The brotherhood of Sons: What Some Rude Questions About Adoption Taught Me About the Gospel of Christ

by Russell D. Moore

“So, are they brothers?” the woman asked. My wife Maria and I, jet-lagged from just returning from Russia, looked at each other wearily. This was the twelfth time since we returned that we’d been asked this question. This lady was looking at the grainy pictures, printed off a computer from some digital photographs, of two one-year-old boys in a Russian orphanage, boys who had only days earlier been pronounced by a Russian court to be our children, after the legally mandated waiting period had elapsed for the paperwork to be filed.

Maria and I had returned to Kentucky to wait for the call to return to pick up our children, and had only these pictures of young Maxim and Sergei, our equivalent of a prenatal sonogram, to show to our friends and relatives back home. But people kept asking: “Are they brothers?”

Now Brothers

“They are now,” I replied. “Yes,” the lady snapped, “I know. But are they really brothers?” Clenching my jaw, I coolly responded, “Yes, now they are both our children so they are now really brothers.” The woman sighed, rolled her eyes, and said, “Well, you know what I mean.”

Of course, we did know what she meant. She meant did these two boys—born three weeks apart—share a common biological ancestry, a common bloodline, some common DNA. It struck me that this question betrayed what most of us tend to view as really important when it comes to sonship: traceable genetic material.

This is the reason people would also ask us, “So do you also have any children of your own?” And it is the reason newspaper obituaries will often refer to the deceased’s “adopted child,” as though this were the equivalent of a stepchild or a protégé, rather than a real offspring.

During the weeks that Maria and I waited anxiously for the call to return to Russia to receive our children, I pondered this series of questions. As I read through the Books of Ephesians and Galatians and Romans, it occurred to me that this is precisely the question that was faced by the Apostle Paul and the first-century Christian churches.

As pig-flesh-eating Gentile believers—formerly goddess-worshipers and Caesar-magnifiers and all the rest—began confessing Jesus as Messiah, some Jewish Christians demanded to know, “Are they circumcised?” The Gentile believers would respond, “Yes, with the circumcision made without hands, the circumcision of Christ.” From the heated letters of the New Testament, it is evident that the response was along the lines of, “Yes, but are you really circumcised, and you know what I mean.”

This was no peripheral issue. For the Apostle Paul, the unity of the Church as a household had everything to do with the gospel itself. And where the tribal fracturing of the Church was most threatening, Paul laid out a key insight into the Church’s union with Christ, the spirit of adoption.

We went to Russia and back to accomplish a task, to complete a long paper trail that would help bring us to the legal custody of our sons. Along with that, however, it jolted us with the truth of an adoption more ancient, more veiled, but just as real: our own.

It is one thing when the culture doesn’t “get” adoption, and so speaks, for instance, of buying an animal as “adopting” a pet. When Christians, however, think the same way, we betray that we miss something crucial about our own salvation.

Perhaps if we understood the gospel more clearly, we would then see it more clearly in the icon of adoption. And perhaps if we were more involved—as families and churches—in adopting unwanted children, we would foster a next generation better able to recognize the gospel message when they hear it.

Adopted Identity

Before the apostle begins his discourse on adoption to the Roman church, he addresses them as “brothers” (Rom. 8:12), a word that has lost meaning in our churches because we tend to view it as a more spiritual metaphor for “friend” or “neighbor.” In many Evangelical churches, “brother” is a safe word one uses when one has forgotten someone’s name (“Hey, brother, how are you?”) or when one wishes to soften spiritually a harsh statement (“Johnny, I love you as a brother in Christ, but I just can’t marry you”).

The churches emerging out of the Judaism of the Roman Empire, however, would have understood precisely how radical such language is. The “sons of Israel” started out, after all, not as a government entity, but as twelve brothers. Moses speaks of the Israelite king obeying the Word of God “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers” (Deut. 17:20). The Mosaic Law speaks of Israelites as “brothers” as opposed to “strangers” and “sojourners” (Lev. 25:35–46).

