I am an outsider to the evangelical adoption movement, and my time at Together for Adoption did not change that.  My wife and I are not considering adopting, nor am I by any means spending my time thinking through the challenges of orphan care and adoption.

Yet I am not a disinterested observer.  As someone fascinated by anything that sits in the nexus of theology, politics, and culture, it was only a matter of time before I found myself moving over to think through the issues surrounding adoption.  I have, as longtime readers know, written a considerable amount about sexuality and the family, and adoption has always lurked in the background.  As such, I was grateful for the opportunity to spend a weekend deliberating about it directly.

The below are my impressions and reflections from the conference.  They are generalizations, but I offer them as nothing more than my observations, which I would be very happy to amend if shown otherwise.

1)  The conference was deeply theological, which was a good thing.  Yet the main stage speakers focused almost exclusively on the motivations for adoption and orphan care, rather than the shape of adoption or orphan care.  While the breakouts were primarily practical, the divide gave off the implicit feeling that theology ends precisely where reflection about what adoption should actually look like in practice begins.

But the Gospel does not simply provide us the proper set of motivations to do what everyone else in the world does.  Instead, it provides us unique insight into the structure of morality (Christ is our wisdom), such that we can open up new possibilities for action rather than staying within the framework provided to us by the world around us.  The Gospel is not simply an internal reality that helps us to get our hearts in the “right place” with respect to adoption.  It is an external reality that should help us discern who we adopt and how we go about it.

In other words, I would have loved to have seen some theological ethics with respect to adoption being worked out.  A lot of people are very passionate about adoption, and that’s great.  But not all attempts at helping those in poverty actually succeed, and it is the task of theological ethics to help those who are considering adoption discern how their proper motivations should take shape in the world.  Some people will (rightly) say “no” to adoption,  and theological ethics will help those in the adoption movement counsel those couples and churches wrestling with the practical dimensions more effectively.

2)  It is a perennial temptation, I think, to frame the doctrine of adoption as a fundamentally individualistic doctrine (as opposed to a doctrine about individuals).  In adoption, God saves us as individual persons.  But he saves us within a web of relationships with others, with the world, and even with myself.  Like it or not, that web that simply does not go away at the moment of adoption (which is why, I think, in Romans 8 our adoption is framed as the final redemption of our bodies).  Consequently, the line between the “old man” and the “new man” is a lot more blurry than we might like.  We are never autonomous, never free-floating about the relationships that defined us (even when we deny them in order to follow Jesus).

In other words, orphans are not autonomous individuals, or atoms that have somehow achieved social isolation.  They still exist within a social network, even though their birth parents are no longer around.  In fact, the orphan is defined not by social isolation but by that absence, an absence that new parents simply will not fill in the same way.  A new spouse may stand in the same relationship as the first, but as long as the person is different than some absence will be noticeable.  In one sense, I worry that our language of adoption is too individualistic, that we are not attuned to the fact that adopting the person means bringing that web of relations into our home.  The closest someone got to acknowledging this on the main stage was Bryan Lorrits, whose excellent talk highlighted the fact that adoption doesn’t make a black child any less black.  And the unique set of social relations that come with that simply do not go away.

3)  Proclaiming adoption as a doctrine is insufficient without its corollary:  a theological account of the nature of childhood.  What is the life we are adopting people into?  What is the good news we have to show children?  Is it simply better material comforts, better educational possibilities, the safety of living in a stable society?  If it’s hearing the good news about Jesus, what difference does that make to children as children?  A deeper and more comprehensive understanding of what childhood is will also help us understand what is uniquely destructive about orphanhood.  I would love to see the adoption movement (and evangelicals generally) spend more of their time reflecting about this.

This request for addition, I’d point out, is similar to the first one that I raised.  It is one thing to say that the Gospel grounds our adoption, while it is another thing to say what those Gospel-shaped adoptions actually look like.  Similarly, it is one thing to say that our adoption makes outsiders our own children, but another to say what the life of the child that they have now received looks like.  While there was a strong emphasis on parenting, we should also reflect about what sorts of things parents are raising.

4)  Adoption is one (important) strand of orphan care, but is not the whole of it.  And the emphasis on adoption as a means of caring for the child should not preclude our concern for children in impoverished areas and our efforts to correct the causes of poverty and adoption.  It was surprising to me that amidst all the sessions there was not (that I saw) a single economist at the conference talking about how orphan care fits with economic development.

Obviously, the conference primarily draws people interested in adoption (though the theme was care for orphans this year).  But even there, the economic aspects of adoption should play into our decisions about who to adopt and where we adopt from.  It may be better, for instance, in some emerging economies to not adopt children out of them, but to find better indigenous solutions to the problem.  Taking into account the economic dimension of adoption is incumbent on those who want to do all we can to ensure our helping doesn’t hurt.

