Orphanology, the mind-bending rationalization of evangelical adoption

Yesterday, the Baptist Press published an interview with Tony Merida, the author of the book Orphanology, a book promoting adoption and orphan care on an evangelical basis.

Let's dissect the article in order to get a better understanding of the movement that has been taking over the adoption system over the last 10 years. The article starts introducing the author of the book:

Every adoption story is unique, but the tale of how pastor and author Tony Merida came to see he should adopt -- essentially, through his own sermon -- likely is quite rare.

The uniqueness of things is of course debatable. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Blondie says: Every gun makes its own tune, while Family Guy's Stewie claims: A bullet sounds the same in every language.

Every adoption story is unique in the sense that every child is unique, but when we look at the adoption tale itself there is a common thread in almost every story. In that sense, Tolstoy was wrong when he wrote "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Unhappy and misfortunate families are actually embarrassingly alike. Poverty and exploitation, are such a common cause of misfortune, only those living a sheltered and affluent life see differences in the plight of the bottom dwellers of our global society.

Likewise, the story of Tony Merida is actually quite mundane. There are thousands of men of the cloth that have decided to adopt children. It is actually quite the fashionable thing to do in modern day religion.

When Merida was asked to preach at a youth camp on the subject of poverty, he began studying the subject in-depth, looking at the issue from a worldwide perspective.

He started to see, he said later, that "the poorest of the poor are the fatherless." He then examined what the Bible had to say about adoption.

"Basically, I got convicted by my own preaching," Merida told Baptist Press.

This is a very curious explanation. There is of course nothing out of the ordinary for a pastor to preach about poverty, after all much of Jesus' teachings have to do with how we treat the poor. It's not even exceptional to make a connection between poverty and being fatherless. What makes this explanation eery is the conclusion to look into adoption. Why deprive a child of its mother because it is fatherless?

Merida and his wife adopted four Ukrainian children -- all siblings -- in 2009 and then a year later adopted a fifth child from Ethiopia. Within a span of two years, their house went from having no children to five children. And he says he wouldn't change anything.

Ukraine is certainly not a rich country. In fact, it is one of the poorest countries in Europe, but it is a far cry from a country where the poorest of the poor live. Furthermore Ukraine is not a country known for large numbers of orphans. Those are found in countries torn apart by civil war, or devastated by AIDS.

What does set Ukraine apart is its adoption procedure. Ukraine has not ratified the Hague convention, while adoptions are mostly handled by local attorneys, a practice similar to that of former adoption hotspots like Romania and Guatemala. Due to its adoption-friendly system, Ukraine holds the fifth place in the ranking of countries with the highest adoption exports, after China, Ethiopia, Russia and South Korea.

Merida is part of a growing movement within the evangelical community that is giving a new look at adoption from a theological perspective, comparing earthly adoption to spiritual adoption. In his book "Orphanology" (New Hope) coauthored with Rick Morton, Merida makes the case for a Gospel-centered approach to adoption and orphan care.

Finally we get to the heart of the matter, the purported spiritual adoption by God. In order to address this point, we need to delve into the technicalities of Roman law.

The Bible speaks of adoption to sonship five times in total. The term adoption to sonship, is a translation from the the Greek word υ?οθεσ?α (huiothesia), which derives from huios (son) and thesis (placement). Huiothesia in Roman times was a ceremony taking place when a young male child of a citizen reached manhood. Prior to huiothesia, the child had the same status as a slave in his father's household. With huiothesia a son becomes a full-fledged citizen with  the rights, powers and privileges inherited from his fathers position in society.

Galatians 3:23-29, 4:1-7 is the bible passage speaking most clearly about huiothesia:

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship (huiothesia). Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

Instead of making the case for modern day adoption, the Bible actually speaks of the fact that by the grace of accepting the spirit of his son, we are all no longer slaves, just like a child is no longer a slave when he reaches adulthood.

There is no spiritual adoption in the Bible. There is just a comparison between the gift of faith and the legal consequences of coming of age under Roman law.

Let's now return to the article in the Baptist Press.

"I'm hopeful for the future," said Merida, lead pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, N.C., and associate professor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "There seems to be a great interest in caring for orphans among evangelicals. I'm no expert in this field. I'm just a pastor and trying to help people connect the dots biblically, and I hope the next generation will take it further, practicing true religion."