To a Gentile church in Ephesus, Paul employs this precise language as he tells them they are no longer to be considered “the uncircumcised.” Instead, he tells them, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:11, 19).

Within this household—the tribal family of Abraham—all those who are in Christ have found a home through the adopting power of God. It is not simply that they have found a refuge, a safe place, or a foster home. All those in Christ, Paul argues, have received sonship—they are now the “offspring of Abraham” (Gal. 3:29).

Paul speaks of this new household in terms of a liberating rescue, for both Jews and Gentiles. We have a unity in that we were liberated from the tutorship of the Law in the old order (Gal. 4:1–5) and from the “spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” (Rom. 8:15). Instead, as sons, we now come before God as sons, bearing the very same Spirit as was poured out on the Lord Jesus at the Jordan River, a Spirit through which we cry “Abba!”

There is a new identity found in this adoption, an identity forged in the relationship of father and son. This filial identity was easily seen by the first-century Christians. They were accustomed to seeing sons who followed in the vocational patterns of their fathers, men who were called “son of” all their lives (for instance, “Simon Bar Jonah”).

Of Israel, God once said, “Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite” (Ezek. 16:3). But this was not Israel’s identity. Through God’s adoption, they did not consider themselves sons of the pagan Terah or even sons of Abram. They were sons of Abraham; the nation was the son of the living God (Ex. 4:22–23).

In Christ, this is now true of all of those who are grafted onto the vine of the faithful Israel, Jesus of Nazareth.

All Moores Now

I suppose the root of my annoyance with the question “Are they brothers?” really lay here. It seemed that the good-intentioned conversationalists saw these children as somehow not quite part of our family, as though, if they were “really brothers,” then “at least they’ll have each other.” The same is true of other questions people asked us: “Have you ever seen their mother?” (“Why, yes, and you’ve seen her too. Have you met my wife Maria?”) or “Do you worry that their real parents will ever show up?”

This wasn’t at all the way that we saw it. It didn’t matter to us that the nurses in the orphanage across the seas still called these boys “Maxim” and “Sergei”; we had on their walls nameplates reading “Benjamin” and “Timothy.” It didn’t matter what their current birth certificates read; they would soon be Moores.

This newness of identity also informed the way we responded to questions, whether from social workers or friends, about whether we planned to “teach the children about their cultural heritage.” We assured everyone we would, and we have.

Now, what most people meant by this question is whether we would teach our boys Russian folk-tales and Russian songs, observing Russian holidays, and so forth. But as we see it, that’s not their heritage anymore, and we hardly want to signal to them that they are strangers and aliens, even welcome ones, in our home.

We teach them about their heritage, but their heritage as Mississippians. They learn about their great-grandfather, the faithful Baptist pastor, about their countrymen before them in the Confederate army and the civil rights movement. They wouldn’t know “Peter and the Wolf” if they heard it, but they do know Charley Pride and Hank Williams and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” They are Moores now, with all that entails.

I suppose this is why the New Testament points all of us toward the Old Testament narratives repeatedly, which are given, as Paul told the church at Corinth, “as examples for us” (1 Cor. 10:6). It is not just that these accounts show us something universal about human nature and God’s workings. It is that they are our story, our heritage, our identity.

Those are our ancestors rescued from Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, led back from exile. They are our forefathers and this is our family. Whether our background is Norwegian or Haitian or Indonesian, if we are united to Christ, our family genealogy is found not primarily in the front pages of our dusty old family Bible but inside its pages, in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

No Longer Orphans

When Maria and I first walked into the orphanage, where we were led to the boys the Russian courts had picked out for us to adopt, we almost vomited, in reaction to the stench and the squalor of the place. The boys were in cribs in the dark, lying in their own waste.

Leaving them at the end of each day was painful, but leaving them the final day, before going home to wait for the paperwork to go through, was the hardest thing either of us had ever done. Walking out of the room to prepare for the plane ride home, Maria and I could hear Maxim calling out for us, and falling down in his crib, convulsing in tears. Maria shook with tears, and I turned around to walk back into their room, just for a minute.

