Inevitably, when I’m at a forum where gender is being discussed this question comes up; “Should we still call God Father?” The question annoys me for various reasons but mainly because it is usually used as a barometer for where we stand in relation to feminism as Christians . If we answer “No” then we are seen a heretical feminists and liberals that have succumbed to our secular age, but if we reply “yes” then progressive Christians become irate because we are not fighting against the oppressive patriarchal system that we live in. It’s a thorny question to answer!
Having said this however, I do believe that it is an important question to answer even though the answer is not a simple yes or no. And many people are genuinely worried that being restricted to calling God Father, enables the argument which says that the primary way we must view God is through a muscular and masculine lens. I also think the answer to the question should not stop at “Yes we call God Father because Jesus and the witness of Scripture tells us to”. Fair enough, but our answer must go further and be more textured if we are to connect with the concerns, longings and questions of our culture today.
So my answer to this question is “Yes, but…” We affirm God as Father however we want to explain that to our culture today in an appropriate way that somewhat conveys the beauty and complexity of our Creator.
Exploring images of God as Mother in our prayers
Often, when people want a quick answer to this question they point to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9ff where Jesus tells us to “Pray, then, in this way”. Clearly, here Jesus encourages us to pray to “Our Father in heaven”. This makes me think that most of the times we are referring to God as Father, it will be during our private and public prayers, rather than when we are talking about God. That is, in intimacy with him and in communion with other Christ followers in the church we talk to our Father. So this can be a wonderful intimate space with our Father to explore all the many images of God we find in Scripture and allow those images to shape our prayers. One image of God found in Scripture is certainly the image of a mother or at least a “Father God” who has many maternal qualities.
In Hosea 11:3-4 God is described as a mother; “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
Deuteronomy 32:11-12 God described as a mother eagle; “Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”
Deuteronomy 32:18 God who gives birth; “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
Isaiah 66:13 God as a comforting mother; “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
Isaiah 49:15 God compared to a nursing mother; “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Isaiah 42:14 God as a woman in labor; “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
Psalm 131:2 God as a Mother; “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34 God as a Mother Hen; “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Luke 15:8-10 God as woman looking for her lost coin; “Or what woman having ten silver coins, is she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
How could we weave these images into our private and public prayers? Within this kind of freedom in relationship that we have in our prayers, God could certainly be referred to as “Mother” in the same way that he is referred to as “Rock”, “Shield” and “Fortress” in the psalms for example. This is not literal of course, in the same way that “Father” is not literal. Are we bold enough as leaders to use these images in our public prayers in order to teach people about the way that Scripture refers to God?
“Our Father” as a subversive statement.
Martina Gnadt in her essay on the Gospel of Matthew in Feminist Biblical Interpretation, proposes the provocative and very credible idea that the use of “Father” in Matthew has a subversive element. She says;
The heavenly Father’s most important characteristic is that one can depend on his care for all creatures. Building on this, the Gospel of Matthew calls for freedom from anxiety (6:24-34): for day-by-day resistance to submitting to mammon, that is, to a life defined primarily by concern about food, drink, and clothing, a life in which a real dependency on these goods has the last word, enslaving those who live in this way (v. 24). For the Matthean churches such a life is pagan and lacking in faith (vv. 30, 32). By appealing to their heavenly Father’s dependable care, these churches reject such a life and, instead of depending on priorities determined by someone or something else, they establish their own priorities: the kingdom and righteousness of God, their king.
In other words, calling God “our Father” is an all encompassing statement made by the person who has given all their loyalties to God, that he is their ultimate Provider. God not mammon is Lord and caring Father is unfailing in his resourcing while the stuff of life can and will let us down. To say today that God is our Father, subverts any consumerist tendencies within us. Instead then of the focus so much being on the title “Father” as possible evidence of patriarchy, it can be taken as a subversive statement which challenges the powers that be, placing them ultimately under the rulership of Jesus Lord of the universe.
How could our conversations and prayers, public and private, reflect this subversive yet deeply encouraging thought?
“Our Father” is an address to a God who has maternal characteristics and can be imaged as Mother. “Our Father” is an address to a God who places the oppressive powers under his feet. “Our Father” is a call to a God who promises to never fail us. “Our Father”, is a statement of ultimate allegiance by the Christ follower. The expression “Our Father”, by the community in Christ, his church, must never be confused with some misguided notion around the masculinity of God. Instead it must be an address and expression that conveys in some way the beauty of this creator God. May we his church be more willing to reflect on and give our loyalty to this incomprehensible yet knowable God who gives us the privilege of calling him “Father”.
May we do this so that our world might see that God is not confined to being male or masculine but a being who is more mysterious and loving than we can ever comprehend or grasp.