it clear to us in his word that he cares for those without a family. Psalm 68:5 describes God as “Father for the fatherless and protector of widows.” The Scriptural command to care for the orphan has a rich theological foundation. God has a heart for the orphan and the Gospel — the story of Christ coming to earth to reconcile wayward people with the Father — illuminates this. Believers are referred to as co-heirs with Christ and as sons of God the Father.
The Gospel is an adoption story.
Because of Jesus’ work, believers are adopted into God’s family.
Second, as we become more like Christ, we should look more like him and reflect his heart for the orphan. James 1:27 states “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James, the brother of Jesus, explained what it looks like for Christians to hear and do what Scripture calls us to, and the example that he gave was to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction.”
As believers grow in their relationship with Christ, God’s priorities will become our priorities. Our heart should look like his, including care for orphans.
The early Church understood the doctrine of adoption as a counter-cultural phenomenon and acted on that doctrine. Adoption in Rome was typically reserved for wealthy childless couples. These families would adopt a young adult that seemed worthy of carrying on the family name. The adoptee would have to prove to be worth bringing into the family to become an heir.
The Christian doctrine of adoption completely turned this around!
Instead of the adoptee proving themselves before adoption, the Father brought in those who had proven themselves to be unworthy! The fact that the Son came to bring us into his family and make us co-heirs with him in God’s family should give us the greatest sense of joyful hope possible.
We live in a culture where adoption is a common occurrence, but the early Church changed the entire culture by demonstrating love for orphans motivated by their understanding of the Gospel.
As we help parents in the adoption process, and care for widows, the sick, and the needy, we are not only obeying the commands and model of Scripture, but we are standing with a great cloud of witnesses who came before us.
Christians continue to lead the way in advocating for adoption, and the need to care for the orphaned is as pressing today as it was during the first century. The counter-cultural witness that early believers displayed through adoption is still available.
While Christians adopt children at double the rate of non-Christian Americans, there are still nearly half a million American children in foster care. The opportunity is great and there are several ways that believers can care for needy children directly and indirectly.
And even though not all believers are called to adopt, our care for orphans can be shown in other ways. If you are not adopting, your support of the Church, helpful nonprofits, and believers going through the adoption process is a great way to serve and offer aid.
To learn more about opportunities to be involved in caring for orphans, visit https://www.clearcreek.org/care-and-support/care-and-support-fostering-adoption
¹ Viegas, Jennifer. “Infanticide Common in Roman Empire.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 5 May 2011, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna42911813.
² A helpful resource in developing a theology of adoption is the chapter “Sons of God” in JI Packer’s book Knowing God. (Packer, J. I. Knowing God. InterVarsity Press, 1973.)