Sovereignly Adopted

I've slowly been unpacking some issues with respect to adoptions ethics, and the trends I'm observing within the evangelical orphan care movement. Today, I'm unpacking the an argument I've heard a great deal as of late, namely, that we need not worry about the ethics of completed adoptions because they fall under the banner of God's sovereignty. You can read an excerpt below, but the full piece is at A Deeper Church.


A shy hand raised in the corner of the room. “I’ve adopted internationally,” she said, “and I’ve wrestled with whether it was all above board. The paperwork for my children has gone missing, the orphanage has shut down, and my adoption agency has been closed.” She broke, then paused, then regrouped. I prepared myself to console her, to offer a gentle word, and that’s when she dropped the theological nuclear bomb.

“But here’s what I’d like to know from you: who are we to question the ethics of my childrens’ adoption? Who are we to question the sovereignty of God?”


The sovereignty of God–ah, that grand Ace of Spades. In full disclosure, I’ve spent the majority of my Christian life in reformed circles, and if I’m painfully honest, I often still interpret scripture through this lens. Yes, I believe that we are God’s handiwork, that we’ve been created in Christ to do works prepared for us long ago. Yes, I believe that God, in his sovereignty, works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Here’s something I’ve always thought and never said, though–invoking God’s sovereignty to avoid tough questions is a misapplication of the doctrine.

Continue reading at A Deeper Church.

Adoption Ethics -- On Worldview

I suppose there are numerous ways to approach the discussion of adoption ethics. We could start by discussing discrete issues on a case-by-case basis--trafficking, laundering, falsification of paperwork, bribery, medical bill inflation (or even pure-D-ole non-involvement, which raises a different ethical issue altogether). Though I suppose those discussions might be enlightening (and though we might have a few of those discussions here in the future), I'm not sure it's the most dignified place to start. We could also begin with taking a strictly legal approach, begin with a policy discussion. "We are to consider only the 'best interest of the child,'" I could say, treating the phrase as the paramount and  sacrosanct consideration. Unfortunately, the interpretation of the international legal standard--the best interest of the child--is not quite as clear as one would hope. It is a subjective standard, to be sure.

Instead, let's build from a different foundation. Let's begin our discussion by considering worldview.


In 2010, Zambian pastor Conrad Mbewe visited my fair city to discuss, among other things, the state of the Zambian church. I first met him at a local coffee shop, he waiting for me in a back booth. A robust man, Mbewe rose and extended a greeting of truly biblical proportions. He was confident and assertive.

After ordering our drinks--black coffee for me and a latte for him--we returned to the back booth, and I bombarded him with questions about the plight of the African orphan.

"You seem to start with many Western assumptions when discussing the African orphan," he said, opening the lid to his latte and squeezing copious amounts of honey into his drink. He let the sting of his words linger, and after a moment, began chuckling as he looked at me with kind eyes.

"To understand the plight of the orphan in sub-Saharan Africa," he said, "you must first understand the African worldview and the extended-family system."

He began to unpack the extended-family and it's nuances. First, Mbewe explained that he had many mothers (his biological mother and each of her sisters) and many fathers (his biological father and each of his brothers). What's more, he said that the wives of his father's brothers are also his mothers, and the husbands of his mother's sisters are also his fathers.

Confused yet? It get's better.

Although the children of his father's brothers or mother's sisters may be considered his brothers and sisters, the children of his father's sisters are not. They are his cousins.  Why? Because the sisters of his father are not his mothers, but rather, his aunts.

"Therefore," he concluded, "if my parents have both died, and my father had three brothers and my mother had three sisters, and all of them are married, I have 6 mothers and fathers and countless brothers and sisters."

Clear as mud?

Mbewe laughed as I considered the flowcharts I had scratched onto my yellow legal pad.


Taking a more serious tone, he said, "until you begin to understand the African worldview, you will never truly appreciate the African concept of orphan care." He expounded, indicating that  the extended-family network operated much like our welfare system. There is a sense of entitlement there, an expectation that, in hard times, the family or clan will care for the child. And if the situation of the original birth family should improve, the child may return to his birth family.

