Part 3 (of 3)
Jesus modeled a framework for understanding the nature and extent of God’s love – as our Father. The term “love” is misconstrued today, thrown around to justify sin and manipulate behaviors, because it has been detached from its source. Seeing God as a Father grounds “love” in the foundation of a dad’s relationship with his child. Our Lord embodies the perfect Father in countless ways. No matter how badly we mess up, God’s love for His children never diminishes. Conveying God’s love in that context would also lead more non-believers to Christ, accurately depicting how He feels about us and how we should relate to Him.
Christians and churches bear some responsibility for disconnecting “love” from its biblical roots. We begin the Lord’s prayer with “Our Father” but compartmentalize His character, not teaching that all aspects fit perfectly within a fatherly framework. Society could not judge God according to its standards of right and wrong if we debunked perceptions of God’s “intolerance” in the Old Testament, explaining that He’s a loving Father who protects and disciplines His children. Culture would be less inclined to dismiss Christians as “haters” if we better reflected the Father’s love to the world. “Atheists” would envy our security if we had more faith, not doubting our Father’s love when things don’t go our way.
How Religion Undermines Relationship
To the extent that religion is a man-made construct, it blocks relationship with the Father. Throughout history, religions across the globe have replaced God with human beings who serve as spiritual “fathers”. They relegate deities to various, more distant, positions that dictate the obligations followers owe to them, such as:
- Servants of a benevolent dictator
- Criminals facing a demanding judge
- Workers earning wages from a taskmaster
- Enlightened searching for inner divinity
- Disciples pursuing a glorious spiritual state
- Adherents selecting their preferred god(s)
- Converts forming their own conception of god
Whether abstract or concrete, none of those religious perspectives involve a close relationship with a loving Father. They either elevate humans, empowering them to determine their eternal fate by their actions, or marginalize god(s) by making their level attainable. Both scenarios give spiritual “fathers” the latitude to prescribe paths for achieving ultimate glory. By inserting themselves in between the Father and spiritual “orphans”, religious leaders claim favored status, closer to their deity than other followers. Assuming a preferred position means everyone else has to go through those spiritual “fathers” to get to their god(s).
That’s precisely what other religions resent most about Christianity. The concept of direct access to a loving Father eliminates the opportunity for leaders to maintain parental authority over people. Politicians and theocrats wage campaigns to eradicate Christianity from their borders because Jesus tore a veil (between the Father and His children) that they desperately want to stitch back up. Therefore, Christians bear the brunt of religious persecution internationally in the form of intolerance and discrimination. Ironically, Christians are also the ones most often accused of intolerance and oppression by the media in America. Our culture fears a relationship with the Father because in addition to experiencing His love, being a child also involves rules and accountability. For non-Christians both here and abroad, keeping God at arms-length means maintaining control – over their own lives and the lives of others. What they all miss out on is the chance to get to know the consummate Father on a deeply personal level.
How Christians and Churches Often Miss It Too
Christ-followers have no excuse for misunderstanding the relationship God has with His children. Jesus’ example and emphasis consistently pointed to God’s fatherhood. He went so far as to say, “do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9) That role is reserved solely for the Lord. Yet in churches and Christian social circles, the word “father” is used frequently either as a religious title or honorary designation. The implicit presumption is that spiritual “fathers” have more direct line to God for speaking to and hearing from Him. Accepting a “father” label carries with it assumption of God’s fatherly responsibilities as well as the scrutiny due anyone who aspires to such heights. Failure to live out the Father’s love will reflect poorly on Him.
In fact, the inability of Christians who have been put on a pedestal to live up to that billing has enabled society to play fast and loose with the word “love”. When role models for the Father’s love are not loving, society dismisses God’s love as well. When pastors do not adequately connect God’s love to that of a Father, churchgoers who never wonder about their dad’s (unconditional) love often question the heavenly Father’s (Agape) love when things go wrong. They do not grasp and therefore do not convey the concept of God as a perfect Father. God is love, so love without God is not truly love. He is the gold standard. And “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8) If many Christians don’t recognize the fatherly nature of God and His love, what chance do non-believers have?
