Recently I received an email from a reader with a good question. Since there are so many orphans in our world, he asked, and since Christians believe that caring for these orphans in their distress is a gospel issue–should Christian couples consciously stop conceiving children and focus instead on orphan care?
It’s a good question, one that takes seriously the gospel’s demands. But I believe the biblical answer here is straightforward. No, Christian families should not intentionally limit their conception of children for the sake of orphan care.
The people of God, it seems to me, are perpetually pulled toward replacing a “both/and” ethic with an “either/or.” Don’t get me wrong. The Scripture is often “either/or.” It is either God or Baal, either Jesus or Mammon, either Spirit or carnality. A “both/and” ethic in any of these places leads to disaster. But think about how often a “both/and” ethic is wrecked by a false “either/or.” The Scripture teaches both grace and obedience, both mystery and clarity, both Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ deity, both local discipleship and global missions. To choose one in opposition to the other leads to a false choice that winds up tearing down the whole conversation.
I am glad that this reader sees the Christian imperative to care for orphans and widows. I’m glad he sees it through the grid of the gospel of Christ. I’ve spent years of my life calling for such a vision. But prohibiting our bodies from conceiving children doesn’t actually accomplish what we may assume it does.
Family isn’t simply an incidental matter of biology. Family is built on an already existing pattern, the pattern of the gospel. That’s why our adoption in Christ means we ought to care about the adoption of children. The gospel leads us to the mission, and the mission leads us to back to the gospel. That pattern is missional, yes, but the pattern is also incarnational. Both matter.
Adoption, in Scripture, doesn’t form a different type of family. This isn’t an altogether unique sort of relationship. Instead, in the gospel, we are adopted “as sons” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5). This language of “sons” is really important because God has already trained humanity to recognize the concept of fathers and sons, parents and children, and he has done so through procreation.
At the very beginning of the biblical story, God commands humanity to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Then God, almost immediately, takes us to the “begats” of the various genealogies. God’s favor and God’s mercy are seen in the birth of children, which the Scripture everywhere regards as blessing.
Why? Well, this is because procreation (like marriage) is a picture of the gospel. God’s love for us took on flesh, in the person of our Lord Jesus (Jn. 1:14), an Incarnation that causes us to be “begotten” as the children of God (Jn. 1:12; 3:6-7; 1 Jn. 5:1). The love between Jesus and his church is fruitful, and it multiplies. He stands before his Father, with his people, and proclaims, “Here I am and the children God has given to me” (Heb. 2:13).
Adoption only makes sense in light of procreation. A child who is adopted is adopted into an already existing concept, that of parents and children. Scripture uses both archetypes, that of adoption and that of procreation.
If we idolize procreation, as though family were merely about bloodlines, we repudiate the gospel that has saved us. But if we turn away from procreation altogether, adoption is no longer adoption “as sons.” The metaphor then attaches merely to a living arrangement, not to the natural family. Adoption is more, cosmically more, than a living arrangement. The adoption of children makes sense in light of the begetting of children.
Before we can care for orphans, we must ask why there are orphans in the world. The answer includes a variety of reasons, from divorce to poverty to warfare to natural disasters and the list goes on and on. The best thing that can happen for orphans is for children to be welcomed and wanted, to be received as Jesus always receives little children.
Before we can love children as orphans, we must love children as children.
The congregation that disciples its own members and cares for those immediately around, but refuses to join with Jesus in reaching the ends of the earth is not a faithful church. Likewise, the congregation that sends missionaries all over but refuses to love its own local neighbors is unfaithful. In either case, an “either/or” leads to error. It should be “both/and.”
I do not believe Christian families should permanently incapacitate their procreative capacity. Even apart from Christian disagreements about contraception or family size, we can all agree that the birth of children is pictured by God as blessing not burden (Ps. 127:3). Further, we ought not see the potential future love for birthed children as some scarce commodity, that then must be taken away from the children we adopt or foster. Love isn’t a commodity, and it isn’t parceled out. Love isn’t limited, and it isn’t a barrier to ministry.
Love “bears all things…endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Have babies, and love your babies. Minister to orphans, and pray for God’s wisdom in how best you might care for the orphans and widows in your neighborhood and around the world.
Yes, marriage and family do inhibit the freedom one has to do certain things in ministry. The Apostle Paul celebrates those who give up family for the sake of ministry, but this, in the apostolic example, entails a giving up of marriage itself (1 Cor. 7:1). Once there is marriage, one cannot simply cut apart the conjugal realities for the sake of ministry.
It might be that God will not give you children biologically, and instead will spur you all the quicker toward adoption or foster care. It could be that God will show you how to welcome children both by adoption and by the more typical way. And it could be that your love for the children you welcome by birth might be the signal to your church and your neighbors to love children, and thus welcome children who have been orphaned.
It’s “both/and,” not “either/or.” Adopting for life doesn’t demand accepting the knife.