Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Call No Man Father

Ten years ago my world changed. My wife gave birth to our first child, a boy. Present for the labor and delivery, I witnessed what can only be described as a miracle, however commonplace. A new person, body and soul, came into the world, and the world changed. It was, Sharon said later, “as if the universe was pushed six inches sideways.”

We began the stressful routine of round-the-clock crying, diaper changes, and feedings. In time, as sleep deprivation set in, Mom and Dad needed a break. Arrangements were made to leave the baby with Grandma. We went to a party given by Renée, an acquaintance from college. Though not married, Renée was expecting a baby, a decision she told us was “thought through very carefully.” She had no intention of marrying or changing her “lifestyle,” but the relentless ticking of her biological clock couldn’t be ignored. She wanted children.

I tried to dissuade her of romantic notions about baby care. “One person really can’t do everything,” I warned. “What about the baby’s father?”

She fixed me with a determined look and laughed. “A child doesn’t need a father!” I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. Intentional or not, it was a shot at me personally. But it was just a single shot in a war waging against fathers. In the last fifty years fatherhood has been under attack. The father has been redefined from the biblical figure of compassion and justice at the center of the family to a frivolous and expendable shadow. Television portrays fathers as self-righteous autocrats in dramas and ineffective buffoons in sitcoms. The father who is too dull-witted to do laundry or change a diaper is a staple in advertising, raised to the level of a cultural icon, a touchstone immediately understood and recognized.

The war against fatherhood is one in which men themselves are complicit. Many men have vacated their responsibility to fulfill this lifelong role for their children. They are not fathers in any real sense but impregnators, performing the basic organic requirements of fatherhood, then disappearing. When fatherhood is devalued, what reason does a young man have to rearrange his life, curtail his freedom, and shoulder a burdensome responsibility? Begetting is easy, raising a child is hard; yet sex is glorified, fathering devalued.

We are nearing the point at which the majority of children are raised in families without fathers. This fact should shock us. Instead we debate whether fathers are even necessary. Many in this public debate promote the idea that fathers are expendable. As one participant on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” put it, “There is nothing magical about a boy watching his father shave. He’ll learn to shave whether the father is there or not.” She echoed my friend’s conclusion: “A child doesn’t need a father.”

Ironically, society has reached this conclusion at the same moment that research has pointed to the opposite. Since the 1950s psychology has produced studies that confirm the father’s role. Writing in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Drs. Constance Ahrons and Richard Miller state, “Frequent contact with the father is associated with positive adjustment of the children.” James Dudley, a research professor at the University of North Carolina, notes that “fathers have much to offer their adolescent children in many areas, including their career development, moral development, and sex role identification.”

Indeed, the father plays a pivotal role in bringing his child to a healthy sexual identity. In 1953 P. S. Sears observed that a close relationship with his father fosters a boy’s masculinity. More recently researchers have identified a link between fathers who were physically or emotionally absent and a high incidence of homosexuality.

In fact, the positive effects fathers have on their children are most easily seen by looking at cases where fathers are absent:

  • 85 percent of all children with behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes
  • 71 percent of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes
  • 75 percent of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes
  • 70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes
  • 85 percent of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes
  • 70 percent of those serving long prison sentences were fatherless.
  • Fatherless children average significantly higher in teen suicide, illegitimate birthrates, incarceration, and unemployment.
  • Fatherless children average significantly higher in illegitimate birthrates.
  • Fatherless children average significantly higher in incarceration rates.
  • Fatherless children average significantly higher in unemployment rates.
  • Fatherless young men are more likely to commit serious crime, including rape and murder.

Perhaps it is in recognition of these consequences that the Old Covenant ends with a warning; if we don’t turn “the hearts of fathers toward their children and the hearts of children toward their fathers,” Yahweh will “strike the land with a curse” (Mal. 3:24). Our conclusion must be that fathers are not expendable but are absolutely necessary to the developing human person. 

Then whence arise the attacks, denigrations, and dismissals of fathers? Causes ranging from a poor relationship with one’s own father to aberrant political ideologies can give rise to hatred of the “father-image.” Some react to deep personal scars, others may be immature, even thoughtless. But such casual causes are not the likely source of an animus so widespread and cancerous.

As Christians we need to apply the biblical principle: “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matt. 7:16–20). The results of this war on fatherhood is the destruction of souls. There is something diabolical in it. Paul warns us that it “is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against principalities and powers who bring darkness to this world” (Eph 6:12). There is no mistaking the spiritual dimension of this attack, but it is only a reflection of a greater war, a war against the Fatherhood of God. 