"And when a westerner comes into the adoption process in sub-Saharan Africa," he said, "they are inserting themselves into the extended-family network. They are voluntarily joining a system already designed to care for the child."

He teased out the nuance, reminded me that the Western worldview is quite different. "Here," he said, "you do not see yourself as becoming part of our extended-family network. Here, you operate from the assumption that the parental rights of the African parents terminate upon adoption of the child. The child will never return to live as part of its original family. That concept is foreign to the sub-Saharan mindset."

I asked a simple question. If, then, we are approaching the adoption process with two separate expectations--expectations which are shaped by our worldview--how can the West best help in the African orphan crisis? His solution? "Help empower and support the extended-family network."


Worldview raises questions regarding expectation, and by way of example, I use a common scenario whereby an African mother relinquishes her child for adoption.

Consider it. Does the assumption of the extended-family shape a relinquishing mother's understanding of our place as adoptive parents? Does she view us as part of the extended family, another unit of support? Does she understand that upon relinquishment, all of her parental rights and all ties to the extended family are permanently severed? Can we expect her to?

As for us, do we stop to consider how our worldview rubs raw against that of a relinquishing mother? Our worldview is distinctly legal. We operate from the understanding that, upon adoption, it was as if the child's extended family never existed. Sure, it's a legal fiction, but it's so ingrained in our worldview that it shapes every decision along the way.

Understand, this is a only a thirty-thousand foot view of the role worldview plays in international adoption, but it's fundamental to understanding deeper issues of adoption ethics. Others have addressed this topic more specifically, including Mbewe (please make sure to read his article).

Also, understand that I do not think that this means we disengage from the adoption process. What do we do when a community is ravaged by the AIDS epidemic and the extended-family unit is destroyed? What about special needs children and double-orphans who will never have proper care or connection to an able extended family?

But, if we at least take the time to consider the interplay of opposing worldviews, perhaps it will shape the way we engage in orphan care solutions. Consider, for example, Mbewe's words:

"The problem with coming to Africa and adopting one 'orphan' from the extended family system is that your help is limited to one person only and not the rest of his family. ...[K]nowing the extended family system suggests A DIFFERENT EMPHASIS in caring for African orphans. My Western friends should consider empowering homes where younger or older 'fathers' and younger and older 'mothers' are looking after the children of their deceased siblings as a viable way to care for orphans." ~Conrad Mbewe.

Adoption Ethics -- A Call to Prayer (and an Invitation)


I've been hesitant to continue the discussion of adoption ethics. The fact is, I've had several exchanges (both online and off) with good folks since my first posting on the topic, and they seem to divide into two camps.

Friends have approached me, said that they disagree with any implication that corruption is prevalent in the adoption system. Child-trafficking, falsified papers, orphan brokers--these represent only the smallest percentages of adoptions, they've said, and asked, "at the end of the day, isn't the child better off anyway?"

Others have called me, indicated that they believe the problem of child-trafficking within the international adoption system is of paramount concern (and perhaps more prevalent than most scholars believe). They've said that international adoption should be shut down and fully investigated, regardless of the country.

And though they might not admit it in public, both camps are suspicious of the other.

You don't believe me? Ask yourself--do you really trust those who hold the opposing view? Do you think they're judging you by implication?

The truth is, there's so much nuance in the issue of international adoption that it can be hard to find any common ground.


In September, I'll make the nine hour drive into the heart of Texas. There, I'll join a grand group of miscreants for a conference known simply as "The Idea Camp." This year's theme is "human care," and will focus on topics from international orphan care, to guarding against activist burnout. It's my must-attend event, a conference jam-packed with people who aren't afraid to ask difficult questions, even when the answers might not be apparent.

There, I'll be discussing the western legal framework of international adoption and how that framework sometimes rubs raw against an indigenous world view. Consider the following: western Family X adopts from sub-Saharan Family Y. Family X operates under the legal understanding that the rights of the birth family terminate upon adoption. Family Y operates under the assumption that the child will receive a good education, and may even return to the extended family unit. (For more on the extended family in African culture, read this article by Conrad Mbewe.) Both the adopting family and the relinquishing family operate under a particular set of assumptions.

