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Gender neutralized

National | Wycliffe backs out of February gender-language conference; organizers pull the plug

Issue: "Bible translation blues," Nov. 21, 1998

and Susan Olasky - Plans to push gender-neutral Bible translations received another blow last month when a translation conference scheduled for February 1999 at Wheaton College was canceled. Planning for the conference, already postponed once, came to an abrupt halt last month with the withdrawal of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)-the translation arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators-from sponsorship. Wycliffe feared being drawn into the controversy over gender-neutral translations. Plans for the conference arose out of a June 6, 1997, meeting of the Forum of Bible Agencies (a group of 15 Bible translation agencies, Bible societies, and major Bible publishers). Although the Forum's agenda was initially devoted to other matters, members spent the bulk of their day together discussing the Colorado Springs guidelines on gender translation that had been released at Focus on the Family headquarters the previous week. Those guidelines rejected the trend toward wholesale use of "gender-neutral" language in modern translations and urged translators to be faithful to the language used in the original texts, even when that usage offended some modern sensibilities. According to Summer Institute of Linguistics executive director Steve Sheldon, one of the attendees at the June 6 meeting, Forum members were "dissatisfied that the [Colorado Springs] meeting didn't involve a broad group of people involved in Bible translation." They called for a tightly focused conference involving a small group of Bible translation scholars. From the beginning the conference was controversial. Vern Poythress of Westminster Seminary, a signer of the Colorado Springs accord and an opponent of gender-neutral language, declined an invitation. "I wrote Katharine Barnwell [of Wycliffe] and said I'm not sure why this thing is being held," he told WORLD. "You can debate and debate and debate but the ideological positions aren't likely to change." Despite the controversy, it seemed as though the conference would go on. Plans began to change, however, after news reports on the conference appeared in the fall of 1997 (WORLD, Oct. 18, 1997). Shortly after publication of the WORLD article, Wycliffe's Ms. Barnwell, a member of the conference steering committee, wrote to inform participants that the steering committee had decided to postpone the conference for a year to allow "some of the controversy that has built up on the issue of inclusive language to die down." While these events were taking place publicly, members of the Forum of Bible Agencies were also meeting privately to reconsider their initial reaction to the Colorado Springs guidelines. Early in 1998 the Forum appointed a four-member subcommittee to deal with conference planning. According to subcommittee member Eugene Rubingh, International Bible Society vice president for translations, the subcommittee (displaying some skittishness about possible public reaction to the conference) eventually chose to alter plans in two ways. The subcommittee chose to broaden the purpose of the conference from an exclusive focus on gender language to the broader theme of "Accuracy in Translation." And the subcommittee decided to broaden the guest list from "40 to 50 academics closely tied to translation" to "100 people, including publishers, academics, and churchmen," as Mr. Rubingh put it before correcting himself and saying, "church people." The changes were not uniformly popular. Mr. Rubingh opposed them because they watered down the original purpose of the conference. "The topic 'Accuracy in Translation' doesn't have the compelling nature about it that the original purpose of looking into inclusive language did," he said. Proponents of the conference emphasized the need for a venue where academic experts could discuss gender-correct language "in a quiet way in an academic setting," as Wheaton College president Duane Litfin put it. Another conference supporter, Christianity Today magazine, hoped to co-sponsor the conference "to affirm the importance of scholars meeting for free discussion of the issues which had been so divisive." But Tim Bayly, executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and a participant in the Colorado Springs meeting, said, "There's no question in my mind the Wheaton conference was intended to counteract the Colorado Springs guidelines. I'm pleased it's been canceled. We don't need another forum for evangelical scholars to browbeat the church into submission to the feminist agenda." In the end it appeared that even an academic setting and a plethora of Ph.D.s couldn't erase the controversy from the gathering. SIL executive director Steve Sheldon said Wycliffe withdrew, thus precipitating the cancellation, because "we came to feel that holding this consultation could be divisive and not helpful to the work of Bible translation." Wycliffe's departure may have displeased other members of the Forum of Bible Agencies, but it saved the respected translation agency from involvement in an issue that threatened to hurt it among financial supporters. Focus on the Family executive vice president Charles W. Jarvis praised Wycliffe for withdrawing: Wycliffe "has been preeminent for decades in worldwide translations. This conference was clearly poorly conceived and out of their core competencies and was going to be far too controversial from a biblical standpoint. Wycliffe was very wise in dissociating that great organization from anything that remotely resembled an inclusive-language conference."

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