No theological issue has of late stirred the interest of evangelicals like gender-inclusive Bible translations. The threat of having one of our favorite translations programmatically adjust pronouns and other gender references so as to include women provoked more discussion than the Pensacola revival, the Disney boycott, or China's MFN status.

Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation was passed around, and anger and fear prevailed. Thus we heard of churches voting to remove copies of the current NIV from their pews and individuals desecrating Bibles by drilling holes in them and shipping them back to the supplier.

Perhaps the furor has died down: A recent report in CBA Marketplace said that 97 percent of Christian bookstore retailers believed the controversy had little or no impact on Bible sales, and 79 percent said the issue was dead, dying, or nonexistent. But that same poll revealed that retailers believed customers were poorly informed (53 percent) or only somewhat informed (39 percent) on the issue.

It would be too bad if the controversy died away without evangelical Christians learning something about Bible translation, for this was not simply the controversy du jour, to be yakked and faxed about and then to be forgotten when the next juicy fight emerged from Wheaton, Colorado Springs, Grand Rapids, or Lynchburg. This controversy was about an important trust: the faithful translation of God's Word into English.

This is why we are devoting an unusually large number of pages to the discussion. Contrary to conventional journalistic wisdom, we have discovered that CT's readers are eager to read long articles when the issue discussed is important. This is important. And we trust you will take the time to read the friendly debate beginning on page 26. As you read, here are some things to keep in mind.

First, the opposing sides of this debate are in fundamental agreement: They are fully committed to faithfulness. The question is how to be most faithful to the ancient text.

The divergences have to do with the degree of liberty a translator should exercise when a custom or expression has no direct equivalent meaning in a receptor culture. One side urges a close adherence to the original text and places the burden of understanding on preachers, teachers, and readers. The other side places the burden of understanding on the translator in the hopes that younger or less educated readers won't find strange customs or modes of expression a barrier to Bible reading.

Article continues below

This discussion can be light and fun if it focuses, for example, on the "holy kiss" Paul commands Christians to exchange. But when gender references become the focus, the passions are stirred. To what extent do most gender references in the Bible, written as they were in three different languages and in even more cultural contexts, have significance for North American readers today?

Some gender references are obvious, such as the command to circumcise males on the eighth day. And the Bible is very clear that the good news of salvation and liberation in Jesus Christ is addressed equally to males and females. Other references are less clear. The extent to which they should be generalized to both sexes depends on the careful examination of the literary context and is a matter of verse-by-verse debate. And for some evangelicals, such gender-specific terms as man (as a name for the human race) and brothers (as a way of addressing the church) carry with them a theologically significant aspect of human sexuality that is often overlooked in contemporary society and church.

But we must beware of attributing motives to others' actions. It may appear that the subtext of this debate is really about sex—not just its biology but its ontology. But that would be too quick a judgment. When we talked to key translators who have followed a moderately "inclusive" approach, we have discovered that most of them do not believe in erasing gender differences in church and family or in promoting women's ordination, and they are far from being shaped by the feminist influences some have claimed for them. Nevertheless, these translators believe that a moderately inclusive approach is best because it is the best method for conveying the meaning of Scripture.

Second, airing disagreements is often a good thing. Since the issue was first raised in March, both sides have reflected on the issues and learned something. For example, on the one hand, translators of the moderately gender-inclusive New Living Translation, with the issue raised in their consciousness, chose to be more gender specific in Acts 1:21-22 where Peter outlines the qualifications of a replacement for Judas. On the other hand, those who issued the Colorado Springs guidelines opposing gender-inclusive Bibles have further studied the extrabiblical Greek literature and discovered that it does indeed allow the Greek word for brothers to be changed to brothers and sisters in order to accommodate those passages where "the author is referring to both men and women." They have recently updated their guidelines. These are good signs. When a debate results in increased understanding and modified positions, someone is doing something right.

Article continues below

Third, this debate is best understood when we realize that the two sides represent two fundamental impulses in historic evangelicalism: call them, if you will, the conservationist and the missionary impulses.

Much of the theory that predominates in current translation work was developed in the missionary situation. The work of Eugene Nida, who is credited with the notion of "dynamic equivalence" translation, has often been cited. The challenges faced by linguists like the jungle translators Wendy Zoba describes in "Your Sins Shall Be White as Yucca" (p. 18) shaped an awareness that a cultural chasm exists not only between first-century Palestine and the twentieth-century Amazon but also between first-century Palestine and twentieth-century North America as well. The awareness of that great gulf fixed has prompted many who translate for North American Christians to work harder at transmitting meaning as well as words to those who need to hear the gospel. Given the missionary mindset of evangelicalism, it is no wonder that our Bible translations are designed with non-Christians in mind.

But the conservationist tendency is classically ours as well. We believe that the Scriptures contain a faith once delivered to the saints. We believe that the content of that faith, while it may be expressed in many different ways, is as constant as the object of our faith: Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. As the faith must be constantly guarded against attack and protected from erosion, so Scripture also must be preserved as it is now so frequently rendered and rerendered in contemporary vernacular speech. If we were not driven by the missionary impulse to retranslate Scripture afresh, if we were content with an authorized Bible like the King James Version or the Latin Vulgate for the long haul, the need for careful examination would be much reduced. But we cannot freeze the English Bible and at the same time be faithful to our missionary calling, and thus the tensions in this debate are inevitable within a faithful evangelicalism.

Which brings us back to our key affirmation: Faithful evangelicals have expressed themselves vigorously on both sides of this discussion. Lively argument based on careful study can bring light and can promote both our conservationist and our missionary goals. Demonization, however, failing to acknowledge the faithful commitments of those whose priorities and emphases differ from our own, can only delight the Devil and split the church.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.