Why God the Father?
Last night at Bible study an excellent question was asked - why do Christians refer to God as Father?
After all, Jesus made it clear that “God is spirit” (John 4:24), so God is neither male nor female. However, God reveals Himself in ways that help us to understand who He is, titles such as “King”, “Lord”, “Judge”, “Healer”, and also “Father”.
God is directly referred to as “Father God” over 150 times in the Bible. He is sometimes referred to in a way that seems feminine, but He is never once referred to as “Mother God”. Genesis 1:27 shows that both men AND women are equally created in God’s image: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”, so why does God explicitly reveal Himself as a father and not as a mother?
Here are my thoughts on the matter! I would encourage you to check out everything I say in the Bible - never just take my word for it!
The Incarnation necessitates a father
With any theological question, I find it helpful to think about what it says about the nature and character of God.
The “incarnation” is the theological word for the Word of God taking on human flesh. Jesus, the Divine Son of God, was conceived by the Holy Spirit by the will of the Father with a human mother. As such, Jesus walked the earth fully God and fully man at the same time. This is how He is able to be the perfect sacrifice to save humans (the book of Hebrews goes into detail on this).
One could ask “why not God the mother”? Well, without wishing to get too graphic, Jesus’ conception was not sexual in nature (in contrast to Greek and Roman legends about their gods):
“Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
If God were to fulfil the mother half of Jesus’ parentage, then it would have been necessary to have a human father, and, well, biologically speaking, that doesn’t work - a man doesn’t have a womb, he cannot be impregnated, he can only impregnate. Only a woman could carry the precious Son of God in her body and give birth to Him.
And so, in the incarnation, we see God parenting in partnership with a human being - the only way the perfect Godman could have been conceived. Jesus didn’t teleport down from the clouds - He came to Earth born of a woman just like all of us. He came as a refugee into poverty! And THAT is so incredibly special - He suffered just like we do. He wasn’t a phantom, a ghost, or some kind of pretend person - He was fully real. That is so beautiful to me, I struggle to express how magnificent that was, how like God to come in such a manner that is at once utterly extraordinary and utterly normal!
The Gospel: Adopted into God’s family
Jesus told His followers to pray to God not just as Lord and judge, but as Father, just like He did. This is extremely important because it relates to the concept of God adopting us as His children when we repent of our sins and put our trust in Jesus to save us. The Gospel emphasises this beautiful adoption into God’s family because of what Jesus has done for us, that we gain the rights of children of God, even though we were born into sin!
In Ephesians 3, Paul wrote “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name”. The New Testament was written in Greek, and apparently in Greek the word “family” has its roots in the word “father”.
I think this is hugely significant. The concept of family is God’s idea; it’s right there in Genesis 2: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (a passage that Jesus reiterates in the Gospels to re-emphasise God’s vision of marriage). God endorses human families, and the father is traditionally considered the head of the family. In the same way, God is the head of His family. And the concept extends even further - in His church, God the Father has has a beautiful bride for His beloved son.
This is consistent with how the ancient world would have seen a father - a provider, a protector, a guide, a leader, a teacher and more.
The Family: rooted in the Father
For 21st century Westerners may well say “but a mother could fulfil such a role”, and in many ways she may (particularly as a single parent). Second, third and now fourth wave feminism have increasingly sought to erase any distinction and to suggest that gender is essentially performative and masculine and feminine interchangeable. Such was not the perspective of the ancients; the father was the head of the household, which was a weighty responsibility to care for everyone under his care.
I uphold a Biblical position on the family, which is often referred to as “complementarianism”, where men and women are of equal dignity and worth, but fulfill different roles in family and church life in a beautiful self-giving partnership where each sacrifices for the other. This has been the church’s position through most of her history. I realise that to 21st century ears it sounds radical, and granted, it is VERY easy to take complementarianism too far. It is only safe when carried out under the context of Christlike love, self sacrifice and prayerful concern for the other.
Complementarianism is not to be interpreted as one party “lording it over” the other. The general principle can be found in Jesus teaching, for example, ‘Jesus called them aside and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”‘. The specific application is in Ephesians 5 where wives are told to obey their husbands, who in turn are told to LAY DOWN THEIR LIVES for their wives. One does not work without the other! As a husband, this is rather intimidating, so I must look, again and again, to the perfect Father God as my example, and lay down all that I have for my wife, and to lead her in humility and wisdom.
So, with the Biblical perspective that men and women are equally loved, equally gifted, yet are different and carry out differing roles in the family, it makes sense that God would reveal Himself as a tender, loving, wise Father, protecting His beloved family.
Firstly, God as Father is necessary for the incarnation - only a woman could have carried Jesus in her body.
Secondly, God as Father is the outcome of our adoption into His family through Jesus’ work on the cross and the leading of the Holy Spirit, consistent with the incarnation.
Thirdly, God as Father is the pattern of the ideal family, consistent with the pattern of both old and new testament family life, and He calls earthly fathers to radical holiness, self-sacrifice and love as they protect and steward their precious families.
Finally, God is Spirit; He is beyond sex. He is beautiful beyond description, incomparably kind, infinitely wise, and to be trusted. He has chosen, in His wisdom and mercy, to reveal Himself as a Father; even a “father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68). This is not a cold, distant God, nor a spiteful deadbeat dad. This is the infinite Lord of all the Universe, Love Himself, inviting you and I into His family, to dwell in His house, with Him, forever.
Drawing on C.S.Lewis, Gavin Ashenden has some thoughts on this matter that are worth reading!