I'll tackle these issues at The Idea Camp among a very diverse group of attendees. Practitioners with years of experience in international adoption will be in attendance. Adoptive parents who are smack in the middle of African adoptions will be there. There will be anti-trafficking activists. Folks will stand and say "the Gospel is the only hope for any of this," and others will respond, saying "developing structures is the only way to alleviate the conditions that lead to the orphan crisis."

See how this discussion could get dicey?


"Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers." ~2 Timothy 2:14

These words to Timothy might not have been spoken within the adoption ethics debate, but they ring true, nonetheless. Certainly, we come to the table with different views, but quarreling over the best practices and solutions does nothing to alleviate the plight of the orphan.

The quarrels are nothing more than a distraction.

How then do we avoid the quarrels? How do those with different views come together and reach consensus on any hot button topic of the day? How do we create hospitable environments for productive conversation? I think this sort of environment can only be cultivated through prayer and careful consideration of thoughts, ideas, and arguments.

As we move forward, let's practice. Today, I'm inviting you to join me in active, intentional prayer and careful consideration as we continue the adoption ethics discussion. Consider the position of those with whom you may disagree. Instead of reacting, pray for them. Not the praying kind? Take a moment and reflect, ask yourself whether there is any merit in their point of view. But however you approach it, do it intentionally, without immediate reaction.


Sure, we'll continue to talk about the issue of adoption ethics in this space. But (and I realize this is a selfish request), I'd love for you to join me at The Idea Camp in September. Come participate in discussions with some of my favorite folks, practitioners who know their stuff and aren't afraid to ask the hard questions. You'll find deconstructionists, builders, pragmatists, and activists. You'll find a community of folks who can vehemently disagree one moment, and prayerfully encourage each other the next.

Will you consider attending?

Idea Camp Human Care - Austin Intro from The Idea Camp on Vimeo.

*Join me later this week as I begin to unpack the interplay of the western adoption framework and an indigenous worldview. 

Adoption Ethics -- Modeling Hospitable Conversation

This week I shared the lens through which Amber and I view orphan-care. I shared our story, declared our biases. I realize that our thoughts can be polarizing (I've developed thick skin over this fact, see). When we are discussing adoption ethics, there is a tendency to divide along two sides of a hard line–-those who are pro-adoption and those who take a more pro-development, rehabilitative approach. And the fact is, even though some would classify themselves in both camps, there is a tendency to allow the line to act like a high wall, a barrier to productive conversation. The result? We find ourselves at odds with one another and before long the conversation turns base, accusational in nature (sometimes unwittingly).

This week Mike Rusch sent me a note--"the conversation of adoption ethics is going to need a referee." He's felt the sting of bright-line arguments from each camp. His story is not mine to tell, but he has dogs in both sides of the fight. In addition to the note, Mike forwarded a keynote address by Jedd Medifind at Christian Alliance for Orphans. In the address, Medefind touched on the burgeoning conversation relating to adoption ethics, and spoke about how to bridge the gaps in the conversation. Speaking to a decidedly Christian audience, Medifind posited that there should be certain defining characteristics of any discussion of orphan care. He stated (and this is my paraphrase) that all conversations should be couched in Christian love and understanding, said that we should give grace to one another as we attempt to work out the myriad of issues confronting orphan care. He next said that the discussion should be covered in hospitality, that it should be a conversation that gathers all to the table and listens with (see above) love and respect. He realized, of course, that there will be differing opinions, and at times things might get tense. But he concluded that if we move forward with this kind of dialogue, we're more prone to find some appropriate common ground.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to share some things I've learned through careful and studied investigation. Some of the information will be hard to swallow (although not surprising), and some of it will further draw out why Amber and I have chosen a different path than many. But hear me say this: there is room this table for your insights, your constructive criticism, and your story. We may not agree on everything (potentially a whole host of things), but there is room at the table.

It may be difficult to have these conversations on the internet. Often we forget that there are people on the other side of the screen. But I'd like to try and model constructive dialogue here in the coming days. Today, I'd like to practice hospitality.

(And this may go over like a lead balloon, but here goes...)

Tell us: What brought you to the orphan care conversation? How have you engaged it? Have you adopted? Have you been intimately involved in rehabilitative development work? Do you adopt a UNICEF approach to adoption? Do you know about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child? Do you care? Do you see it as helpful? Harmful?

