Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Responding to Dr. Smolin’s “Of Orphans and Adoption” (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my blog posts responding to Dr. Smolin's article "Of Orphans and Adoption."  Part 1 of my article may be found here.  Dr. Smolin's article may be found here.

Fifth, Smolin notes that the Christian adoption movement diminishes the significance of the birth family.

Smolin argues: “The Christian adoption movement and the adoption movement more broadly, tends to diminish the significance of natural family ties in a highly selective, self-serving manner (32).  This is an issue I have wrestled with and will continue to consider.  There are competing Biblical principles that come into play when it comes to how to address the relationships between the adopted child and her birth family and the adopted child and her new family.  These principles require wisdom in rightly applying God’s Word.

Sixth, the article suffers from a lack of direct quotations.

I respect that Smolin has a difficult task ahead of him.  I certainly do not have a handle on all the nuances of the evangelical orphan care movement.  Far too often, however, Smolin makes bold assertions about the evangelical orphan care movement without providing direct quotations.  Furthermore, the citations he offers do not reference specific pages but often entire chapters.

Consider this paragraph, in which my book is cited in a footnote:
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). 
The citation refers the reader to pages 67-81 of my book.  To establish that we read “all scriptural passages about the relationship of God’s people” necessitates more specific citations.    

Seventh, the evangelical orphan care movement is not monolithic.

Again, I appreciate the difficulty of the task before him.  Smolin has done his research and captures the essential unity among the four books cited most frequently. 

However, the movement is not as monolithic as it is presumed to be in the article.  For instance, Smolin seems to implicate the orphan care movement as a whole when he notes that Dr. Moore “emphasizes the lack of significance, to his internationally adopted children, of their original names, language, culture, nation, and (implicitly) family” (30).  Smolin is referring to Dr. Moore’s convictions regarding his sons’ new identity as members of his family and how those convictions will play out in practice. 

Our daughter was born in Guatemala and, even though she is a full member of our family, I don’t believe her adoption into our family obliterates her Guatemalan roots.  We will choose to continue to celebrate her ethnic heritage.  Our family will change as a result.

In other words, even though I would consider myself in the same “camp” as Moore (his signature appears twice on the diploma in my office), it doesn’t mean we are in agreement over the right way to apply every biblical principle when it comes to adoption.

This is a minor example but I think illustrates that making broad statements about the “movement” can be dangerous and unfair.

Eighth, Smolin fails to interact with or understand the nuances of my argument.

It may be unfair of me to criticize him on this account.  My book is by far the least influential cited and, quite frankly, I was surprised to see it included.  However, because my book was included, it would have been nice to see some of my arguments addressed.

First, my call to engage in orphan care ministry begins with worship.  Second, the focus of my book is not an exhortation to adopt but an exhortation to compassionate care of orphans.  Third, this compassion is not based primarily upon our adoption (though I think there are important points to glean from that theological truth) but is based upon a passion for God and His glory. 

The layout of my chapters is instructive.  The book begins with the uniqueness of Christian orphan care.  Chapter 2 then deals with the theme of compassion, the disenfranchised and how the orphan falls into the category of the disenfranchised.  This means that my argument to care for the orphan is rooted in an argument to demonstrate compassion to all disenfranchised for God’s glory.

As I mentioned before, I think Smolin cites my second chapter, but I’m not certain.  If so, it is only once.  It seems that he mostly focuses on chapter 4, “A Theology of Adoption.”  When he cites it, he only refers to the page numbers, not the actual arguments.  He lumps the chapter in with other theologies of adoption that he says draw a 1-for-1 parallel between earthly and heavenly adoption. 

But I was very careful not to do that.  The chapter addresses our adoption by God the father and makes application not to just adoption of children but how our adoption by God impacts our entire orphan ministry.

I believe this failure causes Smolin to see me and others in the evangelical orphan care movement as “foes” where there are instead potential allies in some significant areas.  For instance, he argues that the orphan care movement’s “distorted teaching on adoption and orphan care causes the church to minimize or pass over the primary Biblical call in relationship to ‘widows and orphans’ and the ‘fatherless,’ leading to practices that exploit the very persons the Bible has called Christians to assist” (5).  This is key point I attempt to make in chapter 2.

