I wrote this essay for The Art of Taleh for National Adoption Awareness Month. I’m reposting here with additional thoughts and breaking it into two parts. Part 1 is about Paul’s use of “adoption” as a metaphor for salvation in the New Testament. We look at what the legal process of adoption meant in Roman law and culture. We’ll see how Paul’s original audience had a different view of adoption than what we have today. So different, in fact, we should question if our modern practice of adoption can really be related to the gospel of salvation at all (see Part 2).
Some things (about me) to know up front: I’m an adult adoptee. Mine was a domestic/kinship/open adoption. I have 35 years of intimate experience navigating the pros and cons of human adoption. In other words, I can speak with authority on the nuances of adoption today, especially in American Christian culture, as I have lived it. It is from this lens that I dove into researching adoption as a metaphor in the Bible.
We Christians like to see adopting a child as an example of what Christ has done for us. Hashtag #adoptionisgospel. In addition to the Biblical mandate to care for “orphans and widows”, the language of adoption in the New Testament is a go-to for validating this perspective of modern adoption.
However, adoption in the Bible is a metaphor, not a mandate. The wrongful use of Scripture to spiritualize the adoption journey is harmful to adoptees in various ways; contributing to feelings of shame when we think about our birth parents or ethnic background, making it difficult to verbalize the painful aspects of our experience, and often walking away from God altogether. I’ll cover that in Part 2, but first let’s look at what the concept of adoption is in the Bible and appreciate Paul’s artful use of this legal metaphor.
In the New Testament, Paul the Apostle uses the Greek word “Huiothesia”, which means “placing as a son”. This is translated to “adoption” in English. Paul uses it five times to illustrate what Christ has done for us in salvation.
Remembering Paul wrote to Christians struggling to find unity across ethnic and cultural lines is interesting. Were the Jews who had grown up in Greek culture Jewish enough? Did the gentile converts have to become Jewish (get circumcised) in order to be saved? Who belonged? Who didn’t?
As a transracial adoptee, I feel the sting of doubting whether or not I belong because of ethnic difference.
Can I embrace my ethnic heritage, embody my faith differently from my white adoptive parents, and still be saved? Yes! I see how the adoption metaphor would further inspire oneness and unity within Paul’s audience, even if it wasn’t his main reason for using the metaphor.
Romans 8:15*: the God-given “spirit of adoption” contrasts with the “spirit of slavery” that keeps us in fear and condemned.
Romans 8:23: they are “waiting eagerly for our adoption,” aka the future hope of complete redemption when Christ returns.
Romans 9:4: Paul discusses the Israelites, “to whom belongs the adoption” if only they would have faith in Christ.
Galatians 4:5*: “adoption as sons” contrasts with being a slave, a state from which Christ redeems us.
Ephesians 1:5*: God’s choice is highlighted as “He predestined us to adoption”.
*In these chapters, Paul also connects being a child of God with being an heir of God. Inheritance is a recurring theme. The ideas of predestination and God’s will are also mentioned in Romans chapter 8.
Even in these woefully brief summaries we see familiar salvation concepts highlighted in the adoption metaphor; the change of position before God from a bad state (slave) to a good state (child/heir), and the emphasis on salvation being God’s will and for his purpose, not ours.
What did “huiothesia” mean to the original, intended audience? A few details about adoption in Roman law shows us why Paul’s use of this metaphor is brilliant!
The legal process of adoption in Roman law allowed a wealthy man (e.g. the emperor) to place a younger man as his son in order to have an heir. Wealthy patriarchs who had no sons (or at least none they trusted), could appoint their own successor through adoption.
In other words, adoption in the Bible was not about giving a family to orphaned children. Adoption was about securing an heir for a wealthy man. Those who did take in orphaned or unwanted children would not likely have gone through a legal process of adoption as it wouldn’t have been necessary in order to simply provide for the child’s needs.
Why is this important? This picture of adoption is more closely tied to inheritance than our picture of adoption today. This metaphor enables Paul to explain how our salvation (or adoption) means that we inherit all that is God’s (i.e. the earth, His glory, redeemed bodies). Often this idea of inheritance helped Paul’s readers put their trials and sufferings into perspective (Romans 8:17).
This adoption metaphor is also smart because it focuses on the desire of the wealthy man (God) to choose an heir (us, through and along with Christ). It reminds us that our salvation is for God’s purposes and glory, to carry on His name, and is not centered on us.
A wealthy man seeking an heir could be reasonably sure a that younger man in his 20’s had the desired traits and skill set, unlike a child who was still a question mark. Some commentaries say that an adopted son, being chosen, could not be disowned like a natural born son. After all, a natural born son could always turn out to be a disappointment.
