Gender neutrality in Bible translations

Recently Polycarp posted about a sermon by MacArthur that turned out to have been made years ago, categorizing Mac as a new Calvinist trying to secure the ESV. TC Robinson also made a post on the subject. I don’t know if there is anything to that accusation or not. I certainly have not seen it.

What I HAVE seen is not that this is a calvinist issue, but that for the most part this seems to be a debate between complimentarians and egalitarians. I happen to be a complimentarian. I am so because it seems to me that this is what God intended – Eve was Adam’s helper, that is to say, each had a different role. It also appears to me that this what God intended in the home as well as in the Church. I said that so you will understand where I am coming from with what I am about to write.

The problems I see with gender inclusive language is 1) the meaning can sometimes be changed, and 2) the use of improper English.

The second problem is really minor, but irritating none the less. Some might claim the use of masculine pronouns are going out of use in the English language, recall that President Obama used it in his speech on Feb 24, 2009, and it seems people understood HIM. What makes it so hard for people to understand GOD when HE uses gender specific words? I think that of all books, the Bible should be closest to the proper use of language as possible, while remaining true to what God wrote. I LIKE dynamic translations (those which translate the idea, rather than simply the words), but find that they sometimes obscure what was originally intended, rather than clarify it (as one assumes the translators intended).  It is normal and proper usage of the English language when one uses a male pronoun to indicate male or female. “Do not use they when the antecedent is a distributive expression such as each, each one, everybody, every one, many a man. Use the singular pronoun [he, his, him].” (Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, 2000, p. 60).

Changing a pronoun in English certainly does not change the text’s meaning in the original language. But it can do so in the translations of the text. At times, making it more gender neutral clarifies the message in question. At other times, it obsfucates it.

And this brings us to the more important problem: the meaning of the original text can sometimes be changed through the use of gender neutral/inclusive language. I do not believe we should change what God has said. To be sure, much of the TNIV is correct, but it seems to really go out of the way to avoid the usage of male-specific terms. It does so to the point where the meaning of terms is lost and removes some of the focus from the individual and moves it to the group.

What follows is a very short list of changes the TNIV has made:

Phil 2:5-8 uses  ‘human likeness’ in instead of ‘men’, and ‘human being’ instead of ‘man’. Jesus certainly did not come as a women, but as a man. Why the change from masculiune noun to gender neutral noun? Am I mis-reading the lexicons?

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 changes ‘man’ to ‘human being’. Why the change, when the text is clear we died in Adam?

1 Timothy 2:5 removes the gender of our savior. Our Savior was man, not a woman, so why the removal?

Hebrews 2:16-17 uses ‘brothers and sisters’ rather than brethren (or brothers) when saying Christ had to become like them in every way. Was he somehow both male and female? Jesus Christ was male, not both.

2 Corinthians 4:16 removes the word ‘man’ altogether.

1 Corinthians 15:45 does the same, even though its in the original text.

1 Corinthians 14:28 has changed the ‘himself’ to ‘themselves’. Should one who feel led to speak in tongues where there is not interpreter speak to himself, or should a group of such people go speak to themselves?

1 Corinthians 14:39 changed ‘brothers’ to ‘brothers and sisters’, when speaking about being eager to prophecy, when he had just given instructions that women are to be silent in church (vs 34-35). So which is it?

1 Peter 1:22 removes the word ‘brotherly’ when speaking of philadelphian love. So how should we love one another?

(edit: go to for a larger list of changes deemed by the linked author to be inaccuracies)

As I’ve said, certainly there are cases where gender neutrality/inclusiveness makes things clearer. But there are also cases when it obsfucates the message.

I have no problem with functional/dynamic translations. In fact, I read one daily, although I tend to study using a literal (which really aren’t) one. But if one is going to translate from one language to another (and I have done so), it is important to be accurate both to the original text as well as to the recipient language. As I said, at times, gender inclusiveness/neutrality is appropriate. But not as often as it seems the TNIV uses it.

I think this debate is more than simply dynamic verses literal translation. The NIV is a functional/dynamic translation. But it does not seem to have as many problems in this area as the NIVI or the TNIV. Why? Perhaps because it was originally written before the shift in our society towards political correctness had taken a stranglehold on our culture?

I think the move towards gender neutrality (aka gender inclusiveness) is being influenced by the postmodern culture, feminism, the desire to not offend (ie. political correctness), and possibly the desire to provide support for particular ideas (such as women in positions of spiritual authority over men).

The NIVI and TNIV are not the only dynamic translations guilty of gender neutrality, certainly.  But since the NIV is so popular, I suspect that is why these two received criticism. I know the NRSV includes footnotes for at least some of the changes indicating the word choice.

I happen to agree with what I’ve seen of Grudem’s and Polythess’ analysis of these problems.  Here are some links to some interesting (to me) articles:

[edit: added additional links]

LInk with explanations as to why the translators made the choices they did for select verses: 

This link provides a lot of links to both sides of the gender inclusive debate, focusing on the TNIV:

Be aware of the issues and decide for yourself which version is best for your purposes.


8 Responses

  1. Sorry, that Carson link is within the last link you gave in your post. You can delete both of these comments if you’d like.

  2. Brian,

    Most people agree that anthropos refers to both men and women, that it really means “human beings.” If it didn’t then, I don’t think you could say that women were included in salvation. So, I don’t see a problem with translating anthropos with “human being.” I don’t think that everyone who says that Christ was human is degendering him. They are just trying to say what the Bible is saying about Christ, that he came as a human.

    When anthropos is translate as human or people, in the plural, then aner can be translated as “man” or “men” and the translation becomes much more transparent and concordant. I find the TNIV much more gender accurate in most cases.

  3. If you go to Biblica’s (former IBS-STL Global) website, they have a section where they explain specific passages. Going through most of the examples should answer most your questions.

  4. Wbmoore, I’m a complementarian. That’s no secret. But when it comes to which translation I think handles best the gender issue in translation, I have to go with the TNIV.

    Again, I remain a complementarian.

    The verses that you’ve taken issue with in the TNIV are not at all objectionable when you understand what is taking place.

    Sue is spot on.

  5. WB, I would agree that Calvinism does not have much to do with this subject, but it does have a lot to do with certain of the New Calvinists who are pushing, to the exclusion of others, the ESV.

    Just thought I might clear that up a bit.

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