What is an orphan?  A common assumption is a belief or definition that an orphan is a child whose parents have both died.  Another frequent position or definition is that an orphan is a child who lives in an orphanage.  Both of these definitions are accurate, but limited in the fullness of what is included.

When we examine the world and discuss the needs related to orphans there are more important factors to include in the definition.  The reality is that the majority of the world’s orphans have families.  Have families?  Yes, this is not something that holds to the common beliefs or definitions of what an orphan is.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th cd.), defines “orphan” in the following ways:

  • A child whose parents are dead.
  • A child who has been deprived of parental care and has not been adopted . . .
  • One that lacks support, supervision, or care.

Around the world, the practice is to use a more inclusive definition of an orphan – one that tends to focus on a child who is deprived of parental care.  We are not talking about parents with an absence of love, but rather because of disease, poverty, or other circumstances the inability to provide and care for the well-being of their child.

These children often end up on the streets to fend for themselves.  Sometimes, they might be fortunate enough to be taken in by an orphanage where they receive basic care and support.

An orphan can be further classified by using definitions such as UNICEF’s  “single orphans,” which is a child with only one parent who has died, or “double orphans,” which is a child with both parents having passed away.  In practice, though, we tend to think of children living in orphanages as orphans, although it is possible that both of their parents are alive but not caring for their child.

An orphan is a child who, because of the death of a parent(s), poverty, disease, or some other circumstance, is seeking to fend or care for himself or herself whether through roaming and surviving on the streets or finding care and support through an orphanage.

No matter what the definition – the need is real.  There is a calling to care for the orphans of the world.  There is a Biblical mandate to care for orphans (James 1:27).