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.