In the age political correctness and inclusivity, there seems to be a bulls-eye painted on the back of the church when it comes to traditional language used to express the Christian faith. Gone are the days when pronouns could be used freely as a part of liturgy, in sermons and in prayers. Pastors, professors and even Sunday school teachers must now be on guard as they prepare lessons and manuscripts, carefully applying correct verbiage lest someone become offended. To be open and honest, I agree that when we speak of persons within the church and world, we need to use language that is both welcoming and sensitive to human issues. But when we are speaking of God, there is a language central to the tradition of Christian faith and cannot be ignored. I am speaking of the Trinitarian name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Recently I picked up an article in our local paper concerning the matter of church language, especially when speaking about the name of God. Columnist Dan Munday asks the question, [when speaking about God], “Does language matter?” The context of the story is a funeral hosted by a congregation that uses so-called inclusive language throughout. In the column, the pastor explains that, because some women my feel uncomfortable when calling God “Father” due to their broken relationships with earthly fathers, it is better to choose other words to address God, rather than Father. More on that in a moment.
In many churchly circles, and for the sake of being inclusive, some have suggested that the Church replace the Trinitarian language of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” with other formulae such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier,” or perhaps “wisdom, liberator and comforter.” The difficulty here is that, while these words accurately describe instances of God’s activity in people’s lives, they do not serve as Trinitarian names for God. The acts of creating, redeeming and sanctifying are all acts of God. Just as the Father is confessed to be creator, so too is the Son (…All things came into being through him…John 1:3). God redeemed humankind from sin through the sacrifice of his own Son Jesus, yet it is God who is the redeemer, not exclusively Jesus. And while we receive faith and forgiveness as gifts of the Holy Spirit at baptism, it is God who sanctifies. To speak of the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as Sanctifier would be speaking in modalist terms for God and denying the three distinct persons united in the one true God.
God is reveals himself to us through Scripture as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). We confess this to be true through the creeds and Lutheran Confessions. If one believes and confesses Jesus as God’s Son, then conversely we must also be faithful in confessing the first person of the godhead to be the Father, for it is Jesus himself who reveals this person of God as his Father. Making substitutions for the sake of inclusivity or other agenda would be in effect refusing God’s revelation of the Trinity as recorded in the gospel. Jesus enjoyed a close loving relationship with his heavenly Father. It is the same relationship we, as children of God enjoy through our baptism into Christ. Wouldn’t pastors, professors and Sunday school teachers be doing better service to offer sound teaching, using the example of Jesus and his Father as the example of what true fatherhood is?
Certainly there are people, male and female, who have suffered abuses at the hands of their earthly father. We need to be sensitive to these issues and offer compassion as best we can. Those who suffer abuses at the hands of earthly fathers come away with a distorted view of what true fatherhood is. Not all earthly fathers are bad, and certainly not all are good; but fatherhood, as revealed in Scripture and lived out through the relationship of Jesus and his heavenly Father is one of God’s good gifts. It is the Christian’s duty to teach about true fatherhood that is the love our heavenly Father has for all of his people. God is our Father, and to allow those who are betrayed by earthly fathers to continue with a distorted view of fatherhood is not offering compassion, but rather it hinders the child from his/her proper relationship with God.
The human family lives in a fallen broken world where many suffer abuses. Yet, God’s family of faith is not of this world; we share a much different relationship with our heavenly Father. For these and many other reasons, when we speak of our human struggle to live a godly life, we ought to use language of inclusivity for one another. But when we speak language about God we must continue to use the language of faith; speaking of God as through the relationships that he has revealed to us, that of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Anything else would fall short of the mark.