Why “Father Knows Best” Is Not (But Is Often Used as) a Theological Statement: Authoritarianism and Sexual Morality Codes

Maybe it is because it is spring, and with the warm weather, our skin comes out of hiding, reminding us there are actual bodies under the sweatsuits. Maybe it is because graduation is approaching, signaling for parents the terror that their newly-liberated offspring might become nightmarish sexual deviants like streakers and exhibitionists.

But I must say that in the past couple weeks, I have witnessed more cringe-inducing conversations about sexuality than I probably have in the past year. Honestly, I should not be surprised; after all, we live in a society with an historical fascination with sex, now experienced in sexual indulgence on the one hand and fear of it on the other. These treatments of sexuality are not so different, for they are rooted in the same spirit: obsession with sex.

Ah, the zeitgeist, rearing its Hydra-heads in so many ways recently in my little world! First, there were the friends who, over drinks, confessed their discomfort with learning about another friend’s homosexuality, followed by the debate over whether those “born gay” ought to just keep it to themselves. There was the prayer service in which a congregant prayed for compassion and the eradication of bigotry after urging God to “rebuke the spirit of homosexuality.” Additionally, I have been fielding the concerns of adults who are scared about their teens’ education about anatomy, worried about young ladies wearing two-piece swimsuits, and asking for my intervention to deter youth from having sex until the state declares them married. And I wonder, why the fear? How can we be so equivocating that we could, on the one hand, claim to hold love and compassion as the heart of the Christian faith and turn around and vilify those who express love in a way that differs from the norms we accept?

I believe that at least one response to this question is that we cling to an image of an “Authoritarian God.” How often do we hear that God prohibits premarital sex, homosexuality, and other “immoralities” because “God knows what is best for us?” The acceptance of “God’s will” as inconceivable to us due to our “depravity” and “finitude” has essentially shut down efforts to deconstruct these meta-narratives, and yet we extol this uncritical acceptance of “God’s rules” as faithful and appropriately humble.

As a minister in an evangelical congregation, I frequently encounter the argument that “Father (God) knows best” regarding homosexuality, premarital sex, and gender roles. The parental imagery that the Christian Church often uses makes God out to be the authoritarian parent of idiotically rebellious and immature human “children.” As the argument goes, our childish nature renders us unworthy and incapable of knowing why God sets forth certain precepts. We are told that the justification for the taboos and rules in place is that God-the-Good-Parent intended for the world to function a certain way – for no reason other than that this way is “what is best for us.” While we recite these mantras and promote these meta-narratives, we not only perpetuate an uncritical, fear-based fideism but also alienate and vilify a host of persons and populations. Those who fail to conform to the normative patterns of heterosexual, patriarchal, and state-sanctioned relationships are painted as rebellious children who flout the rules and the grace of God the Parent. But these “non-conformists” are often faithful and loving individuals who may bear no more indication of self-destruction or God’s punishment than those in conventional relationships.

Rather than authoritarian, perhaps our image of God ought to be that of an authoritative parent. Authoritarian parents are those who mandate rules for apocryphal reasons, playing the “because I said so” card when asked for the rationale behind their commands. Authoritarian parents may love their children, but they love their power too. They enjoy keeping their offspring “childlike” and submissive because the wide knowledge and responsibility gap between parents and children ensures that the power differential stays intact.

But if Christ is, as Christians believe, the representation of God’s nature, this sort of “parenting” is not at all God’s style. Instead, Jesus takes issue with the Pharisees’ blind obedience to the Law and urges people to seek out the “spirit” of the Law – that is, the rationale or moral standard that gave rise to its stipulations. Furthermore, Jesus preaches in parables so that we are not kept in the dark as to God’s nature and will. Thus, Jesus appears more authoritative than authoritarian. Authoritative parents make rules for children so that they will hopefully grow into responsible human beings who can make decisions, eccentric as they may be, that benefit their world. An authoritative parent has a goal of eventually being able to close the knowledge and power gap between parent and child. So why do we cling to this idea of an authoritarian God who demands unquestioning obedience as the mark of our devotion?

In reality, obeying rules like an authoritarian parent’s child is more comfortable than the more demanding path of critical reflection and radical action, and rote obedience clearly demarcates for us the “righteous” and “sinner” in a way that is (usually) self-aggrandizing. Obeying a set of commands is easier than the self-sacrifice required for the kind of love Christ exhorts us to emulate. If we are essentially and inherently incapable of more than blind obedience, then we are not accountable for power differentials between the genders and the centers and margins, nor are we accountable for taking actions that disrupt these systems. The sexual “rules” in place privilege those currently in power, thus their patriarchal and hetero-normative bent – two markers that Christ never embraces.

Obedience to social norms and power structures cannot be the indicators of how much we love God. Instead, our engagements and abstinences in our relationships should be based on our demonstration of self-giving love, our valuing of the image of God in each creature, and our refusal to harm or use another selfishly. In this way – in how much we love others – we demonstrate our love for God.

Image Source: ebay item (Attribution via Wikimedia Commons)

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