Adoption: Doctrine or Practice

Most of my academic life has been spent studying adoption from one perspective or another. Currently, my dissertation focuses on the use of adoption in Paul’s letters. Specifically, it examines Paul’s usage in Gal. 4 and Rom. 8 from the perspective of Conceptual Metaphor Theory, with the hope that studying the metaphorical structure of these passages can shed light on Paul’s use in Rom. 9:4. But before it became my dissertation topic, I worked with Dr. Susan Eastman at Duke Divinity School to write a paper on adoption’s role in Galatians 4:1-7. It was her advice to find the story (i.e. don’t see it as a rhetorical device) that in many ways opened my eyes to the beauty of Paul’s usage. But even before this paper, I wrote my MTS thesis at Duke on the connection of God’s act of relinquishment with the ethics of relinquishment in adoption for both, birth parents and the church. Through the kind and patient guidance of Amy Laura Hall, I was able to view  relinquishment as a loving, selfless, agonizing and unqualified gift of love. Hence, the title of my thesis, “The Gift of a Child.” Finally, as you might have guessed, my dealings with adoption are not just academic. The specifics are not important at this point, I am sure many of the details will come out as I continue these posts, but my experiences shape my understanding of adoption (and in many ways my research is beginning to color my view of these experiences).

While I love all the different ways I am studying adoption, it is the first project, my thesis, that burns in my heart. In fact, the more I research adoption the more I want to continue the project started years ago, to provide a theologically attuned ethic of the practice of adoption for all the parties involved in adoption, birth parents, orphans, adoptive parents and adopted children. Yet, with my dissertation in its final year it will be a while before I have the extended time needed to fully consider these things. Therefore, I have decided to use this blog as place to dump thoughts in the meantime. I have no idea how often I will return to the topic, but in the coming months as I have the need to stoke the fire I will use this space as a source of oxygen. On that note, I offer the flame that flared up this holiday weekend:

One of the first questions I am asked when people learn that I am researching adoption is, “Are you studying the doctrine or practice of adoption?” 

The question is a sign of our separation of praxis and doctrine, an indication of the chasm separating the church and the academy. I would argue this was not God’s intention.  God’s Word and his church are masterpieces, which elucidate one another from novel angles or perspectives. In other words, by meditating on God’s self-revelation we learn about what it means to be his people and by intently watching the activity of his people we learn about who God is. 

This is certainly true when studying adoption. The practice of adoption illustrates God’s love for his sons and daughters while, also incorporating many implications regarding our salvation through Jesus Christ, identity in Jesus Christ, and destiny with Jesus Christ. Furthermore, God as our adoptive Father can speak words of wisdom and delight into all parties involved in adoption: the relinquishing parent, the orphan, the adoptive parent and the adopted child. Succinctly, God’s adoption of his children teaches us about what it means to be involved in the practice of adoption, and the adoption of a child instructs us about what it means to be adopted by God. Both aspects – praxis and doctrine – connect us with the veracity of what it means to be the family of God. 

Consequently, my only answer to the question above has become, “Is there really a difference?”

Therefore, this is simply a work about adoption as encompassing both contemplation of God’s truth and cultural practices, thereby drawing from both doctrine and praxis to reveal a theologically attuned ethic of adoption; an ethic with a place for all. 

To mothers and fathers who have a child they will not raise, or perhaps know, an all-embracing theological ethic of adoption includes you. No matter the circumstances of your decision, the wound of relinquishment can leave a sense of abandonment or alienation, and a crippling fear because you believe no one knows the sacrifice made, whether reasoned or hastily. God, however, shares your pain. He had to watch Adam and Eve, created in his image and likeness, walk from his presence out of the east gate of the garden into the trembling world. He endured Israel’s, his chosen people, rejection that required him repeatedly to relinquish her, only to long for her return. Furthermore, God had to turn his back on his perfect Son as he endured the unrelenting shame and excruciating pain of the cross. Undoubtedly, there is pain in relinquishment and God assuredly knows it.  There is guilt, but God takes it from you. You do not walk the road alone, God is there with you shouldering it all with you; in fact, he bears it all for you.   

