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.
I was adopted into a wonderfully loving family. I have always felt close with my adopted mother. So it never occurred to me that I might have suffered any loss from being separated from my biological mother at birth. It never occurred to me, that is, until I was pregnant with my first child. As I learned about labor and the connection newborns have with their mothers, I cried. I became fixated on that all important moment of holding my son to my chest. Yet, as my anticipation grew, a deep sorrow set in as well. I didn’t understand it at first. Then I realized why. I was actually grieving birth. My own birth.
I’ve heard the story many times. Perhaps a few months old, I was pushing away from my adopted mother. I looked up at her with an intense defiance in my eyes. Day after day, I was resisting.
“You’re going to let me love you.” She said as she gently tucked my limbs in her arms, hugging me to her chest, rocking and singing lullabies.
I don’t know how long this went on, but the last day it happened, she prayed over me. As she prayed, the “leviathan” came into her mind, and she rebuked this spirit by name.
My infant form relaxed and I slid down into her lap and then onto the floor. I immediately fell asleep and from that moment on, I never pushed her away again.
As a child, this story confused me. I saw the loving determination in my mother’s eyes as she retold this memory. In her mind, she had overcome a great obstacle for us. The result was that her baby was able to receive her love. I believe she wanted me to hear in this story how much she loved me.
So I tried to hear that, but I also felt ashamed. I also heard that I had been a broken and possibly demon possessed baby. My own body had behaved freakishly. What did that mean? What did that say about me? I couldn’t make sense of the story, so I rejected it. I listened to it like it wasn’t really me she was talking about. Even now, writing it down here, I question myself. The details I heard are concrete in my head, but when I try to share them, to shine a spotlight on them, they ghost into an accusation of insanity.
Did she really say all those things? Am I making this up?
In sharing this openly, I am calling myself out; to stop invalidating my own experiences and emotional responses.
As a child, this story of my infant self was just further proof that I, the “oriental adoptee” in a rural white community was not normal. Loved? Yes, but not normal. A gift from God? Yes, but something was wrong with me.
I had never been interested in baby dolls. Never wanted to babysit as a teen. Even when my husband and I got married we weren’t 100% sure we wanted kids. We’d wait and see how our lives unfolded. So, when we decided we did in fact want children of our own, I had a lot of learning to do about pregnancy, birth and babies. Which I tackled in my typical, overachieving academic fashion.
I learned my little womb-dweller was already becoming familiar with me. He knew my heartbeat and the sound of my voice. It was comforting as a first-time mommy to know those same, effortless things about me would comfort my child in the first few minutes and days of life on the outside. My breast tissue would regulate his body temperature. He would learn to recognize my scent. His familiarity with me would aid his transition.
God’s design in the birth process is amazing!
These weren’t tears of joy. Pregnancy hormones? It was deeper than tearing up at a puppy adoption commercial. Prenatal depression? I didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It was just thinking about this particular aspect of birth that was different. There was sorrow here. When I finally connected the dots, I was shocked.
Was I really grieving something I experienced as a newborn? Is that even possible?
The day I was born I was held by my first mother. However, that afternoon she was gone. As I thought about that, I imagined myself as a vulnerable infant suddenly losing the reassurance of that familiar heartbeat, her gait, her voice.
Just a few months ago I learned research shows infants register this separation as trauma, coded into the nervous system. At one day old, I would have sensed that disruption and loss, even though I couldn’t understand it.
I suddenly remembered that story of resisting my adopted mother. This new perspective broke my heart. A profound sadness for my infant self replaced the sense of shame I had associated with this story.
I had not been a broken or possessed baby, I was overcoming some measure of trauma in losing my familiar mother. I had to adapt to life outside her and without her. Plus, I had to adapt to a new mother I didn’t recognize. This was extra stress that an infant is not supposed to have.
Did I attach to my adopted mother? Yes. Did I adapt and adjust well? I think so. Therefore the temptation is for everyone, myself included, to dismiss and minimize the inherent trauma of adoption. As if it doesn’t matter because it all worked out in the end. The truth is, I had suffered a loss before memory that I was only now able to grieve.
I’m now weeks away from meeting my second child, face to face. Skin to skin. I’m visualizing how I will once again face the pain of labor and postpartum care. I’m fixating again on the moment I get to hold him for the first time.
And I’m grieving. I’ve only talked about this a few times since my first was born. Always with tears. I wonder if that means that I still have healing to do. Or if that means that some wounds never fully heal. Or maybe by writing this out and releasing it, I am healing right now.
Either way, giving birth is both a sorrow and a joy for me. The process involves reliving a loss somehow remembered in my being, though not in my conscious memory. I cannot face giving birth to my own child without grieving my own birth. I’m a little glad we’re not planning on having more children (she wrote with a chuckle).
However, there may be some redemption for me in this process. At least I hope there is. I am now the mother. No longer helpless. Giving my child what I didn’t have. Creating a conscious memory of bonding with my infant. Perhaps my past sorrow makes this anticipated joy that much sweeter.