A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
11th September 2009
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In the midst of last Sunday’s celebrations of Father’s Day, I was told a depressing story of the rejection of fatherhood.
A woman complained to us about a minister constructing a new liturgy that intentionally omitted any reference to God as Father. Doing this around Father’s Day is more than a mixed message about fathers. Rejecting the fatherhood of God is an assault on the very nature of Christianity.
In a sinful world it is undoubtedly true that there have been some dreadful fathers. It is also true that all fathers will from time to time fail in their duties and responsibilities. Christians should weep with those who weep and defend the rights of the downtrodden. So it is understandable that a Christian conscience will side with the victims of bad fathers.
The intimacy of family living makes children very vulnerable to sinful fathers. Statistically the worst fathers are more often ‘stepfathers’ in de-facto relationships with the child’s mother. Yet sometimes it is the natural father who is dreadful, while some stepfathers are wonderful examples of God’s fatherly love and kindness.
What makes the failure of fathers so bad is that they are the very people given the task of caring for their families. It is one thing when a person fails you, or hurts you by their sinful action but it is so much worse when that person is the God appointed guardian of your welfare.
The scars that some of us wear as a result of bad fathering are deep and painful. But it is exactly these deep hurts that testify to the significance of fatherhood. They do not signify the reason to dispense with fathers or fatherhood rather they signify the importance of the role and our need to raise the standards of fathering.
The standard is God himself, from whom fatherhood is derived (Ephesians 3:14-15). It is not that God is likened to human fatherhood, nor is fatherhood a metaphor for God. God is The Father after whom our fatherhood is modelled. He is the genuine real father and we are sinfully distorted images of him.
This is why we are to call no man father except our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 23:9). He is the real father of his people, and we must be wary of putting humans in his place.
But God’s fatherhood is more profound still for he is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3, Ephesians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:3). This is not a temporal activity of God but his eternal relationship with his Son.
Thus in our prayerful dependence upon God we have been taught by the Lord Jesus to call God “Our Father who is in heaven”. For every good and perfect gift is from above coming from the Father of lights (James 1:17). And if our earthly sinful fathers know how to give good gifts to their children how much more will our heavenly Father give good things to those who ask (Matthew 7:11). In particular our Heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13).
The Holy Spirit whom the Father gives is the Spirit of his Son – our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed we are told that, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). And it is the Spirit who not only brings us new birth as the sons of God but also teaches us to call God “Father”, as we read in Romans 8:14-17: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (cf Galatians 4:5-6).
Being taught by the Lord Jesus Christ to call God father, and being moved by the Holy Spirit to call God Abba, Father, it is a little difficult to understand how a minister of the gospel could ever purposely devise a liturgy that would avoid calling God “Father”. Prima facie it appears that he could not have the Spirit of God – for he neither wishes to follow the teaching of Jesus nor is moved by the Holy Spirit to cry out to God as his Father.
This rejection of fatherhood may be motivated by the sinful failure of human fathers, but it does nothing to help that problem and everything to make it worse. We need to return to our heavenly Father to find forgiveness for our failures; both receiving forgiveness from him and being forgiving like him. We need to find in his fatherliness the pattern and model of fatherhood to place before ourselves and the next generation of fathers.
More importantly still, such a rejection of our heavenly father is not just confusion about fatherhood. It is a serious assault on the very nature of our relationship with God our Father, through the Spirit of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.