Nineteenth-century Protestant liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack described the Christian faith as "the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man." But today even this liberal theologian would be accused of using sexist language and pressed to revise his statement to something like "the motherhood/parenthood of God and the family of humanity."
A growing trend seeks to redefine God's character in feminine terms as "mother," or at the very least, in gender-inclusive language. The ever-increasing evidence leaves no doubt — our culture is growing increasingly hostile to the fatherhood of God.
As people who base our faith and practice on God's authoritative inerrant Word, such a trend compels us to ask: What does the Bible say about God the Father? Does it ever describe God in feminine or gender-inclusive language and instruct us to address Him in such terms? Should we speak to God as 'mother?' Many would suggest there is nothing wrong with such a practice, offering the following three points as their rationale: (1) Scripture ascribes feminine characteristics to God; (2) God is spirit (John 4:24), and thus, referring to Him with feminine language like "mother" or heavenly parent is of little or no consequence; and (3) we — both male and female — were created in God's image, and thus, His image is gender-inclusive, enabling us to address Him in ways like "heavenly parent." But is this what Scripture teaches? Let's consider the biblical data.1
Appreciating Our Biblical Heritage
The Bible teaches that God the Father is the first person of the Trinity.2 The Old Testament establishes the concept of God as "Father," referring to Him as such about twelve times (e.g. Isaiah 64:8-9; Jeremiah 31:9; Deuteronomy 32:6). References to God as Father also can be found in Jewish literature from the era following Israel's exile to about AD 70.3
Jews understandably considered God as "Father" because He created the world, gave the Law to them, and maintained a unique covenantal Father-children relationship with them. Moreover, He was viewed as their protector, guarantor of justice, and the Father of the poor, orphans, and widows (e.g. Jeremiah 49:11; Psalm 68:5). Further, Old Testament references to Israel (e.g. Hosea 11:1) and the Messiah (e.g. Psalm 2:7) as "My son" certainly reflect the fatherhood of God, even if they did not specifically identify Him as such.4
Addressing the Cultural Challenge
First, the Bible without question uses feminine language and similes to describe God. For example, Isaiah 42:14 says that God will groan like a woman in travail, gasping breathlessly (emphasis mine). Note, however, that this passage does not say that God is "a woman in travail" — there is a difference. The verse simply describes His cry like that of a woman. The statement is not a definition of who God is. Even though the Bible sometimes uses feminine terminology to describe God, the principal language and imagery used to portray Him throughout is consistently and overwhelmingly masculine — there simply is no getting around this fact. Also, when Scripture does apply feminine imagery or language to God, it certainly never calls Him "mother," "she," or "her." In his book entitled Calling God "Father," John W. Miller correctly states, "Not once in the Bible is God addressed as mother, said to be mother, or referred to with feminine pronouns. On the contrary, gender usage throughout clearly specifies that the root metaphor is masculine — father."5
In addition, while it was not common, the Bible ascribed feminine traits to male figures such as Moses, Jesus, and Paul. For example, in Numbers 11:12, Moses asked, Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Likewise, in Matthew 23:37, Jesus lamented over Jerusalem's rejection of Him with the words: Jerusalem, Jerusalem! ... How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul described himself and his associates as not being burdensome to the church at Thessalonica, but rather, gentle as a nursing mother nurtures her own children (Galatians 4:19).
We certainly don't conclude from these images that Moses, Jesus, and Paul were female; we understand that they were merely using maternal metaphors to describe themselves, rather than addressing their actual gender. Notably, this practice is no different than when the biblical writers use feminine metaphors to describe God.
Second, we need to consider briefly the statement "God is spirit" and any ramifications it might have for addressing Him in feminine or gender inclusive terms. One might counter the previous discussion by arguing that there is a major disparity between God the Father and Moses, the incarnate Jesus, and Paul. They would point to the fact that God is without gender because He is spirit (John 4:24), while the others were fully human males. But does the fact that "God is spirit" really indicate that we should address Him in terms like "heavenly parent" or "mother"? There is absolutely no support for such a claim.
