When a theologian bemoans Christians speaking of God as Father

 ‘Our Father in Heaven…’

A colleague asked me yesterday whether I had read the outgoing reflections from Whitley College’s Principal, Frank Rees. I have now, and it offers interesting insight into the life of a Bible College Principal. I wish Frank all the best with his retirement, but I trust some of his cautions will not be adopted into the future.

I have decided to leave aside his series uncritical criticisms levelled at ‘critics’ of Whitley College, because those words are Lilliputian compared to one statement he makes. In fact, this assertion only adds weight to the concerns which many Evangelicals have expressed over the years.

god-creates-adam

He writes,

“We have gone backwards on gender inclusive language in many of our official events. These elements include a resurgence of emphasis on God as Father, without any balancing awareness of other ways of naming God.”

It is interesting to hear that Frank has identified a ‘resurgence’ of Baptists speaking of God as Father, although he makes it clear that he thinks this is not a good thing. For him, it represents a ‘growing narrowness’ among Victorian Baptists.I would be very happy for Frank to respond and clarify his views on the subject.

His comment is set within a paragraph that relates to gender equality in churches. ‘Gender inequality’ is a now popular and fairly unhelpful phrase, which is sometimes less about genuine equality between the genders and is more about gender blurring. Real gender inequality is wrong and is a denial of the imago dei and our union with Christ (Galatians 3:28). Our Churches ought to be communities where women and men may flourish in the faith and be received as crucial partners in the Gospel. Unfortunately, the language of gender equality often carries with it a false premise, where women and men are not only considered equal but the same, and thus losing the God given distinctive of the sexes.

Much more can be said about that point, but my chief concern here is the way Frank Rees publicly laments Christians addressing God as Father. It is quite strange, theologically perilous, and somewhat reminiscent of that literary wonder, The Shack.

To be clear, Frank is not saying that we cannot speak of God as Father or that we should not, but he’s arguing that by preferencing Father we are being ‘narrow’, ‘going backwards’, and the language is responsible for breeding gender inequality. Not only this, he is implying, although he refrains from spelling it out on this occasion, we ought to use feminine names for God (i.e. God as mother).

The concept of motherhood is biblical and beautiful and to be honoured. But no where are we encouraged to call God mother or any feminine name. There are 4 similes used in the Old Testament, where God is ‘likened’ to a mother, but as J.B Torrance has argued, similes and metaphors are not to be confused, and they are certainly not to be considered analogous to biblical statements  that declare God’s personal names and being.

For example, someone says to me, ‘Murray you’re as slow as a snail.’ Such a statement is not intending to convey something ontologically true about me, as though I am a snail, but that my walking habits remind them of this slumberous creature.

We are not free to ascribe to God names or ideas that have not been given to us by God in Scripture; doing so is treading in very dangerous water, and I so trust Victorian Baptists won’t heed his caution.

In the Bible God does not reveal himself to be  like a father, but he is God the Father.  The one who reveals the Triune God is Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. What did Jesus teach us? Did he speak of God in feminine ways? Did he suggest that we address God as mother? No.

‘Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves’. (John 14:9-11)

So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me’. (John 8:28)

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19)

‘This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:9)

If Frank Rees is right and there is a movement among Victorian Baptists returning to the biblical language of God as Father, we should not bemoan the fact, but thank God for his grace in causing us prodigal children to return to him.

We should not be ashamed of calling God Father, but wonder in his grace to us in Jesus that invites us to know him as Father.

The Fatherhood of God is not a doctrine to be deconstructed by the imposition of current sociological expressions of femininity, just as we must resist defining God by the masculinity of previous ages. Contrary to Frank’s comments, true knowledge of God as Father does not lead to demeaning attitudes toward women, it causes us to repent of such ideas.

For a Bible College Principal to express disappointment over Christians calling God Father is extraordinary, and has the unhelpful consequence of unhinging real conversation surrounding the topic of women in ministry. When Christians address God as Father we are doing what Jesus tells us to do;  that may be ‘narrow’ to some, but it is better for us to narrowly trust God at his word than to be broad and lost in our speculative imaginations and inclinations.

‘I will be a Father to you,

and you will be my sons and daughters,

says the Lord Almighty

(2 Corinthians 6:18)

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3 thoughts on “When a theologian bemoans Christians speaking of God as Father

  1. I think the difficulty lies in God’s gender, not God’s roles. Eve’s femininity, her womanhood has to come from somewhere – or else she’s something that God isn’t. So all the characteristics of the feminine nature and all the characteristics of the masculine nature must be rooted in God; so the question is: Is god male? Various facets of Christianity would say that as basically a spirit, God isn’t a man and therefore not male – and also not female. Now some elements of Christianity would say that God is male and not female, and there’s no femininity in Him – it’s all up for debate and all sides have a point one way or another. When we talk about God as Father and Son, we think Male more often than not.Is God exclusively Father, no. Just as you said, just because you’re like something, it’s not exactly what you are – and God is like a Father, but he’s also like a Mother – he’s all in all, is he not? God transends gender, but borrowed the label “Father” to communicate an element of what he’s like, but not who He is wholly as if that’s the limit of what He is – he’s beyond Father in as many ways as God is beyond human.

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    • Thanks for commenting Jamie. I understand your point. I am not suggesting God is male, but we are to stick with God’s self-revelation of himself, rather than importing words and images from our speculations. It’s not really up to debate, it’s about believing what God says about himself. The Bible is clear, God is Father (not like, but is), and we shouldn’t bemoan Christians addressing God as Father, we should be thankful that they are doing as Jesus asks of us.

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      • God was revealing himself as Father and Son and Male to an ancient patriarchal world where most empires were patriarchal, where power was held in each family unit, and fathers ruled over their families. God revealed himself as one who had rules about the proper taking of slaves and legal matters concerning slaves to an ancient slave-holding world where most empires had slaves, where power was held in each family unit,and masters rules over their slaves. In the household codes, the Master and Father and Husband would be one and the same person (presuming they were rich enough to own slaves and wasn’t one themselves.) Perhaps God speaks using concept each society accepts best, patriarchy and slavery in the ancient world and equality and compassion in the modern one. The problem is that we only have an ancient rule-book with ideas like father-rule, master-slave relationships, temple sacrifices, and a wandering rabbi to guide us in our lives. The thing is, the Bible is not void of showing God as beyond masculine: http://www.womensordination.org/resources/female-images-of-god-in-the-bible/
        But like ancient Israel, too many are unwilling to listen.

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