The New NIV Controversy: Gender Neutral Language

The new NIV: A revision of which Bible?
When the TNIV was released in 2005, many conservatives criticized its use of gender neutral language, and Lifeway Christian Stores refused to carry the new translation. It never gained wide popularity and was soon discontinued. Now Zondervan is publishing a revision of the 1984 NIV that is too similar to the TNIV for some people’s comfort. In fact, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which was vocal in opposition to the TNIV’s gender neutral language, calls the new NIV a revision of the TNIV, not the 1984 NIV. This argument carries some weight. Robert Slowey did a statistical analysis of the changes in the new NIV and found that 31.3% of the new NIV is identical in wording to the TNIV text against the 1984 NIV, while only a paltry 0.6% of verses agree with the 1984 NIV against the TNIV. In all, almost 92% of the new NIV is identical to the TNIV, so those who thought the TNIV was dead are in for a surprise.

The CBMW is opposed to the use of gender neutral language in a translation when such is not present in the original text. Most of the changes in the new NIV are in the category of gender neutral language, so any assessment of the new NIV should pay a lot of attention to the way it handles gender. The CBMW claims that “75% of the inaccurate gender language” of the TNIV is “retained in the 2011 NIV.” They argue for 2,766 inaccurate translations regarding gender language. But it seems for them that “gender neutral language” and “inaccurate gender neutral language” are just about the same thing. One has to search long and hard to find an instance of gender neutral language in the new NIV that the CBMW approves of. And it is because of their disapproval that such groups as the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family have refused to approve of its use in pulpits. Just what is gender neutral language, and why are conservative groups so up in arms about it?

What is gender neutral language?
Gender neutral language refers to the use of terms that are neither masculine nor feminine in gender. Today it is popular to be gender neutral whenever it is feasible. The statement, “All men are created equal,” is not gender neutral. But if the Declaration of Independence were written in the 21st century, there is a good chance that line would read, “All people are created equal.” Changing “men” to “people” makes the statement gender neutral and, many would argue, more accurate, since the intent of the text was to refer to all people, not just the men. In the world of translation, difficulties arise at this point. How does a translator render the word “men” into another language? Must he translate the word into the equivalent word in the receptor language, or should he translate the meaning of the word into its equivalent?

As a principle, translating the meaning is the most important thing, but in order to determine the meaning, a certain amount of interpretation must take place, and interpretation is something translators try to avoid whenever possible. For example, if a translator renders “men” into a word that means “people” in the above sentence, someone might argue that the original authors meant only men. This argument could be supported by noting that women were not permitted to vote. As soon as a translation misrepresents the intended meaning of the author, the translator has failed in his duty.

But some interpretation is necessary in all translation. The key is in determining where the line is to be drawn. As a rule of thumb, if a wording in a text offers more than one interpretation, the translation should allow for all possible interpretations. Also, the meaning of a word, and not just the word itself, should be rendered into its nearest parallel in the receptor language. However, the full nuance of the word and all its implications should be considered before deciding on the best translation. With this in mind, let us look more closely at the gender neutral language found in the new NIV.

Gender neutral language in the new NIV
The CBMW narrows down their dispute over gender neutral language to a question over the rendering of five words found in the Bible: “After all, the main words in dispute are only five: ―father,‖ ―son,‖ ―brother,‖ ―man,‖ and ―he/him/his.” The following examples are just a few of those given in the CBMW’s assessment of the new NIV, but they illustrate the dispute the group has against the new NIV rendering of these nouns and pronouns. The changes referred to are from the 1984 NIV to the 2011 NIV. Many of these changes are also reflected in the TNIV, but for purposes of simplicity, that translation will not be included in our survey. But my assessment of the matter in each instance will be included, and I hope to hear your assessment as well as you post your comments on my blog page and especially on my Facebook group page.

    John 14:23

The first example we will examine involves the use of the third person pronoun, they/them, for an indefinite singular noun, such as “anyone.” The importance of this example is evident in the frequency of this rendering in the new NIV. The CBMW counts 2,002 instances of it. For example, in John 14:23 Jesus says, “If anyone loves me…my Father will love him.” This is changed to “My Father will love them.” The new NIV is trying to deal with a problem in the English language. Since “anyone” is indefinite gender, the pronoun that replaces it should also be indefinite gender, but no such singular personal pronoun exists in English. To solve the problem by saying “My Father will love him or her” is clumsy and is considered unacceptable by writers and grammarians.

In English the masculine singular pronoun functions as an indefinite or inclusive gender pronoun. The second definition of “he” in the Illustrated Oxford Dictionary reads: “a person, etc., of unspecified sex,” and provides a sample sentence: “if anyone comes, he will have to wait.” The CBMW argues that this is what grammar books support and there is no reason to change “he” to “they.”

The new NIV translation committee apparently sees the use of a masculine pronoun for indefinite or unspecified gender as inappropriate for the 21st century, so they consulted the Collins Bank of English, a database of 4.4 billion words that identifies the actual usage of English words, which, as we all know, does not always match what the dictionaries and grammars say. According to their research, English speaking people are using the plural pronoun, they/ them, for indefinite gender nouns, such as “anyone.” In fact, the same Oxford dictionary that lists “he” as a person of unspecified gender also lists “they” as “a third person sing. indefinite pronoun meaning ‘he or she.'”

