In its strongest form, proponents of the adoption and orphan care movement perceive adoption as the essential and primary way of understanding the Christian’s relationship to God, and hence as essential and primary way of understanding the Christian’s relationship to God, and hence as essential and primary to the communication and practices of the gospel. Indeed, all scriptural passages about the relationship of God’s people to God are read through the lens of adoption (3).
There are several seemingly contradictory estimates regarding the number of orphans worldwide. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that there are currently over 132 million orphaned children. A few words, however, should be said about UNICEF’s orphan estimates. UNICEF defines an orphan as “a child who has lost one or both parents.” This would mean that a child who still has a surviving parent, or is living with his or her grandparents or other extended relatives would still be considered an orphan.
If one were to define an orphan as a child who has lost both of his or her parents—a “double orphan”—UNICEF estimates that 13 million of the 132 million orphaned children fit that definition. Of these 13 million double orphans, a still smaller percentage are available for adoption.
The church must help their people gain an understanding of how they can be involved in meeting the needs of all orphans, not just those who are “adoptable.” Most of the current resources being produced by the church are focused on adoption and not orphan care. Adoption is easier to understand than other forms of orphan care ministry, is sometimes less messy, and the stories are often more heartwarming.
We certainly need resources to equip the church to engage in the ministry of adoption, but we must simultaneously realize that orphan care ministry is far bigger than we can imagine. UNICEF is right when it expresses concern that too narrowly defining who is an orphan may “lead to responses that focus on providing care for individual children rather than supporting the families and communities that care for orphans and are in need of support.” In other words, the church needs to understand that the needs of orphans in the world cannot simply be met by adopting children—though that is an important component. The church must understand that there is an overwhelming need to which Christ’s church has an opportunity to respond (22-23).
This vision of adoption as central to the church presupposes a certain form and image of adoption as both the referent to our vertical adoption by God, and also as the kind of practice of horizontal adoption to which Christians and the church are called. . . . [F]rom a legal perspective the Christian adoption movement presumes the kind of adoption which exists in the United States, which in comparative law terms is called full adoption” (4).
For purposes of this essay, a fundamental point is that neither Roman nor Greek adoption was focused on the adoption of child orphans. Adoption generally had nothing to do with providing for the weak, the poor, dependents, or children. Adoption took young adult males who generally had families and a position in society, and gave them a social promotion to a higher position in society through provision of a new legal identity… (17).