The evangelical orphan care and adoption movement experienced exponential growth over the last decade. One consequence of this growth is the almost ubiquitous presence of James 1:27 in sermons and articles and on the websites of nonprofits whose mission is to care for “orphans in their affliction.” James 1:27 reads, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (emphasis added).

As encouraging as the reemergence of James 1:27 is in the church’s collective consciousness, what’s often lacking is an accurate understanding of how orphan should be defined.

UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) define orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. When we hear the word orphan, many of us immediately think we are referring to children who have lost both parents.

But when seeking to understand orphan-related statistics, it’s critical that we distinguish between single-orphaned children (i.e., children who’ve lost one parent) and double-orphaned children (i.e., children who’ve lost both parents). If we fail do to so, our strategies to care for them will likely be seriously flawed, unintentionally hurting the children themselves while giving ammunition to critics to discredit and hinder the church’s efforts to care for orphaned children.

The current global estimate of orphans worldwide (determined by UNICEF) is 140 million children. Of that 140 million, “only” 15.1 million are considered “double orphans.” In other words, of the 140 million orphans worldwide, only 10.7 percent of them have lost both parents.

But according to the Christian Alliance for Orphans,

One of the greatest weaknesses in these global orphan estimates is that they include only orphans that are currently living in homes. They do not count the estimated 2 to 8+ million children living in institutions. Nor do current estimates include the vast number of children who are living on the streets, exploited for labor, unaccompanied refugees, victims of trafficking, or participating in armed conflict.1

To further stress the complexity of the need to care for orphans, of the world’s fifteen million “double orphans,” only 0.1 percent of them are legally adoptable. Therefore, even if Christians were to adopt every single child who is legally adoptable, we would still face a global orphan crisis of epidemic proportions.

So, what are we Christians to do?

God’s work of adoption in human history is a drama of cosmic proportions.

The Apostle Paul is the only biblical writer who used the word adoption. Although it’s a term he borrowed from the Greco-Roman horizontal practice of adoption, he altered and expanded its meaning by filling it with rich redemptive-historical significance. As a result, he uses adoption to trace Scripture’s overarching story of redemption.

Before Time: Ephesians 1:4–5

In this passage, Paul states that God the Father “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” Thus, we see that God’s first work of adoption happened even before He created the universe. Before the first molecule was formed, God marked us out with incomparable care—He predestined us—for the great privilege of being His beloved children through adoption. Adoption was not a divine afterthought. It was in God’s triune mind and heart before the first tick of human history’s clock.

Israel: Romans 9:4

Here, Paul identifies adoption as one of the great privileges Israel enjoyed as God’s chosen people: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” Scholars believe that Israel received adoption—that is, officially became God’s corporate son—when God declared them a nation at Mount Sinai, three months after He delivered them from Egypt. Thus, God redeemed them before He adopted them. He redeemed them in order to adopt them.

Of course, Israel repeatedly failed in its sonship by rejecting the Father’s love, replaying the story of Adam’s rebellion. God’s mission to bring many rebellious sons home to glory seemed doomed. Yet, through Israel, God’s corporate son through adoption, the eternal and perfect Son would be sent to redeem humanity, thereby preserving God’s perfect plan.

Jesus: Galatians 4:4–6; Romans 8:15

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Here, Paul identifies adoption as the grand purpose or objective of redemption, and he could not have written it more clearly: “so that we might receive adoption.”

New Heavens and New Earth: Romans 8:22–23

Finally, adoption is central to the end of redemption’s story. In verse 23, Paul writes, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Paul identifies the glorification of our bodies as the final outward manifestation of our adoption. When the story of redemption reaches its intended goal, the Bible calls it “adoption.” On that climactic day, the heavens and the earth will be transformed into our Father’s house. God’s work of adoption in human history is a drama of cosmic proportions.

Paul’s use of adoption in Romans has strong exodus imagery that surrounds its three occurrences (Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4). God’s deliverance of Israel out of Egyptian bondage echoes behind the cosmic story of adoption in Romans 8. We find exodus imagery all throughout Romans 8: “set you free” (Rom. 8:2); “led by the Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:14; cf. Ex. 13:21); “the spirit of slavery” (Rom. 8:15); “subjected to futility” (Rom. 8:20); “will be set free” (Rom. 8:21); “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21); “obtain the freedom” (Rom. 8:21); “groaning together” (Rom. 8:22; cf. Ex. 2:23); “redemption” (Rom. 8:23); and “firstborn” (Rom. 8:29; cf. Ex. 4:22). The evidence is overwhelmingly compelling: God intends for us to understand His work of adoption as His redemptive activity to free us and all creation from every effect of the fall.

So, how should the climax of adoptive-history as told by Paul inform our understanding of James 1:27? The story of the Bible is the story of God’s visiting us in our affliction, as He once visited Israel (Ex. 4:31), to deliver us from it. Therefore, if we are to address the desperate (and complex) need of 140 million orphans, to visit orphans in their affliction means that we not only adopt but that we also work for orphan prevention through family reunification and preservation; and when reunification is not possible, we actively support indigenous adoption efforts.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 12, 2021.

  1. Christian Alliance for Orphans White Paper: On Understanding Orphan Statistics,” Christian Alliance for Orphans (2012): 3, ↩︎

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