I was reading in the book of Ezra the other day and though I’ve read the book several times, I came across a story in chapter 3 that really struck me like never before. The Persian king Cyrus had commissioned a large group of Israelites to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians a few generations prior. As the captives that returned to Israel established the foundation of the new temple, a time of worship broke out in the community.
“And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: ‘For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’ Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout and the sound was heard afar off.”
I had to get out my commentary to confirm why I thought the old men were weeping over the foundation. Mr. Halley agreed, the old men in remembering God’s design for Solomon’s temple, wept that the temple they were now building would not match the grandeur of God’s design for the house of worship. Many people shouted for joy as formal worship of the LORD was being restored and there was all kinds of hoopla, yet still there were those that remembered the superiority of God’s design and in some ways were disappointed that the community was no longer at that level.
As I’ve journeyed with caring for orphans in Tanzania, I feel as though I’ve aged. It’s been five years now since I accepted the job at Treasures of Africa. When I first started I exuberantly told everyone, “this is my dream job.” I was one of those worshipers that when the foundation was laid, I rejoiced and shouted and worshiped. I was in love with working there and knew that it was where God had called me. It absolutely was where God had called me for the three years I was committed there. I grew in faith and I grew in love. I’m so grateful for the leaders that gave me such an opportunity. I was given an insightful look into these kids’ lives, their backgrounds and their specific needs as they came out of traumatic experiences. By welcoming them to the children’s home they were shown love, they were provided for and were able to rest and recover from the blows that orphan life had left them.
Beyond learning about the needs of the kids, I also had an insiders view of how the best orphanage in Moshi was run. I say it’s the best not only because the physical needs of the children are met and they have a clean, safe environment in which to grow up, but because the leaders of the orphanage were very godly people. The kids heard and received the gospel, which to me is most important.
From that insiders view, I have also learned the downsides to the orphanage system. It would be easy for me to look at government orphanages in Eastern Europe or the poorly funded, poorly supervised orphanages here in East Africa, but I’ve actually seen the downsides to the very best orphanages around. I’ve aged. I’ve become one of those old men that weeps as the foundation is laid and remember that God’s design was and is far superior.
As I’ve been working through all these things in my head over the last year since we’ve returned, I find myself needing to temper what I say. I personally invested so much in the orphanage system and even more so because I have close friends that are currently ministering in orphanages and most importantly I have a group of twenty-six kids that I love a whole lot that live at a children’s home. The difficulty in navigating what I write and hence other people read is that in critiquing the orphanage system of orphan care, I am critiquing the most common form of orphan care in the world. In many contexts, it’s the only form of care for these kids. Because of all this, it tends to be the type of ministry that you, me and everyone else has supported if you’ve been involved in the biblical mandate to care for orphaned children.
There are two designs here that I’m looking at and I in no way want to come across as heavy-handed, pugnacious or cold. I feel the exact opposite towards the orphanage system. I think that it can have it’s role in caring for orphans, but we often see it as the end all in millions of instances and I don’t think that’s good. So the two designs, I humbly submit, is God’s design (Solomon’s temple) and man’s design (the temple in Ezra 3).
So, in a nutshell, what are those two designs? As Johnny Carr says “man made orphanages for children, but God made the family for children.” Now that is a pretty strong opinion, I confess. What I’d like to do today is just look at a few themes that we see in the Bible concerning this conversation.
The first thing that we must understand is the fact that the Bible, both testaments, speak a lot to caring for orphans. In the giving of the Law to God’s people in the Old Testament, caring for orphans was something that was expected of each and every individual. In Deuteronomy, God hammers a group of people into the minds of the Israelite community: the widow, the stranger and the fatherless. It was God’s chosen people that were expected to care for the needs of these people. If you read chapter 24 in particular, you’ll see God commanding Israel to preserve justice for the fatherless and also provide them with food from the people’s own crops. It was a commandment, not an option.
God demanded that of His people, because they are to be His reflection and hence maintain His own character. They were to administer justice for the fatherless, because He administers justice for the fatherless (Deut. 10:18). They were to help the orphan, because He is the helper of the orphan (Psalm 10:14). And in keeping in step with who He is, God’s people are to father the fatherless, because that’s who He is (Psalm 68:5).
In the New Testament, we see a core spiritual truth about who we are in Christ applied in these same terms. Jesus teaches us to pray to God as ‘our Father’ and in Romans 8, Paul teaches us that we have been adopted as children of God. If we were adopted by God, that means that there was a point when we ourselves were orphans too. God was gracious and brought us into His family.
In Christian practice, just as I spoke to a moment ago, what we see God do, we ought to do ourselves. We love because He first loved us. We are commanded to be holy just as the Lord is holy. We give, because He gave it all for us. So if God in his generosity, compassion and righteousness, adopted us orphans into His family, what does that mean for us when we consider these kids that also need a family?
In the beginning, God established the family. He put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them to be fruitful and multiply (read, have lots of kids). This was God’s first design, He had a family in mind as the ones that would take care of the earth and expand the garden.
This is just a really quick overview of what the Bible says in regards to orphan care and God’s design for adoption and family. Nonetheless, we can gather a few things from just understanding this text. If you were to read the Bible, then be presented with the plight of millions of orphaned children, would you gather that all you need to do is establish an orphanage? The Jews of the Old Testament didn’t do that and it wasn’t until the legalization of Christianity a few centuries after Christ, that Christians started to do it.
I propose that there is a better way. God’s original design was for children to be in families. By the power of the Holy Spirit we can get back to that design and see orphans receive what they need most of all, the love of a godly father and mother.
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Click here to read Part 2 where we’ll talk about some of the practicalities and difficulties that are presented through both the orphanage system and the families model. If you found this post interesting and something to be considered, then I’d appreciate you sharing it. These are conversations within the church that need to take place and every single one of us has a role to play. Not all are called to adopt, but all are called to do something.