On Father’s Day my children gave me a card that said on the cover, “Happy Father’s Day, Dad. You know this family just wouldn’t be the same without you …” I was touched. I began to feel all choked up—until I opened the card and read, “But hey, who wants to live in a normal family anyway!”
My children were joking, of course! But these days such jokes tend to make fathers a little nervous.
In many respects, fatherhood is not held in high esteem in our society today. Fathers are viewed in some quarters as an irrelevance or a nuisance or even a danger, so far as the upbringing of children is concerned. A newspaper article on artificial insemination illustrates the point. The writer states:
More women are turning to artificial insemination by donor (AID) as a method of conceiving a child. And not just lesbians. A study carried out in Perth last year showed that heterosexual women also were having babies by this method.
The main reason was that they wanted to rear a child, or children, without any interference from a father. They were independent women who sought the freedom to do things in their own way, and AID provided the solution. There was no contact with the father, no custody claims, no child-rearing clashes, visitation rights or any conflict whatsoever. Legally, he simply did not exist.1
Apparently, these “independent women” are so determined to avoid “any interference from a father” that they are prepared to be artificially inseminated like cows. There can hardly be a stronger rejection of fathers and fatherhood than that!
In some feminist and sociological circles there is talk about the New Father model. The whole thrust of this model is to strip fathers of all masculine characteristics so they will be just like mothers. New Father visionaries “grimace about maleness”. They want fathers to be androgynous, genderless. They want to redefine fatherhood so that it is indistinguishable from motherhood. Indeed, they speak of “co-ed mothering”; and ask earnestly, “Can a man and a woman mother together?” At heart, they believe that “there is nothing special about a father, that there are no fundamental tasks in family life that are properly and necessarily his work.” Consequently, it hardly matters whether fathers stick around or not. But if they do, they had better behave like mothers, or else!2
How should Christians respond to such hostility to fathers and fatherhood? One way could be to explore the specific duties that a father has in relation to his children, such as the duty to provide, to protect, to direct, and to discipline. However, I believe our initial response should focus on a more basic issue. Ultimately, the only way to counter claims that fatherhood has no intrinsic reality or worth is to reflect on what the Bible has to say about the origin of fatherhood. Through its many allusions and instructions to fathers, the Bible makes it plain that fatherhood is a reality that involves an identity and a function quite distinct from motherhood. But where does this reality come from? What is the source, the origin, of fatherhood? The Bible offers an astonishing answer to this question.
The apostle Paul states in Ephesians 3:14-15, “I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name.”*The reference to “all fatherhood” is a reference to the ideal and practice of fatherhood in families everywhere. Human fatherhood takes its reality from God the Father. He gives his name and nature to it. He is “the Father of all fatherhoods”.3Indeed, “the very notion of fatherhood is derived from the Fatherhood of God.”4
Where does human fatherhood come from? It comes from God the Father! He is the originator of fatherhood in human society. He is the Father of all fathers. He defines and dignifies human fathers by reference to himself.
Fatherhood originates from God because he is the Original Father. Such a thought leads us into the very depths of the Godhead, and gives us an insight into why the Father is called “the Father”. He is not named “the Father” because we humans needed some way of representing him, and fatherhood is the imagery we happened to settle on. Nor does he bear the title because he acts in a fatherly way towards his creation. Rather, the primary reason the first Person of the Trinity is called the Father is because he has a Son. The Father is the Father because of the Son.
The thing that defines someone as a father is a child. A man cannot be a father apart from a child. Fatherhood is a reality that arises from a relationship. A man is a father by virtue of his relationship to and with a son or a daughter. In the same way, God is the Father because of the Son. From all eternity the Father has shared an intimate, paternal relationship with his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And he takes his name from that relationship.
The relationship between the first two persons of the Godhead is a Father-Son relationship. It is a family relationship. And it is this relationship that underlies the concept and gives rise to the reality not only of “all fatherhood”, but also of “every family” (NASB) in heaven and on earth. To the extent that it is a family, each human family takes after the Divine Family. All families get their legitimacy from the Original Family within the Godhead. Along with every father, every family is named after the Father, who himself is named after his relationship with his Son.
It is quite wrong to think that human beings took the initiative to call God “Father”. Recently, Oxford University Press published a new translation of the Bible in which God is designated “Father-Mother”. One of the thoughts behind this is that by calling God “Father” the Bible expresses the prejudice of its male authors—a prejudice that attributes masculine characteristics to God which do not really belong to him. This masculinisation of God could have been an innocent and inadvertent mistake on the part of the prophets and apostles. But more likely, feminists would have us believe, it came about because the Scriptures were written by men in a patriarchal society who wanted a picture of God that would prop up the illegitimate power of men.
The Holy Spirit speaking with and through Paul in Ephesians 3:14-15 will have none of this. God is not like a father: he is a father—the Father! From all eternity he has been in a Father relationship with his Son. Furthermore, he is not like human fathers: human fathers are, albeit in a limited and imperfect sense, like him. Fathers and fatherhood are named after God, not the other way around.
It is true that God has no gender. He is neither male nor female. Yet it is also true that in his word God reveals himself to us in masculine terms, and teaches us to relate to himself in those terms. And while female imagery is used for God on several occasions in the Bible, nowhere is God ever directly spoken of as Mother or Wife or Queen or Lady. Nowhere ever! He is always and only spoken of as Father and Husband and King and Lord. And he is the Father, Husband, King and Lord of Christian men as well as Christian women. The male believer, every bit as much as the female believer, must rely upon his provision and protection and submit to his discipline and headship. In that sense, we are all feminine to him.