5)  Related to that, I think while it is more difficult to think through the systemic causes of where orphans come from, the adoption movement doesn’t help foster such thought.  Most of the banners for the organizations represented, for instance, had faces of individual children or pairs of children.  We don’t see the system:  we see the face, and as such it is easier to think of adopting a child as a solution than addressing the problems in the social network that caused that child to be orphaned.

Which is why we should make sure our presentation on adoption is accurate:  it’s not a solution per se to orphanhood, even if it is a means of caring for a child and bearing witness to the reality of the Gospel.  We can still bear witness to the Gospel in working with orphans, but such care may not take the shape of international adoption.  Amanda Cox of Faith to Action gave a challenging and helpful breakout session that got into some of these issues, and when the audio is available, you should buy it.

6)  If you’re interested in thinking more about those structural issues, I cannot recommend this lecture highly enough.  It’s by an interesting project that (as I understand it) aims to overcome the balkanization of those working to support family care by bringing together adoption agencies, politicians, economists, etc.  I may do a separate post just highlighting this talk, as it deserves more attention.

7)  My co-bloggers did a ridiculously amazing job live-blogging the conference.  Check out Lindsey Nobles and Aaron Armstrong, in particular.

In all, I couldn’t have asked for a better conference.  It was challenging and edifying, and personally enormously fruitful (as I hope the above reflections indicate).

And I want to reiterate that I offer the above reflections as an outside observer.  If you work in the movement or see things otherwise, feel free to let me know in the comments.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. You were clearly thinking about these issues on a much deeper level than the vast majority of participants.

    As far as the lack of voices talking about economic development, you actually just didn’t hear them. The good folks from Food for the Hungry had 3 sessions and all 3 were about economic development. You can hear the general contents of two of those sessions here: http://povertyunlocked.com/2011/06/01/surprisingsolution/ and here: http://povertyunlocked.com/2010/10/25/pu-048-orphan-care/

    Also, if you’re looking for a great introduction into holistic and sustainable development, this series called “The Theology of Poverty” is a great resource. http://povertyunlocked.com/theology-of-poverty/


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson October 24, 2011 at 11:03 am

      Tim, not sure if that’s true, but I appreciate the kind words.

      Thanks for the heads up on all of your wife’s work. I officially have a case of “conference regret” for not going to one of her sessions, and glad to hear she was addressing it.


  2. […]  An earlier version of this was originally posted at Mere Orthodoxy.  The above is slightly modified from that one.  Comments […]


  3. […] “Seven Thoughts on Together for Adoption,” Matthew Lee Anderson, Mere Orthodoxy […]


  4. […] wrote a follow-up blog post about our conference that laid out his observations and reflections. One of Matt’s desires […]


  5. Thanks for a solid critical, yet affirming reflection on a conference I wish I could have been to.

    My wife and kids and I moved to Haiti in 2008 to serve as house parents in an orphanage, much as a response to the mandate of James 1;27 and the desire God was building in our hearts to be with the poor. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the overwhelming majority of Haiti’s so-called orphans had living parents who loved them and visited them in orphanages regularly AND would not have given their kids up if they had had the economic means to provide food, shelter, and education to them. The same is true of the causes of abandonment for Haiti’s child slaves… At the orphanage we worked in the boys’ home with 24 boys. Only 2 of them were true orphans with no living parents. The rest were there for economic reasons. So we shifted our emphasis to the core of the problem, from orphan care to orphan prevention through job creation. A big factor that influenced this decision was the economic stewardship issue: The cost of one adoption, in the orphanage we worked with, was enough to provide seed funding for businesses for EVERY living parent who had a boy in the orphanage. So if one American family would have put the same resources into job creation instead of adoption, there would have been 22 less “orphans” than if they had adopted one. On top of that, sustainable business requires no (unsustainable) charity once it gets going, whereas the orphanage required a steady supply of funds for feeding, housing, and educating kids… and then there are the issues created by institutional care with the lack of a primary care giver, and the psychological problems that evolve without consistent attachments… We began an artisans guild that now provides work for 180 families and part time employment for another 200. I never could have given that much before, but by equiping people to care for their own needs and their own kids it multiplies beautifully, and it yields a different theological insight as well… That God is not the kind of parent who nurses his kids forever, but one who teaches them to farm and harvest. He gave us apples to eat, but for each apple he gave us far more seeds, each with the potential to multiply itself… but only if planted and watered and fertilized. We know this about discipleship, that the best way to teach is to have the student focuse on becoming a teacher. Unfortunately too many christians have not given enough attention, thought, and time to the poor to make the common sense realization that endless giving turns the poor into something ugly, while nurturing dignity, ability, production, and self-respect helps them become a beautiful version of themselves, one that blesses others… and it does not afford us the self-congratulatory versions of benevolence and charity that permit us from really laying down our lives for somebody else in the day in and day out.

    I’m in the funding and planning stages of making a film about all these issues… it will be called “A Precious Trade”. Keep an eye out for it.

    Anyway, economic development for the sake of children in crisis is the heartbeat and breath of the Apparent Project. Check us out at http://www.apparentproject.org

    Corrigan Clay


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