This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Gospel Implications of Adoption
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Russell Moore shares about his own family’s adoption journey—and how it impacted his view of the gospel. He reflects on the way God changed his heart with regard to adoption, helping him come to see it as important for all Christians—even those who never end up adopting a child themselves.
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Dr. Moore, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.
Oh, thanks for having me. Glad to be with you.
How did you and your wife first start considering adoption as a possible option for your family years ago?
Well, we did not know anybody, I think, that had actually adopted, so we didn’t really have anything to go off of. We had been through a long period of infertility and miscarriages. We had been through, at that point, three miscarriages and doctors had told us, “I just don’t think you’re ever going to be able to carry a child to term.”
So, I was very reluctant to adopt. My wife said, “Maybe the Lord’s directing us toward adoption.” And I wasn’t ready to do that because to me, it felt like giving up. And so what I said was, “I’m happy to adopt later. But I want us to have”—to use my words at the time—“our own children first.” Because at the time I was seeing biologically conceived and delivered children as being the real thing, and then those who are adopted as something extra on top of that. That was the way I was seeing it, so I was very reluctant to do that. And that was the case until the Lord just sort of changed my heart rather dramatically. I remember right where I was when I realized that I was sort of imagining what it would be like to bring our child home, that I realized something has changed in my life.
And then we started this process and we didn’t know what we were doing and again, we didn’t have anybody that we could talk to, which would have been really helpful because we could have had people who would have told us what not to panic about. We panicked many times in the process, saying, This whole thing is falling apart. And you know, people who had been through it before could have gotten us through it, but we didn’t have anybody like that.
You mentioned that you had moments of panic. Did any of those moments of fear or uncertainty about the future ever lead you in the process, once you had started, to kind of doubt the decision to pursue adoption?
Oh yes, many, many, many times. We had one of the agencies that did our home study shut down suddenly and say that they wouldn’t be able to get us our paperwork in time. We were right up against a big deadline, and we panicked. We ended up in Russia adopting our sons, and when we were there, several things happened that looked like they were derailing the whole process, including a health test done on one of my sons that came back with a bad result, and the orphanage personnel were suggesting would end the adoption process. And so we had to pray through that and work through that.
There were so many of those things that happened at any given time that we were in this very nervous, hyper-vigilant kind of state, just waiting for any bad thing to happen. To the point that a Russian person who was helping us with translation and so forth walked in near the end of the process and said, “We have a big problem.” Our hearts immediately sank, before we realized that he was using the word problem the way you would for say, a math problem. A project to do. “We’ve got some work we’ve got to get done.” He just meant filling out some paperwork. But we were so expecting bad news that we just were kind of tensed up.
I want to go back to you mentioning the process that God brought you through in changing how you were viewing adoption into something that was just maybe a last resort into something that would actually be valuable to pursue in its own right. And you write in your book that, “Adoption is not just about couples who want children, or who want more children.” What do you mean by that?
What I was not seeing through the whole process was that my attitude toward adoption was revealing some assumptions that had everything to do with how I was viewing the gospel. So, I, of course, was very familiar with Romans 8, for instance, and the spirit of adoption. As a matter of fact it wasn’t until several years later, I was going back through some things and came across the sermon that I had given at church the night I was licensed to ministry, which, in my tradition is sort of the first step in ordination—and it was on Romans 8:12–23, on the doctrine of adoption. And I just kind of laughed out loud when I saw that because I had completely forgotten it. I was really familiar with all of that, but what I wasn’t seeing was that I still had this sense of the flesh as being real and adoption as being good, but not quite real. Which is, of course, exactly the issue that is going on in the early church with the Jew-Gentile division and with the questions over circumcision and everything else. But I just wasn’t able to apply that very well to myself. When we were in the adoption process and we were encountering people who were asking things like, “Well, are these two boys brothers?” or “Have you ever seen their real parents?” and things like that, that I would just kind of think to myself, You just don’t get what’s going on here. Yes, they’re brothers. Yes, we’re their parents now.
