Children of God

I’ve gotten in trouble lately for an idea that I thought was fairly safe, but turns out (as many ideas do) is theologically open to debate.   I suggested that human beings, created in the image of God, might be children of God.  I do have to acknowledge that this is a theological perspective that does not align well with the “truth” of other perspectives.  I have been “taught” that no one can be a child of God until they agree to be a child of God — that parentage is dependent on the child deciding to be a child.  I have been “instructed” that until we accept a narrowly defined set of acceptable Christian standards, we cannot “qualify” as children of God.  I have been chastised by “theological experts” that children of God has nothing to do with God’s intention, but only the human response.  I have been corrected by those who know the truth that we have to completely ignore the whole of Christian and theological thinking in order to pick and choose a few isolated passages of scripture and a limited theological perspective that limit our acceptance of “children of God” to include only those we like and with whom we agree.

And the Bible is no help here, because it can be used to defend and define all the various theological perspectives.  This is a classic “decide what you want, then find the evidence to support it” argument.  For me, the logic is simple.  From this perspective:

  • if all things have their origin in God, and
  • if human beings are created in the image of God, and
  • if our humanity separates us from other orders of primate, fish, and fowl,
  • then human beings are legitimately “children” of God (metaphorically speaking)

Through this logic, we don’t pick our parent, we simply are “children of God” by being part of the human race.  Ah, but there are other arguments.

Indeed we are “created” by God, but we are born into a broken state, and our restoration into the family depends on two things: we must be worthy and we must be adopted.  Now, worthiness is a slippery slope — defined differently by different perspectives to require very different things.  At one end of the spectrum, all one has to do is say “yes” (much like joining most churches — nothing more is required than nodding one’s head at the appropriate moments) and they are in.  All along the spectrum to the other end, the “yes” has strings attached — “yes, and…,” and “yes, but…”  “Yes, and,” requires that we say “yes” and that we be good children, minding our manners and behaving like civilized little men and women.  The rules of the house dictate who are the “good” children and who are the “bad” children; who gets cake and who doesn’t, if you will.  It is all about who is deserving.  Further on is the “yes, but,” where we move from deserving to eligible.  This is the limit on adoption, stating that there are some who are disqualified from ever being children of God because some aspect of their nature makes them “sub-human.”  Since a dog or a cat cannot be a child of God, then neither can anyone we deem ineligible.  Throughout history we have played this game with money-lenders, tax collectors, racial and ethnic minorities, women, the mentally and physically challenged, the mentally ill, slavery, domestic abuse, and our current flavor-of-the-month, homosexuality.  An embarrassing survey of our Christian history reveals the repetitive cycle of a majority abusing power to dehumanize a minority (or occasionally a power-trust minority oppressing a powerless majority).  The initial thesis put forth is simple: sub-humans cannot be children of God, thus to label a group subhuman ends discussion and debate.  To formalize our modern decisions, we turn to a pre-modern, non-Western, pre-enlightenment text to select archaic thinking that will “prove” our actions to be biblically and theologically sound.  Occasionally, we transcend such irrational thinking, setting aside the Bible to realize that perhaps God will not punish “innocents” such as children and the mentally challenged and mentally ill, who have done nothing wrong and don’t deserve such harsh injustice, but these occasions are rare.  We also have generally had the guts to say that the Bible is actually WRONG in its endorsement of child abuse, slavery, slaughter of innocents, oppression of women, and genocide.  We still waffle on things like capital punishment, divorce, power issues around race and gender, but we are at least questioning their validity.  Today, virtually no one I know even pauses before wearing mixed-fiber fabrics or eating a cheeseburger or slice of pepperoni pizza (neither of which existed in the time of the Patriarchs, but both of which are forbidden by scripture.  Hmmm….)

There is also a case to be made for “Children of God,” being simply a club name — something along the lines of “the Screaming Eagles,” “the Fighting Tigers,” or the Rotary or the Masons, but I’d rather not go there.  The hard lines of who belongs and who doesn’t in such clubs/teams make it an ultimate “lose/lose” path.