Another  example of his missing a point of significant agreement should suffice.  Smolin argues that “both Christians and secular sources promoting adoption commonly claim that there are more than 100 million orphans in the world, a staggering figure indicating a virtually limitless need for adoption” (3).  This exaggeration has serious consequences:

 Putting together the Biblical call to orphan care, the understanding of adoption as a living representation and proclamation of the gospel, and the nearly endless need for adoptive parents to provide homes for well over 100 million orphans, the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement proclaims a call for virtually all Christians to be involved in adoption (3).

But that’s very similar to an argument I make.  Here's a quote from my book: 
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).
 Ninth, Smolin presents those who wish to care for orphans with false dichotomies.

Earlier, I noted my agreement with Smolin that the evangelical orphan care movement must reassess its commitment to caring for families in impoverished nations.  But he sometimes presents us with a false choice: either exploit children by taking them out of the homes of poor people or focus our efforts on humanitarian efforts within their family unit.

I believe this cannot be an either/or scenario.  There is a real and immediate need to provide families for children who have no hope of being reunited with their families.  At the same time, I have told parents who adopt that I believe they have a moral responsibility to work to alleviate the conditions that caused their children to be available to adopt.  Our family sponsors children and their families in Guatemala so that others will not have to endure the tragedy our daughter and her birth family have had to experience.  The sponsorship is both physical and spiritual in nature.

To be fair, Smolin acknowledges that sometimes adoption is the best option (30), but just as he feels that the orphan care movement fails to adequately acknowledge the need to address systemic problems in the adoption process, I would argue he fails to adequately focus on the positive aspects of adoption and how it is the best option for millions of children.

Tenth, he oversimplifies the Greco-Roman first-century adoption process.

Smolin believes we misunderstand adoption language in Scripture and read U.S. adoption law back into Scripture.  He maintains that our failure to understand first-century adoption leads us to theologically erroneous conclusions.  A few points to consider.

A.     There is evidence that the adoption process was more diverse than Smolin would have us believe.

Smolin contends:
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).
The degree to which the Christian adoption movement presumes this can be disputed, but it should be noted that U.S. adoption law is based on Roman law.  In 530 A.D., Emperor Justinian codified existing adoption laws.  This codified law was influential in establishing aspects of U.S. adoption law (

B.      Adoption was a means in ancient societies to care for children in need.

Smolin argues: “When Paul’s audience heard his references to adoption, they would have had in their minds young adult males who became emperors, or who otherwise moved upward in Roman society, through adoption” (15).

And elsewhere:
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).
The inclusion of the word “generally” in the second sentence is important.  I would concede that adoption was not always, or even primarily in the Roman culture, about caring for orphans in the ancient world.  I would argue, however, that (1) adoption was more diverse that Smolin suggests (see above) and (2) there are other ancient examples of adoption being a means to care for children in need.

For instance, the ancient Code of Hammurabi speaks of the children of prostitutes being cared for through adoption.  It further admonishes that adopted children need to be grateful to their adoptive parents or their tongues should be cut off!

Eleventh, Smolin does not adequately address the theological implications of spiritual adoption.

Smolin may overemphasize the extent to which Paul was influenced by the Greco-Roman background.

As James Scott argues in his article on adoption in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, “Paul seems to be the first to use the term (huiothesia) in a theological context” (16).  Scott explores the possibility of that Paul’s concept of divine adoption was influenced by the Greco-Roman mystery religions but concludes “there is no evidence for divine adoption in the mysteries.”

Scott also considers the possibility of adoption as a legal metaphor, based upon Greco-Roman law and argues that “circumstantial evidence such as Paul’s Roman citizenship and the prevalence of Roman adoption in Paul’s day also fails to establish the case for a legal metaphor” (16).

His conclusion is that it is best to understand the concept of adoption from the Old Testament/Jewish background: “Despite frequent claims to the contrary. . . the concept of adoption—even divine adoption—was certainly known to the OT and Judaism” (16).

This is similar to the primary critique Dan Cruver of Together for Adoption levels against Smolin’s article.  In “The First Step in the Way Forward: A Response to David M. Smolin’s
“OfOrphans and Adoption,” Cruver writes:

The problem with Smolin’s interpretive approach is not so much in what he does, but in what he fails to do. When interpreting any section of Scripture, we must take into account both how the historical and cultural setting of each text(which Smolin does quite well) and how Scripture’s metanarrative of redemption inform our understanding of the text of Scripture (which Smolin, Lyall, and Burke do not do). Smolin’s failure to consider the redemptive-historical significance of adoption is the fatal flaw in his interpretation (2).

