Article Jun 14, 2017

The orphan, the church and pastoral leadership

This month marks the 225th anniversary of William Carey’s now famous volume, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. In 1785 Carey began pastoral work in England, and through developments in cartography, Carey learned of the earth’s geographic and ethnic landscape. His studies compelled a concern for the lost souls of humanity around the world—but Carey could find few sympathizers. Some of his fellow pastors, thinking God would not employ the efforts of men to spread the gospel message, squelched Carey’s pleas for international missions efforts.

Carey responded by pressing his ministerial associates to consider the blessings they enjoyed in Christ and the world’s need to be reconciled to the Savior. In an effort to persuade fellow pastors to form an alliance and begin sending missionaries to India, Carey wrote his Enquiry—and Carey was persuasive. On June 13, 1793 Carey set sail for India, having been commissioned by fellow pastors and churches to take the gospel to the heathen. Church historians today cite William Carey’s mission to India at the end of the 18th century as the fount of modern missions.

The current orphan crisis—and the need for the church’s response—requires brave voices like Carey’s in our day. Each year, the month of May is designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as National Foster Care Month. In her article, “Foster Children Need the Church,” Brittany Lind writes,

The need is enormous, but when you consider that there are roughly 348,067 evangelical churches in America, the 430,000 children-in-foster-care number doesn’t seem quite so daunting. Unfortunately, it’s not a problem that can be solved by simply doing the math and distributing children among churches. Many factors complicate the issue, but the numbers are still fascinating to consider.

Lind notes that the church can help in many ways (meals for a family, clothes, furniture, etc.), but ultimately these kids need homes and families.

Who within the church might be equipped to personally take orphans into their homes, giving children a nuclear family as well as connecting them with the gospel-life of a local fellowship? In the logic of William Carey, what means might God employ for such a task? Based upon analysis of statements about leadership in the Pastoral Epistles and 1 Peter, I suggest that pastors enjoy a unique position through which they might help the church to care for orphans, fulfilling James’s ideal of pure and undefiled religion (Jas 1:27). And as pastors exemplify hospitality to orphans, they will set a mark of faith for the church to imitate—thus multiplying the effect of their leadership (Heb. 13:7).

Local pastors as examples for the church

The pastoral qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 can be categorized in various ways, and I suggest three headings:

  1. Exemplary Christian moral integrity in spheres both proximal (“the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, 4–5) and public (1 Tim, 3:2, 7).
  2. The ability to teach Christian doctrine (1 Tim 3:2).  
  3. Hospitality to the needy (1 Tim 3:2).

These headings provide an apt framework for the similar list Paul wrote in Titus 1:5-9. In light of the dark situation on Crete (Titus 1:12), it follows that those serving as pastors would need to set the pace for good doctrine and good deeds. And this is exactly what Paul called Titus to identify in potential elders, men that: showed Christian behavior in private (Titus 1:6-7) and public (Titus 1:7-8); were able to teach (Titus 1:9); and had a reputation for good works toward the needy (Titus 1:8).

Like Paul in the Pastorals, Peter recognized that the elders of the church must set the pace for maintaining Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the face of opposition. At the conclusion of his letter, Peter directed his attention to the elders of the church exhorting them to shepherd and oversee the flock among them by being examples (1 Pet. 5:3). This exhortation Peter lists as the antithesis of domineering leadership that called the congregation to act a certain way but did not model that behavior for them.

Peter’s logic, like Paul’s noted already, rests on the notion that the church at large required visual patterns of necessary Christian good works. If the church was to take up specific Christian activities to defend the Christian message before antagonists in the world, the pastors would have to demonstrate such behavior for the believers under their care.

Orphan care and pastoral leadership

In short, pastors are to model Christian integrity and wholeness—and this brings us to the argument of the Epistle of James. The religious and socio economic matrix of James’s audience placed orphans and widows at a point of peril. If the church did not come to their aid, no one would.

But James described the church as likewise in a vulnerable position—in need of working out its faith. James pictured the desperate situation of orphans and widows as God’s supply for the congregation’s equally desperate need to practice its faith, to be mature and whole before God. James wrote, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).

The idea of “visit” in James 1:27 ranges with the proximal designation of the object in view. It could imply that the subject of the verb would (1) leave a location and travel to another location with a view to assisting someone at the point of destination and then returning to their original domain or, (2) more generally, as with an object such as orphans or widows—who may not have had a stable location where they might receive a visitor—“look after” (ἐπισκέπτομαι, episkeptomai; BDAG). In the context of James 1:27, the verbal idea of “visitation” pictures the subject of the verb personally attending to the needs of the object in an ongoing, proximal manner.

To whom might James’s audience look for examples of pure and undefiled religion? In light of the general logic of leadership in the Pastoral Epistles and 1 Peter, I offer that the church under James’s care would look to its pastors as models of how to help the vulnerable among them, like orphans and widows. It is noteworthy that in 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul lists qualifications for widows to receive corporate congregational support but no such list is supplied for orphans. Looking after parentless children—perhaps because of their limited life/work experience and relational contacts—objectifies pure faith.

Conclusion

William Carey was concerned for his fellow pastors to consider the means God might use to take the gospel to the lost. I suggest that the designated pastoral tasks of teaching, hospitality and family management specially equip pastors to do this by meeting the needs of orphans. This is doubly ironic. Pastors might be thought the last demographic in the church to take in orphans because we are already busy. While I do not advocate the position that God has uniformly called all pastors to take in orphans, since becoming a foster/adopt parent, I have personally discovered a second irony: pastoral orphan care has propelled my pastoral ministry in ways that no other educational or leadership endeavor has done in several ways:

First, I am personally taking the gospel to the lost; the children I have adopted hear it often and see it modeled all around them, and I have been able to share the gospel with many social workers and children’s services officials.

In addition, perhaps no other social issue is as pressing upon American evangelical pastors today as racial strife; the fact that my adopted daughters are of a different race has taught me countless lessons about race relations and given me opportunities to show in real time the gospel’s power to break racial divides.

Finally, pastoral orphan care has allowed me to exemplify the gospel for my congregation; every time I gather with the church I am able to have show and tell. And when it comes time to challenge the church to pray about engaging the needs of orphans, even becoming foster/adopt parents? They will have an example, yet in process, to follow  (Heb. 13:7).

A form of this article appeared here. Check out our upcoming National Conference for more information on how to get equipped for adoption and orphan care.