And you should not think to say among yourselves, “We have Abraham as father.” -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9a)
The Pharisees who came against John’s baptism thought that they did not need to “make fruit worthy of repentance,” because they could trace their lineage back to Abraham. They claimed Abraham as the forefather of their religious and ethnic identity. They saw themselves as the ones who had things right, who had God figured out. And John the Baptist’s life and message did not fit into their paradigm.
When I think of the Pharisees claiming Abraham as their forefather, I think of some of the people who might be claimed as forefathers by different groups of Protestants today. John Calvin could be claimed as a kind of forefather for Presbyterians; Martin Luther for Lutherans; John Wesley for Methodists.
Some churches claim no particular forefather other than Bible itself; these churches too, of course, have their own forefathers. Many evangelical churches, for example, stem from the US revivalist tradition―a tradition that spans, over three centuries, from George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, to Charles Finney, to Dwight Moody, to Billy Graham.
Sometimes different kinds of churches and faith movements can also function as our forefathers. For me―for better or for worse, and usually some of each―the Presbyterian church is my forefather, InterVarsity is my forefather, the nondenominational Bible church movement is my forefather.
It can be good to claim our heritage and traditions, to remember the people who shaped these traditions, to declare whom we have as predecessors in the faith. Naming these things, as the Pharisees might have named Abraham, can help us understand where we come from. It builds a more secure sense of identity. It helps us wrap our minds around why our practices and beliefs are what they are. It can even aid us in imagining how we might continue to form and re-form our traditions to carry their best gifts into a new time with its new experiences and new issues.
After all, every forefather was only human. None of them was right about everything. And each of them needs to be re-examined and re-framed anew each generation, to make sense in a changing world, to offer insights that are life-giving for a new group of people in a new situation.
On top of all this, all of the Protestant forefathers I have named so far―and I’m sure we could name many more―were white men. All of them. What perspectives, insights, and knowledge are we missing if these kinds of voices are the only voices we acknowledge and invite to shape our sense of faith?
Fortunately, we live in a time when female scholars and scholars of color are many and their work is accessible. Unfortunately, seminaries do not always include much of this work in their curricula, and churches do not always include much of it in their Bible studies, preaching, book recommendations, etc.
For those of us who tend to dwell in white-male-dominated church-y spaces, expanding our sense of our spiritual forefathers to include foremothers and people of color can help us have a broader and fuller view of God. It can help correct some of the blind spots and prejudices of our white spiritual forefathers―which, in most of their cases, is sorely needed.
Ultimately, Jesus says that we are not to call anyone on earth father, because we have one Father, the heavenly one (Matthew 23:9). God in heaven is our parent, the one in whose image we are made. God, not Abraham or Calvin or Luther or anyone else, is the one we are meant to reflect. The one whose heart and mind we are to seek to embody.
God in heaven is our parent. We are all children of God, and therefore siblings to one another. We belong to each other and are responsible for one another. The Pharisees thought of religious family very narrowly, and so (often) do we―but for John, and for Jesus, family proves much broader and deeper than a claim to any particular human predecessor.
This is not to diminish the differences between faith traditions, or to say that they are all equally good. There are movements within the Christian faith that work toward justice, and movements that work against it. Not all forefathers and foremothers are equally worth claiming. Not all traditions are worth keeping alive―and even those that are worth keeping alive need to be updated and adjusted over time.