God also speaks to the orphan. To children who may have a bed to sleep and food to eat, but no one who calls them my beloved sons and daughters. Or, to a child merely existing without a place to call her own and unsure of where the next meal will be found with no one to hold in the suffering. Your brother Jesus Christ, as his cry of dereliction from the cross reveals, shares your pain. He felt the cruel sting of abandonment and rejection. Moreover, God your heavenly Father longs to recover his beloved child. The truth of adoption, indeed the truth of the Gospel, is not simply that God desires to rescue you, but that, in the Incarnation, he invades the strongholds of this world to win the battle for you. In other words, though abandoned, you are desired and loved.

To the adoptive parent, – or someone considering adoption – maybe you are dealing with infertility and the monthly tests, procedures and questions, or even the sometimes hurtful opinions of family or friends. You stand unsure of adoption regarding it as a last ditch effort to pursue if all else fails. Perhaps, you are a parent considering adding to your family through adoption and honestly asking, “Can I love this child as my own?” Perchance, you are an adoptive parent struggling with issues of inadequacy, identity, belonging, or acceptance. Or, even an adoptive parent who delights and rejoices in having been given the glorious gift of a son or daughter. In each of these situations, and countless others not mentioned, God stands as your adopted Father, reminding you that you were once estranged from your Father in your sin. Nevertheless, God chose you, adopting you as his own child, thereby prompting you that this is your and his story. He knows the costs and sacrifices required to adopt, but he also experiences the joy and delight that comes from hearing a son or daughter call him Father.

Finally, in terms of order but not importance, a theologically attuned ethic of adoption speaks to the adopted child. To be adopted can be tough. There are issues of abandonment, loss, belonging, and identity that each present unique obstacles to overcome. Yet, a proper understanding of adoption offers a view of adoption that is inviting, inclusive, and embracing. A view that often does not conform to societies pervasive perception of adoption, but shatters it, exclaiming you are precious to your heavenly Father and he savors calling you his beloved child. As politically incorrect as it may be to put it this way, you can sing out, “Oh, the love that sought me!  Oh, the blood that bought me!  Oh, the grace that brought me to the fold, wondrous grace that brought me to the fold.”[1]

The rest of these pages only expand these central ideas, by examining the social practices of adoption and God’s Word to illuminate an all-encompassing, all-embracing ethic of adoption. It is my sole desire that they will provide hope to all who are enduring and delighting in the astonishing truth of adoption, both doctrinally and practically, for as Paul writes, “In this hope we were saved.”[2]

[1] W. Spencer Walton (1850-1906), “In Tenderness He Sought Me.”

[2] Romans 8:23-24

‘In Christ” – Outline for Summer Bible Study

Ever had one of those moments when you see something old like it is new; something familiar like it is the first time. As I was opening up the blog to type this post, I accidentally went to the homepage instead of to the log-in page. When I did, I read the by-line for this blog for the ‘first time.’ Sure I see the blog regularly and know that I must read the by-line most of the time, but just now when I read it I realized something – this study of ‘in Christ’ has been brewing in me for a long time. The by-line for this blog was a sub-conscious, as far as I can tell, joining of two phrases that each represent a different part of my life. Let me explain:

First, ‘in Christ’ was a regular part of my childhood church going. It was not necessarily from an academic perspective, although I must admit I don’t remember much more than what I am about to share. My pastor growing up had a favorite line that he repeated often. When I say often, I mean it was enough that even clueless teens, like my friends and I, knew it by heart. In fact, we would guess (“bet” for the non-baptists) every week how many times he might say it and at what point during the sermon he would first say it. The game became so serious we would take the time each week to look in the bulletin for the text he would be preaching from and then before the service read the text searching for the key words or something similar to help as we made our guesses. The phrase we were searching for – ‘in Christ’ because Brother Joe would inevitably say you know the most important word in the Bible is the little two letter word ‘in’ when it comes before ‘Christ.’ I don’t remember all the different ways he applied this slogan, but I now realize from about 7th grade through my graduation from high school I read the Bible paying special attention to this phrase. Even if it wasn’t with the best of intentions.