The context of this statement is Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria, and the discussion is about the place where people should worship God. Jesus informs the woman that one need not be present either in Jerusalem or in Samaria truly to worship God (John 4:21). True worship really has nothing to do with the place that one worships but rather with "one's inner spiritual condition."6
The phrase "God is spirit" suggests that "God is in no way limited to a spatial location."7 From this phrase we may also conclude that God the Father has no physical body. Indeed, His existence is unlike anything else in creation. But none of this in any way means that we need to refer to Him as "mother" or "heavenly parent." That specific claim is clearly without any biblical support. God is referred to as "Father" in Scripture.
Third, what does it mean when we say God created us in His image? What implications might this concept have regarding using feminine or gender inclusive language to refer to God? Because both male and female were created in God's image should we speak of Him as "mother" or "heavenly parent?" Interpreters differ on what is meant by man created in the "image of God" (imago Dei).
Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. offers a summary of what God intended when He created man in His image. He maintains that God created humans to bear His image or likeness. Considering the whole of Scripture, he thinks it likely that "the image of God in man is the soul's personal reflection of God's righteous character. To image God is to mirror His holiness."8 Others interpret the imago Dei more generally, "including human rationality, conscience, creativity, relationships, and everything we are as man."9 In any case, God uniquely shared the imago Dei with humanity; thus, humanity find its identity in Him. So, we see that the "image of God" concept really has nothing specifically to do with the so-called need to refer to or address Him in feminine or gender-inclusive terminology. Again, that specific claim is without any biblical support whatsoever. Indeed, these claims are unbiblical inferences that have been artificially attached to biblical concepts which are actually unrelated to the issue of recognizing God as Father.
Submitting to Our Foundational Authority
When we consider the fatherhood of God and how to address Him under the New Covenant, we need to look ultimately at Jesus' words on the subject. Why? Because God the Father reveals Himself through the Son (John 1:1, 14, 18; 14:9; Hebrews 1:1-3). Jesus taught this concept in Matthew 11:27 when He declared, No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him. He also said about God's revelation in the Son, The one who has seen Me has seen the Father; and I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; and The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own (cf. John 14:9-11). In other words, to know Jesus is to know the Father. Consequently, Christ's teaching on the fatherhood of God should not be considered tangential to God's revelation of Himself. He is (and thus, also His teaching is) the revelation of the Father.
What else did Christ have to say about God the Father and how to address Him?
In Matthew 6:9-13 Jesus gave His disciples the "Lord's Prayer" (probably better titled the "Disciples' Prayer") in which He taught His disciples to call God "our Father" (6:9). The Greek word for "Father" (pater) likely translates the Aramaic term Abba. This term of intimacy for God (almost like the English word "Daddy") was practically unparalleled in first-century Judaism.10 The word should not be taken to indicate that God has gender or sexuality.11 But it does mean that believers are privileged to be able to address the Almighty Sovereign God in such warm and intimate terms.
Jesus refers to God as "Father" in each of the Gospels. In Mark 14:36, He specifically uses the word Abba when praying to His Father. Joachim Jeremias has shown that "abba was a term of familial intimacy ... and points to Jesus' unique sonship." He indicates that the word also became a part of the early church's prayer life (cf. Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6), "signifying Jesus' salvific role in opening up the heart of the Father to all believers."12
God is also the Father of believers in Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:45; 6:6-15; John 1:12-13; Galatians 4:4-6; Romans 8:15-16). He sent His Son to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:5). Believers in Jesus are the adopted children of God!
In Romans 8:14-16 Paul provides his readers assurance of this adoption. First, all of those who are led by the Spirit are God's sons (Romans 8:14). Second, when they are converted to Christ they do not receive "a spirit of slavery" which produces fear, but "the Spirit of adoption" which leads them to cry, "Abba, Father" (8:15). Third, the Spirit bears witness with their spirit that they are God's children (8:16). In the second assurance, the intimate terms Abba and "Father" (pater) are used side-by-side which seems to go back to Jesus' agonizing experience in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36) when He prayed the same.13 Just think! Christians may address God in the same terms that Jesus Himself did — as "Abba, Father."
