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Is Unwilling Childlessness Necessarily a Call to Adopt?

October 26th, 2012 | 5 min read

By Kevin White

As an aside in a piece about young couples who decline to have children, Gabriel Fluhrer noted that, “If you are providentially hindered from having children, perhaps the Lord is calling you to adopt children.” This is a fairly conventional observation, and I agree without reservation with his use of “perhaps”. In many cases, a frustrated desire for children can develop into a call to adopt.

But every time?  I’m not sure.

Before going further, I should note that Gabriel Fluhrer does not deserve to be the jumping off point for this post. That is, this will be a fairly critical post, but Fluhrer is not my target. Yet his passing comment brings up something that I have found unsettling in current evangelical discussions about adoption.

I want to push back against a convention that seems to be developing in evangelical circles that if you are without children, and did not wish to be so, you ought to adopt. There is a subtle shift in adoption from a good option for a childless couple into something like a moral obligation. Or at least, a suggestion that if adoption is so good and praiseworthy, that it is bad and unworthy not to feel a call to it in such circumstances.

Again, I am not accusing Fluhrer of saying this. He is only mentioning adoption as a way that the blessing of children can be offered even to those who are unwillingly childless. But in our broader context, and without the qualification that adoption is an extraordinary calling, his phrasing can serve as an unintended source of anxiety and frustration.

Adoption can, of course, be a beautiful image of Gospel truth. As said in a chorus I remember from church when I was kid, sung after most baptisms:

I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God!
I've been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod;
For I'm part of the family, the family of God.

We are adopted by the Father in grace, part of God’s household as heirs rather than as mere beggars or guests. (Though that would still be a blessing, indeed!)

father and adopted children father and adopted children (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adopting a stranger’s child into one of our earthly households can be a fitting, almost typological, expression of that theological truth. Just as God adopts sinners, without regard for worthiness or merit, into His household, so we adopt orphans into our own. In that light, adoption is a good deed indeed, a gloriously fitting action for a Christian couple.

It is important to remember in the Christian life, however, that there can be a world of difference between a good action and a command. For one, possible good deeds are far more numerous than express commands. Barnabas was not required to sell his land and donate the proceeds for the widows and orphans. It was an outpouring of the spirit of Christian generosity. Ananias' error was not keeping part of his money. Peter's denunciation of him made it clear:

While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God. (Acts 4:36-5:4)

God commands us to be generous and to care for widows and orphans, but He does not specify the amount. Barnabas chose to act it out in an extreme way. Ananias' error was to treat that free outworking as the standard and to pretend to obey it.

The ways that we can act and live to glorify God are almost limitless, and no one lifetime would give the opportunities to do more than a small cross-section of what is possible. And as comparatively few as the obligatory commands are, one lifetime does not suffice to learn to consistently fulfill them all, even with God’s gracious help.

Our possibilities for good service are so great, and our opportunities to sin so easy to come by, that it is important not to confuse the two. We do not honor God as Lord and as loving Lawgiver if we make a command in His name where He has not spoken. That is one of the first instructions Moses gave to Israel before they entered the Land:

You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. (Deut. 4:2)

"Do not take away" is easy to understand; if God wants you to do it, don't leave it out. It is easier to forget the other part of obedience: do not add to the commandments. This is the exact error Jesus opposed when he said:

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matt 15:6b-9)

Jesus is pushing back against the Pharisees for complaining that the disciples ignored a purely traditional ritual. When Jesus condemns "doctrines of men" he is not going after systematic theology; he is condemning pious-sounding moral inventiveness. Inventing a new Law (e.g. ceremonial hand-washing before meals) is the same error as turning a clear command (e.g., do not commit adultery), into merely one of many optional, contingent ways we have of honoring God. Both are failures to recognize that "there is only one lawgiver and judge." (James 4:12a)

Therefore, when praising the real virtues of adoption, or pointing out the situations that may present a special opportunity to adopt, we should not turn the glorious possibilities of Christian freedom into another obligation. However good it is to adopt, that does not mean it is bad or unchristian to decline the opportunity. The temptation towards this reverse alchemy of turning gold into lead can be a subtle one. One does not need to declare “thus says the Lord” to be placing an undue burden on conscience. The mere assertion of it as the default option, as the probable deduction from the needs of our time and the opportunities of some couples, can be enough.

Put simply: another family’s sorrow is not your chance to assume God’s voice, or to (effectively) command in His name.

Unwilling childlessness can be a difficult burden to live with. All cases can look the same from the outside. On the inside, in light of the often painfully personal details that define each case, the picture is rather different. It can be a pressing, cold certainty that you and your wife will never naturally conceive. Or it can be an elusive uncertainty, constantly teasing the possibility of resolution yet one more year down the road.

Which means that generic counsels are almost always unwise. A couple’s difficulty having children will often have vocational significance, but more than one signification can be in play. Adoption is one possible response. Or a couple can claim a greater opportunity to invest in the lives of children in their extended family, their church, or their local community. It can mean a greater freedom to pursue vocations that are less prudent for those with children: service in more dangerous roles or locations, intentional poverty, radical hospitality to the poor and suffering.

Or, least glamorously of all, it may be a vocation to live, in holy contentment, with the frustration of a good and beautiful desire. To frankly recognize what has been providentially denied to you, but to live the Christian life learning to praise the God who did not provide that blessing. It’s not a vocation you can easily build a movement around. It has none of the flash and glamor of a grand adventure, but all of the romance and glory.

Adoption can be a beautiful and godly vocation. Probably more people should consider it than do. Like any good and godly vocation, though, it is important not to abuse it or turn it into a source of guilt. And that is what happens when you take a good deed and turn it, without authority, into a command. What should be a joyful (if difficult) act of Christian freedom becomes an unworkable expectation. Instead of a beacon of Gospel hope and an inspiring example of virtue, it can become a crushing burden on conscience and a source of despair.

Kevin White