This coming Sunday is Father’s Day, and as certain as it is that Father’s Day will fall on the third Sunday of June every year, so too are the debates surrounding the roles of fathers and mothers. Among evangelicals, these debates often express themselves in questions of church polity, the relationship between husbands and wives, and what it means to be made male and female in the image of God. But recently, the debate has taken an interesting turn by centering on how human gender displays God’s nature: namely, what does it mean that the Scripture reveals God as our Father?

When the Scripture speaks of God as Father, it is not affirming His maleness or some form of culturally established patriarchy; it is affirming His character.Ironically, the gender war itself may obscure our ability to answer this question. Because we have spent the last several decades parsing the differences between men and women, we are conditioned to approach the biblical identification of God as Father and ask, “Why is God revealed as Father instead of Mother?” Some conservatives have suggested that God as Father lends Christianity a “masculine feel”; in response, progressives insist that God could just as legitimately be understood in feminine terms. The Liturgists, in a recent episode produced by several progressive leaders (including those most vocally opposed to gender roles), celebrated God as “Mother” by affirming characteristics traditionally associated with motherhood: His gentleness, unconditional acceptance, and nurturing love.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the whole debate is how quickly both sides rely on cultural forms of masculinity and femininity to describe God’s nature while overlooking the most obvious realities that separate fathers and mothers—physical ones. Perhaps a latent gnosticism encourages this “spiritualizing” of gender, directing us away from its material and biological realities. And yet, if we overlook these physical realities, we will end up asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking which virtues differentiate fathers from mothers, perhaps we should ask why Scripture reveals a transcendent God in biological terms in the first place: why does it reveal God as Father at all?

Those of us familiar with the image of God as Father—especially those of us reared by loving earthly fathers—can easily miss its significance. But those without committed fathers, those among the 41% of all US children born to single mothers, understand its significance all too well. Statistics predict these children are more likely to live in poverty, experience emotional and behavioral problems, have lower educational achievement, and higher rates of incarceration. For girls, the danger also includes being more likely to become a victim of physical and sexual abuse by a man.

Clearly, this crisis of fatherhood is not a failure of men to reproduce but a failure of men to take responsibility for the children they have brought into existence. Flip through the daytime talk circuit, and you’ll see the faces of these statistics as episode after episode echoes with the cry: “You are the father!” But, lest we begin to identify men as somehow less virtuous than women, we must remember that fatherlessness is a crisis rooted in physical realities.

When I gave birth to my three children, the attending nurses never asked for the mother’s identity. The testimony of my bulging belly and the process of labor was enough to know who mothered this child and, by consequence, who was responsible for him or her. But they always asked if my husband was the father because nothing so visibly physical tied him to the child. Certainly my children bear his resemblance and modern paternity testing can establish a DNA link, but my husband had to choose to identify publicly with his children in order to take responsibility for them. This was an even more pressing need in the ancient world; Joseph’s public identification with Mary and her child is what made Jesus “the carpenter’s son,” not His DNA—information to which that culture could not be privy. This explains the otherwise inscrutable (and patently startling) fact that Matthew’s genealogical record of Jesus traces through Joseph’s line.

So what do these physical realities have to do with God as Father? When the Scripture speaks of God as Father, it is not affirming His maleness or some form of culturally established patriarchy; it is affirming His character. It is affirming that He has not abandoned the children He has created. He has not walked away from us.

In his sermon at Mars Hill, Paul describes the relationship between God and human beings by quoting Aratus, a Greek poet-philosopher: “For we are indeed his offspring.” Theologically speaking, Paul is communicating the truth of Genesis 1:26-27 that teaches we are all made in God’s image. We share God’s DNA. Our existence is shaped by His; we “look” like Him. But as our society testifies, fatherhood requires more. Real fathers actively choose to identify with their children. In this sense, the image of God as Father describes both His transcendence and His immanence. He chooses to enter into our reality and claim us as His own. He has not left us orphans.

When we celebrate our earthly fathers this Sunday, we are not simply celebrating sperm donors or the source of half our DNA. We are celebrating real fathers—men who have chosen to love us and care for us when they could have walked away. For many that is our biological father; for others it is a stepfather, an adoptive father, a father figure. Of course, Father’s Day can sting those of us whose earthly fathers have failed. Yet scripture declares that God is the paradigm of fatherhood. From Him we should derive our identity. When Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father,” He taught us something essential about the relationship God has with us. Not only has He given us life, but He has also chosen to identify with us.

This Father’s Day, rest in the fact that God has not abandoned you. The God who formed you in His image has actively bound Himself to you and has taken responsibility to help restore your brokenness. He has proudly and lovingly signed His name on your birth certificate, and by doing so declared, “You are my child, and I will care for you.”

img via Petras Gagilas