It's already a sad state of affairs when those involved in orphan care have no expertize in the field, but it becomes hilarious when a theological professor isn't even capable of proper biblical exegesis.

Certainly there are places in the bible that speak about orphan care, but those passages are far removed from modern day adoption practices.

Exodus 22:22
Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.

Deuteronomy 10:18
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

Deuteronomy 14:29
so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Deuteronomy 16:11
And rejoice before the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you.

Deuteronomy 16:14
Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns.

Deuteronomy 24:17
Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.

Deuteronomy 24:19
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Deuteronomy 24:20
When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.

Deuteronomy 24:21
When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.

Deuteronomy 26:12
When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

Then say to the LORD your God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them.

Deuteronomy 27:19
“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Psalm 146:9
The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

Isaiah 1:17
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 1:23
Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.

Jeremiah 22:3
This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Zechariah 7:10
Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

Malachi 3:5
“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.

James 1:27
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Interestingly, in almost every single passage that speaks of orphans or fatherless, the plight of the child is mentioned together with the plight of the mother (and in most cases with that of foreigners). Yet what happens in many modern day adoption situations: children are taken away from their family to fulfill the adoption desires of those in rich countries. In biblical terms: The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt (Job 24:9).

Back to the article:

BAPTIST PRESS: In your book you say that adoption does not relate to whether you can or cannot have biological children. Adoption, you write, isn't merely Plan B.

MERIDA: I certainly wouldn't challenge people if they were adopting because of infertility. I wouldn't say that's a bad reason. But as you look at the Gospel, [spiritual] adoption, to God, was not a Plan B but Plan A. I just look at Ephesians 1:5 and Ephesians 5:1, with Ephesians 1:5 saying we've been adopted and Ephesians 5:1 saying "imitate God." It has great implications for us. As I say in Orphanology, I don't think everyone should adopt kids, but I think we all should be doing something for the fatherless. Theology is the best reason to adopt, and it's really sad that most Christians think just like the culture on this issue. The cultural reason to adopt is infertility, but we want to think biblically about everything. A lot of people just want enough kids that they can manage. They don't want their kids to mess up their career, they want to live out the American dream. Adoption is certainly not that. It's messy. It's difficult. It's expensive. So, therefore, I think theology has to be what holds you.

We already covered the convoluted thinking at the foundation of Merida's theological reasoning. However he makes one good point: I don't think everyone should adopt kids, but I think we all should be doing something for the fatherless. Unfortunately, he omits widows in his plea, despite being mentioned a gazillion times throughout the bible. However, there is good reason to take care of orphans (and of widows).

Right after this one decent expression, Merida enters dangerous grounds with his observations. No matter how we may think about religion, theology is not the best reason to adopt. In fact the only good reason to adopt is when there is really no other decent solution for a child and the family seeking the adoption is well prepared and capable of taking care of the needs of the child. Just taking in children no matter their circumstances and no matter the abilities of the family is astonishingly naive. Then again, Merida already confessed not to be an expert on orphan care.

BP: In the book, you recount a very powerful story of how your four new children had grown up in such poverty in the Ukraine that they were thrilled to get new clothes. Describe that experience and the biblical lesson you learned from it.

MERIDA: They were wearing the same clothes every day, and we were there for 40 days. Rarely, during that whole time, did they have a different outfit on. Obviously, what they were wearing they didn't own, and they weren't the most pleasant smelling outfits, either. When we were finally ready to go home, we went out to buy some clothes. In the orphanage, you had to leave all your clothes behind you were wearing -- underwear, socks, everything. You couldn't take anything with you. Basically, you're a child and you own nothing. You're leaving behind these old garments, and you're putting on this brand-new wardrobe. The kids, when dressing, were counting their socks; they were so happy with their socks. It was a great picture of the Gospel. As Paul says, Christians are putting off this old garment and putting on new clothes. It's a great picture of what God has done for us in rescuing us.

For a person living in the affluent suburb of Wake Forrest, N.C., it is probably unthinkable that children wear the same clothes almost every day, but such is the case for many children in this world, just like it was common for children in the Western world to do so some 60 years ago.

