Many Christians still remember the huge public outcry in 1997, when people discovered that the IBS and Zondervan were about to release a gender-neutral edition of the New International Version (NIV), the largest-selling Bible in the English speaking world. The controversy ended May 27, 1997, when the IBS, under immense public pressure, announced that they had "abandoned all plans for gender-related changes in future editions of the NIV."
On that same day, May 27, 1997, at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, I had been part of the original group who drafted the "Colorado Springs Guidelines for the Translation of Gender Language in Scripture." So when I received a certified letter on January 24 of this year, telling me IBS was withdrawing from their 1997 commitment to abide by the Colorado Springs Guidelines, I was surprised and disappointed. I knew that this letter meant that the IBS, as copyright holder for the NIV, and Zondervan, as the exclusive publisher of the NIV, had now decided to go ahead with a "gender-inclusive" version, in spite of the 1997 agreement.
I did not have to wait long to hear what they had done. The next Monday, January 28, 2002, national TV and radio networks proclaimed that a "gender-neutral" NIV was being published, the New Testament this April and the Old Testament to follow in 2003. The marketing campaign included about 40,000 advance copies of the New Testament that were being mailed to Christian "gatekeepers." The new edition would be called Today's New International Version (TNIV), and the IBS gave assurances that the current NIV would also remain in print as long as there was still demand for it.
What is the controversy about, and why should we be concerned?
The heart of the controversy is this: The TNIV people have decided to translate the general idea of a passage and to erase the male-oriented details.
They do two things to erase the male-oriented details: (1) they eliminate them (changing "man" to "mortals," "father" to "parent," "son" to "child," "brother" to "fellow believer," and "he" to "they," so that all male meaning is gone), or else (2) they add female-oriented details that are not found in the original text (such as changing "brother" to "brother or sister," so that the male emphasis in the Bible's examples is gone).
We can look at some examples of these changes from the 1984 NIV to the 2002 TNIV.
NIV Hebrews 2:6 What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
TNIV Hebrews 2:6 What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
What's wrong? The TNIV removes the possibility of connecting this verse with Jesus, who called himself "the Son of Man." It mistranslates the singular Greek words huios ("son") and anthropos ("man"). It no longer refers to the human race as a unity named "man" (the name given by God in Gen. 5:2), but "mere mortals." This adds the idea of mortality that is not in the Greek text. (Note that man as created by God was not mortal, and this passage has creation language in it.) But the TNIV's goal has been achieved: The male-oriented details are erased.
NIV Hebrews 12:7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?
TNIV Hebrews 12:7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their parents?
What's wrong? The TNIV mistranslates the Greek terms huios ("son") and pater ("father"), which in their singular forms cannot mean "child" or "parent." It also obscures the parallel with God as Father in this passage. Again, the male-oriented details are erased.
NIV Revelation 3:20 I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
TNIV Revelation 3:20 I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.
What's wrong? The TNIV mistranslates the Greek masculine singular pronoun autos ("he, him"). Therefore it loses the teaching of fellowship between Jesus and an individual believer. The plural pronoun "them" naturally refers to "those whom I love"in the church of Laodicea in the previous verse. So in the TNIV, if any one person in the church opens the door, Jesus will come in and eat with a group, with the whole church. What is lost is the teaching that Jesus will fellowship with one person individually and personally. For what reason? To eliminate the unwanted male-oriented details.
We should note that in order to avoid "he" used in a generic sense as it is in this verse, the TNIV has to change hundreds of verses in similar ways, and the cumulative effect is a significant loss of the Bible's emphasis on individual responsibility and individual relationship with God. (I do not yet have an exact count for the TNIV, but the NRSV, an earlier gender-neutral Bible, had to eliminate about 3400 uses of "he" in order to rid itself of such masculine generic statements.) The TNIV preface says their changes include "the elimination of most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns." But Jesus and the New Testament authors used masculine nouns and pronouns in a generic way like this hundreds of times. Should we try to conceal their usage from the public today?
NIV Acts 20:30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
TNIV Acts 20:30 Even from your own number some will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away the disciples after them.
What's wrong? In the TNIV, Paul no longer says that "men" will arise from among the elders of the church at Ephesus, but "some" will arise, suggesting that there could be women elders at Ephesus. It mistranslates the Greek word aner, which means a male human being (this is not the word anthropos, which often means "person"). The male-oriented details are erased.
(I could add a note here on the Greek word aner: Greek scholars for hundreds of years have known that aner means "man" not "person." Recently, with no new evidence, but under cultural pressure, some have discovered a new meaning, "person." But no scholar has produced any convincing examples among the 216 uses in the NT. Even if it could mean "person" in rare cases, is would require compelling evidence from each context to overturn normal use. But with no compelling evidence, the TNIV translates aner in a gender-neutral way 31 times.)