I am not saying that any one perspective is right or wrong — that’s not my place.  I know what I believe about God’s love and our place as “Children of God.”  I base my belief in large part on Paul’s explanation that Christ has broken down the dividing walls of hostility and that those once alienated and ostracized have been reclaimed — that there is now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, but through Christ there is unity, and that while many in creation may not realize they are children of God, that in no way mitigates God’s love for and acceptance of them, and places the burden to extend God’s grace and love on those who do acknowledge that they are children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus.  This “I Believe,” yet I try to honor and respect those who believe differently.  I do wish those who disagree with me could refrain from framing our disagreements in terms of them being right, and me being wrong — them being enlightened, and me walking in darkness.

I close with a question I received in an email last Friday, that I have a very clear and simple answer to.  In Wisconsin, we will be having a conversation about homosexuality at our Annual Conference session in a couple of weeks.  I have been saying to people this is a time for listening and understanding and engaging in civil discourse — that in a couple of hours, we will not be able to arrive at consensus on such an emotionally charged issue that runs the gamut on the theological spectrum.  I believe this “issue” isn’t an issue at all, but is a classic example of our inability as Christian community to navigate the subtle and not-so-subtle difference between truth and opinion.  I believe this is an abdication of doing deep theology, where we prayerfully discern what is right in our day instead of defaulting to a totally different culture, time, place, worldview, level of rational understanding, and apprehension of reality.  I believe it is not as important to win an argument as it is to learn to disagree well; that civil discourse is bedrock foundation for any future decisions we might be challenged to make.  Many have told me this is a cop-out, that civil discourse is a waste of time.  One person frames it this way:

Talking about sin without naming it sin and requiring people to cease in their sin is wrong.  We know what the Bible says.  We know what’s right.  There is no opinion here.  Only truth.  And those who reject the truth must not be allowed to dictate to those who accept the truth.  Do you honestly believe that God wants everyone in heaven?  Do you believe for one moment that He would allow sinners to enter in and poison the true children of God?”

My answer?  Yes, I do believe that God wants all of us (children) to be reconciled into one holy realm.  But I believe that the failings, inadequacies, brokenness and misunderstandings that define our humanity are insignificant in the presence of God.  God (in my belief) is greater than any sin, any weakness, any disease, any mistake, or any wrong I possess, and in the presence of divine love, all will be purified.

I truly don’t have time to police the wrongdoing of others; I need to stay busy becoming the person I need to be.  Worrying what someone else might be doing wrong is simply an abdication of my responsibility to make sure I am doing no harm, doing all the good I can to all the people I can, and that I am continuously striving to strengthen my relationship with God and the body of Christ through my own spiritual formation and development (thank you, John Wesley).  For me, the only way I can give time to judging and condemning others is time I take away from making sure my own house is in order.  That’s the choice I make for myself — and part of that choice is to see every other person I meet as a child of God, a brother or sister (whether in the faith or out), and a person God charges me to love.

24 replies

  1. Dave,

    The thread has run out of “reply” buttons, so I’m responding here.

    Thank you for your explanation. That gives me something to chew on.

  2. Dan,

    thank you again for a thoughtful and thought provoking post! It is nearly unimaginable for me to think of humanity outside of each of us being ‘a child of God’ created in his image [the creativity involved in this always amazes me!]

    As a parent of a now 34 year old who made some bad decisions 10 -15 years ago, we never stopped loving him, nor disowned him, even though we had to allow him room and the freedom to make these bad decisions. Thats how being a parent works – why wouldn’t we expect even more love and grace from our Triune God?

    As Charles Wesley wrote:
    He left his Father’s throne above
    (so free, so infinite his grace!),
    emptied himself of all but love,
    and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
    ‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
    for O my God, it found out me!
    ‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
    for O my God, it found out me!
    (And Can It Be That I Should Gain verse 3)

    Keep challenging us to dig deeper and reflect theologically!

  3. John,

    I think the ministries you name are important, and we need to be serving in these ways.

