Cover Story

Femme fatale

The feminist seduction of the evangelical church: The New International Version of the Bible--the best-selling English version in the world--is quietly going "gender-neutral"

Issue: "Stealth Bible," March 29, 1997

Say goodbye to the generic he, man, brothers, or mankind. Make way for people, person, brother and sister, and humankind. By the year 2000 or 2001, if the 15-member Committee on Bible Translation (CBT)--the NIV's controlling body--has its way, the 35 percent of American Bible buyers who prefer the NIV will not be able to buy a new copy of the version they trust.

That may not happen--publisher Zondervan may still choose to put out two separate versions--but the decision of one committee to substitute an "inclusive" NIV version for the pew Bible of choice at many evangelical churches over the past two decades is likely to transform understandings of how God views the sexes he created.

How have we arrived at this point?

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Twenty-five years ago, mainline churches were debating whether women should be pastors and whether language should reflect differences between the sexes, but evangelicals weren't worried about it. As Larry Walker, one of 15 members of the CBT, who has been involved with the NIV for 25 years, remembers, "Way back yonder when it first came up, no one was for [unisex language]. Now at the present time, almost everyone is for it," he says a little wistfully. "The language is shifting underneath our feet."

Whether the language has actually shifted that much is questionable, but it is true that feminists have agitated for such a shift. And that agitation has apparently paid off. Pressure for unisex language came from women who, in the words of Mr. Walker, "felt left out" by the traditional language. It also came from the NIV's American publisher, Zondervan, and from Hodder and Stoughton, the NIV's British publisher.

"The British were very strongly pushing this," Mr. Walker said. In England, sales of the New Revised Standard Version, a unisex language revision of the RSV, put such pressure on the NIV that Hodder and Stoughton demanded a new version in order to compete. The NIV's translating committee took several years away from its book-by-book review of the Bible in order to complete the unisex language version, now on sale in England as the NIV Inclusive Language Edition.

The controversy over unisex language bothers Kenneth Barker, secretary of the CBT; the revision, he says, will "reflect new insights on the meanings of Greek and Hebrew words, and shifts in English idiom." It will not, he makes clear, refer to God as "she." Mr. Barker says, "It probably disturbs us that such a big deal is being made over inclusive language." After all it "is not changing the sense of the passage."

But a look at the New Revised Standard Version shows how difficult it is to make changes without tampering with the meaning. The NRSV includes passages that are tortured ("Let us make humankind in our own image.... So God created humankind," Genesis 1:26). It includes passages that are historically misleading ("The warriors who went out to battle," Numbers 31:28; those warriors were men, according to the Hebrew). It includes passages that are doctrinally confusing ("What are human beings that you are mindful of them or mortals that you care for them," Hebrews 2:5; in the book of Hebrews, this passage refers to Christ).

Although the NIV "will be a little more conservative than the NRSV," according to the CBT's Mr. Walker, there still will be difficulties--and, significantly, the changes, except where singulars have been changed to plurals, will not be footnoted. The result of the shift to unisex language may be to cloud the uniqueness of men and women. And that reflects gains made by feminists over the past decades. It also underscores the uphill nature of the battle being fought by those who seek to preserve a "complementarian" view--that, for example, women can be leaders in many spheres but must not be pastors.

The move fits with the trend toward egalitarianism--the denial of any distinctions between men and women--in the church and home. Egalitarians assert that women should be pastors, elders, and co-heads of families. Gilbert Bilezikian, professor emeritus at Wheaton College and author of Beyond Sex Roles, puts it bluntly: "There cannot be authentic community as described in the New Testament without the full inclusion of the constituency of members into the ministry, life, and leadership of the group."

Mr. Bilezikian is a founding elder and influential theologian at Bill Hybels's Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. Willow Creek's rapid growth and its influence on other evangelical churches through the 2,200-member Willow Creek Association makes its position on the issue important.

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