The second half of the by-line is ‘everything is undone.’ At Duke Divinity School, Douglas Campbell was an integral part of my academic development. One of the things he beat into my head was undoing or getting things undone. It was his way of reminding me that things had to be taken apart before they could be put together – usually he was critiquing one of my arguments, but that is for another day. But even more than that, it was his influence that led me to understand the apocalyptic nature of Paul. That in Christ all the wrong is being undone and through Christ God is acting to set the world right. That God’s apocalyptic act in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection changed everything. The old defeated. The new inaugurated. The present altered. Nothing will ever be the same again, or in other words ‘In Christ Everything is Undone.’

As I have studied this phrase the last couple of weeks, I have realized how much I believe this statement – ‘In Christ Everything is Undone.’ And not just that I believe it because in the big picture what does that really matter, but Paul believed it. His use of ‘In Christ,’ along with other key phrases such as, through Christ, into Christ, and with Christ, is about everything changing. In Christ the world is being undone not so it can be destroyed but so it can reconciled to God.

This summer I have the privilege of marrying my summer research project with the Bible study I teach at Houston’s First Baptist Church. And for the next seven weeks we are going to study how ‘In Christ Everything is Undone.’ The first class is tonight at 6:30 and this is the outline of the study.

To Live is Christ

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. -2 Cor 5:17

1. God’s Activity (2 Cor 5:19)

    • Death and Life – 2 Tim 1:8-10
    • Unity – 1 Cor 8:6

2. Christ as the Cause, Means (1 Cor 1:30)

    • Death and Life – Rom 3:21-26
    • Unity – Eph 2:11-22

3. Being Joined with Christ (Gal 3:27)

    • Death and Life – Rom 6:1-11
    • Unity – 1 Cor 10:16-17

4. Conclusion

    • To Live is Christ – Phi 2:19-30

It is ok to be smart!

As a Southern Baptist, I deal with generalizations and mischaracterizations from many of my ‘academic’ friends. But one thing that too often is truer than not is that we are anti-intellectual. We have a distrust of scholars, no matter the field, and it leads us to shun learning. And this is wrong…

I firmly believe that one of the most common and most accommodated sins in Southern Baptist churches is anti-intellectualism.

Two mindsets I have encountered contribute to this depressing situation:

1. “I don’t need to study. All I need is a personal relationship with Jesus.” I have heard this said many different ways, and this is only thing I can hear, “It is ok to be stupid as long as I feel good.” To repeat, this is wrong…

As a matter of fact, Jesus confronted this mindset during his ministry among the pharisees. At least seven times, by my count*, Jesus confronts them with this question, “Have you not read?” And it is a question that comes to my mind when I think about my own teenage years. My dad loves to share the story of my first college visit. After meeting with the coaches and touring the campus, I was escorted to the Dean of Science’s office to discuss academics. His opening question, “What do you like to read?” And I proudly answered, “Sports Illustrated.” I thought I nailed the question. Now that I have sat on the other side of the desk I can only imagine how badly he wanted to laugh out loud.

But do not kid yourself, it is not just the problem of a naive teenage boy, listen to this quote from Dennis Prager:**

One thing I noticed about evangelicals is that they do not read. They do not read the Bible, they do not read the great Christian thinkers, they have never heard of Aquinas. If they are Presbyterian, they have never read the founders of Presbyterianism. I do not understand that. As a Jew, that’s confusing to me…When I walk into an Evangelical Christian’s home and see a total of 30 books, most of them best sellers, I do not understand. I have bookcases of Christian books, and I am Jew. Why do I have more Christian books than 98 percent of the Christians in America. That is so bizarre to me.

2. “I wouldn’t do it if I was you, but if you must don’t let them take your faith.” I heard this phrase from several people in several different churches after I decided to attend Duke Divinity School. There was a real fear that by choosing to study God rigorously, I would somehow lose my faith (the theological issue of ‘once-saved-always-saved’ is not for today!). Again, what they meant and what I heard may or may not be the same thing. Yet, this is what I heard, “God can’t handle being rigorously studied because if you look hard enough will realize it is all false.”

Are there dangers to studying and academics? Of course, read Colossians 2:6-8 or 1 Timothy 1:4-6. But losing your faith is not one of them. Proverbs 2 explains that God not only gives wisdom but he also guards those who seek wisdom. We cannot recklessly absorb all that is out there nor should we believe all that we think, but we can and should ask God to give us wisdom. And wonderful news is, he promises to say yes.

*My count of course means I searched the phrase in Accordance.

**Quoted in Thinking. Loving. Doing.