A bisexual nightmare from the National Council of Churches.

The publication last month of an “inclusive language” lectionary is guaranteed to pour oil on the flames of controversy that have engulfed the National Council of Churches (NCC) recently.

Lectionaries, collections of Bible readings from the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Gospels, are used in Sunday worship services mostly by such liturgical ecclesiastical bodies as the Episcopal and Lutheran churches.

Using the Revised Standard Version (RSV), an 11-member committee of the Division of Education and Ministry of the NCC selected a year of readings and eliminated all references that use masculine words to refer to both men and women. Genesis 2:7, for example, says in the RSV, “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (italics added). In An Inclusive Language Lectionary, this verse becomes, “God the Sovereign One formed a human creature of dust from the ground, and breathed into the creature’s nostrils the breath of life; and the human creature became a living being.” Only when God causes a deep sleep to fall on the “human being and removes a rib in order to build a woman does “man” come into being.

Chaired by Old Testament professor Victor Roland Gold of Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, California, the committee of 6 women and 5 men made three specific types of changes in the RSV text. Language for people was changed to include women as well as men. For example, “brethren” in such verses as Romans 8:12 becomes “brothers and sisters.” “Sons of God” becomes “children of God.” “Let your light so shine before men” in Matthew 5:16 becomes “Let your light so shine before others.”

More controversial are changes in language about Jesus, “Son of man” in the Old Testament, Gold argued, refers to the humanity of Ezekiel, so the lectionary for the sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost has God say to Ezekiel, “O mortal” instead of the more familiar “Son of man.” But New Testament scholars are not likely to feel happy with Jesus’ unique use of “Son of man” becoming “the Human One” in such verses as John 3:13.

The term “Son of God,” Dr. Gold added, refers to Jesus’ very close relationship to God, not to a biological relationship. In Matthew 4:3, therefore, the Devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Child of God, …”

Most controversial of all are references to God as both male and female. Readers familiar with the Bible are almost certain to object to the committee’s decision to make an addition to all texts that speak of “God the Father.” Christ’s exaltation occurred, according to the lectionary version of Philippians 2:11, so that “every tongue” should “confess that Jesus Christ is Sovereign, to the glory of God the Father [and Mother].” Although the appendix to the lectionary attempts to justify the addition as “an attempt to express in a fresh way the same intimacy, caring, and freedom” as Jesus felt for God, Christians familiar with the Bible will insist on principles of translation that are more faithful to what the original text actually says. Biblical scholars will insist that to impose on a translation a preconceived philosophical system, whether or not it is faithful to “the spirit of the gospel,” is to do eisegesis, not exegesis.

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Quick opposition to the experimental lectionary has been developing, even within the NCC membership. The Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran body in the United States and, with 3 million members, the third largest group within the NCC, James Crumley, its bishop, has advised his church to reject the lectionary. In a column prepared for his denominational magazine, Crumley wrote, “The overwhelming opinion [of Lutherans whose advice he sought] is that this translation does not meet the goals for inclusive language in a proper way because it is often inaccurate and sometimes written in a poor and inadequate linguistic style.”

He said further that “We must not attempt to make the Bible say only what we want it to say. The Bible is an historic document and has to be read and understood as such.” Crumley raised specific objections, including changing of “son” to “child” in reference to Jesus. “Why the hesitancy to call him son? After all, he was a male baby and grew into a man. We do not call grown men children.”

Evengelical scholars have questions as well. Douglas Moo, assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said, “What disturbs me is that both the Old Testament and the New Testament use maleness for God, and this is not just a reflection of a patriarchal culture. It is a revelation of the way things are, in some sense.” He noted that obviously maleness in reference to God is not a precise analogy with human maleness. He also pointed out that many ancient religions worshiped female deities, and so to conclude that the Bible automatically is a product of its culture is invalid.

Theologian Carl F.H. Henry acknowledges that most of the Bible’s imagery about God is masculine, but he affirms that “the God of the Bible is a sexless God.” He further points out that the Bible is not without feminine imagery in some descriptions of God. But Henry stands firmly against the idea of modifying Scripture to suit contemporary cultural leanings. He has written, “The gender-uses of the inspired writers involve … important conceptual distinctions, even though they do not convey sexual connotations.” He continues, “The biblical linguistic precedents are to be considered normative for Christian theology.”

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Why has the NCC produced an inclusive language lectionary? First of all, because a number of pastors have been asking the NCC to produce such a lectionary so they would not have to do it every week for themselves, according to the committee. More significantly, according to the Rev. Dr. Susan Thistle-thwaite, assistant professor of theology at the Boston University School of Theology and the theological member of the committee, the impetus does not come primarily from the modern feminist movement, “but from the biblical materials themselves.… Not only was Jesus astonishingly open to women, but he is fully incarnate in all of humanity, not just men.”

Committee member Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, professor of English at William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey, argued that to keep excluding women from equality in the church is “sub-Christian.” “If God is always manlike, never womanlike, then men are godlike and women are not,” she said. She does not feel, however, that the lectionary will have more than a limited influence on evangelicals, “except perhaps through the rapidly growing Evangelical Women’s Caucus.”

NCC general secretary Claire Randall said there has been “a high decibel interest” in the new lectionary. There is no question that we have not heard the end of it yet.

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