A brief survey of history indicates that adoption as we practice it in America is a pretty rare thing. Through the ages it has been more common for people to take in children already kin to them, or to adopt within one’s own class to provide continuation of name and title. Mordecai’s care of Esther and Jacob’s provision for Joseph’s sons are two biblical examples of adoption based on already present relationships. In some cases adoption was near slavery. Other things called adoption provided basic needs but withheld complete family status to adopted children. For most of the Christian era, children without parents or parents able to care for them were either street kids bound for early death, menial workers, or beneficiaries of some sort of religious foster care system. Sometimes the system could care for orphans nominally and other times the provision could not rightly bear the name “care.” Overwhelmingly, it was and is a tough world for parentless children.
The relative wealth of American families following World War II allowed for a boom in adoption that grew for 25-30 years. The groundwork had been laid by the 19th century beginnings of legal monitoring of adoptions, of state involvement to ensure that children were moving into nurturing rather than exploitive situations. President Theodore Roosevelt, with his family’s heritage of philanthropy, called during the early 1900s for adoption by families to replace the foster care system in place. Several economic and social factors caused many years to pass before this call would be widely answered.
Legally regulated compassionate adoption of non-relatives that provides full family status is a modern and mostly American thing, then. Surprisingly for a 50-60 year practice, it also appears to be modeled after, at least similar to, biblical doctrine.
As I thought about this, I’ve come to a conclusion that surprises me a bit. While I’ve often used parenthood as an analogy (God did this first) for understanding the love God demonstrates for us, adoption of children not otherwise kin to us?adoptive parenthood?is specifically a better analogy. No doubt adoptive parents tumbled to this some time back but it’s a new one on me.
Only Paul used the word “adoption” in the New Testament and he actually fleshed it out pretty thoroughly because he was using it in a way unusual to Hebrew and Roman culture. When he told the Galatians that they were sons of God by adoption he added they were the type of sons who were also heirs. Clearly as gentile believers they would have also understood that they were also adopted from the “outside” of God’s people. How rich they’d become by their redemption in Christ! They’d not only been dragged out of the fire but also exalted to family status in a royal household. This grace of God was not only sufficient, a monumental gift already, but also abundant so that orphans became princes.
Perhaps we could say the foster care facilities provided by Christians through the centuries were analogous to God’s grace that pulls us out of the fire. Acceptance as a son or daughter into a loving family, rich and secure beyond your prior imagining, completes the picture by showing us the abundance of his mercy, then.
Weren’t we outsiders to God’s family, foreign in a way that a begotten child could never be? That’s why I say that adoption as we now understand it is a better picture of God’s mercy toward us than is biological parenthood. Of course the love, nurture, and discipline exercised in parenthood would be the same for all children without regard to how they came into a family. Those very useful illustrations remain safe and beneficial.
And in a way, Jesus was adopted, wasn’t he? He was known widely in Nazareth as the son of Joseph (Luke 4:22, John 1:45) and yet Joseph, Mary, and some of their kin knew that he was an adopted son of Joseph. For the Lord, the status ascribed to him as the carpenter’s son was part of his humiliation, creator God living in modest circumstances and under the care of his creatures. He became poor in this and many other ways so that we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). It was his submission to a mortal father figure that made it possible for us to bask in the glory of the perfect Father.
So when we adopt a child, support a family who seeks to adopt, or when we uplift adoptive parenthood in what ways we are able, we’re doing a work we learned from God. I believe we are also acting out our own redemption for all who watch, particularly I’d think for children whose vision of “loving parents” (and a loving heavenly Father) has been pretty fuzzy.