This lack of attention the redemptive-historical context of adoption causes Smolin to fail to rightly apply the doctrine of adoption.  Cruver concludes:

How should the climax of adoptive-history as told in Romans 8 inform our understanding of James 1:27 (“visit orphans and widows in their affliction’)? The story of the Bible is the story of God visiting us in our affliction, like he once visited Israel (Exo. 4:31), in order to deliver us from it. So, how should this play out with James 1:27? To visit orphans and widows in their affliction means that we work for orphan prevention through family reunification and preservation, and when reunification is not possible, we actively support indigenous adoption efforts. For some children, though, adoption becomes the way we “visit” them (5).

Twelfth, Smolin fails to appreciate the historical progressive application of the gospel in caring for orphans and adoption. 

Smolin needs to see the implications a changing cultural context has on how to apply Scripture’s teaching regarding the church, the orphan and adoption.  He gets close to making this argument himself, but doesn’t quite connect all the dots.

He notes that the lack of an orphan problem confronting the church was due to the size of the church and the Jewish culture.  First, concerning the culture he writes: “Presumably, the reasons for the lack of an ‘orphan’ problem in the New Testament church, was due first to the initial Jewish setting of the New Testament church” (25).

Second, as it relates to the size of the church and its interaction with the Roman world:

So far as appears from the New Testament, remedying the infanticide, abandonment, and the exposure of infants in the wider gentile world outside of the church was not a project of the church during the New Testament era.  The tiny size of the church during the New Testament era, its various crises of survival, unity, and persecution, and its position of political vulnerability and powerlessness, presumably medicated against any organized efforts to assist the comparatively vast numbers of infants victimized by the pagan practices of infanticide and exposure.  Those efforts would have to await another day (26).

But we no longer live within a Jewish culture.  And the size of the church has grown.  There are children in need.  Is not adoption an appropriate application of Biblical injunctions to care for children?  Is not adoption an appropriate application of the gospel to a culture with children who are not being cared for?  The church since its early stages has answered both of those questions affirmatively!

In essence, Smolin is engaged in an argument from silence.  There are many social issues that individual believers engaged in as they applied biblical principles.  It is indisputable that orphans in Scripture are cared for, sometimes through adoption by close relatives.  While it is interesting, as Smolin observes, that (1) the ethnic identity of individual orphans is sometimes maintained and (2) families bear a special responsibility to care for the children of near relatives, this has little bearing on the appropriateness of adoption for dealing with the orphan crises in our cultural context.


This response is far longer than I intended it to be.  No doubt there will continue to be dialogue on this important issue.  I’m grateful for Smolin’s call to call us to Scriptural fidelity.  As I read Cruver’s concluding thoughts, I don’t see an unbreachable chasm between Smolin and Cruver.  It may be that God uses Smolin’s article to ensure that the evangelical orphan care movement begins to proclaim more loudly things that it already believes, such as the need for orphan prevention and holistic orphan care.


Blabbin' Grammy said...

Hi Grandson ! I find your discussion extremely interesting and quite thoroughly thought through Great job! Love Grandma

Leelnd said...

Pastor Bennett,

I think this was a well reasoned response giving credit when credit is due and then laying out clearly your objections.

After reading these blog posts, I'm going to add your Book to my "to read" list. I'm interested in what you have to say about Orphan care in addition to Adoption. This isn't something touched on regularly. My wife and I will definitely need to consider these different issues as we participate in Child sponsoring programs, possible future adoption, and even care of our own family when tragedy strikes.

Thank you for the work you do for the Kingdom.

Jeremy Hodel said...

I have found Smolin's article and your response to it quite intriguing. This certainly seems like a worthwhile dialogue and I appreciate you handling it thoroughly. Regarding your 9th point, I'm wondering if Smolin's dichotomy is not entirely false. Given the scarcity of resources needed to care for orphans, there is to some extent a choice that has to be made. And I think he may have a point that most of us would more quickly spend tens of thousands of dollars to adopt a child than we would to support an indigenous childcare alternative. I have to wonder, what is the best use of our resources? Questions like that are hard (perhaps impossible) to answer, but worth considering in my opinion. Thanks for helping us think about it.

Daniel Bennett said...

@LeeInd: Thanks for the addition!

@Jeremy: You're right...there is a time when the choice is a real one.