In this regard, Paul’s idea of adoption is pretty different from our idea of adoption today. We’d see legally adopting an adult as a pretty strange and rarely necessary because we can name anyone in a will. Well, it’s likely Paul would think it just as strange and unnecessary for us to legally adopt children in order to simply love and provide for them.
Why does this matter? First, Paul uses the adoption metaphor to instill confidence salvation is secure, that God’s promises will be fulfilled! Second, this metaphor reinforces the supremacy of God’s choice and love.
God knows exactly who we are, how broken we are, how undeserving we are. There is no question as to whether or not we’ll turn out deserving of salvation. Paul is telling his readers, “God adopted you with eyes wide open, knowing exactly who you are, as you are.”
God knows us completely and yet He still saved/adopted us, not because He was certain of our worthiness, but because of His certain and unquestionable love.
In Roman law, a son was the property of his father; he had no possessions of his own and, legally, the father could sell him as a slave or even put him to death if wanted too. Roman adoption transferred a son from the complete authority of one father/master to another father/master. The son could no longer inherit from his first father and, many commentaries say old debts were cancelled.
I bet you can already see how brilliant Paul is again in using adoption in Roman law as a metaphor. It emphasizes the clear cut transition from being owned by/ a slave to sin to being a debt-free child of God, no longer condemned (Rom 8:1) or obligated to sin (Rom 8:12), but able to call God our Father because of Christ!
Why does this matter? The frighteningly total authority of a family patriarch in Roman culture and law is a little lost on us today, I think. No one I know thinks any father has a right to kill or sell their child with impunity. However, if we can just imagine this for a horrifying moment, we may see how the metaphor of a legal adoption would help Paul’s readers grasp how their salvation in Christ completely severs them from the frighteningly total authority of sin and death.
Can you feel a weight lift off of your spirit? I can. What an encouraging message! Good work, Paul.
In many ways, it is the DIFFERENCES, not the similarities, between Paul’s “huiothesia” and our concept of adoption today that make this metaphor the most meaningful.
I feel I need to gently mention why this metaphor often gets interpreted and applied with a bias before I send you to Part 2, where I’ll lay out what twisting this looks like and the impact on adoptees.
Well-known theologians, pastors and Christian podcasters promoting modern adoption are typically adoptive parents themselves. Perhaps they didn’t do a deep dive into this adoption metaphor until they already felt the “call to adopt”? Perhaps the adoptive-parent centered perspective is so elevated in our world that we rarely question whether or not there is (or was) any other view or form of adoption?
Many Christians come to these scriptures already assuming that modern adoption is the right/ Godly thing to do. And that’s normal! We all come to scripture with a lens, with biases that are difficult to see. So I understand how it would be easy for Christian authors and influencers to downplay or all out miss the glaring and important differences between the Biblical metaphor of adoption and the reality of modern adoption.
Another possible why: Many adoptive parents who write or speak on adoption do this when their children are still…well, children. Five or ten years into being an adoptive parent definitely gives them experience that has value. I don’t deny that. However, at this point in their relationship with their child, these adoptive parents still control the narrative. They have not yet seen how their child’s entire life continues to be shaped by their adoption in ways they never anticipated, in ways that are often deeply painful.
These parents have not yet wrestled with an alternative and equally valid perspective (their adult child’s) that counters their own as adoptive parents.
It’s not a leap to state that pastors and Christian influencers who are adoptive parents may (not always, but often) come to these scriptures seeing what they want to see. And those who see it differently rarely challenge this bias because, after all, their heart is in a good place, right? Unfortunately, this has led many to speak/write on adoption with a dangerous blindness to own their biases.
The next post will lay out how we get it twisted as I share examples from my own story on the negative impact this can have on adoptees’ view of God, family and self.
Before you read that, though I hope you chew on some of the things I shared here. I invite you to reflect on the excellence of Paul’s adoption metaphor and what that meant to the believers in Rome and Galatia and Ephesus, especially the non-Jewish believers.
How does a better understanding of “huiothesia” strengthen your understanding of your own salvation?
If you’re already in the adoption constellation (meaning you are a first parent, or an adoptee, or an adoptive parent, or know and care for someone who is), how does this look at Biblical adoption sit with you right now? What feelings, thoughts and questions does it bring up?
I’d encourage you to be self-reflective and prayerful before reading Part 2. It’s a little heavy.
Two Women Came to the King.
One woman said, “Oh king, this woman and I live in the same house. I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. Three days later, she also gave birth to a child. We were the only two in the house.
“Then, her son died in the night. So she switched our babies while I was asleep. When I woke up in the morning, I found my son, dead. But when I looked at him carefully, I realized it was not my son.”
The other woman said, “No! This living baby is my child. The dead son is yours!”