Our current standards of hygiene are a really modern invention and have very little to do with well-being. Of course kids are happy with new clothes, but such could also be accomplished by giving them clothes like Deuteronomy 10:18 demands, without requiring parenthood in return.

BP: How is someone who doesn't adopt -- who isn't bringing a child into their home -- to help with this issue?

MERIDA: Adoption isn't the only solution to the orphan care crisis. When you look around the world at 140 million-plus orphans, many of them are not adoptable. They're not available for adoption. And in many countries, you can't bring these children home. And so I think the church should be thinking creatively and intentionally about how to care for these kids in terms of maybe sponsorship, in terms of helping to educate them, in terms of taking the Gospel to them. A big one would be transitional assistance for children who are not adoptable -- how can we get them jobs, how can we get them into society and help them have a successful life? Churches could even underwrite an orphanage.


So far this was about the only reasonable paragraph in the entire article, if it were not for the use of the figure of 140 million orphans. In previous posts we have addressed the abuse of this figure in detail, so we won't rehash our point here.

BP: How would a church underwrite an orphanage?

MERIDA: During one year at Vacation Bible School, we found an orphanage at Indonesia that you could basically support for $12,000 a year. It didn't have a ton of children in it, but had a handful. We decided, why don't we put $6,000 in the budget, and why don't we raise the rest in our Vacation Bible School, with our kids, and try to teach our kids about orphan care? So the offering that week of VBS went basically to help sponsor these kids. The goal was to take trips over there and get to know these kids. Another way a church can help is orphan hosting, which basically is bringing kids to your area a couple of weeks out of the year, and doing a cultural exchange, which is what we did one year. You develop a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and use some of the people in your church to take the kids on activities, and get to know and love them. So instead of taking a trip to the Ukraine, we brought the Ukrainians to us, and amazingly, the majority of those kids found a family in the church and were adopted. That was by simple exposure. If a church could just show its members little Vladimir and little Sergei, a lot of their pre-conceived ideas go out the window and they capture their heart. Anything that a pastor can do to make orphan care real and not just theoretical, the better for his church.

In the abstract, the idea of orphan care through means other than adoption was reasonably well stated in the previous paragraph, but here Merida again shows he's no expert when it comes to orphan care.

It may be a good idea to financially support an orphanage, even though in reality the risk is that due to inter-country adoption more children will be relinquished than without the presence of an orphanage. Direct support can be good value for money. A church or a vacation bible school project can raise the amount of money to make a difference between proper care and second rate care, but why spend that money on trips to Indonesia to meet "these kids"? Why does every good deed need to have perks for the benefactor? Why is it so difficult when giving to the poor, to not let the left hand know what your right hand is doing?

BP: The book includes this statement to the pro-life community, "Would you be willing to adopt these kids if they were not aborted?" Where do you think the pro-life community has been lacking when it comes to adoption?

MERIDA: First of all, I would want to commend the pro-life community. I am pro-life as well, and I think the spirit of Orphanology is caring for the least of these and valuing human life. I would say keep speaking for life, keep fighting for the unborn. But with that, we need to carry a sense of responsibility to care for those kids who have been brought into the world and have been abandoned. Let's say Roe v. Wade is overturned and there are more orphans than ever before. Are we willing to pay the price to care for them, to do all that is necessary to provide for them?

Given the deplorable situation many American children in foster care live under, the answer is emphatically "No". It's far easier to care about the rights of an abstract entity as a fetus than for real-life children. Let's however not open that box for now and wrap up the discussion of this article.

It is clear, Merida has no real insight in orphan care and even admits so himself. Furthermore he has misinterpreted scripture to reach a conclusion that is not only unproductive (it's impossible to do something significant about the needs of orphans by means of adoption) but also dangerous.

Adoption, ever since its modern incarnation mid-nineteenth century, has revolved around the purchase of children, no matter how agencies, churches and politician make it out to be. Cloaking such economic practices and self-interest in convoluted theology doesn't help children, it only makes matters worse.

Merida probably means well, but unfortunately the road to hell has far too often been paved with good intentions.


Even if he were absolutely

Even if he were absolutely correct in his interpretation of the Bible as speaking of spiritual adoption, it does not follow that everything which happens in the spiritual world must also happen in the physical. Unless he personally came out of his mother's womb twice.

