I have been loosely following two families who are in the middle of the adoption process. Both sagas contain nuggets of joy and boxes full of disappointment. The other day, Tim Challies sent me to an article that addresses some of the recent criticism of evangelical involvement in international adoptions. All of this has got me wondering: What is adoption actually costing us?
One of the families I have been following has been forced to spend every dollar they have and borrow additional large sums, and now they are seeking to raise even more money in order to see the adoption actually happen. This is not the cost to which I am referring. If people want to spend all of their money in order to adopt a child, they are free to do so. If other people want to give all of their money to the family trying to adopt, they are free to do so. People’s money is theirs, and they have the right to do with it as the wish (so long as they are acting morally) without facing criticism. The cost to which I am referring is the cost paid by the church.
In the article referenced above, evangelical readers are told to not give up on adoption and that if they don’t feel called to adoption, then they should support someone who is. This statement is an echo of a common belief within evangelicalism, the belief that there is something inherently Christian about adoption and that evangelicals and their churches should be supporting and or operating orphanages for all kinds of people all around the world. Whenever I ask those who hold this belief for its biblical support, they inevitably point me to James 1:27, which says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (NASB). The word “to visit” is said to mean “to look after,” so the argument is that all Christians are to look after orphans by either adopting them or supporting families who will adopt them or supporting or running orphanages.
This leads to a series of follow up questions. How do I know if I am one of the people who is supposed adopt? If I am supposed to adopt, how many orphans do I have to adopt? If I am one who only has to provide support, how much support do I have to provide? Do I have to write a check to cover all the needs of all the orphans in the world? If I do that, I won’t be able to meet the needs of any widows. Am I supposed to meet an equal number of widows’ needs as orphans’ needs? Maybe I only have to meet one need of one orphan and one widow? But what if I meet two needs of one orphan and no widows? Is that good enough?
Do you see the problem here? Jesus tells me that if I love him, I will obey his commandments (John 14:15). I love Jesus, and I want to obey his commandments, but I don’t know how to obey this one. Do you see the predicament in which I find myself? I need to know how many needs of how many orphans and widows I am required to meet. Otherwise, I am left with the dreadful fear that I have fallen short and am living in direct disobedience to what Christ commands, and I am terrified that he will tell me on the last day to depart from him. I know Jesus does not want me to live in this kind of fear, so there must be a way to define exactly what is required in James 1:27.
Indeed, there is a way to define it precisely. The context of the first chapter of James is about relations between different groups of people within the church; and verse 27 is simply echoing what God has always told his people, namely, that they are obligated to provide for the physical needs of the orphan and the widow and everyone else in the church who cannot, for whatever reason, provide for themselves. This command is given to the church collectively. Therefore, every local congregation is always required to meet all of the physical needs of every orphan and widow within the congregation. Anything less than this is unacceptable. Yet, how many evangelical churches actually do this today? Does your church have a list of widows who have a right to financial provisions from the church? Have you ever even heard of a church that has such a list? When a man is laid off from work, does the church make sure his bills get paid from the church budget, or is he sent to the government unemployment line? If a child in the church is tragically orphaned, does the church simply notify the next of kin and provide grief counseling, or does the church ensure that the child’s future is secure and see that he continues to receive proper training in righteousness so that he will learn to obey all that Christ has commanded?
This is the cost to which I am referring. When we herald the adoption of orphans who come from unbelieving families as a fulfillment of James 1:27, we rob some of God’s people of their rights, and we deceive the church into thinking it is obeying Christ’s commands while it actually ignores the needs of its people. This cost is too high of a price to pay. If Christians want to adopt orphans from unbelieving families, they are certainly free to do so. But the church’s responsibility is to its own people. To neglect God’s people is a terrible thing to do. Christ closely associates himself with his people, even the orphan and the widow (i.e. the least of them). When they are neglected, Christ is neglected, and the church ought not be in the business of neglecting Christ.