I realized I really couldn’t be angry at the people who were asking these questions. First of all, their intentions were not bad at all. But secondly, the mindset that I was upset about was the very same mindset that I had had just a very short time before that. And that was when I started to realize Oh, wait a minute. The way that I was thinking actually was applying to a lot of other things in my life, such as how I saw the gospel and how I saw the church and how the church is family and so forth.
And what were some of the other types of questions that you did receive—and maybe even continued to receive—when someone first learns that your two sons are adopted?
Early on the biggest one was the “Are they brothers?” question. And the reason that that affected me so deeply is that because there seemed to be a subtext under that question that said, Well, if they’re biologically brothers, then at least they have each other. It was almost like reassuring to people if that had been the case.
In my mind, what that continued to do was to make them still orphans in one sense, just orphans who are being better taken care of. And my response to that is no, they actually have a real family situation here with each other, with us, with our larger family, even apart from that question of whether or not they might share some DNA. That was one that happened a lot.
There are still sometimes questions that will come up where people will say, “Now which ones are the adopted children, and which ones are the, you know, the regular ones?” And that’s a distinction in my mind that is important in terms of their stories, in terms of how they came into the family. But it’s not an ongoing present differentiation between the adopted children and the real children or whatever you want to call them. It just explains the back story for them.
We later had three more sons the more typical way. My fourth son, Jonah, just celebrated his twelfth birthday and he was born almost a month early. You know, that’s part of his story. I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not embarrassed about that. I don’t mind if anybody knows, but I’m never going to say, “This is our premature son Jonah and then here are our regular children, the others.” No. He’s not my premature son. He’s my son. He was premature, but that doesn’t define who he is.
And I think that’s what’s going on in Romans 8 and elsewhere where that adoption metaphor is being used. “Adopted” doesn’t refer to some different sort of category for people within the household of God. It tells you how you came into the household of God, but once you’re there you are genuinely children of God—Romans 8—and you are genuinely joint heirs with Christ and with the people of God. So I think sometimes when people read Romans 8, they’re reading it understanding rightly that a lot of what’s happening in Romans has to do with Jew-Gentile issues within the early church. Sometimes they just assume, Well, the adopted children of God are the Gentiles and the Jewish Christians are the natural-born children of God. That’s not what Paul says. Paul does talk about the adoption bringing the nations into the family of God, but he says the same thing about the Jewish Christians. Theirs is adoption because, of course, Abraham was not a natural born child. Abraham was a Gentile who was adopted into the family of God from the very beginning. So we’re all coming to God through adoption. And that doesn’t differentiate where we stand with him.
And so sometimes you’ll even see that within the church. There will be people who will be glad to be Christians, they’ll be glad to be part of the church, but they will think, Because I came to faith later in life . . . or Because I came to faith out of a lot of patterns of sin . . . or Because I just don’t know the church lingo or the Bible the way the people around me do, then that means that I’m still going to heaven, but I’m a different sort of child of God. No. That’s not at all what the New Testament teaches.
A lot of people are obviously pro-adoption. But there are some who maybe have reservations about certain types of adoption. And I’m curious how you would see the gospel coming to bear and informing a Christian perspective on these things. So for example, international adoption. I think some people can be fairly critical of the process and maybe even argue that it perpetuates notions of Western superiority or paternalism. Or perhaps there’s transracial adoption where some would argue that it removes minority children from their own cultures and their own communities. How should Christians think about these difficult, complicated issues as they consider adoption for themselves?
Well, one of the things that’s amazing to me is that sometimes there are people who, in their zeal to oppose international adoption, would rather a situation where children in Russia, for instance, are kept in institutions and orphanages until they age out into a life typically of substance abuse or suicide and cultural marginalization in their own communities because they’re in a place, as in many places in the world, where there simply is not a strong adoption culture, if there is an adoption culture at all. And the same thing would be true in terms of people who would rather see families being ethnically the same than they would see children being brought out of a situation in which they have no father or mother.