Today many feminist theologians are waging a battle against the “image” of God as Father. They wish to “depatriarchalize” the God of Scripture. In their critiques, the Father image is wedded to complaints of sexism in the Church. One such writer, Mary Daly, puts the complaint in a nutshell: “If God is male, then male is God.” This formula gets right to the marrow of the feminist’s bone of contention. Images of God as Father, they argue, imprint God with an indelible “maleness” which elevates males to some divine status unavailable to females. To correct this perceived problem much ink has been spilled in recovering the latent feminine images of God in Scripture.

The Catholic Church, of course, always has taught that God has no gender. The Catechism puts it in the clearest terms: “In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective ‘perfections’ of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband” ( Catechism of the Catholic Church, 370). 

Some theologians directly oppose the image of God as Father. With a greater ferocity than even human fatherhood has drawn, they attack and devalue the Fatherhood of God.

They argue that wherever God is presented as “father,” women are denigrated—and that the term “father” is stained with the blood of patriarchy, prejudice, and sexism. They argue that the Fatherhood of God which Jesus preached is neither binding nor necessary. Joan O’Brien, a professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a former Dominican sister, gives Jesus’ use of the term “Father” this novel interpretation: “Jesus introduced the widespread use of the father-metaphor for God, but in a new way, obscured by translation and subsequent history. With the word ‘Abba’ he expresses a special intimacy with God. . . . By using a child’s word for his relationship with his ‘Daddy God,’ Jesus frees us to use whatever metaphor best expresses our confidence in God.” 

Thus scriptural images are wrested from revelation and made utilitarian. The measure of a metaphor is its usefulness, derived from what one already believes; hence the feminist call for images of God which “match our experience.” Once untethered from revelation, imaging God is an open market. The nadir of this effect was the “Re-Imagining Conference” held in Minneapolis in 1993.

Participants were encouraged to “re-imagine God through emotional images and to sing a song of blessing to Sophia, “the goddess of Wisdom.” While the whole conference was designed to explore “new images” and to re-affirm the “feminine” of God, the dark side was an undercurrent of attack on traditional images of God as Father. One speaker rejected the image of the Crucifixion, saying, “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.” 

The Fatherhood of God is rejected in less dramatic ways. Thousands of Christians find the image of a father to have no utility based on their own experiences. One online correspondent put it this way, “We humans have never experienced a perfect father. Many have had truly bad experiences with ‘father’ or ‘mother’ or both. Thus ‘Father’ . . . could be an obstacle to spiritual growth rather than an aid.” This is the rationale of most who reject God as Father. Embracing a utilitarian view of image, they simply do not find “Father” to their own liking.

There is a logic to this approach. Images do have a utilitarian.aspect. An image is based on a broad social understanding. It is only as good as its ability to communicate with certainty. When the common basis of the image disappears, it is like the salt that lost its taste, “good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot.” If any touchstone in our society is in danger of losing its taste, it is fatherhood. Decades of devaluation have worn thin its ability to communicate goodness, faithfulness, or lovingness.

It is not just external attacks that have accomplished this. Fathers themselves have failed their children at a staggering rate. Like Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, we could compile a scrapbook of horrors perpetrated by fathers. The morning papers and the evening news tell the story. Fathers have been guilty of unspeakable crimes: emotional, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, cruelty, even murder. Not all, surely, not most. Yet even fathers who never approach such behavior leave deep scars on their children. Many fathers are detached, distant, and unloving to some degree. At times it seems that fathers are doomed to fail.

Recent books detail what has been identified as the “father-wound,” an all-but-inevitable psychic scar that fathers leave on their children’s souls. Even the best fathers wound. Some leave wounds that are near fatal, and some leave nothing at all in their children but a void. It is cruelty to force upon such wounded souls an image of God as their father. It can only lead, not to love and reconciliation, but to hating God.

So goes the logic of those who reject God’s Fatherhood. Isn’t it cruel, they ask, to press this bankrupt image on people who cannot accept it? Yes. Or it would be, save that God’s Fatherhood isnot a mere image. It is a transcendent truth.

“Father” describes a relationship. It denotes two parties joined together in a familial bond. As Thomas Aquinas notes, “The name ‘Father’ signifies relation” ( Summa Theologiae I:33:2:1). Moreover it is a relationship which is chosen by God. He invites us to “call out to me saying, ‘My Father, my God . . .’” (Ps. 89:26).