I placed my hand on both of their heads and said, knowing they couldn’t understand a word of my English, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” I don’t think I consciously intended to cite Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14:18; it just seemed like the only thing worth saying at the time.

When Maria and I at long last received the call that the legal process was over, and we returned to Russia to pick up our new sons, we found that their transition from orphanage to family was more difficult than we had supposed. We dressed the boys in outfits our parents had bought for them. My mother-in-law gathered some wildflowers growing between cracks in the pavement outside the orphanage.

We nodded our thanks to the orphanage personnel and walked out into the sunlight, to the terror of the two boys. They’d never seen the sun, and they’d never felt the wind. They had never heard the sound of a car door slamming or had the sensation of being carried along at 100 miles an hour down a Russian road. I noticed that they were shaking, and reaching back to the orphanage in the distance.

I whispered to Sergei, now Timothy, “That place is a pit! If only you knew what’s waiting for you: a home with a Mommy and a Daddy who love you, grandparents, and great-grandparents and cousins and playmates . . . and McDonald’s Happy Meals!” But all they knew was the orphanage. It was squalid, but they had no other reference point, and it was home.

We knew the boys had acclimated to our home, that they trusted us, when they stopped hiding food in their high-chairs. They knew there would be another meal coming, and they wouldn’t have to fight for the scraps. This was the new normal.

They are now thoroughly Americanized, perhaps too much so, able to recognize the sound of a microwave ding from forty yards away. I still remember, though, those little hands reaching for the orphanage, and I see myself there.

The Sons’ Glory

The New Testament teaching on the adoption of believers in Christ isn’t a reassuring metaphor for the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Adoption does not simply tell us we belong to God. It is a legal entitlement, one we are prone to forget.

Paul warns the congregation at Rome that sharing the spirit of Christ means that we will suffer with him (Rom. 8:17). It means that we will groan right along with the rest of the creation for the “sons of God to be revealed,” for our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).

But he fits this within the context of a legal inheritance. If we are adopted by God, if we are his children, then we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). If we live through the “sufferings of this present time,” it is only so that we can be conformed to the image of our Christ, “in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).

Paul identifies Jesus as the One who inherits the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. He is the One of whom it is said, “You are my Son” (Psalm 2:7), who is given “the nations as your heritage, and the ends of the earth as your possession” (Psalm 2:8).

Thus, the Jewish believers in the early Church weren’t to look to their biological ancestry for their inheritance. They were law-breakers (Rom. 2–3). This is why the insistence on circumcision in the Galatian church was anathema to the apostle. They were to look to the One in whom all the promises of God find their Yes: the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20).

The Jewish and Gentile congregations were to find their identity in Christ, not in the social and economic hierarchies of the Roman Empire. The churches were to long for the inheritance to come, a cosmos flowing with milk and honey, not, as their fathers before them, for the slavery from which they came (Deut. 8; Rom. 8:15).

My whispering to my boys, “You won’t miss that orphanage,” is only a shadow of something I should have known. God pronounces Israel his “son,” brings the Israelites through the baptismal waters of judgment, promises to give them an inheritance, and they long for the fleshpots of Egypt (Ex. 16:1–3).

Jesus is pronounced the “beloved Son” of God, is likewise brought through the waters of baptism, and is then tempted by the Evil One to believe that a Father who promises him bread would give him only stones. Listening to his Father’s voice, even to the point of crucifixion and apparent abandonment by God, he “learned obedience through what he suffered,” and he was heard (Heb. 5:7–8).

As he disciplines us—as sons, not as illegitimate children—our Father warns us not to sell our inheritance for a mess of pottage, as our great-great-great-great-great-uncle did a long time ago (Heb. 12:3–17). Why would we covet what seems important to MTV or Wall Street, when we have waiting for us mountain ranges and waterfalls and distant galaxies to rule with our Christ as the resurrected sons of the new creation?