    Disclaimer: While I have been influenced greatly recently by the quantum theology as expressed by Diarmuid O’Murchu, I would not want him blamed for any thoughts I share here or elsewhere. That said, I wonder…

    IF creation can be thought of as incomplete (as in the phrase for Genesis 1.1, “”when God began to create…”), then there is an opening for another way of looking at Creation and “Fall.” I note, looking at Terence Fretheim’s words about Genesis in the NIB commentary (Vol. I, p. 343f) that even in a mainstream commentary there is room for this thought of ongoing creation. In writing about God declaring creative acts “good,” Fretheim writes that the phrase (“God saw it was good”) “implies that the evaluation is part of an ongoing process, within which improvement is possible….” Further—and I like this, Fretheim writes (p. 344) “…that God remains involved with the creation once it has been brought into being. God sees the creature, experiences what has been created, and is affected by what is seen. God’s response leads to the further development of the creation and of intra-creaturely relationships. God’s creative activity may thus in part be determined by that which is not God.”

    With O’Murchu, though not quoting him directly, I believe (trust) that God is a generative benevolent energy, continually working with all creation toward an increasingly complex wholeness. I think of the Spirit of God as that energy; I think of the wholeness toward which we move together as the Kin(g)dom of God.

    But I have no guarantee that humanity is at the top of God’s created order or that I can know much about beginnings and endings, if such there be. What I can do is find and take my place in the process of moving toward increasing wholeness. In that process of living from day to day, then, I join with the energy of the divine to bring about the things of which you speak. Wholeness, or abundant life (John 10.10), draws us into involvement with those needing direction, liberation, health, etc.

    • Hey, Dave, I probably shouldn’t raise this because I cannot for the life of me remember the source, but year’s ago I remember reading an excellent essay on the difference between “resting” and “quitting” in ancient Hebrew culture — the implication being that God was still creating because the poets used the words for “resting” instead of “quitting,” or “finishing.” I always loved that concept and believe it to the core of my being. God did not finish creating with the human animal, God did not stop revealing just because human beings “closed” the canon of scripture, and God’s love does not obey the short-sighted limitations of sin-obsessed humanity.

    • Dave,

      I’m not familiar with the writers you cite. It sounds like process theology, but I do not understand that very well either.

      I’m curious, where does Jesus fit in the creative and ongoing work of God and man together that you sketch in your post?

      Does God as a divine energy field enter into personal relationships with us?

      I appreciate your efforts to help me understand.

      • John,

        Another Disclaimer: You are inviting me to disclose my ignorance and share what might be called (charitably) a “pastoral mishmash theology.” However…

        I am intrigued by the writing of Diarmuid O’Murchu (specifically now QUANTUM THEOLOGY: SPIRITUAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE NEW PHYSICS, Crossroad Publishing, 1997). Here is an audio interview with O’Murchu (which I have yet to listen to in its entirety): , in which he gives credit to his early exposure to the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (see, who is not a process theologian per se, perhaps, but who opens up the vista of a new cosmology. I also benefit from reading Borg, Crossan, Spong, and others for what I consider their ability to relate new ideas to seekers in and out of our pews/chairs.

        Quantum physics helps (or compels!) us to look at the world in a very different way! It does not focus on substance but on relationship. O’Murchu insists that creation is the vehicle for revelation (“Perhaps the fullness of evolution itself is the conscious universe fully alive!” – p. 108)

        Concerning Jesus, a quote as O’Murchu writes about the resurrection: “What is most gripping in the resurrection myth is its power to transform. At a personal level, it depicts the frayed, bruised, humiliated Jesus exonerated in his essential, human dignity. At a structural, systemic level, it signifies that the political, cultural forces of injustice and oppression do not win out in the end. And at the global (wholistic) level, it projects a world of unrealized possibilities, opening up into an eternal future.” (p. 166)

        For me, at least in quick response to your question, Jesus is the human being living in a fully human way (in the image of God), willing and able to discern how to live out the reality of the kindom of God. Jesus is the One who goes ahead of us (pioneer and perfecter), but Jesus also is the EverPresent Companion in the movement toward wholeness.

        God as divine energy, in my thinking, does relate to us in “personal” terms—this is how we are limited in conceiving of “relationship,” but to use a term like “Father” or even “God” tends in my opinion to throw us back into that “God up above” theism that leads us into a number of problems. This is why I think of “God” as a benevolent, generative energy: always creating something new out of what is available and always with a view toward a cooperative venture with creation toward wholeness.

        Told you I’d show off my ignorance….