Jesus himself often refers to God as “my Father.” This is not an exclusive relationship between Jesus and God, but one that God extends to all his people. In fact, this Fatherhood is primary, the rule by which all other fatherly relationships are measured. Paul writes, “I pray, kneeling before the Father, from which every paternity, whether spiritual or natural, takes its name” (Eph. 3:14–15). God alone is the real Father. All other fathers are reflections or distortions.

Those who have suffered from their own fathers need this good news. Instead of being excused from accepting God as Father, they need to be strengthened and encouraged to enter into a healing relationship with their one true Father. For those who have been abused or abandoned by their human fathers, the image of a heavenly Father may be an obstacle, but overcoming the obstacle will bring God’s great gift for us: his perfect fatherly love.

When we measure our human fathers by God’s Fatherhood we see that all have failed. Forgive them! But we also gain the true sense of what a father is and of who our Father is. We find our true and loving Father at last, and he heals us from all our “father-wounds.” He is the only one who can.

“Father” is more than image, it is the way God has chosen for us to be bound to him in love. And it is more still. Images and descriptions are removed from the object they describe, so they are often denoted by modifiers: “as,” “like.” Their great failing is to tell us how God is, not who God is.

Only once in the Old Covenant does God reveal who he is. Moses asks for God’s name as a sign. And God replies “I Am Who Am. This is what you must say to the sons of Israel . . . ‘Yahweh . . . has sent me.’ This is my name for all time” (Exod. 3:13–15).

Unlike ordinary names, which may obscure, the name of Yahweh reveals God as he is. This is so much the case that when Moses later asks God, “Show me your glory, I beg you!” God replies, “I will let all my splendor pass in front of you. I will pronounce before you the name ‘Yahweh’” (Exod. 33:18–19). This divine self-revelation is so highly reverenced by the Jewish people that a prohibition against speaking the divine name was established for fear of using it vainly. Nevertheless, “Yahweh” is found 6,528 times in the Old Covenant. The name of God far outweighs any and all scriptural images, yet there is not a single instance of this name being used in the New Covenant. Why?

The answer is found in the Gospels. Jesus came for our salvation, to be the Lamb of God “who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). He also came to teach, to be a “light shining in the darkness” (John 1:5).

A third mission of Jesus, intimately connected to that of Savior and teacher, is that of patriarch of the New Israel. Scripture contrasts Jesus with Moses, the Old Covenant patriarch. The parallels are extensive. Moses was high priest; Jesus is high priest. Moses taught what he received from God; Jesus taught what he received from his Father. Moses saw God on the mountain and his face reflected God’s glory; Jesus was overshadowed by God’s presence on the mountain and was transfigured. Moses freed the people from slavery in Egypt; Jesus freed the world from slavery to sin. Moses gave the people bread from heaven; Jesus gives the bread of life. Moses revealed the true name of God—how much more qualified would Jesus be to reveal God’s name! He knew God in a way Moses could not. Moses begged just to see God’s glory, but Jesus is given that glory (John 17:5). Jesus tells us, “Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is but the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Luke 10:22).

Did Jesus, too, reveal God’s name? He prayed, “I have made known your name to the men you took from the world to give to me” (John 17:6). That name was not “Yahweh.” Jesus could not reveal a name that was known to all Jews and repeated 6,528 times in Scripture!

What name did he reveal to his disciples? It is a treasure hidden in the open, something so common that it no longer attracts our attention. The name by which Jesus lays bare the nature of God is “Abba” (“Daddy” or “Father”). Jesus used it consistently. He taught it to his disciples. And we affirm it every time we say the prayer he gave us; “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” To hallow God’s name is to bless it. The name which we bless is “Father.” When Jesus speaks God’s true name he does not “free us to use whatever metaphor best expresses our confidence in God.” He frees us from picking and choosing among competing images that necessarily fall short. He reveals God in his essence.

Aquinas tells us that a name is given to that which “perfectly contains its whole signification, before it is applied to that which only partially contains it; for the latter bears the name by reason of a kind of similitude to that which answers perfectly to the signification of the name” ( Summa Theologiae I:33:3). God is the only one who contains and fulfills all that the name “Father” signifies. This is why Jesus warns us, “call no man father” (Matt. 23:9). To put other fathers before God, the true Father, is a form of idolatry. Earthly fathers are worthy of the name only when, by his grace, they reflect the true Fatherhood of God.

It can not be said too plainly. When we reject “Father,” we reject God.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!