Are there some forms of adoption that have serious problems with them? Yes. That’s one of the reasons why we have a great deal of attention given to international agreements and everything else, to making sure that you’re dealing with situations where there’s no trafficking, there’s no coercion, there’s nothing along those lines. But that doesn’t mean that the answer to that is to say that we shouldn’t have adoption.
What is the ideal? The ideal is for every child to grow up being welcomed into his or her intact, biological family. And so, we can work to make sure that that’s the case, to keep families together, or to work in temporary situations to get to where that can happen. But where that can’t happen, then our priority ought to be to see to it that children have a mother and a father. It’s kind of similar to people who would say, Well, I don’t really want to give money toward starving children because really what should be happening are parents who are Genesis 3 “bringing bread from the ground through the labor of their hands to provide for their children.” Well, yes. Ideally, we would want every child to be in a situation where that child has parents who are able to provide for that child. But, millions of children around the world aren’t. So the answer is not to let them starve. The answer is to feed people who need food in order to live and then, as we’re doing that, ask, Why is this happening?
As you think about couples who are in the process of adoption or who are considering adoption—seriously considering it—obviously as you attest to in your book there can be so many fears and unknowns that can be very stressful and hard to work through and I think one of the dominant ones could be related to family—extended family—maybe not accepting the adoption whether it’s because of just the fact that it’s not a biological child or because of racial issues or concerns or because of medical history or conditions. There are so many factors that can cause prospective couples to worry about how their families might react. What encouragement or advice would you offer a couple who’s maybe right now dealing with that kind of a concern?
God is not calling all Christians or all people to adopt. So I spend as much of my time talking people out of adoption as I do calling on them to consider it, because all Christians are called (James 1:27) to care for widows and orphans in their distress. But we’re not all called to care for them in the exact same way. And so if you are moving toward adoption or foster care or respite care or any number of options that are here, what I would say is Count the cost of this, which means Go into this with eyes open. Now, you’re not going to know what all the particular challenges and issues are going to be that you’re going to have. We certainly didn’t. But you need to have a realistic view of the fact that in every situation you’re dealing with some sort of trauma. And so there are going to be difficulties that come along with that. And you need to—both of you—be ready to say, “We’re ready to deal with this and we know this is going to be a from-now-until-we-die sort of situation.” I was thinking early on, Well, the children are infants, so we adopt them and there’s going to be some point in the process when they’re going to kind of catch up and everything is going to then be exactly the same as if they had been biologically birthed, and we won’t even have to think about any particular challenges related to adoption from that point on. And there came a point where I realized that I was actually saying more than I knew when I titled my book Adopted for Life because this is for life. This doesn’t end at eighteen, this is for life.
So I would say that, first of all. We had some extended family members who didn’t say anything negative, but just who were very unenthusiastic about the whole process in a way that was really hurtful. Sometimes you’re going to have extended family who are much worse than that. It may reveal some racism. It may reveal any number of things going on in the life of that family. What I would say is two things. One of them is be patient and show charity in every way that you can, recognizing and knowing sometimes we’ve been through a whole process of sort of coming to see what God is doing what God’s calling us to and what this looks like, and we’ve been through a whole long process and we expect the people around us to immediately go through all of that the minute that we tell them what’s going on. And that’s not fair. So show some charity there.
But, at the end of the day, you’re going to have some people who have said, Well, because your child is of a different ethnicity than the rest of the family, we’re not going to be able to accept that child. Or, Because the child has a disability, we’re not going to accept that child. Well, at that point what you have to say is, We’re a family. And this child has come into our family. This child is part of our family. We want you to be a part of this child’s life. But, if you’re not able to accept our child, then you’re not able to accept us either. We go together. You can’t separate us out from one another.