I'd like to give you an opportunity here in this space to practice the art of hospitable discussion. Can you air grievances? Sure. But let's try to model love and respect.

So, if you're willing to engage by answering any of the above questions (or sharing part of your story), use the comment box below.

Adoption Ethics - An Introduction

In 2010, Amber and I were somewhere around three reams of paper into an international adoption. We had chosen the country of origin, completed the application with our prospective adoption agency, and begun the process compiling our dossier--a group of legal documents required by our would-be child's country of origin. We had begun the process of figuring exactly how we would manage the over $20,000.00 in expenses that we would incur in the process. We had chosen the name of our little girl, purchased a few pink dresses and the like, and re-familiarized ourselves with the soundtracks of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. But in the process of preparing for the coming adoption, I ran across this video. (Warning: Examples of Adoption Fraud.)

I am well aware that investigative journalism can be biased, that it sometimes sensationalizes for the sake of making a story more compelling. But after I watched the "Fly Away Home," a few questions continued to nag.

I devoured journal articles on the topics of international adoption. Questions still nagged.

I reviewed reports of previously closed countries such as Guatemala and Cambodia. Questions still nagged.

And Chief among the nagging question was this: how can I be sure that my little girl wasn't being trafficked from a family unit that could provide for her needs within the social context of her birth?

And here's where it gets sort of mucky. Amber and I discussed the concerns, and I called our prospective adoption agency. I asked the question--how do I know that my daughter was not trafficked into the adoption care system?--and the answer I received lacked nuance, was impractical, and dismissive. The answer? "It's the duty of the local government to make sure that children aren't trafficked into the system," we were told.

We wrestled with the response. When you are dealing with a country where known corruption exists within the orphan care system, how can you turn a blind eye to potential abuses in the name of trust and duty shifting?

We raised our concerns with others in our community. "Don't worry," some said, "you are doing God's work. Your child will have a better life than they ever will in their home country."

"Better by what standards?" I asked.

In the end, Amber and I were unsatisfied with the answers we received from the agency and those in the adoption community. And after a good bit of soul-searching, a long lot of prayer, and many nights of lost sleep (not to mention a few lost pennies), we withdrew from the adoption process.

We still count it as a miscarriage of sorts.


Our story is essential in understanding my view of international adoption. I'm an advocate of ethical adoption, and I am no stranger to the spiritual metaphors that can be drawn. I am also a lawyer by trade, a policy geek, and a strong believer in the idea that discrete people groups need less paternalistic oversight that we Westerners might think. These are my biases. I am unashamed of them. I wear them in the open so that those who would criticize my views do not feel as if they are trying to draw a bead on a moving target. This, as my friend Mike Rusch might say, is the first step to authentic conversation.

I have been loathe to discuss this topic much publicly. As a preliminary matter, we have many children adopted from international contexts in our local community, and to dispel any rumors, I love these kids and their parents. I do not cast sideways glances, or speculate as to the legitimacy of the adoption. They are members of my community, and I love my community. I do not discuss adoption ethics with them unless asked.

That being said, I've watched as an evangelical movement has fomented a theology of adoption based in part upon Biblical metaphor and extrapolation. It seems, at times, as if this theology is reactionary theology du jour--there is a crisis, after all, and there are some children that need adopting, right? No doubt. But what if the theology does harm to native peoples, what if it strips others of common dignity? What if it removes an opportunity from the local body of believers? What if that theology places us in the position of savior? What if it undermines the basic dignity of other tongues, tribes, and nations?  Does theology that values the theologian over the dignities of others make good sense? I'd like to offer my reservations on that last one.

And so you know, I am open to criticism and take it in stride so long as it does not contain profane language. I'll take it in the comments. I'll take it in emails. I'll even take it on the phone if you happen to know how to ring me.

Finally, I realize that this series will not be for everyone. To that end, I'll likely post only once a week on the topic. So, if you are interested, pop in from time to time. I'll keep this all under the category "Adoption."


To get us started, let's have a discussion. Does your church, peer group, or community promote international adoption? What are the rationales given? Do they discuss alternative in-country community development plans so that children can stay with their families or extended families?