But the first woman said, “No! The living one is my son!” And they argued like this before the king.
Then the king said, “Both of you believe you have a claim on the living child.” So he turned to his servant and said, “Get me a sword.” So they brought the king a sword.
The king said, “Divide the child in two!”
“Give his heritage and nature to the one and his rearing and education to the other. Let him always be torn between two warring identities, having affection for both mothers but never fully belonging to either. In this way, let him suffer as long as he lives so that you will each have what you claim to be yours.”
Then, the woman who was the mother of the living child spoke to the king, for she loved her son fiercely, and said “Oh king, give her the living child. Do not let him suffer this way!”
But the other woman said, “Divide him!”
Then the king said, “Give the first woman the living child and by no means tear him apart. Surely the woman who is willing to lose him completely in order to spare him suffering, is his true mother.”
When all the land heard of the judgement the king handed down, they feared the king, for they saw that God had given him wisdom to administer justice.
Sometimes I read a story and my mind wonders. I see threads of connection that my imagination runs with it. With all the researching and writing about the adoption industry that I’ve been doing, I read the story of Solomon in 1 Kings, and another story emerged.
I saw the dynamics of modern adoption corruption, where children are stolen. I saw a child’s identity being erased and replaced in order to fill a void in a grieving woman. I saw a vulnerable mother seeking justice and finding a horrific “solution”. I saw a women with no choice, relinquishing her baby because she believed it meant his life would be spared. I saw the powers-that-be, who know the devastation of family separation, using it as a strategy to manipulate the vulnerable, and being praised for their good judgement.
The story in the Bible ends with justice, with the baby being given back to his mother. But that does not always happen in our world. First mothers who have been tricked or coerced, do not always receive justice and get their baby back. Many adoptees are forever divided, spending our lives trying to stitch together two identities that keep pulling us back apart.
So I changed details of the story as a creative writing exercise, not a spiritual meditation or theological statement. Don’t read too much into that. I hope this helps illustrates, though, how different the perspectives of adoptees can be.
Originally shared on Facebook and/or Instagram for National Adoption Awareness Month.* When you see or hear an adoption story, please keep these things in mind.
By “story” I mean the circumstances of my adoption, who my birth parents are and what happened that led to me being adopted, and how adoption has played out for me. I do not mean the perspective of my adoptive parents about my adoption story.
That story holds an enormous amount of power in our lives.
When others take up our story and use it, even with good intentions, it becomes a weapon that cuts at the dignity of the adoptee and fights against learning a broader view of adoption. Many times it is adoptive parents who over-share. I grew up hearing my story shared a lot with people outside our family. I always smiled back at the listeners and kind of enjoyed being the center of attention for a moment. As a kid, I didn’t realize I was learning other things during these interactions.
I learned to see the details of my life as somehow “belonging” to others. I learned to feel obligated to satisfy other’s curiosity. When I sense people’s uncertainty about my background, the urge to dump all the details is strong! I think, if I do, maybe they’ll accept me and feel more comfortable with me. So I learned to over-share my own story also, even though doing so hurts me.
It leaves me exposed and drained. People react in a variety of ways and sometimes I have to reassure them. My story is a gift but not everyone sees it that way. Unlearning this is hard.
As Stephanie Tait pointed out on another (Facebook) post, over-sharing might be done to justify the adoptive parent’s choices, to explain why this adoption is a good one, to counter the not so pretty side of adoption they don’t want to acknowledge. In other words, over-sharing is usually a way to make people feel comfortable again with the adoption situation or with the adopted child.
Adults might over-share a child’s story to encourage others to adopt or to evangelize. The “good intent” of this is used to dismiss the harmful impact of their actions and words on the adoptee.
Over-sharing is also done by relatives or family friends. Unfortunately, they only know the adoptive parent’s perspective. They also rarely ever question whether or not there is another side (or two) to the story. The’ll reveal details about the first mom’s situation and decision and never consider a bias exists.
While we are children, our parents need to help protect and steward our stories, revealing more facts to us when they’re age appropriate. Relatives and friends need to be explicitly told that the details of the adoptee’s first family and placement are not theirs to share. Ever.
Adoptees must be allowed to make up our own minds about our story, to decide what to share and not share and when and with whom and with what emphasis. We must be given space to change our minds about our story over time; to let change our perspective of self and family.
Owning our adoption story helps ground us and build a positive adoption identity. It is part of forming a more complete sense of ourself. Even if the details are sad or difficult to swallow. When we are ready to share, it can help heal some hurts. Sharing our story is the only way we can learn to let others share our burdens. Knowing our story belongs to us and we have control of it helps us move through life more easily, a life that will always be discovering how adoption has impacted us in ways we didn’t expect or think about before.