No other description of who God is captures the full extent of God’s character. His love and justice seem on opposite ends of a spectrum until they convene around His fatherhood. Ask most Christians to describe God and their relationship with Him – you’re likely to hear “almighty”, “omniscient” and “follower”, “worshipper”. All of those carry some truth, but anything other than Father” and “child” inserts a wedge between God and His children. Christian leaders typically speak in more general terms about God’s love so churchgoers miss its fatherly context. We’re left to wonder whether the lack of emphasis on God’s fatherhood relates at all to the reasons why other religions add access layers between mankind and God.
Overplaying hierarchy within churches rather than empowering disciples encourages approaching “fathers” rather than the “Father” for guidance. Discipleship passes down responsibility to individuals to study, learn and teach others about Jesus. Recognition that all Christians regardless of the religious label thrust upon them are not “fathers” but children of the one true Father is a more biblical church growth model. Jesus bucked attempts by the religious establishment to erect walls impeding direct relationships with His Father. He continues to resist efforts to make church about pastors, buildings and a weekly event – “pray, pay and stay out of the way”. Like the Father in the prodigal son parable, Jesus welcomed with open arms all who bypassed relational roadblocks and ran straight to Him, like little children.
Churches focusing too heavily on growing congregations and not disciples divert attention away from the Father. They can inadvertently encourage members to make the church, pastor or fellowship their first love. The first love for most children is a dad and mom. When we are born, dad is our protector and provider, exactly what God is as our Father when we are reborn. Revelation 2 warned the Church at Ephesus and churches today to put nothing or no one between the “first love” of a Father and His children.
Reestablishing God’s Love as the Gold Standard
Church is culture’s only defense, but we’ve let our guard down. It’s clear to most pastors and ministry leaders, particularly those who work with troubled youth, that fatherhood determines the course of culture. Crime, poverty and education are highly correlated to the presence and involvement of dads. Churches have an opportunity to introduce communities filled with the fatherless (who therefore have no idea what true love looks like) to the most loving Father they could ever have. Yet many don’t speak or teach about God in those terms, nor do they actively demonstrate the Father’s love to a waiting, watching world.
Understanding, acting out and presenting God as a loving Father would change nearly every aspect of how we “do” church in America today…
- TEACHING – Explain all facets of God’s character and actions, both in people’s lives and in Scripture, in terms of the fatherly framework Jesus modeled for viewing our relationship with Him. Give all glory to the Father, refusing to accept parental status.
- MERCY – Reflect the love of our Father in how He would manage His house, like accountability for obedience but grace for repentance. Follow the Father’s lead outside the church as well, choosing love over condemnation and mercy over self-righteousness.
- HOPE – Churches prove they worship a loving Father, the only hope for spiritual orphans and a fraying social fabric, when they participate in bringing His Kingdom to earth as the Lord’s prayer prescribes (e.g. offering daily bread, forgiveness, and delivery from evil).
- COMPASSION – Act as only a Father would, who loves His children even when no one else will, no matter how unattractive or impoverished they may be. Look past exteriors to show those who feel unworthy of love that our Father would welcome them home.
- FAITH – Speak out as boldly for our Father as we would for our dad if he were being maligned. What society hears from Christians today is not children who love a Father, but a special interest group defending its morals, churches, religion, rights and privileges.
- MISSION – We fulfill our identity as the Father’s children by making disciples through His Holy Spirit. Bringing people into life-changing relationships with our Father is how we carry on the family’s generations and work, our Great Calling and Great Commission.
- UNITY – We bond as sons and daugthers of the same Father, not just as members of the same church or life group. Cliques form within churches and across the body of Christ because leaders don’t emphasize enough that God is a Father and we are all His children.
Until churches shift the paradigm – embracing and conveying God as a Father – the world will continue to reject His love in favor of “loves” of their own conception and convenience.
It’s Your Turn…
Please share other ideas for how churches can help steer society back toward the concept of God as Father to help them better understand His love…