Controversy over the New NIV

Conservatives critical of revisions

In my last article on the 2011 version of the NIV I mentioned numerous improvements the committee made in its revisions. As a result, I believe the new NIV is a better translation than the 1984 version. But several conservative groups do not feel the same way. They believe the gender neutral language in the 2011 NIV is inaccurate and that certain verses open the door for incorrect doctrine, specifically with reference to women in ministry.

Several groups, including the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) have refused to endorse the new NIV Bible. In fact, the CBMW drafted a resolution against the new NIV, which was recently adopted by the SBC, who feel so strongly about it that they asked their bookstore, LifeWay Christian Stores, to not carry the new NIV in their stores. That is a serious request, considering that the NIV is the biggest selling English translation in existence, and that the new NIV will soon be the only version available as Zondervan has ceased production of the 1984 edition. Though gender neutral language is an important issue with these groups, it is apparent that the doctrinal issue with regard to women in ministry is even more important. This article will focus on that issue. Look for my comments on gender neutrality in a future article on my blog page.

The new NIV translation of 1 Tim 2:12

The CBMW wrote a statement explaining its disagreement with the new NIV’s changes with regard to gender neutral language and the translation of verses that seem to allow women a place in ministry that the group does not espouse. This latter issue took the place of prominence in the article and the first verse directly and pointedly addressed was 1 Tim 2:12. If one had to determine the place of the greatest concern and strongest disagreement with the new NIV on the basis of their on line evaluation, clearly, 1 Tim 2:12 would be the target verse. In fact, one blogger had this response to the CBMW evaluation of the new NIV:

Although the review mentions problematic passages (plural), only the rendering of this one hapax legomenon in this one passage is explicitly identified. Obviously this is the watershed passage for CBMW and, I suspect, their evaluation of the worth of a translation rests largely on how it renders this one passage.

In actuality, the CBMW does discuss other similar verses that they take issue with, but the emphasis on 1 Tim 2:12 is so great that some readers conclude that this is the only verse that matters to the CBMW. The CBMW would have to partly agree with this assessment. In their own words: “This mistaken NIV translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 we find to be particularly unfortunate, because it might well constitute the single reason why churches decide no longer to use the NIV Bible.”

What is so wrong with the new NIV’s rendering of this verse that on the basis of just this verse churches will refuse to use this Bible? The group takes issue specifically with the translation of the word, authentein, as “assume authority” (2011 NIV) as opposed to “have authority” (1984 NIV). They argue that this translation is a win for “evangelical feminists” because it “removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders.”

As you can see, a theological divide has occurred at this point. The CBMW is complementarian in doctrine, which means they do not believe women can serve as pastors or elders in the local church. They oppose egalitarians, who believe women can assume these roles, though rather than refer to them as egalitarians, they prefer the more derisive term, feminists. The CBMW is charging the new NIV with “feminist-leaning translations,” and this verse is exhibit A in their presentation of evidence. I would only be fair to reveal my own doctrinal position for the sake of the readers. I am complementarian because I believe God ordained different roles for men and women in the home and in ministry. But I also affirm that women can serve in any ministry role as long as she has a God-given male head serving with/over her. So my view is in between those of the strict complementarians (e.g., CBMW and the SBC) and the egalitarians.

Doug Moo, chairman of Zondervan’s Committee on Bible Translation, which is responsible for the changes in the new NIV, reveals the committee’s motives in changing the wording of 1 Tim 2:12. Rather than produce a pro-feminist and anti-complementarian rendering of the verse, he explained: “Our rendering of 1 Tim. 2:12 was sincerely intended as our best effort at rendering this very obscure word in a way that would not be driven by either theological agenda.” In other words, the NIV translation committee intentionally rendered this controversial passage in a way that allowed either interpretation and permits the reader to do the work of interpretation.

Southern Baptist Bible professor Denny Burk disagrees, arguing that, “assume authority” does not leave the question open but moves the discussion decidedly into the direction of egalitarianism.” In criticizing the CBT’s decision making process regarding this word, the CBMW had this to say:

The NIV‘s translation committee says that the translation “assume authority”…could be understood in two different ways: a negative way (meaning ―wrongly assume authority on one‘s own initiative) or a positive way (meaning ―begin to use authority in a rightful way). But in saying this the NIV translators fail to understand the full force of what they have done: They have given legitimacy to a feminist interpretation that did not have legitimacy from any other modern English translation (except the discontinued TNIV).

The real problem the CBMW has with the new NIV seems to be coming out at this point. It is not so much an issue of translation philosophy – something their evaluation never addresses – than it is an issue of doctrine. The group is not willing to countenance a translation that gives “legitimacy” to an interpretation that allows women to teach in the local church. With this statement the group reveals that it does not matter if the new NIV translation takes a middle ground or not: even the middle ground is unacceptable. The CBMW has now gone beyond claiming that women have no right to teach or preach in church; they now declare that all other positions are invalid. It seems that no translation of any verse in the Bible can give legitimacy to women in ministry or they will refuse to endorse it.

The real question is not whether a translation gives legitimacy to a certain interpretation of a verse, but whether the text itself leaves the reader open to such an interpretation. Since this verse has been hotly debated for decades, it is clear that either interpretation is legitimate. There is therefore no basis for criticizing a translation for legitimizing an interpretation that is already legitimate. But that does not mean this translation is correct. However, the claim the CBMW is making is not that women teaching in the local church is incorrect, but that it is illegitimate. They want to close the door on the discussion once and for all, but the CBT is not cooperating.

How should “authentein” be translated?

