Grace, Race, and Families

Justin Taylor
Wednesday, January 2nd 2008
Jan/Feb 2008

Since my wife and I have adopted two children, we have received a number of puzzled looks and interesting comments, especially from those of other cultures. We once gave a Somali woman a ride to the store, and when she found out our little infant girl was adopted, her only question was, “How much you pay for that baby?!” When talking with our neighbors from India about adoption, the husband, with a glance down at our young kids, whispered to us, “Don’t ever tell them they’re adopted. It’s better that way.” (I never did ask if he thinks someone might someday slip and “break the news” to our son, who is full African American!) Another time we were in the checkout line at WalMart, and it was quickly evident that our black-and-white family created a serious category confusion for our Muslim clerk. Her head swiveled back and forth between me and my son as if she were watching a tennis match at Wimbledon!

It dawned on me that despite the fact that America is certainly not a “Christian nation” (as that term is often used), its general Judeo-Christian influence may have contributed to the relatively widespread acceptance of adoption among Westerners. This hypothesis led me to look into how a religion like Islam views adoption.

The Legal Fiction of Adoption in Islam

Many Christians know that the fatherhood of God is a foreign concept in Islam, and therefore Muslims do not have a doctrine of spiritual adoption. However, many do not know that Mohammad himself had personal involvement-and controversy-in a familial adoption.

In A.D. 626 Mohammad paid a visit to his son Zayd, a former slave whom he had adopted a number of years earlier. It turns out that Zayd wasn’t home-but his beautiful wife, Zynab, was. Mohammad caught a glance of his barely dressed daughter-in-law through a curtain and quickly fell in love with her. After Zayd divorced Zynab, Mohammad sought her hand in marriage. However, it was considered incestuous to marry a woman who had been married to his son, and Mohammad indeed regarded Zayd as a true son. Mohammad had declared during the adoption, “Zayd is my son; I will be his heir and he shall be mine.” But soon after Mohammad fell in love with Zynab, he received a new (and convenient!) revelation: “Allah does not regard…your adopted sons as your own sons.” By no longer considering his adopted son to be a true “son,” Mohammad would no longer be marrying the former wife of his “son.” Mohammad and Zynab eventually married.

In contemporary Islam, adoption functions as a sort of “legal fiction.” A Muslim family may refer to their adopted boy as a “son,” but they must remember that this is really just a word, not a reality. The adopted boy may refer to his adoptive parents as “father and mother,” but legally they are simply his trustees. He goes by the surname of his birthparents, not his adoptive parents. He receives his inheritance from his birthparents, not his adoptive parents. And even though the adopted boy and his adoptive parents’ biological daughters may relate to each other as “brother and sister,” when they grow up it is legitimate for them to marry each other.

The Qur’an says that Allah has not “made your adopted sons your sons in fact. That is your own saying, the words of your mouths….Call them after their true fathers; that is more equitable in the sight of Allah” (33:4-5).

The Legal Reality of Adoption in Christianity

A glorious contrast is found in biblical Christianity. Adopting children-far from being something that is prohibited or something to be ashamed of-serves as a powerful metaphor to depict our forensic welcome into the family of God. Those who have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ receive “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Rom. 8:15). The Spirit bears witness with our spirit not only that we are to be called children of God, but that “we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16); and if we are children, then we also “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).

The ramifications for this legal change are not only vertical, but also horizontal. One of the great unveiled revelations of the gospel is that adopted Gentile believers and adopted Jewish believers are both “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6).

So adoption marks a radical relational change both vertically (as we become children of our heavenly Father) and horizontally (as we become fellow heirs and brothers with Christ, and through union with him, fellow heirs with other brothers and sisters around the world and across the ages). J. I. Packer gets it right in his classic, Knowing God: “Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption.”


This issue of Modern Reformation is devoted to the theme of grace over race, exploring the many ways in which the gospel overcomes our racial divisions. One way this is done is when people adopt children across racial lines for the sake of the gospel.

