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Is it orphan to son or slave to son?

by Dan Cruver Published May 8, 2012

“We were once orphans but God has adopted us. We are now his children.”

“God adopted us when we were orphans and without hope and home.”

“We are no longer orphans! God the Father has adopted us into His family!”

I would guess that most of us have said some variation of the above statements at one time or another. Each of them communicate something of the beauty and wonder of the Gospel. They declare heart-winning truth to us! When we were destitute and without hope and home, God came to us in the Person of His Son to bring us into His love. That is astoundingly good news for us!

But . . .

as wonderful and encouraging as those thoughts are, is the orphan/adoption metaphor really what Paul is using in his adoption texts (Eph. 1:4-5; Gal. 4:4-6; Rom. 8:14-15, 23; 9:4)? I believe it’s clear from the two texts below that Paul is using a slave/adoption metaphor, not an orphan/adoption one (notice the words in bold below).

Galatians 3:23-4:9

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. [24] So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. [25] But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, [26] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. [27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [29] And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

[4:1] I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, [2] but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. [3] In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. [4] But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, [5] to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. [6] And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” [7] So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

[8] Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. [9] But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

Romans 8:12-23

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. [13] For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. [14] For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. [15] For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” [16] The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, [17] and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

[18] For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [19] For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. [20] For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope [21] that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. [22] For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. [23] 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.

So, here’s my question: if Paul uses the slave/adoption metaphor, shouldn’t it be the metaphor we primarily use? I am convinced it should be. As I will show in future posts, the slave/adoption metaphor actually has more to say about how we approach the global orphan crisis than the orphan/adoption metaphor.

What do you think might be some of the strengths of the slave/adoption metaphor in addressing the global orphan crisis?

  • http://www.lovewellblog.com/ Kelly @ Love Well

    Interesting Dan. I would say all orphans are slaves in some way – slaves to circumstances, slaves to heartbreak. But when I think of the “opposite” of slavery, I think freedom, not adoption. So I get stuck applying it. (Although I love analogies. They work with my brain.)

  • Dan Cruver

    You are exactly right! Biblically speaking, adoption is how God frees us and all of creation from our bondage to corruption and decay (Romans 8:20-23). In other words, adoption is how God frees us from the curse of the fall.

    So, we could argue that the primary application of adoption (as Paul uses it) to how we approach orphan care is to pursue human flourishing wherever orphans are found. I plan on exploring this approach in following posts. Here’s a great explanation of what human flourishing looks like biblically: http://books.google.com/books?id=yTqN9YLy15QC&lpg=PP1&dq=%22breviary%20of%20sin%22&pg=PA34#v=onepage&q=%22What%20are%20some%20features%20of%20this%20flourishing?%22&f=false

  • Jessica Carpenter

    Dan, I loved when you shared this at Boot Camp. But, I’ve been a bit stuck. I do think that in that verse we must not replace slave w/ orphan. But, I also am wondering if in conversation we use the analogy of being an orphan w/o knowing our Abba Father when we are separated and do not know our Father. I think the slave wording is very specific in what you are saying to share that we are given freedom. But, can you also give me help on how John 14:18 {I will not leave you as orophans} would fit in? I think that is actually where it may be pulled from. You know this is super nerve wracking to dive into from my level of understanding of the serious theology. Yet, I do believe that missing the message of being freed as slaves is super essential to our adoption as Childen of God & can not be missed…

  • DanCruver

    Great question, Jessica! I think the point that Jesus is making in John 14:18 (“I will not leave you as orphans”) is not that his disciples will be adopted but that they would not be left alone. Adoption is not the point of reference in Jesus’ words there; rather, it is that he won’t leave them alone even though it will seem like he is leaving them alone when he’s crucified.

  • http://twitter.com/StephenPStory Stephen Story

    Dan, I think you are right on. Perhaps John 8:44 sheds some light on this. Before being adopted as sons of God we were not orphans, we were children of a different father (“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”) So adoption as sons of God is about transferring us from one father to another. Our old father was not much of a father at all, but only a slave master.

    I appreciate you taking us back to Scripture on this issue!

  • http://dadsfororphans.com/ Anordinarydad

    I’m glad you pointed this out. I’ve had a hard time using the orphan/adoption analogy for our spiritual condition, it just didn’t make sense. Looking forward to the next article!

  • Dennae Pierre

    Kelly, one of the best ways to apply this analogy in the orphan care world for me (although I am sure there are many) is reconciliation…so, helping families become what they need to be so that they can care for their children and not leave them as orphans (most “orphans” aren’t orphans, but have living parents, grandparents, or relatives). So this can be done through foster care, international work to help economic or health issues. working in low-income communities to provide hope & support so women can not feel so alone and maybe feel more empowered to parent unwanted pregnancies.

    …the thoughts on reconciliation are entirely inspired conversations with Dan on this, can’t wait to read more of his thoughts!

  • http://www.thankful4adoption.blogspot.com/ Dennae Pierre

    Kelly, one of the best ways to apply this analogy in the orphan care world for me (although I am sure there are many) is reconciliation…so, helping families become what they need to be so that they can care for their children and not leave them as orphans (most “orphans” aren’t orphans, but have living parents, grandparents, or relatives). So this can be done through foster care, international work to help economic or health issues, working in low-income communities to provide hope & support so women can not feel so alone and maybe feel more empowered to parent unwanted pregnancies, etc, etc.

    …the thoughts on reconciliation are entirely inspired by conversations with Dan on this, can’t wait to read more of his thoughts!


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