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.

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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)

Do we want a Maverick Baptist College?

Simon Carey Holt has written a blog piece where he speaks favourably of the current climate of Whitley College. Simon is currently the Senior Pastor at Collins Street Baptist, and for many years he taught at Whitley.

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It is good to hear Simon’s perspective. There is much that can be said in response, but here are four thoughts for now.

First, it is important to understand the role Simon attributes to the college.

For example, he states, “Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo.

While putting it in a rather gentle way, Simon is essentially saying, the College’s role is to speak down on the churches, telling us what we are doing wrong.

Yes, we need a theological college with academic rigour, where students are encouraged to think deeply and engage with a broad spectrum of theological persuasions. We also need a college that is anchored to the ‘faith once for all delivered’.

The question is, is it the role of the college to “call churches to account”, or does the college exist to serve the churches? When a former lecturer portrays the college as a maverick with a stick, he only reinforces concerns and exemplifies how out of touch they are with the Baptist community (and with Baptist polity!).

Second, Simon believes the college listens to the churches, but is that the case? I have no doubt that a few churches are listened too, but if the College was truly listening to the broader churches, we would not be hearing concerned voices from a growing number of churches and pastors.

Which leads to a third point,

Simon suggests, “As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church”.

This is a noble desire, one which is worth pursuing, but as I mentioned last week,  many of our churches do not have confidence in the College to train and teach the next generation of Gospel ministers. This is demonstrated by the fact that churches continue to send their people to alternative theological colleges in Melbourne and interstate.

Fourth, Simon said,

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and clichéd hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not.”

This may be a fitting description for some scenario somewhere, but here it is nothing more than a straw man. The reality is, some of the concerned baptists have sat in classes, they have conversed with teachers, and they have read publications. And many who made the decision to study at other theological institutions have engaged with Whitley College in other ways over the years.

I notice that Simon does not deny the theological discord between the College and Churches; indeed he admits Whitley promotes ideas and teachings that are incongruent with those of the churches. His rationale is, the College is  a prophetic voice speaking to the BUV, “like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo”.

I guess Hananiah was a prophet of sorts! Should not prophets contend for the faith, rather than contravene the faith? In fact, professionalising prophecy was the error of the kings of Israel and Judah. While God may use a voice from the college in a ‘prophetic’ way, assuming the mantle of prophet is dangerous, and is certainly not the role ascribed to it by the BUV.

In conclusion, we want to see a faithful and growing Baptist College in Victoria, which is able to serve our Churches well. I agree with Simon in that a change of leadership is opportunity to ask hard questions. Hard questions have been asked this year; what remains to be seen is how they will be answered.

Advertising: Principal of Whitley College

The Baptist theological college in Victoria, Whitley College, is looking for a new Principal.

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This is an exciting opportunity for the Baptist community in Victoria, as well as for one auspicious applicant.

There is an elephant standing a few blocks from the famous Melbourne Zoo, and one which can’t be ignored: The name ‘Whitley College’ conjures up a long history of theological liberalism, and with good reason. The sad reality is, there are very few statements in the Baptist doctrinal basis that are not rejected by one or more of Whitley’s faculty and adjunct teachers. One cannot assume that penal substitution or the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ are necessarily affirmed or taught as Bible truth. Ideas such as universalism, modalism, affirming homosexual practices, are all to be found in teachings among the faculty.

I understand there are some Victorian Baptists who have a positive relationship with the College, but there is no escaping the fact that many churches (perhaps the majority) will not currently send their people to Whitley, because of radical deconstruction of the evangelical and baptist faith that swirls around its Colosseum looking building. 

For two generations Evangelicals have overwhelmingly stayed away from Whitley (except for ordination studies), and have trained at other Bible Colleges in Melbourne, and even interstate.

That being said, there is a growing desire to see reform, and to see our college move forward.

Letters from various Whitley Board members have been circulating this year, aghast at the idea that Baptists are expressing concerns over the college’s orthodoxy, but the reality is, these concerns have been present for decades. For the most part people have been afraid to speak up, and when they have, no one has been listening, until now. In several public forums this year, including May’s Gathering, numerous concerns were raised regarding the teaching and training emanating from Whitley, communicating that the Churches want change.

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Please refer to the formal job description. In addition, I can speak for some Victorian Baptists who are keen to see the following attributes in the College Principal:

  • We are looking for a Principal with strong Evangelical convictions and who affirms the doctrinal basis of the BUV.
  • We are looking for a Principal with a pastoral heart.
  • A strong leader and visionary for the future of training Gospel ministers.
  • A character that fits with the qualifications described in 1 Timothy 2 and Titus ch.1
  • A Principal who can effectively engage with Victorian Baptist Churches

The College Principal is an important position, and provides a significant opportunity for the future of not only the College, but also for the Baptist Union of Victoria. 

Perhaps you would like to join with many of us in praying for this process. Anyone interested in applying should follow the above link (applications close August 22nd)