Are We Being Wise with the Words Orphan and Fatherless?


We still use orphan or fatherless when we’re talking about adoption and foster care, even when those words don’t fit with our current culture or a specific circumstance.

Words matter. The Bible is clear again and again that our words should be chosen with care. Our Lord is even identified as the Word who became flesh. And I’m concerned about our nonchalance and even carelessness in the church with the words orphan and fatherless.

Since our use of them originates in the Bible, let’s start there. I’m not a biblical scholar, but I am resourceful, so I brushed off some books and checked some proven websites (like Blue Letter Bible) for a word study. The Greek word orphanos and the Hebrew word yathom are the original words used for these biblical terms. Orphanos mean orphaned or without a father or lacking a guide or teacher. Yathom is more simplistic, used to mean a child who is fatherless or who has lost both parents, but Strong’s concordance point out that it comes from an unused root meaning to be lonely. Orphanos is only used twice, in John 14:18 (“I will not leave you as orphans,” also translated as “I will not leave you comfortless”) and James 1:27 (“Pure and undefiled religion is… to visit widows and orphans in their affliction”), while yathom is used 42 times, usually translated as fatherless, though sometimes as orphan, in the context of calling for justice and charity. Meanwhile, another Greek word, huiothesia (meaning to place or adopt as a son, as a combination of two Greek words: huios, meaning son, and tithemi, meaning to place or ordain) is used for adoption five times in Paul’s epistles but never paired with orphanos.

How do those compare to our current day use of the words? For some, it’s close. Nowadays, the words double orphan or true orphan describe a child who had lost both biological parents to death. This kind of orphan is the typical dictionary definition of the word too. Meanwhile, a social orphan is one who loses parents due to poverty or mental illness or some other hard reality with one or both parents still alive. These fit with the biblical definition, as the word fatherless in scripture – particularly the Old Testament – often meant the vulnerable children whose fathers were dead or absent and whose mothers were limited in their ability to provide for the family because women didn’t traditionally work or own property or have independent wealth then.

Yet another modern day definition comes from U.S. law, as cited on the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website: “Under U.S. immigration law, an orphan is a foreign-born child who: does not have any parents because of the death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents OR has a sole or surviving parent who is unable to care for the child, consistent with the local standards of the foreign sending country, and who has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption.” Once again, this definition overlaps some of the ones we’ve already discussed but doesn’t match perfectly. I’ll expand upon this in more detail later, but it’s worth noting that current U.S. law never defines as child in the U.S. as an orphan, reserving that word for international cases.

Meanwhile, two entire groups of adoptees are rarely orphans by any definition.

  • First, if a parent or parents choose to create an adoption plan – such as at birth in the case of domestic newborn adoption – prospective adoptive parents are often able to be identified so that no gap exists between being in the biological parents’ care and entering the adoptive parents’ care. That child is never an orphan.
  • Second, in foster care, reunification is often the goal, for children to be able to rejoin their family of origin once it is safe and healthy to do so. Even when parental rights are terminated, often a parent or extended family member is still involved through visits or other contact. These kids aren’t orphans either.

Yet we still use orphan or fatherless a lot in the church when we’re talking about adoption and foster care, even when those words don’t fit with our current culture or a specific circumstance. Why?

One reason, mentioned at the beginning of this post, is direct: they’re used in the Bible. That said, the two bulleted examples above don’t fit with biblical use. Furthermore, also found in the Bible are the words cripple and dumb and lame and several other words we don’t use outside of their biblical references nowadays, so that can’t be the only reason.  

Another reason is habit. Churches often cling to tradition, and the tradition of using orphan and fatherless to describe vulnerable kids is well established.

But can I be bold enough to step on some toes by offering a possible reason that stings a bit? I think maybe we’re a mixture of lazy and uncompassionate. It’s easy. Everyone else is doing it. As some kids and adult adoptees are saying they prefer other language, we don’t care enough to listen or change for someone else.

Am I advocating that we throw away those words completely? No. I don’t see that happening. In many instances, the words work well. I am, however, advocating that we use these words with wisdom. If a gentler but still accurate term – like at-risk families or vulnerable children – can fit the context, maybe it’s wiser to use those words.

After all, as people of the Word, words should matter to us.


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