So the new NIV has some footing for its translation of indefinite nouns with a plural indefinite pronoun. The CBMW argues the new NIV rendering removes “the amazing emphasis on the Father and Son dwelling with an individual person.” But this argument is misplaced when we consider that the word used carries as its meaning, a third person singular indefinite pronoun. In other words, the new NIV retains the individuality of the sentence with its use of “them.” For those who consider such use of they/them awkward, the new NIV and its 2,002 uses of this pronoun will be troublesome. But for those who are not offended by this grammatical usage and are not comfortable with using the singular masculine pronoun as an indefinite, this may be a welcome change.

    Luke 17:3

In Luke 17:3 Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” This is changed to “If your brother or sister sins…” The CBMW argues that Jesus is giving a specific example involving a man that also applies to women, but accuses the new NIV of being unfaithful to the original wording, where the word used in Greek was adelphos (brother). Why, they ask, does the new NIV add “or sister” when those words are not found in the original text? This is a recurring argument in the CBMW’s case against the new NIV. There is validity to what they are saying, but there is also a problem. The point is not merely what the original text said, but what it meant. The new NIV translators seem to think that Jesus meant “sisters” are included when Jesus mentions “brother.”

If the NIV translation committee can demonstrate that the meaning of adelphos is “brother or sister,” then they can justify rendering it as such. But this seems plausible only when the word is used in the plural, as in Acts 1:15. There is no clear instance of the singular form of the word being used to refer to both men and women in the NT. The closest examples are in Rom 14:10 and 2 Thessalonians 3:15. In the former, “Why do you judge your brother?,” is followed by a conclusion using a singular pronoun: “each of us will give an account of himself to God. In the latter, “brother” has “anyone” (v. 14) as its antecedent, suggesting it may be indefinite.

The CBMW quotes Bauer’s lexicon, which gives a definition of “brother” as “fellow member,” and interprets it to mean only a male fellow member. Their interpretation seems to be a little more precise than Bauer intended it to be. The implication seems to be that the singular, adelphos may possibly be a term that, in the NT, can be used to refer to either a man or woman. Nevertheless, the weight of the evidence is against it and there is no clear example of it in the NT. Since the original text does not have the word for “sister” in the text, the NIV would be more accurate not adding it.

    John 15:6

Addressing his disciples, Jesus says, “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers.” The new NIV changes it to, “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch…” Here the CBMW wants to preserve the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, also known as “once saved, always saved.” Denying that Jesus would imply that one of his own disciples could fall away, they argue the use of the third person pronouns is intended by Jesus to make the referents everyone except the disciples. Unfortunately, that is not what “anyone” means. Certainly, Jesus wants to extend the reference to include all of his followers, but there is nothing in the text to imply that he wishes to exclude the disciples. One has to grind a theological axe to come away with that interpretation. Nevertheless, the argument that “you” excludes those outsiders still remains. But once it is recognized that this is a general use of “you,” referring back to “anyone,” that complaint is laid to rest. If anything, the second person pronoun is more pointed and strikes the reader that much more boldly.

That however, does not mean the new NIV rendered the pronouns correctly. All translations will make grammatical changes to words from the original text. Participles become verbs, nouns become adjectives and vice-versa, conditional sentences are altered, etc. But whenever such changes are made, there is a logical or grammatical reason for doing so. In the case of the new NIV, the only reason for changing pronouns seems to be a politically correct motive to insert gender neutral language into their Bible. Because the changing of pronouns from third to second person in the new NIV is not done for the right reasons, it should not be regarded as an improvement, but as a weakness in the new translation.

    Proverbs 27:17

In the famous proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” becomes “…so one person sharpens another” in the new NIV. The CBMW defends men’s ministries at this point and quips, “We doubt that the new NIV is a Bible that will appeal strongly to men.” Perhaps this betrays something of the CBMW agenda. It seems strongly in favor of all things for men. At no point in their assessment did the CBMW ever ponder whether the old NIV appealed strongly to women. Nor do they seem interested to know whether the new NIV appeals to women, except those they brand as feminists. But that seems to be at least part of the agenda of the new NIV. They have produced a Bible that should be more appealing to women and to the culture of 21st century America. The question is whether or not they crossed any lines in their translation philosophy in achieving this goal. Changing “man” to “person” is almost as difficult to defend as adding “sister” to “brother.” As a collective singular, “man” refers to mankind, but in Prov 27:17 it is a simple singular, not collective. The CBMW has a good case for disapproving of this rendering.