The New Testament also teaches that God is the Father of all creation (1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2; Ephesians 3:14-15). For example, Paul teaches in Ephesians that God, in His grace, has brought together lost Gentiles and Jews, peoples from different backgrounds, and is building them into one people, members of God's household (2:19). The apostle begins to pray in 3:16 that God might strengthen his readers inwardly through His Spirit. But in 3:14-15, he addresses God as "Father" and further identifies Him as the one from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. The phrase "from whom" (ex hou) in verse 14 indicates "origin" and refers back to the Father. The word translated "family" (patria) in verse 15 is a play on the word "Father" (patera) in verse 14 and denotes "any group derived from a single ancestor," in this case, families with a father as head.14 Since God is Father of humanity in a general sense (Acts 17:29), He is the Father to Whom all fathers owe their existence. Every family — whether in heaven or earth — owes its origination to Him.
Though God is the Father of all humanity, He is not the Father in the same way to unbelievers as He is to those who are justified by His grace through faith. But God, this loving heavenly Father, gladly welcomes lost sinners who repent (cf. Luke 15:11-31). He desires salvation of everyone (1 Timothy 2:4). Thus, He commands His children to share the Gospel and make disciples of people in every nation (Matthew 28:19-20).
To summarize: The first person of the Trinity has revealed Himself in Scripture as God the "Father." God the Father has revealed Himself through the Son. Jesus has instructed us to call His Father "our Father." He is truly the Father of believers in Christ. God is also the Father of all humanity. For whatever reason, God clearly expects to be understood primarily in masculine terms. Thus, that is how we should speak of Him as well. To do so does not mean that men are superior to women or godlier than they are. But to address or refer to God the Father in other than masculine terms is to go against what the Bible teaches and what historic biblical Christianity has always taught and practiced.
1. I have found Mark Brumley's articles quite helpful and adopted some of the approaches from "Why God is Father and Not Mother: Parts I and II" found at the following Web sites: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/mbrumley_father1_nov05.asp, and http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/mbrumley_father2_nov05.asp. Accessed: 5 July 2008.
2. That is, one God who expresses Himself in three persons: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
3. Daniel L. Akin, ed., A Theology of the Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), p. 203.
4. So also in the New Testament when Jesus is called God's Son.
5. John W. Miller, Calling God "Father": Essays on the Bible, Fatherhood & Culture (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), p. 51.
6. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 186.
8. Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. "Male-Female Equality and Male Headship," Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem; Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), p. 96.
10. Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: New American Commentary 22, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), p. 119. So also W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew: International Critical Commentary, Vol. I, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), p. 601.
12. Timothy George in A Theology of the Church (ed. Daniel L. Akin; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), p. 203.
13. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: The Bible Speaks Today, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994), p. 233.
14. Peter T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians: Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 255. See also Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), p. 474.
God The Father:
Rewards His children
Knows the needs of His children, and how best to meet those needs
Forgives His children
Matthew 6:14, 15
Provides for His children
Matthew 6:26, 32
Gives good gifts to His children
Matthew 7:11; James 1:17
Shows mercy to His children
Gives the Kingdom to His children
Receives and fully restores repentant children
Bestows full rights to His children
Blesses His children with every spiritual blessing
Bestows grace and peace upon His children
Loves His children, giving them eternal comfort and good hope
2 Thessalonians 2:16
Lovingly disciplines His children
Does not show partiality to His children
1 Peter 1:17
Has fellowship with His children
1 John 1:3, 6
Has provided the Perfect Advocate for His children
1 John 2:1
Terry L. Wilder is Research Professor of New Testament and Greek at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is also Academic Acquisitions Editor for B&H Publishing Group and a member of Thompson Station Baptist Church in Thompson Station, Tennessee.