“I know you think this terrestrial orphanage is home,” our Father whispers through prophets and apostles and our consciences and imaginations, “but it’s a pit compared to home.” Or, as the Spirit says through the Apostle Paul’s adoption teaching: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

Not Ashamed

A few years after we adopted Benjamin and Timothy, the infertility that had plagued Maria and me for years was suddenly lifted, and we gave birth to a son, and then another, in the more typical way. And it was time for the “Are they brothers” business again, this time from an elderly lady who approached Maria and said, in the hearing of my sons, “I’ll bet Dr. Moore is really proud of Samuel.”

Maria replied, “Yes, he is proud of all of his sons.” The lady smiled and retorted, “Yes, but I’ll bet he’s especially proud of Samuel, since he’s his.” In this woman’s mind, there was something admirable but almost shameful about adoption; the adopted children were just not quite as worthy of joy as the “real” son, the biological one.

I was angered when I heard about this, angered because, while I love Samuel and now Jonah, I don’t love them any more than Benjamin and Timothy. As a matter of fact, I don’t think of them as “biological” children, as though they are part of some different classification. Days go by when I never think about the adoption, and when I do think of the boys as “adopted,” it is always as a past-tense verb, not an adjective.

But this lady’s question—like the ones before it—reminds me of our tendency to prize our carnality. We don’t think we were adopted. In our persistent Pelagianism, we assume we’re natural-born children, with a right to all of this grace, to all of this glory.

We think, Paul warns us right before he tells us of our adoption, that we are debtors to the flesh, so we live according to the flesh (Rom. 8:12). We’re ashamed to think of ourselves as adopted, because to do so would focus our minds on the bloody truth that all of us in Christ, like my sons, once were lost but now we’re found, once were strangers and now we’re children, once were slaves and now we’re heirs.

And yet even the flesh and blood we share—not just with our children but with all of humanity—have everything to do with our adoption. Jesus, after all, shares in human “flesh and blood” so that he might deliver those “who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15).

This is because he “had to be made like his brothers in every respect” (Heb. 2:17). And, speaking of us, our Lord Jesus—the only One with the natural-born right to cry “Abba”—is “not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb. 2:11).

According to the Apostle John, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quite sure of their biological pedigree. They could trace it back to Abraham, and had no shady parental background as they thought Jesus to have (John 8:39–41). Jesus shockingly identified their birth father as Satan and their inheritance as that of a slave (John 8:34–38).

But John ends his Gospel with a more hopeful sound. When Jesus is raised from the dead, his message to Mary is to go “to my brothers” and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). John isn’t “really” Jesus’ brother, but he shares a mother with him, when Jesus “adopts” him into the family at the Cross (John 19:26–27).

And these unfaithful and fearful disciples, quick to go back to the fisherman’s nets they had when he found them, have no reason to approach a holy “God.” But they—and we—are Jesus’ brothers, and so the Father is our God. He is not ashamed.

One More Time

We fall for all our ideological idolatries—from white supremacy to genocidal warfare and beyond—because we see our “brotherhood” only in our DNA. We engineer radical reproductive technologies that sever procreation from fatherhood and motherhood, precisely because we don’t want children so much as we want ourselves, our own genetic material living on before us. We identify more with our corporate brands and with our political parties than with our churches because we don’t understand the household into which we’ve come.

We dye our hair and Botox our wrinkles, fearing the Reaper, because we don’t really believe that a Father waits for us with a feast on the other side of the Jordan. And we live prayerless lives, paralyzed by our guilty consciences, because someone says to us, as to our Brother before us, “ If you are the son of God . . .” (Luke 4:3).

I don’t think about the adoption of my boys every day. But, when I do, I try to remember the rude questions I once answered—and sometimes still answer—about them. And I remind myself that I’ve been just as far from “getting it” as the good-natured questioners I have resented.

It is difficult to see before us the day when the graves of this planet are emptied, when the great assembly of Christ’s Church is gathered before the Judgment Seat. On that day, the accusing principalities and powers will probably look once more at us—former murderers and fornicators and idolaters, formerly uncircumcised in flesh or in heart—and they may ask one more time, “So are they brothers?”

The hope of adopted children like my sons—and like me—is that the voice that once thundered over the Jordan will respond: “They are now.”