Last week I went to a conference and heard about the father heart of God. It was inspirational and listed all the wonderful attributes that Dads bring which are necessary for the formation of mature and healthy adults. The speaker then went on to outline the social ills associated with fatherlessness – anti-social behaviour caused by a lack of respect and adherence to commonly held boundaries, gang membership that provides role models and a sense of belonging, the drive to succeed as a means of receiving affirmation and approval particularly from authority figures and the sexualisation of the young as they seek to satisfy a need for unconditional love and affection. This was followed by a time when one could be prayed for to receive a father’s heart of love. I was unsure how to respond to this. While I agreed with everything that was said and think too many children are growing up without a Dad and we are reaping the consequences of that as a society, I am a woman and will never be able to fulfil that role by virtue of my gender.
At the root of my dilemma, I think, was the fear that while a large section of the male population in the wider world seem to have abdicated their responsibility and it is right to highlight this, men inside the church might assert themselves even more strongly by way of compensation. In my experience patriarchy is alive and well in most sections of the body of Christ, even in denominations or networks who think they have dealt with this issue. Yes there are women leaders in churches and Christian organisations but is it proportionate and how many of them rise to the very top? Is this because by virtue of being male you are a better leader or that positions of influence are determined by men? Perhaps we are unconsciously clinging to a theology that lays more of the blame for temptation and sin on women, believes the appropriate and Christian response to injustice and oppression is submission and feels uncomfortable with ‘the helper’, who was created second, being an initiator of newness?
I realise I am exaggerating to make my point and accept that feminism has harmed women. It can be argued, for example, that sexual liberation has done more to demean and enslave women than give them greater freedom. However, I am so grateful that I have been able to develop my intellect and expand my thinking through the opportunity for education and have a fulfilling professional life because of access to employment, as well as being blessed and challenged through becoming a wife and mother. I also acknowledge that I could not have experienced this without men supporting, encouraging and giving me the space and confidence to ‘have it all’.
Genesis chapter 1 verse 27 says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And I believe we only begin to see God’s likeness when male and female are operating in a partnership that is mutually respectful and liberating. This can be exhibited in marriage, but not exclusively. Ideally it is demonstrated in every sphere of life, work and ministry. It is true that Jesus taught us to address God as, ‘Our father in heaven…’ But this is a metaphor and every metaphor contains the tension between difference as well as similarity. God is also described as a rock, being a fixed and firm foundation upon which to build one’s life, but that does not make Him exclusively rocklike in every other sense! Equally then God is not exclusively father and there is imagery in both the Old and the New Testaments which reveal God as mother. In Isaiah God says, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she as borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.” And in Matthew 23 verse 37 Jesus declares, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
I wonder if it is possible to recover the feminine traits of God while focusing on Him as Daddy. We need to address the lack of fathers in our society and call men to fill this gap in relationships formed through community as well as biology, but I believe it is only when parented by men and women working together in love and unity that we see God’s true nature revealed. Therefore, I affirm the unique role of father, but acknowledge that as mother, both to my own children and those whom God has entrusted me to nurture in my wider sphere of influence, I too wonderfully reflect and model the character and intention of God.