  4. It helps me to think of our relationship with the Divine as an evolving one: an adventure in moving toward wholeness together rather than a trek toward Paradise Regained. Am I “broken” and in need of “fixing,” or am I incomplete and “going on” (so to speak)? I find more significance in the latter view.


    How about lost in need of saving? What about enslaved in need of liberation? What about in prison in need of release? What about sick in need of a physician? Weak in need of strength? Hungry in need of food? In mourning in need of comfort?

  5. That you (and the Conference) will be attempting this conversation ALMOST moves me to attending Conference. But no….

    Some of your readers might be interested in the guide you have prepared for this conversation, but I understand that that document may not be meant for a very general audience. While “just talking” about this matter may or may not produce good results, I heartily affirm your words:

    I believe this “issue” isn’t an issue at all, but is a classic example of our inability as Christian community to navigate the subtle and not-so-subtle difference between truth and opinion. I believe this is an abdication of doing deep theology, where we prayerfully discern what is right in our day instead of defaulting to a totally different culture, time, place, worldview, level of rational understanding, and apprehension of reality. I believe it is not as important to win an argument as it is to learn to disagree well; that civil discourse is bedrock foundation for any future decisions we might be challenged to make.

    The idea that there are additional difficult discussions ahead is daunting, even if it is accurate! (If the guide is open for viewing, perhaps you could offer the link to it.)

    It helps me to think of our relationship with the Divine as an evolving one: an adventure in moving toward wholeness together rather than a trek toward Paradise Regained. Am I “broken” and in need of “fixing,” or am I incomplete and “going on” (so to speak)? I find more significance in the latter view.

    In my view, all creation could be imagined as “children of God,” though I would not want to suggest with that choice of words that God is parent and I am dependent child. Rather, we are in relationship, and we are working together, generation upon generation generating new heaven and new earth generation upon generation, world without end.

    • Hmmm. That third paragraph is yours, not mine. My way of indicating a quote didn’t come through….

  6. Dan,

    I read in your post a certain despair – maybe happy despair – that Scripture might serve a positive role in such disagreements.

    You argue that Scripture is a product of a primitive culture, subject to self-justifying interpretation, and full of silly rules about cheeseburgers, and therefore is not really a helpful source in reconciling people who come to a disagreement over the meaning of a simple phrase such as “children of God.”

    Your position on the issue is rooted in logic and your reading of Paul that edits out part of his text. Galatians at least seems to tie the breaking down of walls between Jews and Greeks to putting on Christ. It is just a few verses later that Paul writes about adoption as children.

    Is it possible that using a phrase, “children of God,” that has a certain theological content in John and Paul in a way that changes that basic theological content might be the source of trouble? I doubt, for instance, that Paul would argue against your logic that God created all humanity and loves all people.

    I’m not sure what is possible, but I hope the Bible can be a positive resource rather than as a source of ammunition for contending parties.

    • In re-reading, this sounds more critical than I meant it to sound, especially in the third paragraph. This is the risk of composing and editing quickly with your mind on more than one thing.

      I think there is a fair argument about whether we should use John and Paul’s language about being “children of God” outside the context in which they were using it. They were using the language to expand the number of people who stood in a special relationship with God, not narrow it.

      But I do think the phrase still reasonably carries some meanings in our tradition and Scripture and it is not narrow-minded, per se.