NIV James 1:12 Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
TNIV James 1:12 Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
What's wrong? The TNIV mistranslates the Greek word aner, which means a male human being. Thus it loses the probable allusion to James' brother Jesus, "the man" who truly persevered under trail. It also loses the allusion to the example of the "blessed man" in Old Testament wisdom literature (Psalm 1:1; 32:2; 40:4, etc.). It changes Greek singulars (for "man" and "he") to plurals ("those," "they"). The singular "the crown of life" suggests one crown to be shared among a group. This loses the focus on individual reward for endurance under trail. But what is gained? The male-oriented details are erased.
NIV John 19:12 Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar…"
TNIV John 19:12 Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar…"
What's wrong? The TNIV inserts the word "leaders," which is not in the Greek text. This tends to remove responsibility from the common people. (Similar changes are made several times in John in passages talking about those responsible for Jesus' death.) Note that John can specify the leaders when he wants to, because six verses earlier, John specifies that "the chief priests and their officials … shouted" (John 19:6). This is not a case of eliminating male-oriented meaning, but of adding meaning that is not there to avoid language that seems offensive today.
NIV Luke 17:3 If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.
TNIV: Luke 17:3 If any brother or sister sins against you, rebuke the offender; and if they repent, forgive them.
What's wrong? (1) The TNIV inserts "or sister," which Jesus did not say. Jesus is using a single male individual ("your brother") as an example of a general truth, but the TNIV will not let him do this. (Greek can say "brother or sister" when it wishes, as in James 2:15 "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.") (2) It translates the Greek singular pronoun autos ("he, him") as "them," which is fuzzy grammar in written English and puzzles readers who will wonder if Jesus meant that plural people ("they") had to repent. (This change to what the TNIV preface calls "singular ‘they/their/them'" has been done throughout the whole New Testament.) The result? The male-oriented example is made gender-neutral by adding a female-oriented meaning that was not in the original.
NIV James 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers.
TNIV James 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters.
What's wrong? The TNIV inserts "and sisters," which is not made explicit in the Greek text. (The plural Greek word adelphoi can mean "brothers" or "brothers and sisters," according to context, but in this case adding "and sisters" implies that James thought women could be Bible teachers for the early churches. The Greek text does not require that idea, but the TNIV does.) The male-oriented meaning has been neutralized.
NIV Hebrews 2:17: For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
TNIV Hebrews 2:17: "For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people"
Comment: Did Jesus have to become like his sisters "in every way" in order to become a "high priest in service to God"? All the OT priests were men, and surely the high priest was only a man, descended from Aaron. The TNIV translators have taken a possible meaning of a word ("brothers and sisters" is a possible meaning of the term adelphos when it is plural and when it fits the context) and imposed that meaning on a context where it will not fit, so that Jesus has to become like a sister in order to become a high priest. This text does not quite proclaim an androgynous Jesus, but it surely leaves open a wide door for misunderstanding, and almost invites misunderstanding. Meditate a bit on that phrase "in every way" and see if you can trust the TNIV. The emphasis on Jesus as a male has been neutralized.
NIV 1 Corinthians 14:28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.
TNIV 1 Corinthians 14:28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to God when alone.
What's wrong? There is nothing that says "when alone" in the Greek text. It just says (in Greek) "to himself." Prior to the TNIV, people have differed over whether Paul allowed uninterpreted prayer in tongues in groups of two or three outside the church meeting, but with this insertion the TNIV settles the question: someone praying in tongues must be "alone." This is an example of what happens when translators are willing to allow "only a small change in the sense" of a passage. Too often, I suspect, they do not even realize all the implications that will follow from such changes to the words God gave us. But they make these changes to remove the male-oriented details of the text.
In summary, what are the words that are removed in these examples? "Man," "father," "brother," "son," and "he/him/his" are the main ones that are removed or neutralized. And there are dozens and dozens of other examples like these. I have no objection to removing these words when there is no male-oriented meaning in the original Greek or Hebrew text. But when there is a male-oriented meaning (as in these verses and many like them), then we dare not under-translate and conceal that male-oriented meaning, just because that emphasis is unpopular today. Of course the Bible treats women as equal in value and dignity before God from the very beginning (Gen. 1:27), and it towers over all other religions and world cultures in affirming the true equality of women and men in the image of God. But when the Bible has more numerous uses of male examples of general truths than female ones (as it does), then we should leave it, translate it truthfully, and not tamper with it.
Is this a serious matter? I take it very seriously. The NIV is the largest-selling Bible in the English speaking world. If this TNIV, backed by the massive marketing capabilities of Zondervan and the IBS, should gain wide acceptance, the precedent will be established for other Bible translations to mute unpopular nuances and details of meaning for the sake of "political correctness." The loss of many other doctrines unpopular in the culture will soon follow. And in every case readers of the English Bible will never know whether what they are reading is really the word of God or the translators' ideas on something that would be a little less offensive than what God actually said. As Moses warned the people of Israel, so we must hear the warning today, "You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you" (Deut. 4:2).