The Fatherhood of God
The Very Rev’d Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D.
Why do Christians call God “Father?” There are those who would say that using masculine language for God is only the result of a patriarchal conception of God that we need to move beyond. But the significance of calling God Father goes much deeper than that. It is worth noting that no other religion calls God “Father.” Even in Old Testament Judaism, they never addressed God as Father. They might say metaphorically, that God is like a Father. But they never called God “Father” in the way that Jesus does.
Jesus brings something entirely new to the realm of human existence. He calls God “Father,” because God is his Father, and he teaches his disciples, “When you pray, pray like this: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Jesus could not call God “mother,” because he had a mother, and she wasn’t God. As we are “in Christ”—that powerful reality that the Apostle Paul deals with again and again in the New Testament—as we are in Christ, his Father becomes our Father.
But I hear the objection, “What about those who have had bad relationships with their fathers or who have had abusive fathers? It isn’t helpful for them to think of God as Father.” The problem is that naming God according to our conception of what is helpful relegates God to the level of a human construct. We don’t think of God as Father because it is a helpful analogy. We call God Father, because it is a reality—indeed the most precious reality that human beings can know—that if we are in Christ, his Father becomes our Father.
Those who may have had hurtful relationships with their earthly fathers can find healing and fulfillment in the true and perfect Fatherhood of God. God's love and care for us, through Christ, is a precious and powerful truth of which we must not lose sight amid the changing religious landscape that surrounds us.
Another wrong conception is the notion that God is everyone’s Father. Jesus, addressing the Pharisees, told them:
If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire” (John 8:42-44).
Clearly, the Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking were not the children of God. Jesus’ Father was not their Father, because they did not receive the One whom God had sent—Jesus himself.
While God is the Creator of every human being, he is not everyone’s Father. The Apostle John makes the distinction:
He (Jesus) was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God (John 1:10-13).
Even though Jesus, the Word, the Son of the Eternal Father, is the one through whom the world was made, when Jesus came into the world, his own—the people he had made—did not receive him.
But to those who did receive him, who believed in his name (i.e., received him by faith, confessed his name) he gave the power to become children of God. And Jesus refers to those people as being children born, not of natural descent—that is, they are not born children of God by their natural birth, rather they are those who are “born of God.”
Jesus makes the same point in John, chapter 3, when he tells Nicodemus: “"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or born from above).”
How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:5-7).
So, in the very clear words of Jesus, only those who are born again or born from above—not merely born physically, but “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8)—are the children of God who will see and inherit the kingdom.
We do the truth as well as our fellow human beings an injustice when we speak of the fatherhood of God as though it were universal. Those who have not believed in Christ’s name are not children of God. But every Christian ought to be ready and willing to tell them how they can be!
First, we have to get over the idea that sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with someone will offend them—that it is some kind of presumption to share our faith. We have a precious truth to share—how everyone can become a child of God through believing in Christ. That is why the word Gospel means Good News!
So let us share the Good News: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The Very Rev’d Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D., is Dean and President of Nashotah House Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Quincy.