    • Let me be clear, I think there is an authority to scripture that isn’t about historical fact or universal application. The collection of Hebrew and Christian scriptures as we have them were unknown and unimagined by the audiences that first received them in part. They were culture specific. They were context specific. They were the product of a mythic-magic worldview. They were all practical in nature, rarely moral. Our layers of translation make much of the Bible almost unrecognizable from its original form. Therefore, the burden of dealing with it with integrity falls to us, and I believe we are failing miserably in our stewardship of divine writ. Paul’s thinking evolved greatly. Comparing Paul’s language and thought in Thessalonians and Galatians to that of Romans and Ephesians is like reading two different authors. Metaphor, allegory, and simile functioned differently — as direct associations, rather than multi-layered constructs of meaning. While through modern/post-modern filters we strain the meaning of God “the Father” through thousands of fascinating exegetical exercises, it was a straightforward “you know what a father is — God is like that” message in ancient Israel and Palestine. All the other layers of meaning are what we have added, not what author’s intended. The same goes for our irrational debates over historical accuracy. The authors of our scriptures weren’t writing history as we define it, and the only way we can make it be historical is to do violence to original intention. Does this mean we should not “trust” any aspect of the writings of our faith? Of course not! Look up some medical texts from the 15th – 19th century online. It is quickly clear that there is some simple, unenlightened, odd, and downright dangerous ideas in these pages. Does that mean the pursuit of medicine and the quest for healing arts was wrong? Can we learn from what was once believed true to help us improve our understanding today? Can we evolve and progress based on the best work of an earlier day? Yes, and this is true with scripture, even if we believe it was writ large through a divine hand. That hand wrote what the audience could understand, not simply what was “true.” Our Bible makes not one mention of a germ. This doesn’t mean germs didn’t exist in Moses’ day; it means the concept would have been meaningless. Motor cars, and aeroplanes, and computing machines, a rockets to the moon aren’t in scripture either. Ah, but justice, kindness, compassion, grace, harmony, unity, peace, patience, joy, generosity, and love — these are lifted as goals for the people of God to be offered to all the children of God. What we still have to learn about all these timeless opportunities to be like Christ.

      • Dan,

        I get the feeling I’m in one of those “talking past each other” things. The ground I’m trying to defend is simply that people who hear the phrase “children of God” within a set of meanings derived from its use in parts of the New Testament are not all boorish, pre-critical, and irrational people.

        You are responding to particular critics. I’m looking for ways to understand why someone who is neither irrational nor malicious might want to hang on to a restricted meaning of “children of God” based on the way the phrase gets used in the NT.

        No one I’m thinking of would object to your line of argument that as God’s creation, we are all loved as children. But that does not mean the phrase “children of God” is not freighted with specific meanings for some people that they find valuable.

        For some, the concept that we can be adopted as the children of God – even though by our own merits we would never deserve that status – is a greatly liberating and empowering concept. But it is a Christ-centered one. For some people, the phrase “children of God” is closely related to the person of Jesus Christ and to sever that connection by giving a different meaning to the phrase undermines something important to them.

        All I’m arguing is that some people might have defensive or negative reactions to a broad meaning of the phrase “children of God” that has nothing to do with being insincere or irrational or power-abusing people.

        And some people might have that reaction because they are irrational, power hungry, and narrow minded.

        In the interest of “civil conversation” I want to hold out for the idea that there are people who don’t use the phrase the way you do who are nonetheless intelligent and thoughtful Christians.

      • I can’t — nor do I seek to — change the way people read and interpret. I can name a reality of time and space, culture and progress, but who accepts my thesis is beyond my control. Any person has the right to read a book from an earlier century and act on it regardless of the advances we have made as a culture and as the human race. All I ask is an acknowledgment of what is actually happening. And here, I have a right to my opinion. I have stated my belief, people have objected, I have explained. I cannot anticipate how people will read and interpret what I say, and I offer no more apology for my theology than I ask others to give me. What I said very clearly is that the Bible doesn’t help us here because it can be used to defend multiple readings and interpretations. I wonder how acknowledging that there are many different ways to use the Bible to defend what we believe is excluding anyone? I am sorry that you hear my distress with those who use scripture to exclude and ostracize as labeling all who hold literal views of scripture as boorish, pre-critical and irrational, but those are your words, not mine. You are allowed your opinion of people who choose to read that way.

        My God is a God of love. I must read the Bible selectively to find this God. I must ignore enormous portions of scripture to see this God. It is a choice. Others choose differently. They must live with their God as I live with mine. I just wish I wasn’t continually having these discussions about whose God is better, and that I wasn’t constantly defending the idea that love, compassion and justice is some twisted interpretation of Jesus’ message.

  7. Don’t make fun of people who really read and understand the Bible. We are NOT all children of God. Many have given up that claim and are disowned. MAny have walked away from their humanity to live life as the animals. Not all men are created equal, and you insult true men and women of God by implying that those who choose to live in sin are our equals. Jesus Christ is THE way, THE truth, THE life – NO ONE comes to the Father but by Him. You either believe this or you are not a Christian. Making faith a matter of opinion instead of truth is heresy, and you should not be teaching such lies. Your website should be removed and the church should not tolerate such lies.

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