The Episcopal Church is about to revise the Common Book of Prayer to eliminate God as "Father" -- to make God gender neutral. It isn't new; the Church of Sweden has already discouraged the use of "Lord" and the male pronoun in reference to God. The point in these efforts is not to make our references to God more biblical or more in line with how He has revealed Himself to the human race. It is ostensibly to be "more inclusive," to offer a "variety of gender-neutral options," to "modernise." It is nothing but an assault started by some on any perceived masculine preference anywhere. It is clearly an effort to erase the obvious patriarchical structure of Scripture (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:3) and to eliminate biblical gender and sexuality norms. Essentially, it is "The Bible is outdated and we need to fix it." This is nothing more nor less than "Did God really say ...?" And we recognize that voice; that voice was in the Garden of Eden.
But the question remains. Who cares? I mean, setting aside the attack on God's Word and putting on hold the traditions from the start of God as Father, does it really matter? We know, from Scripture, that "God it not a man" (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Job 9:32) (which, by the way, is not a disclaimer of being male, but of being human). We can be confident that, although Jesus was certainly male, "God is spirit" (John 4:24), so He doesn't actually have male body parts. He is not, then, actually the male-gendered physical human being we think of when we use the term "father." (By the way, in all this wrangling to make God gender-neutral, these groups miss entirely the Trinity which includes God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son and thus the entire actual maleness of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, in the flesh. That is, if Jesus is God the Son, God is still male.) We know that there are biblical references to God in female terms (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:18). (Note: There are lots of other biblical comparisons of God to mothers -- the phrase typically used is "like a mother" -- but these can't be construed as saying God is a mother.) So, with all this biblical support for God not being male, why bother defending the term "God the Father"? What difference does it make if (so-called) churches eliminate the term?
The first, easiest answer is "because it's in there." Or, more like you might hear from a father, "Because I said so." The Bible is full of references to God as Father, and they aren't ambiguous. We didn't make it up. It is possible, for instance, to argue that some of the references to males in the New Testament should actually be references to husbands, not general males. The same is not true in the words used for "Father". Then there's the simple fact that the reference of God as "Father" comes not from preferences or mere words, but from Jesus Christ ... you know, the One from whom we derive the term, "Christian." We know that Jesus was the Son of God and God was indeed His Father, but Jesus told His disciples to use the term, too (Matthew 6.9" data-version="nasb95" data-purpose="bible-reference" target="_blank" style="text-decoration-line: none; color: rgb(70,149, 156); font-family: Arial, Tahoma, Helvetica, FreeSans, sans-serif; font-size: 13px;">Matthew 6:9). The Greek is πατήρ -- patēr -- and cannot be misunderstood to mean anything less than "male ancestor" or "progenitor." He told His disciples, "I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5.44-45" data-version="nasb95" data-purpose="bible-reference" target="_blank" style="text-decoration-line: none; color: rgb(70,149, 156); font-family: Arial, Tahoma, Helvetica, FreeSans, sans-serif; font-size: 13px;">Matthew 5:44-45). So Jesus refers to God the Father as the Father of His spiritual children as well. That is, if we're going to erase God as Father, we'll need to do it against plain biblical texts in general and specific statements from Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.
Still, is that all there is? I mean, that should be enough, but is there more?
In the birth of Christ, we have a very clear problem. There is a mother -- a clearly human female mother -- but the male half of that process is not a human male. Joseph is not the guy. Instead, it is God. In this God is absolutely the Father of the Son of God. This is not insignificant.
So clear is the biblical imagery of God as Father that some have mistakenly argued that a clear parallel of Christianity and all religions is the Universal Fatherhood of God and the Universal Brotherhood of Man. This isn't accurate in a scriptural sense -- we are adopted into God's family and the common use of the term "brothers" in the New Testament is a reference to those in the faith, not all human beings. But it is quite clear that God is an overall Father.
In more than one instance a particular term is used in reference to God that takes this imagery a step further. Jesus started it in His Gethsemane prayer. "Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will" (Mark 14:36) But Paul carried it on (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). In all three cases, the two terms -- "Abba" and "Father" -- are stuck together. That is, even if you could wrangle a "Father could mean any parent" out of patēr, it is clear that both Jesus and Paul used "Abba" in reference to God the Father and "Abba" is nothing more or less than "Daddy." Never anything else. It is a familiar, loving term for a familiar, loving father.
Some have suggested that the concept of God as Father is a New Testament invention, so to speak. It came from Jesus (obviously). This isn't accurate. We read in Isaiah, "But now, O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand" (Isaiah 64:8). In the Song of Moses we find, "Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and unwise people? Is not He your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you" (Deuteronomy 32:6). It is a repeated Old Testament theme as well.
But ... why "Father"? Won't any parent figure do? No, I don't think so. "Father" carries significant connotations. The father is to be the primary provider; God is our primary provider (Hebrews 13:20-21). The father is to be the stronger parent; God is our strongest parent (Psalm 37:39). As the stronger one, the father provides protection; God is our protector (2 Thessalonians 3:3). In the normal parenting structure, the father (especially biblically) is the responsible party, the "head of household"; God is the head (1 Corinthians 11:3). Biblically fathers are held responsible for educating the children; God is our teacher (Psalm 32:8). It is typically the father who disciplines the children; God chastens the ones He loves (Hebrews 12:5-6).
There is one other aspect that I need to point out. More of a human one, actually. Scripture clearly presents God as Father. Jesus said it. The Old and New Testaments both agree. One primary objection to this is that, frankly, fathers are not what they ought to be. Some have complained, "How does God as Father do me any good when my father was so bad?" There are two answers to this problem. First, we all know what a good father looks like. The fact that some of us have had bad fathers does not negate the fact that we know what a good father should be, and God is the best of Fathers, so it remains meaningful. Second, with God as Father, He stands as an example of what human fathers should strive to be. Remove that position and you remove the challenge to human fathers.
I've offered plenty of reasons why God is Father and ought to be. They are, of course, primarily biblical reasons. I think, however, that the first is the most compelling: Because He said so. Now, some might still be inclined to be argumentative. "God doesn't have male body parts, so we shouldn't offer this option at all." These are factious people, demanding changes to Scripture and tradition without anything more than a selfish, sinful basis. I will offer Paul's response. "Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11). I'm going to need better than "We need to be more inclusive by rejecting Scripture" and "It's time to change the Bible because we know better now."
One other thought on this.
And if you call on Him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:17-19)
Clearly Peter understood that Christians were to "call on Him as Father." Connected to that, notice two features. First, based on calling on Him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, the expectation would be they would conduct themselves with fear -- respect due a Father who judges. Second, note the connection of calling Him "Father" and "ransomed from the futile ways." The implication seems abundantly clear. If you don't call on Him as Father, there is no reasonable expectation of respect or redemption.
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"Point of Reference" from