Let us now look at the word in conflict and see if the CBMW has grounds for their criticism of the new NIV rendering of that word. The CBMW argument against rendering authentein as “assume authority” is based on one observation: that no other modern translation renders the word in the way the new NIV does, even pointing out that liberal translations, such as the NRSV, do not render this word as “assume authority,” but as “have authority.” They also refer in their footnotes to numerous authors who agree with their conclusion that the new NIV translation of this word “is simply incorrect.”

This argument, though one-sided and perhaps myopic, is significant. I regularly tell my students that if their rendering of a verse has no agreement with any good translation, it is probably wrong. If it is a valid rendering of a word or phrase, it should find its way into a translation somewhere. But there are exceptions to this rule, and it should be noted that some translations of verses that only a few decades ago had no support from any translation now have the support of many. For this reason it is necessary to go beyond glancing at the translations of modern Bibles and examine the potential meanings the word had in the middle of the first century.

It turns out this is a difficult task, for this is a rare word. Its only appearance in the New Testament is here, and its use is not common outside the Bible. But there is much to gain from those extra-biblical uses. Revered early 20th century scholar A.T. Robertson rendered the word “have dominion over.” Citing multiple authors, including Moulton and Milligan, he claims authentein in the Greek world was the vernacular term for one who played the master, an autocrat, or a self-doer, and in the papyri the word meant “to domineer.” This helps explain why the most respected New Testament Greek lexicon today renders the meaning of authentein as, “to assume a stance of independent authority.” Louw and Nida define it as “to control in a domineering manner,” and they translate it in 1 Tim 2:12 as “to dominate” Clearly, this is more than just having authority, and these renderings come from the leading authorities in biblical Greek lexicology and semantics.

From these lexical treatments of the word it is clear that simply saying it means “to have authority” is too simplistic. That is why there is still so much debate over the correct interpretation of this verse. It might be good to recall that the King James Version renders of this word as, “usurp authority.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, usurp means to “seize or assume wrongfully.” If any Bible is guilty of a pro-feminist translation of 1 Tim 2:12 it is the KJV. Why has the CBMW not come down hard on the KJV translation of this verse? With this in mind the NIV translation committee’s claim that “assume authority” is a middle ground has weight. it is less forceful than the KJV rendering, but allows for the egalitarian interpretation that is not welcome in the previous NIV translation. The interpretation is left to the reader, which is where it should be.

The argument against “assume authority” is valid. But to call this translation “incorrect” is not proven, and the CBMW’s argument is not convincing. They only cited authors who agreed with them against the new NIV’s rendering, and they never demonstrated that they engaged in any lexical work in coming to their conclusion. The NIV tried to take a mediating position, and for that they should be commended. While the term, “assume authority” technically can have either of two meanings, both Burk and the CBMW illustrate that only one of those two meanings is likely to be heard by (at least some) modern readers. Judging by the nature of their arguments, it seems they only heard one possible interpretation. For this reason, it might have been wiser for the CBT to translate the term, “assume a position of authority,” which would invite the reader to consider that “assume” might mean “take,” as opposed to, “take wrongfully.”

To raise this kind of question to the CBT would be more constructive than only accepting “have” or “exercise” as valid translations. That narrow a view of the meaning of authentein is simply wrong. If the CBMW loosens its stance a little, perhaps there can be progress in anticipation of the next revision of the NIV. In any case, one can only hope that the CBT will not bow to the pressure of conservative groups with a theological axe to grind, and continue to render verses according to their lexical meaning and the intent of the inspired author, and not according to debatable doctrines of denominations who want their particular interpretation to hold sway over the entire church world.


The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has taken a forceful stand against the new NIV, primarily because of its translation of a single word in one of Paul’s epistles. Their opposition seems to stem from their doctrinal position, rather than from an honest, unbiased study of the potential meanings of the word itself. The council has gone so far as to draft a resolution against the new NIV and the Southern Baptist Convention has adopted it. This looks like an organized effort to stop the NIV from being used in pulpits across America for fear that pastors will teach that women should be allowed to teach in their churches. But they represent only one side of a hotly debated issue. It is one thing to disagree: it is entirely another thing to try to force others to take your side in the matter. But the CBMW’s resolution opens them to the criticism that they are trying to force Zondervan either to change their translation or face a potential boycott.

To try to force the hand of a major Bible publisher to translate verses according to their own particular doctrinal preference could be seen as an act of control in a domineering manner. It should be avoided by all, not just women. The CBMW has a right to disagree with a translation of any verse, and they have the right to recommend a translation, or not to recommend it, to others. But it would be a mistake to try to close the door on discussion of the meaning of this verse by cornering the market on the translation of 1 Tim 2:12. My advice to you, the reader, is this: before you sign any resolutions, I recommend you know all the facts from both sides of the issue and spend time in prayer to hear God’s opinion on the matter. We already have enough of man’s opinions.

Next in this series is an evaluation of the gender neutral language in the new NIV.


5 comments on “Controversy over the New NIV

  1. Marg says:

    “. . . the King James Version renders this word as, “usurp authority.” . . . If any Bible is guilty of a pro-feminist translation of 1 Tim 2:12 it is the KJV.” Yep. 😉

    I just don’t understand why Complementarians dislike the new NIV so much. I find some of their arguments against it illogical. And their focus on 1 Tim 2:12 shows how much of their doctrine hangs on this single verse and the use of the word authentein, which is indeed “obscure”.

    I really like the new NIV, although I’m disappointed in how “silent” (sigaō) is translated three different ways in the three occurrences of the word in 1 Cor 14:28-34. And there is a verse in Hebrews (I forget where now) that is very poorly translated.

    Looking forward to the next installement.
    Just in case you’re interested:

  2. Aurora says:

    Thanks for the insights, Mr. Alt.

  3. […] 2011 NIV God Bless Till all are one. There is another view that is expounded in the article, ''Controversy over the new NIV". See also "Designer Bibles". […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s