There are several reasons why Christians should welcome and support transracial adoptions. In enumerating these, my intention is not to suggest that every Christian couple should adopt children or adopt transracially. To make such an artificial rule would unwisely go beyond Scripture. I also do not mean to suggest in any way that transracial adoption is somehow more noble or praiseworthy than adoption within one’s own ethnic group. My suggestion is simpler; namely, that it is a good and necessary scriptural inference that the church should celebrate and encourage transracial adoption as one way of demonstrating the dynamics of gospel-centered kingdom life.

Caring for the Orphans and the Fatherless

God exercises fatherly care for the fatherless (Ps. 68:5) and commands us to do the same (James 1:27). The context of care for orphans often also includes care for widows-constituting two categories of people that need loving protection and leadership, and yet do not have access to these normal means of familial grace.

In various ways the church should be taking active steps to use its resource to provide such protective care and to assist those who are the most vulnerable and needy. Within the broad category of “orphans” in particular, fatherless children in minority and international communities need families who will compassionately meet their needs and demonstrate the reality of the gospel.

With regard to domestic adoptions in the U.S., the basic state of affair with regard to whites and black is the following: (1) Caucasians do the vast majority of the adopting; and (2) Caucasians by and large desire to adopt Caucasian babies when they adopt domestically. As a result, there is a tremendous need for African-American children to find homes in which they can be raised “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

Related to this is the tragedy and evil of abortion. The effect of abortion in the black community is nothing less than staggering. As abortion providers continue to concentrate their resources on urban areas, some African-American pro-lifers have even started a fact-filled website with the name to draw attention to this massive problem. Black women are three times more likely than white women to have an abortion; 1,452 black babies die from abortions every day. If you were to add up African-American deaths since 1973-from AIDS, violent crimes, accidents, cancer, and heart disease-the total is around 4.8 million. The number of African-American deaths from abortion during this same time period is 13 million.

This has led Alveda King-a niece of Martin Luther King, Jr.-to see an intimate connection between civil rights and the rights of the unborn. She writes, “How can the ‘Dream’ survive if we murder the children? Every aborted baby is like a slave in the womb of his or her mother. The mother decides his or her fate.”

What can be done? One thing we can do is support initiatives to increase crisis pregnancy centers in urban areas (for example, see Another thing we can do is to encourage Christians to provide homes for these African-American children.

At the end of the day, welcoming and encouraging adoption is not about making a social statement or engineering diversity. It is about the body of Christ awakening to the indicatives of the gospel and seeing its implications. As God’s children, we stand in awe that the Creator who spoke the world into existence has become our caring Father. We shake our heads in wonder that the One who upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3) is not ashamed to call us his brothers (Heb. 2:11). We know that we deserve nothing but wrath, and instead have received grace upon grace in the gospel. It is this radical reality of the gospel that frees us from our love affair with comfort and moves us outward to serve those in need. We who have been rescued will desire to rescue others; we who have received the good news will desire to build families where the gospel can be demonstrated and relayed.

Caring Less about Our Distinctives

Being a Christian does not obliterate all of our natural differences, but it does relativize them. The very things that matter most in the world-ethnicity, social status, and gender-are utterly irrelevant for becoming members of God’s family (Gal. 3:28). Christianity is not blind to ethnic distinctions and differences, but they are as nothing compared to the fundamental covenantal category of human beings created in the image of God, represented by Adam or by Christ. The country you live in and the ethnic group you belong to are as nothing compared to whether you are “in Adam” or “in Christ.” In the end, those are the “races” that ultimately matter-not where our ancestors were born, or the shape of our eyes, the texture of our hair, the color of our pigment, or the accents in our language.

The world cares very deeply about differences. Attempts to produce racial diversity or encourage racial harmony often accent rather than lessen our consciousness of how different we can be from one another. Our constant categorizing of others, of course, goes way beyond race. When we see someone for the first time, we almost instantly assign labels: fat/ thin, tall/short, old/ young, smart/dumb, beautiful/ ugly, smooth/awkward, winsome/ offensive, etc. The gospel is for all these people. Every tribe. Every tongue. Every nation. No matter what your background or what you look like or what you can do, there is only one requirement to become a member of God’s family: trust Christ the Savior. By adopting transracially we can create a microcosm of the genuine diversity within the blood-bought body of Christ, showing that our external differences are ultimately inconse-quential, and that the good news of Jesus Christ causes us to care more about shining a God-glorifying light into darkness than we care about our differences or whether or not we all look the same. In this way, Christian families can demonstrate what God’s kingdom looks like and the way in which it operates.