Adoptee stories are powerful. In other’s hands they can be a weapon. In our own hands, they can become an anchor and a sail.-TiffanyLavon
*During NAAM or National Adoption Awareness Month (November) I posted a lot on social media about the adoptee voice, which is often silenced and missing in discussions about adoption. NAAM was created as a government initiative to encourage people to adopt children in the foster care system and the messages during NAAM are usually the ones that portray the positive side of adoption, advertising to potential adoptive parents. Over time this month also because a time where adoption was just celebrated in general.
I’ve wanted to work on a reverse poem for a while. I finally sat down and made it happen. I have many themes in my head but this one is perfect for the poem structure. By reading down and back up, you journey with me “out of the fog” to face the “wound”.
“Coming out of the fog” is a phrase adoptees use when we begin to confront the reality of how adoption has impacted us. It’s a non-linear experience of grief and loss that can begin at any time in an adoptee’s life. Some adoptees never experience this.
The “wound” refers to the Primal Wound theory by Nancy Verrier, which states that even if a child is separated from the first mother the moment it is born, the infant will register that as trauma in their body, in their nervous system. Though an adoptee like myself may not have a conscious memory of that stress or my struggle to survive without my biological mom, the wound is there. Acknowledging that is part of healing.
Thanks for reading.
Title: Fog & Wound
By Tiffany Lavon
Adoption is beautiful.
I can’t honestly claim that
I need to grieve
I don’t need sympathy
Focusing on my blessings
Is how I grow, not
Lamenting a loss before memory
I should always be grateful
It is actually harmful to imply
Adoption is inherently traumatic
My adopted family
Is a deeper part of me than
My ancestral heritage
Which will never be part of my life
The bond with my first mother
Does not eclipse
My adopted mother’s love
I have no doubt that
This was God’s Plan A
I can’t imagine how
My life could be better.
[read in reverse, line by line]
Recently, the President of the United States said that four minority congresswomen originally came from countries with broken governments, that they should go back and fix the crime infested places they came from instead of stay in the USA. Yet 3 of them were born in this country and one has been here since she was a child. The only reason the President referred to them in this way is because of their black and brown skin.
My first thought was about how boringly common that kind of racist language is. So common it even has a term; the concept of the Perpetual Foreigner in the United States is basically that US Citizens who are not white will always been seen as an alien or a foreigner, as belonging somewhere else.
However white citizens, whose ancestors definitely originated somewhere else, are never spoken of this way, never questioned or seen as foreign simply because of their race. No one is telling Pelosi to go back and fix problems in Italy. No one told Hilary to join British Parliament instead of run for President of the USA.
My second thought was about how frighteningly damaging those words are when they come from the President and not just a random person with an internet connection and no real influence.
As the weight of the President’s words toward black and brown women who are serving our nation in elected office sank in, my own experiences with this sentiment ate away at me.
So, while my husband drove our family to Portland for the day, I sat next to my baby in the back seat and wrote this on my phone to post on my Facebook profile. I needed to try again to explain why this hurts. Even though I actually have written about this very thing several times recently on Facebook. I am reposting it here, below the next heading.
So, white friends, do you think it is ok or normal to assume that someone who is not white was not born in the USA? That they actually belong in another country? That they should go and fix that country before they can positively contribute to the USA?
If you have any doubts about how common it is for non-white (and I will say especially asian) people to be told to go back to “where you came from” or asked a variation of “Where are you REALLY from?” (which might be asked with friendly intentions but still makes the same problematic assumption)…then I will personally verify this for you.
It happens to me. It happens to my non-white friends. It’s so common I don’t even talk about it when it happens usually. Last time it happened I didn’t even tell my husband because I was a little embarrassed about the circumstances.
It is important that you know these assumptions and comments and questions are based in the (often unconscious) belief that white is default, white is normal, and white always belongs. Therefore anyone not white is other, is not expected, and does not belong.
It is important to know that it is not the one individual incident that is the main problem. It’s the lifetime of these recurring incidents happening in the first person, witnessing it happen to others, seeing it expressed in movies and the news.
It is the cumulative effect that is so damaging, like one thousand soft punches to the exact same spot that begins to ache then bruises and eventually immobilizes the entire arm.
Even if you know not everyone thinks that way.
So when I hear people in power speak this way, I am rightfully angered and grieved. I know that it increases the perceived acceptability of these assumptions and normalizes these comments.
If you hear about these kinds of incidents and your instinct is to find a way to explain why these comments are not racist and/or to minimize the impact on non-white people, it’s like you’ve witnessed someone softly punch my broken and bleeding arm and rolled your eyes at me when I cried out in pain. It’s like your telling me I shouldn’t feel pain because they didn’t know that was a sore spot. You might as well punch me yourself.