06/14/2014 09:05 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2014

Gender Neutral and Father's Day

A father has long been viewed as the figure in the family who is depended upon to provide for and protect his family, and the mother has historically been thought of as the person who took care of keeping house, preparing meals, washing clothes, and the like. But has the emphasis on "gender neutral" made Father's Day and Mother's Day outdated holidays that just need to be marked off the calendar? With the gradual acceptance of gay and lesbian couples and the enactment of more and more laws permitting same-sex marriages, are we beginning to see the breakdown of the role of both mothers and fathers in the lives of the family?

Times have gradually changed since World War II, and for a number of reasons mothers have slowly, either by necessity or by choice, accepted more responsibility in providing for the financial well-being of the family, and fathers have accepted a greater role in what used to be considered the mother's responsibility.

So, what is the role of fathers in this day and age?

Theologians, and this includes parish ministers, have long been guilty of what is known as "proof texting," that is, "proving" a point by quoting various biblical verses -- paying no attention to why, when, by whom, and on what occasions such verses were originally written. In "proving" what they call the legitimate role of the father, they will turn to different verses in the Bible.

I've heard ministers on Father's Day extol the authority of the husband, taking scriptures out of their context to prove their point. For example, Ephesians 5:22-23a, 24: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church . . . As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands." They conveniently leave out the next verse: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church . . ."

There is no question the Bible teaches that men and women, husband and wives, mothers and fathers, are equally important. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, it is clearly taught that God created the first human creatures and called them "man," referring to both the "male" and the "female" beings, making them equally important: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (1:27) and "When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created." (5:1b-2)

So, it's a nice gesture, in my opinion, to put aside a day each year to celebrate mothers and another day for fathers. But from a biblical perspective, probably a greater emphasis should be placed on "Parents' Day." In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed into law a resolution adopted by the United States Congress to establish the fourth Sunday of every July as Parents' Day. According to the Congressional Resolution, Parents' Day is established for "recognizing, uplifting, and supporting the role of parents in the rearing of children."

But this weekend is about fathers, so let's concentrate on Father's Day. There are two stories about the origin of Father's Day in the United States. The first documented Father's Day in America happened in Fairmont, West Virginia, on July 5, 1908. There had been a coal mine explosion in nearby Monongah in December of 1907 that killed 361 men, 210 who were fathers. Mrs. Grace Golden Clayton, the thirty-two year old daughter of a Methodist minister, suggested to the minister of a local Methodist church that the church hold services to celebrate fathers. On July 5, 1908, at the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Fairmont, the Sunday worship service was a memorial for the 361 men killed in the explosion, many of who were members of that church, and secondarily a celebration in honor of all fathers.

The next documented Father's Day observance was in Washington State. While attending a Mother's Day service in 1909 at the Central United Methodist Church, 27-year-old Sonora Smart Dodd, while listening to the sermon on motherhood, was inspired to rally support among churches, shopkeepers, government officials, and the YMCA in Spokane for a similar day celebrating fathers. When Sonora was sixteen, her mother died, leaving the care of six children, one a newborn, to her father. Sonora was the only daughter and helped her father in rearing her five younger brothers, and she had great respect for the struggles her father endured. She was successful in her efforts, and on June 19, 1910, at her home church, Old Centenary Presbyterian Church (now Knox Presbyterian Church), there was a Father's Day service, with ministers from other churches also participating in the service. The mayor of Spokane and the governor of Washington State issued Father's Day proclamations in support of this Father's Day, making this celebration the first "statewide" celebration for fathers.

After these two observances, there were occasional "local" celebrations for fathers around the country, but support for a "national" Father's Day did not take off quickly. Both President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 supported the idea, but neither took any action. During the great depression of the 1930s when people were purchasing only the bare necessities, retailers expressed support for a national Father's Day, hoping to generate more sales. During World War II, celebrating Father's Day became very popular -- as a way of expressing support for the fathers in the armed services. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson, through executive order, designated June 19 of that year to be Father's Day. Finally, in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon made Father's Day a permanent national holiday to be observed annually the third Sunday of June.

Father's Day is becoming more and more commercial, with advertisements for all sorts of gadgets that the average father would rather select for himself. When my brother and I were young and sponge-like pillows just came out, we got my father two such pillows for Father's Day. I still remember the first thing he did was look all around the edges of the pillows. We did not know what he was looking for until he asked, "How much did these cost?" Times were really hard in those days, and he was looking for a price tag.

The fathers I talk with today tell me the nicest thing their families can do for them on Father's Day is just to get together for a picnic or cookout or just a meal together--something relatively simple and inexpensive. So this weekend, let's honor and celebrate fathers, but let's just keep it simple and fun, filled with love, respect, and affection.

(Biblical quotes from Revised Standard Version. Historical information from: personal knowledge and various periodical articles, federal government documents, and official Web sites of state governments and organizations.)