You don’t have to be paying excessive attention to theological questions to know that some theologians have denounced certain ways of understanding the atonement (for example) as tantamount to portraying God as an abusive parent, and that some people have reacted—using what I think of as the (non)logic of NYA-nya-nya-NYA-nya, which in the past several decades has come to be the characteristic rhetoric of (pseudo)conservative populists both in theology and in politics—by accusing those theologians of portraying God as an abuser.
I don’t intend to jump into that brawl, except to the extent of saying this: If we are going to take our cues for thinking about God from the Bible, one of our most basic ways of reasoning about God will be this: I know from experience how caring and compassionate good human parents naturally are toward their children. God is surely even more caring and compassionate than a good human parent. Therefore theologies that attribute to God what on a human scale we would recognize as kindness and compassion are truthful, and theologies that attribute to God a callousness or cruelty that we would find unnatural and inappropriate in a human parent are false.
Consider the following passages—just three examples of many that could be chosen, and then one extended passage from Luke 11 (which has a partial parallel in Matthew 6, from which is extracted the most commonly used of all Christian prayers).
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
In scripture (prominently in the Ten Commandments but not only there) God-honoring children are commanded to obey and honor their parents. So the logic of the God-as-parent analogy works both ways: we should attribute kindness and compassion like that of the best human parents to God, and also we should render to human parents something like the love and respect that we owe to God.
Guess which side of that two-fold teaching gets emphasized and amplified in authoritarian, populist (sub)Christian teaching? And the other side is not merely neglected but reversed: parents in certain circumstances are instructed by some religious teachers to stifle their natural parental love and compassion, replacing it with heartless severity, and they are told that they should do so because God is hard and severe, and has rules that he values so highly that he will disown his children, and require human parents to disown their own children, if they can’t keep them.
“In certain circumstances,” I said. Let us be clear. This has especially been done—and as a result many children have been effectively orphaned, abandoned to pimps, pornographers, and other abusers, and tossed out into homelessness and poverty, and driven by the thousands to suicide—with parents of children whose nascent sexuality turns out to be something other than the norm (cisgendered heterosexuality).
Only God is God, and no human analogy is perfect. And of course the God of the Bible is not an anything-goes, omnipermissive, morally indifferent God. Please. We all know that.
But surely if we are going to trust anything in the Bible to tell us anything true about God, we must trust the God-as-parent analogy that is taught throughout Scripture. Surely we can use this rule as a fundamental canon of theological interpretation: Any teaching that requires us to imagine God as less compassionate than a naturally compassionate and loving human parent, and any teaching that requires human parents to abandon a child, is unworthy and not to be accepted as true to the God who is the father of Jesus Christ, who taught us to address God as “our father.”
Surely we will at the very least say, in cases that are even the least bit doubtful: God will be God, and will practice judgment and mercy with infallible discernment, but since I am not capable of infallible discernment, I will follow Abraham and Moses and David in calling on God to show merciful lovingkindness to my people even when they seem to be errant, and I will follow the Apostle John in declaring that above all things God is love, and I will follow Jesus in giving up everything, even to the extent of laying down my own life, for anyone near me who seems to be in need of God’s mercy.
If you are sitting under the teaching of a Christian leader who says otherwise: I beseech you, by the mercy of the only living and loving God, to consider running, not walking, to the exit. You may be under the influence of a human who practices God abuse and teaches divine child abuse. There are such people. And their teaching has produced the horrendous effects listed above.
God help us to love as God loves, and to understand how deeply and persistently God loves.