Christians should not entertain the view that the masculine portrayals of God in scripture merely reflect the masculine perspectives of the writers. Such a view is a direct attack on the inspiration of God’s word. It leads us to believe that the prophets and apostles were not after all holy and honourable men who wrote as the Holy Spirit directed them, but rather were men who could not see past their own patriarchal society and sexist prejudices. We dare not think such things about the men through whom God communicated his infallible word.
The apostle Peter states that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21, NIV). So then, if the Holy Spirit had moved the prophets and apostles to describe God as Mother, they would have done so. But he did not. He inspired them to view him and to reveal him as Father. If this is not true then it is an argument not to alter but to abolish the Bible. For if God did not speak truthfully and meaningfully when he revealed himself to us as Father and Husband and King and Lord, then why should we believe he has spoken truthfully and meaningfully in other matters?
While not denying that the Father imagery for God is inspired, some Christians maintain that it is nonetheless inappropriate imagery for contemporary society. “There are many bad fathers about,” they reason, “and fatherhood has fallen into disrepute. So it is no longer tenable to speak of God as ‘Father’. This title simply alienates people.” There are several errors in this type of reasoning.
Firstly, while some fathers are bad, there are not nearly as many bad fathers as feminists, therapists and journalists would have us believe. Many fathers are good, while many more are in between, caring for their children acceptably though not outstandingly. We should not uncritically accept the bad press given to fathers today, let alone revise our beliefs and behaviours in the light of it.
Secondly, we should not allow the existence of the bad to overshadow the existence of the good. There are good earthly fathers, and there is a good heavenly Father. These good models should govern our view of fatherhood, not the bad models. We should not fall silent about the good just because others are shouting about the bad. As Paul admonishes in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Thirdly, we should encourage those who have had a bad experience of fatherhood to realise that it is possible to have a good experience of fatherhood. We must help the young man with a bad father to see that he need not be a bad father himself. We must help the young woman with a bad father to see that the father of her children need not be bad. People harmed by a bad relationship with a father need more than anyone else to be reassured that a good relationship with a human father is possible.
Fourthly, we should encourage those who have had a bad earthly father to see that they can have a good heavenly Father. Such people need a father whom they can trust, and God is such a Father. He will be a true Father to them. And as they experience his loving fatherhood, they will also experience healing from the wounds inflicted by an unloving father. Those who have been hurt or abandoned by a human father do not need us to apologise because Jesus and the apostles portray God as “Father”. On the contrary, they need us to tell them that this good and loving Father can be their Father, too. What better news can we give to the emotional orphan than to tell him or her that God delights to be “a father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5, NIV)?
When we appreciate that the Father is the One from whom all fatherhood flows, we begin to appreciate that the name “Father” is not an arbitrary title for God. We also begin to appreciate that fatherhood is not an arbitrary state for men. Fatherhood is not merely a human construct, a human invention. The proponents of the New Father model, as already noted, want to destroy all gender-based parental roles. They ignore or deny all biological, emotional and intellectual differences between men and women. They strive to turn fathers into mothers. They want to take the masculinity out of fatherhood. And they think they are free to do this because they think that fatherhood is both unimportant and arbitrary. But they are wrong.
Fatherhood is important and it is not arbitrary. It is not something we have constructed: it is something that has been constructed for us. It cannot be done away with or altered at a whim because God gives his name and his nature to it. Fatherhood derives its existence and its function from the Father. Consequently, it must be viewed and practised with respect. We are not free to minimise or modify it to suit ourselves. On the contrary, we are under an obligation to discover its true purpose and its best expression. To do this, we must ponder the instructions and insights God offers to fathers in his holy word. And we must look to the Father himself and examine his fatherly relationship with both his eternal Son and his adopted children.
Indeed, we human fathers need to become personally acquainted with the divine Father. Such an acquaintance can be arranged by his Son, Jesus Christ, who said, “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). And he chooses to reveal the Father to everyone who approaches him in repentance and faith.
The Father is the foundation of our fatherhood. Only he can give enduring meaning and dignity to our nature and role as fathers. Only he can supply adequate strength and wisdom to help us to discharge our paternal duties. Only he can give ultimate meaning to our children as they see his love and authority in us.
With Paul, then, let us kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood and every father in heaven and on earth is named.
* The subtleties of the Greek text allow several variations of meaning. This translation is found in the margin, or footnote, of the New International Version.
The main text of the New International Version renders Paul’s statement: “I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name”. Translated this way, the reference to the whole family is a reference to all Christians who, having become the children of God by faith, constitute the family of God by adoption. In heaven and on earth, believers are named as a family by virtue of their relationship with God as their Father. Such a thought is true, but it is probably not the truth foremost in Paul’s mind on this occasion.
The New American Standard Bible translates Paul’s statement: “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name”. Translated this way, the reference to every family is a reference to every group throughout the world that is headed by a father. All such groups are named and modelled after God the Father.
1. Dorothy Lenthall, “Whose baby am I?”, West Australian, 15 July 1995, “Big Weekend”, p.5.
2. David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America (Basic Books, 1995); part of chapter 6, quoted in The Australian Family, Vol.16, No.2, July 1995.
3. E.K. Simpson and F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957; rpt 1975), p.76.
4. John R.W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984; rpt 1991), p.134.
This article was first published by Life Ministries as a pamphlet in 1996 and is reprinted in Life News for the benefit of those who missed it two decades ago—not to mention those whose memory of it has waned! We feel that its insights are both timeless and timely.