You know, guys like him don't exactly argue against the case that most people, especially the leadership, get into organized religion as a racket to fleece the masses. I don't like being that uncharitable... but I'm thinking about the impressions people get who aren't already immersed in this stuff.


Although I appreciate your point of view, extra-biblical argumentation doesn't mean anything to those who believe the Bible is the ultimate answer to everything. However, the Bible doesn't say anything about adoption in the modern day sense of the word, since our family structure in this day and age is vastly different from that in Biblical times.

That's why I think Merida and others in the Evangelical adoption movement are lazy interpreters of the Bible. They seem to have checked an English translation of the Bible, found the word adoption and with that claim God is for our modern day adoption practices.

I actually applaud the Evangelical movement for seeking a worthy goal to work for, and the plight of orphans is certainly something to care about. However I object to both their approach and the theological underpinning of their argument.

The Bible is very clear. Verse after verse commands us to take care of the fatherless, the widows and the foreigners. Biblical literalists will leave it at that, while those with a more interpretational leaning towards the Bible could make the case that this actually means, those with a vulnerable position in society.

The Evangelical adoption movement cherry picks the Biblical command as if it says we should take care of the fatherless, the widows OR the foreigners.

We see hundreds if not thousands of Evangelical groups project their zeal onto orphans, while there is very little drive to take care of widows and foreigners are sometimes even treated with hostility. No matter ones position towards illegal immigration, the Bible demands its followers to take care of them.

Most Christians seem to agree that their faith doesn't have to come easily. Being a good Christian may require sacrifices. so I find it lazy when Evangelicals cherry pick the Biblical command and carve out the warm and fuzzy part of it.

Taking care of children may not always be easy, but many people do seem to find it rewarding (take pleasure from it). Taking care of widows is already more demanding, while taking care of foreigners like illegal immigrants may require some real selflessness on the part of those who take their inspiration from the Bible.

It is precisely this laziness within the Evangelical movement I find so objectionable, only doing what feels pleasant, while ignoring the more challenging demands of faith. If one claims to be a Christian, then one should strive to be one in every aspect of life and not pick out the parts that accommodate ones personal needs and desires.

Serving the adopter's desires or a child's best-interest?

I think we see this form of laziness clearly exampled when we look at the way in which the definition of "orphan" itself has gone from being a child with NO living parents/extended family, to a child having a missing parent.

Laziness in adoption can also be seen when we take the time to note just how many "Christians" would much rather choose and use inter-country adoption (ICA) as a way to care-for (spelled: adopt) a manufactured "orphan" than participate in local foster-adoption programs, where the qualified and vetted care-taker may be asked to mantain on-going (long-term) contact with the adopted child's birth parent.

Sadly, I have heard and seen the same complaint explained many times:  many adopters choosing ICA, (and praising God's Hand during the difficult process), simply do not want the complications and hassles that go with a birth-mother's presence in the adopted child's life and adoptive familiy's home.  It becomes clear: many APs go foreign orphan-shopping because they (the APs) don't want to face the confusion that goes with the question, "who is my real mother/father?".  [In the NT, did Jesus EVER doubt God was his father?  And did Joseph ever force Jesus to accept God had no real role - or place - in Jesus' ever-day life? ]

Knowing how hard my own AP's tried to convince me the only parents I had (or mattered) were my adoptive parents, I think many Christians and non-Christians may be surprised just how often and adamantly an insecure AP will try to deny not only the existence, but the very importance a living parent has in an adopted child's life. 

When choosing ICA, especially from sending countries known for their questionable and corrupt practices (fraudlent documentation), pretending a parent no longer exists is easy to do when the so-called orphaned child is taken oceans away. 

Meanwhile, adoption for any child can be rather cryptically funny, in it's own sad pathetic way.  I can't think of many times when I didn't talk to both God and my deeply missed (and missing) mom, when I was alone, and away from my APs.  However, in order to show how much I honored my APs, such quiet talks/prayers dhad to be kept private and hidden. 

As far as I'm concerned, supporting and utilizing ICA as a way to "win" a child under the age of five, and then by-passing any and all contact with a living birth-mother ("the widow") puts the adopter's selfish desires first, and the child's best interest further down the list.  I can't see how such actions against child and mother would be  pleasing to and desired by God or encouraged through Christ.

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