The Orphan, the Church, and the Pastor

by Todd Chipman May 29, 2017

The Logic of William Carey and the Orphan-Care Crisis

June 2017 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. Church historians cite Carey’s mission to India at the end of the eighteenth century as the fount of modern missions. At a time when some pastors—thinking God would not employ the efforts of men to spread the message of His kingdom—squelched Carey’s pleas for international missions efforts, Carey pressed 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.

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, front-line church help.

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 affect of their leadership (Heb 13:7).

Local Pastors as Examples for the Church

The pastoral qualifications in 1 Tim 3 can be categorized in various ways and I suggest three headings. First, exemplary Christian moral integrity in spheres both proximal (“the husband of one wife,” 1 Tim 3:2; “he must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” 1 Tim 3:4-5) and public (“sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable,” 1 Tim 3:2; “he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil,” 1 Tim 3:7). Second, the ability to teach Christian doctrine (1 Tim 3:2). And third, hospitality to the needy (1 Tim 3:2). These headings provide an apt framework for the very similar list Paul wrote in Titus 1:5-9. In light of the dark situation on Crete (“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,” 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 (“the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach,” Titus 1:6-7) and public (“he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain…self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined,” Titus 1:7-8); were able to teach (“he must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it,” Titus 1:9); and had a reputation for good works toward the needy (“hospitable, a lover of good,” 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 elders would have to demonstrate such behavior for the believers under their care.

Orphan Care as Fulfillment of Exemplary Pastoral leadership

I have argued that according to Paul and Peter, local church pastors are to set the pace for necessary Christian behavior. 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. The vulnerable situation of orphans and widows provided the congregation an at-hand task for the church to practice their faith, as James wrote, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (Jas 1:27). The idea of “visit” in Jas 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). That is, in light of the context of the direct object, the verbal idea of visitation may require the subject of the verb to personally care for the object on an ongoing basis, living in the same quarters.


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 meet the needs of orphans. Pastors and their families might feel maxed-out by the routines of ministry—establishing their vision in the church, helping the congregation take the gospel to the world, fighting cultural sins like racism, abortion and gay marriage. But herein lies the irony. By welcoming orphans into their homes, pastors would progress in these very tasks: pastoral orphan care demonstrates exemplary leadership, takes the gospel to the lost, counters the argument for abortion rights, reduces the possibility that orphans might be placed with gay couples and frequently demonstrates how the gospel breaks racial divisions. Further, as pastors model orphan-care ministry they provide believers a pattern to follow, multiplying the effect the church might have on both orphans and the culture (Heb 13:7). 

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