Now, what I have seen, is that in almost every case those sort of reluctant extended family members have had a dramatic change of heart when they’ve actually encountered this child. Because the child is no longer some abstract decision that you’re making that they may or not approve of. The child then becomes a person that they’re encountering. And so I’ve seen many of those situations where you have a couple just really upset about some horrible things being said to them that later on those grandparents or aunts or uncles or whoever it is, are the most enthusiastic people loving that child and the life of that child in a way that the child himself, or herself, would never know that there was any reluctance there. Receive that as one of God’s blessings and don’t constantly relitigate it.
I want to take a step back from the context of the individual couple or family from the church and even just look more broadly at evangelicals today. Evangelicals are often quite vocal about our opposition to abortion and we argue strongly that the lives of children in the womb matter and are valuable. And you yourself have been a very vocal figure on this front. How do you see adoption fitting into our conversation about abortion as Christians?
Well, I think one of the things that tends to happen is that sometimes people who are uncomfortable with our views on abortion will say, Well, you Christians, you care all about children when they’re unborn, but you don’t care anything about them when they’re born. As one person put it years ago, Pro-life people think that life begins at conception and ends at birth. And that’s really an unfair caricature because of what is actually happening at the grassroots level in caring for children in all sorts of situations by Christians, deeply convictional Christians.
But it’s also true that some of these same people who say, Well, you don’t care anything about children after they’re born, will then turn around and say, Hey are you all adopting all of these children? You’re just trying to evangelize them into being Christians. That’s somehow subversive. Well, you can choose one of those critiques, but you really can’t choose both of them.
Once you have an understanding—however you get to that understanding—that human value is not predicated upon usefulness or power, but that human value is bound up in the image of God and that the most vulnerable among us are deeply loved by God and are, in Christ, future rulers of the universe, joint heirs with Christ, then that changes the way that you see people. That changes the way that you see unborn people. Just because someone is not viable to live on his or her own outside of the womb doesn’t mean that that person is just an extension of somebody else. None of us are viable. We all are dependent upon food and water and any number of other things in order to survive.
That means that you then see people who everyone else will want to keep invisible: the poor, refugees, immigrant communities, women who have been trafficked, the elderly, those who have cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities. You start to see these people not as objects of charity, but you see them as people we actually need. Although we do love them, we don’t just love them, we need them. And they actually are a blessing to our lives.
Sometime people will encounter this first when they’re working with the disabled or with the poor or with the elderly, and then they learn to appreciate that as it applies to the unborn as well.
And sometimes it’s the reverse—people start by saying, What’s happening to the unborn and why is it there’s sort of a chill in the air when I speak about them? Well, it’s because there are people who think the unborn are inconvenient. Who are the people in my life that I consider to be inconvenient? And how can I think that way?
Find in your congregation the people that, if you bring these people groups up, they get tense. That’s the very group of people that need this emphasized the most. One time I had a pastor who came up to me and said, “You know, I’m in a congregation where I can get up and talk about abortion all day long because my people are politically pro-life, and so they’ll amen that, but if I talk about ministering to a refugee community in our town, they tense up.” That’s a congregation that has been politically formed but needs to be better formed in terms of seeing human beings as human beings.
A few minutes later another pastor came up and said, “I pastor a church plant in a very urban, secular city and the people in my congregation are really happy when I talk about caring for the poor, when I talk about racial justice, when I talk about sex trafficking. But if I talk about the unborn, they tense up, they don’t want to talk about that because they think that’s somehow right-wing to talk of that.”
In both of those cases, you have exactly in front of you what ought to be part of your mission. Which is to say, who are the people we don’t want to see? Who’s lying here on the road next to us, beaten up? Let’s not pass by that person. Let’s instead extend dignity and mercy to that person, no matter what that person’s value is in terms of the culture around us.
Dr. Moore, thank you so much for taking time to not only share a little bit about your own story, your own journey to adoption, but also just wisdom that you’ve gleaned over the years working with other people, other churches, and pastors and families as they walk this road and we really appreciate you taking the time today.
Oh, good to be with you. Thanks for having me.