Challenges of Transracial Adoption

I am sometimes asked about the challenges of being white and raising a black son. Thus far, quite honestly, it has been relatively easy. When we adopted our son we were members of a church where there were numerous minority adoptions. We lived in a diverse neighborhood in the heart of the city; and now that we live in the suburbs, our surroundings are still diverse. Our next-door neighbors are from India. Across the street there is a household where an African-American man and his Hispanic girlfriend have a daughter, and the Hispanic girl’s mom lives there with her Caucasian boyfriend. All of that to say that in terms of “fitting in,” having a racially mixed family has been quite natural for us! The negative comments we have received-like an African-American gentleman telling my wife at a grocery store that he felt sorry for black kids with white parents-have been few and far between. I mention the relative ease of our personal situation not to be insensitive to th ose facing more challenging situations, but simply to say that at times the challenges we anticipate or envision may not always play out in reality.

We don’t regard our transracial adoption as something especially noble or sacrificial, or anything like a social statement. This is simply the way that God in his providence has designed our family to expand, and we sense his great grace in the way he has knit our family together.

But some people still wonder if transracial adoption is all that wise. Will they be called names in school? Will their friends tell them that my wife and I are not their “real” mommy and daddy? Will our kids have an identity crisis, unable to figure out who they really are? Will we lack sufficient knowledge about racial dynamics and the right words to use in every situation? Will we be introducing problems that they would not have faced if they had been raised by parents who look like them? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding maybe! All of our children-whether biological or adopted, whether the same race or different-are going to face various challenges throughout life. We simply cannot predict with any degree of certainty what particular obstacles they will encounter-nor can we prevent all of them. Will our kids be eloquent and persuasive or stammer with stage fright? Will they be the star athletes or the class klutzes? Will the y be leaders or followers? Will they be healthy or sickly? We simply do not know. If we had to have fully satisfactory answers to all our questions before we acted, we would all be stuck in permanent paralysis. At the end of the day, we have no biblical warrant for designing our lives around things we cannot control, nor do we have warrant for maximizing comfort at the expense of need. We pursue God in faith, and this faith is not by sight.

It’s important to recognize that in the midst of talking about spiritual adoption, Paul listed a requirement of kingdom citizens who are to be heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ-we will receive an inheritance “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). To be a member of God’s family and to be a co-heir with Christ means to follow him in obedience, which often entails suffering. In other words, to be a Christian is a call to suffer: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). If we’re surprised at suffering, then it’s because we haven’t read our Bibles closely enough: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). If a disciple wants to be like his teacher, and a servant like his master, then we are going to be maligned like Jesus (see Matt. 10:25).

So the issue is not ultimately whether or not our children will suffer and face challenges-they will. The issue is whether we are working to show how God-centered, cross-centered faith responds to such opposition.

Now with all of this said, no one wants to create situations of undue suffering for their children. There are times when transracial adoption may be unwise. For example, we have American friends who are in the adoption process and who will be serving in cross-cultural missions in the Middle East. Being an African-American child in a white family in an Islamic country that already stigmatizes adoption would be exceedingly difficult.

As long as sin remains-this side of the return of Christ and the ushering in of the new heavens and the new earth-racism will remain. There is virtue neither in overstating or unstating this reality. But the idea of having qualms about transracial adoption (or interracial marriage) because it will create opportunities for more racial prejudice doesn’t ultimately make a lot of sense. As John Piper has commented, “It’s like the army being defeated because there aren’t enough troops, and the troops won’t sign up because the army’s being defeated.”


As I’ve stated on more than one occasion in this article, my goal is not to argue that transracial adoption is the best or only way to live in gospel-motivated obedience to God’s Word and in response to the needs of the world. I’m simply proposing that transracial adoption is one thing that Christians should celebrate and consider. Speaking personally, the Lord has used the process and the reality of adopting our children for my wife and me to ponder afresh the deep wonder that God-in his inscrutable kindness-saw fit to graciously stoop and rescue us, not only declaring us to be righteous in his sight, but also to welcome us into his family.

Wednesday, January 2nd 2008

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