    2 Samuel 23:8 and 1 Kings 9:5

On the other hand, there are several instances where the CBMW seems to be more upset with the removal of male oriented words than with proper translational procedure. For example, they argue against changing David’s “mighty men” to “mighty warriors” in 2 Samuel 23:8. No one disputes that all the people referred to there are men, but the new NIV helps the reader to understand what is meant by the term, “mighty men.” They were all warriors. This translation clarifies something murky to a modern audience that would have been obvious to an ancient reader. Similarly, in 1 Kings 9:5 God promises Solomon: “You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.” When the new NIV changes “man” to “successor,” the CBMW objects, claiming the Hebrew word means “man,” not “successor.” But I think in this instance it is a particular type of man that God is referring to: a king who is a direct descendant of David and Solomon. The new NIV makes this clearer for the reader and they should be commended for this improved translation.

The CBMW makes a valid point about the use of gender neutral language that does not reflect the wording of the original text. Noting the many changes of singular pronouns to plurals and 3rd person pronouns to 2nd person, they assert: “The 2011 NIV will ultimately lead to a loss of confidence in tens of thousands of plural pronouns in the Bible.” Whenever a reader or preacher comes across a 2nd person or plural pronoun, there will be a pause and a question: “Is this the pronoun the inspired writer used, or is it a gender neutral replacement of it?” Wishing to avoid this question, many people will likely opt not to purchase a new NIV. But in the NIV’s defense, the discerning reader will see that the plural pronoun has a singular antecedent, revealing that the original word was singular.

The new NIV has changed the wording of thousands of verses in their popular Bible translation, replacing masculine terms with gender neutral ones. In some cases they do improve the translation, but in most instances there is not sufficient support for their translational decisions, and it appears their rendering of these verses is served by an agenda that supersedes following a strict translational philosophy. But the CBMW also seems to have an agenda that goes beyond merely commenting on the translational policies of the new NIV. As a result, the reader must sift through the political correctness on one end and the theological grinding axe on the other, and determine whether this translation is worthy of being used. My assessment is as follows: I am not comfortable with the gender neutral language, and in most cases I agree with the CBMW’s criticism of changes in the new NIV. But I feel more strongly about translations of verses that more directly affect what we believe, and in this category the new NIV is much improved. These changes include changing “sinful nature” to “flesh,” removing anti-Semitic statements, occasionally changing “Christ” to “Messiah,” and correctly identifying Phoebe and Junia as official female ministers in the church. For this reason, knowing that no translation is perfect, I still feel comfortable using the new NIV, despite the many places where I disagree with its translation.


5 comments on “The New NIV Controversy: Gender Neutral Language

  1. Theresa Asereht says:

    Please tell me what you mean by anti-semitic statements in the bible?

    • Theresa, the clearest example of an anti-Semitic statement in modern translations of the Bible (not in the original, inspired text, of course), is in 1 Thes 2:14-15, where many translations have: “churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus.” The 2011 NIV removes the comma. With the comma the verse suggests that all of the Jews were guilty of killing Jesus, an idea that has stood behind centuries of brutal persecution of the Jews by the Roman Catholic church. By removing the comma, the NIV indicates only those Jews who killed Jesus are being referenced, not the entire nation.

      • Mary says:

        That’s not entirely fair, as the Catholic Church protected the Jews from the Muslims for centuries, and persecuted both when the Jews began taking the sides of the Muslims- though only actively sought out the Jews who were pretending to be Christian. Most conflicts were due to constant Muslim campaigns [especially when they began knocking on the door of the Byzantine Empire- or making headways into Spain.] This cooled post Crusades as international trade increased and the Black Plague (and subsequent Renaissance) caused a dramatic shift in society. The Renaissance opened the doors to a market economy in Europe- and market economies work best in times of international peace. [European nations- previously united under the Church who tried to keep peace among rulers in the feudal system- then began fighting amongst themselves as a result of the Protestant reformation and increased efforts of kings to control their populations and gain influence.] The discovery of the New World led to a massive paranoid land grab and colonization, until empire began falling in the 18th/19th centuries.

  2. […] Message." But, if you don't, get ready for some statistics, and yes, some verses. Here, this might be a start Robert Slowey did a statistical analysis of the changes in the new NIV and found that 31.3% of […]

  3. Michael says:

    I’m no expert….but I can imagine the difficulty there might be fora woman reading the bible, to read a particular bible verse in which the word brother is used in a point that Jesus might be making to his dsciples. A woman might come away with the impression that the particular bible verse cannot be used by them, because the word brother is used, or that the verse somehow doesn’t apply to them because the word brother is used…I don’t know what it’s like being a woman and Christian, since I am not a woman, but one can imagine how everytime the word brother is used, a woman might have to almost be stretching their mind to imagine that the verse applies to them. I guess, what a person has to remember is that the bible very much expresses the idea that man is the head of woman, and Christ is the head of man, and man should be the head of the household, and in the garden woman was created out of man…so I wouldn’t want to be using a translation that does away with the concept of the way man and woman and creation has been ordered by God, and also of course, if the author of the New Testament knows that Jesus said man, or brother, then maybe we should try and stick to that, and not allow our political correctness to get in the way of the very way that the Lord Jesus might have said something…but I can also see how it might clarify things for a woman, to know that a certain verse does apply to them, even though originally the word brother was used…

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