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Who (or What) is an Orphan?
by Mike Douris
Posted on Monday, March 23, 2015
A powerful message from Mike Douris, Founder and President of Orphan Outreach: 

You would think that would be an easy question to answer but definitions and perceptions vary greatly. I had a pastor recently ask me to give my opinion on if Moses was an orphan — so I spent some time looking at the issue. He is often referred to in articles about adoption and orphan ministry. Yet when you examine it carefully, Moses mother, Jochebed, abandoned him to save him from being killed and was then chosen to nurse and care for him in his early life. His father, Amram, lived a long life — 137 years — and was undoubtedly involved in his life as well. Aaron and Miriam, his brother and sister, were very involved in his life. Moses knew his identity and his faith and led God’s people out of slavery. In the strictest sense of the definition, Moses was not an orphan – he had a loving mother and father who did what they had to do to save his life, and they appeared to stay active in his life.

Ravine Kids 1 So how would we define the term orphan? In the Old Testament ‘orphan’ is a Hebrew word meaning ‘fatherless.’ The Bible most times refers to “widow” and “orphans” together, which makes sense if the term is defined as fatherless. Once a father died he left his wife as a widow and his children as orphans. In judgment statements, the Lord says to the nation He is judging, “I will make your wives widows and your children orphans.” So by definition in the Old Testament, an orphan is a child who has lost his father, the pri- mary provider of the home. It is interesting that in the New Testament the Lord says, “I will not leave you as orphans.” You see before we were saved, we were separated from our Father because of sin — everyone is an orphan. The Father sent His Son to pay our debt — sacrificing him on the cross but then raising Him from the dead in order that we would not be orphans — we were reconciled to the Father through the death and resurrection of His Son. Then he adopted us into His family as sons and daughters. All this imagery is consistent with the Old Testament definition of orphan. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There is only one other reference to “orphan” in the New Testament and that is in James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion is this: to minister to widows and orphans in their distress and keep oneself unstained by the world.” It is amazing that when James is pressed to give his definition of what pure religion is, he uses widows and orphans as his example. There is a reason for this. James knows that in the 40+ references in the Old Testament about orphans, many of those verses are God judging Israel because they ignored or took advantage of widows and orphans — the most vulnerable in society. How believers live their lives is a reflection of their heart. If Israel was not caring for widows and orphans, then their heart was far from God because He considered himself “a Father to the fatherless.”

In that spirit, James echoes what the Lord said to Israel — that if your heart is beating with God’s heart then it will be reflected in your caring for the most vulnerable — your life will reflect and define the essence of pure and undefiled religion. How does this play out in ministry? First, if a church does not have an intentional ministry to orphans, it is not completely reflecting the heart of the Lord. Church planting, pastor training, and evangelism are all important ministries of the church. But over the years, orphan ministry has been considered “mission lite.” While in seminary, I never received any teaching on adoption or orphan care. I think that this is true of many seminaries. Yet every pastor should minster to adoptive families and relate to orphan ministry.

GUA-130 Secondly, orphan ministry has to be community-based. Many churches do not consider it orphan ministry unless you go to an orphanage, when the reality is most children in orphanages have parents who are living. Of the 150 million estimated orphans in the world, only about 13 million have lost both their parents. It is interesting that UNICEF uses the biblical definition of an orphan as the basis of their statistic — defining an orphan as a child who has lost one parent, which is overwhelmingly the father. Orphan Outreach has ministries to vulnerable children across the spectrum of the continuum of care, from group homes for children with AIDS to schools in slums and dump communities. The common philosophical thread is that the majority of the children are considered at-risk and live with one parent. I am writing this in Kenya and I asked one of our ministry partners, who is the director of a school in the Marthare slum, which is the second largest slum in Nairobi, “How many of the children in your school live with a single mother?” He answered, “Ninety percent!” 12529706745_5d74f65347_z If more fathers fulfilled their God-designed role of caring for their families, loving their children and being faithful to their wives, we would not have an orphan crisis. We who have Christ in us share His heart and therefore share the burden to care for these children.

We are His hands and feet and the Lord sends us in response to the prayers of desperate children, which He hears every moment of every day. The Lord knows each child as intimately as He knows us, and He sends us as His ambassadors to let them know the Father of the fatherless loves them.


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