I’ve noticed more often lately that some of our Mennonite preachers and writers avoid calling God “Father.” Is this theologically correct? Is it wise? Do we want our children and newcomers to the church to lose the sense of God as Father? Do we really want to remove “Father” from our hymns, songs and creeds?
Recently, our choir sang a song called “The Lord’s Prayer,” which begins, “Our God in heaven…” It was beautiful and uplifting! But was it really necessary to change the words?
The argument goes that since God is neither male nor female, and that as the writers of the Bible were influenced by a patriarchal society, in our modern society we should remove all gender descriptions referring to God. In many ways, this makes sense. However, is it appropriate for us to change words given by Jesus? Unless we discredit the writing of the gospels as being completely unreliable, Jesus referred to or directly addressed God as Father 65 times in the Synoptic Gospels and more than 100 times in John. It would behoove us to hesitate before changing the words of Jesus.
The word Father is a basic tenet of the Trinity. If we describe the Trinity as God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, then the belief in God as three in one is no longer tenable. It reduces the status of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be separate from God. Without “Father,” our faith becomes not much different from other monotheistic faiths. If we neglect or distort God’s nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we risk slipping into the void of universalism. If my children and grandchildren are raised singing hymns and songs that no longer include references to God as Father, will they have an incomplete understanding of God? Will something really crucial be missing? Will this only further water down the uniqueness of Christianity and erode the truth of our faith in Jesus who knew God as Father?
Knowing God as Father teaches an intimacy with God that was modeled for us by Jesus, who referred to God as Father and taught us to do the same. If we take “Father” out of our Christian hymns and even alter Scripture, it imprints an impersonal and distant deity upon our consciousness not dissimilar to gods in other religions.
Replacing God with “Parent” or “Creator” doesn’t foster a strong sense of intimacy and trust. I recognize, however, that this is personal and likely different for others, especially for those who have lived through abuse or neglect from their earthly fathers or for those who have not known an earthly father. But, rather than removing anything that could cause offense, can we embrace the opportunity to discover what our heavenly Father is like? Is taking the struggle away the right solution?
Removing the word “Father,” no matter what we replace it with, means that we assume intellectual superiority to the writers of the Bible. We have rendered judgment that God is no longer Father. We have decided for ourselves what the nature of God is like — creating a god that is to our liking, rather than accepting God as revealed to us in Scripture. If we acknowledge that God is beyond our understanding, then how can we limit God to what we understand? Leaving the names and descriptions as they are in God’s Word acknowledges that God is mysterious, higher than ourselves, and that any description of God will always be inadequate.
Let’s remember that “Our Father, who is in heaven” is followed by “hallowed be your name.” This requires us to show honor and respect in how we address God. Praying as Jesus taught us to pray shows our reverence for God in that we will not assume that we have God figured out. It affirms that God is not created by the creature, but has made us and is omnipotent. In our worship, let’s respect the holiness and omniscience of God without requiring that God fit within our human constraint.
Yes, we continue to seek to know and understand God. We teach, preach, write and walk with others in understanding the God of the Bible. We can affirm God’s mothering qualities with many scriptural references and affirm that God is neither male or female while still praying, “Our Father.” We wrestle through this mystery and walk with others doing the same. But, let’s not delete a way of addressing our mysterious God as revealed in Scripture.
Tim Bentch is lead pastor of Souderton (Pa.) Mennonite Church.