Gender Disputes in Bible Translation

Tug of War Alone by aleutie

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 5

by Reta Halteman Finger

In 1997, when our household was subscribing to the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, nearly every issue entertained and enraged me by reporting on the fight over a Bible translation.  The translation was called Today’s New International Version of the Bible (TNIV), an updated edition of the New International Version (NIV), a favorite of conservative Christians. And many of them were not happy with the new edition.

Why the unhappiness?  Because the TNIV was the first NIV updating to use gender-inclusive people language. The TNIV had been published in 1996 in the United Kingdom with no negative public reaction. But when the United Bible Society (UBS) made plans to publish it in the United States, all hell (well, at least the first circle of it) broke loose.

Fundamentalists such as Wayne Grudem, Jerry Falwell, Southern Baptist seminary presidents Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson, Focus on the Family, and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood cried foul. Changing “he” to “they” and “brothers” to “brothers and sisters” was changing the very words of God. The pushback from groups using the older version of the NIV was so strong that the UBS backed off—at least for a while. (To be fair, readers also resisted other translation issues besides gender changes. No doubt many laypeople viewed the 1984 NIV as the inerrant Word of God, so that any changes would have been threatening.)

Apparently the UBS and evangelical publisher Zondervan collaborated a few years later and published the TNIV in the U.S. after all. I found copyright dates for 2002, 2004, and 2005, even though one news article called it a “publishing flop.” But the TNIV did not replace the male-generic 1984 NIV, which continued to be published and which has reigned supreme among evangelicals and fundamentalists until recently. Thus the debate continued.

I found a number of articles in Christian publications from 2002 that discussed the TNIV. Christianity Today (Oct 7, 2002), for example, raised the question, “Is the TNIV faithful to the Bible in its treatment of gender?” Vern Poythress said no, but Mark Strauss (on the NIV translation committee) said yes.

As a reader of the New Revised Standard Version  (NRSV), I was intrigued by Vern Poythress’s response to Mark Strauss’s positive perspective. Poythress referred to the book he and Wayne Grudem had published, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God’s Words (Broadman & Holman, 2000). The subtitle says it all: the bedrock belief in inerrancy demands the use of male-generic language for people. Poythress decries changing the singular “he” to “they” because it changes the meaning of a text. And sometimes when “brother” is used, it is inaccurate to say “brothers and sisters,” he argued. The most cogent example from his perspective is Hebrews 2:17, where the human Jesus “had to become like his brothers in every way, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest…” Jesus did become fully human, says Poythress, “identifying with both men and women. But high priests were always male. By adding sisters right after brothers, and following it with the telling phrase ‘in every way,’ the TNIV makes it sound as if Jesus is bisexual (male and female).” (Poythress used the word bisexual in a way it is no longer used or understood today.)

Christian feminists can take some comfort in the fact that, even though the TNIV did not displace the 1984 version of the NIV, an updated 2011 NIV is doing exactly that. See this official NIV website for detailed information about this newest edition. It includes an NIV timeline beginning in 1955 when Howard Long starts crusading for “a trustworthy, modern English Bible.”  (Conservative Christians never did trust the Revised Standard Version [RSV] because of texts like Isaiah 7:14, where the King James says, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” and the RSV changes “virgin” to “young woman.”)

The above website includes “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation,” which details the committee’s rationale for the changes they made in 2011. The section on gender clarifies that changing male-generic language to inclusive language is now so pervasive in American culture that the Committee was convinced the NIV would not be understood unless changes were made. It is worth reading for the care they have taken to support their position, no doubt in light of expected negative reactions. For added ammunition, the Committee commissioned the Collins Dictionaries, a database of over 4.4 billion English words, to write a lengthy report titled “The Development and Use of Gender Language in Contemporary English—A Corpus Linguistic Analysis,” which can be downloaded in its entirety as a pdf document from the aforementioned website.

Concluding Comments on the 2011 NIV

I have not personally examined a copy of the 2011 NIV. I appreciate the care the Committee has taken to upgrade this translation and explain its rationale for the changes on their website, especially for gender-inclusive language. I would not, however, rely on this as my major Bible translation for the following reasons.

All 15 scholars on the Committee are evangelical, and only two are women. The first paragraph from their “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation” reads thus:

When the original Bible documents first emerged, they captured exactly what God   wanted to say in the language and idiom of ordinary people. There was no friction between hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding it the way it was meant. The original audience experienced a unique fusion of these two ingredients. (The rationale for a new translation follows.)

I cannot affirm this statement—that everything in the original documents of what became our Bible was exactly what God wanted to say. This omits the human aspect of the texts and the cultural limitations of the writers. It must include the “masculinity of God’s words,” which I see as a reflection of patriarchal cultures that the gospel of Jesus came to challenge. Later, the Committee assures the reader that in no instance have they altered the masculine gender of God.

The above statement sounds very much like some form of verbal plenary inspiration, which, as was argued in previous lessons, cannot be reconciled with the variety in the biblical texts. For now, I’m staying with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)!

The next lesson will compare the hermeneutical methods of Bible study used by Christian Feminism Today (EEWC-CFT) with those used by a sister organization, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE).

Questions for discussion and reflection

1. Which Bible translation do you prefer using—and why?

2.  What experience have you had using the 1984 NIV or the TNIV?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.


  1. The Scriptures themselves warn against changing anything. Anyone who is capable of reading can understand what is written. There’s nothing to be further amplified, explained, apologized for, or interpreted. From the beginning, God’s word was plain. Even Jesus Christ himself called Jehovah God .. Father. Any child raised by Christian parents, observing for (Him)self all Divine and Special revelation, and examining for (Him)self all Scripture will not fail to see the truth. All others who insist on inserting “other” aspects are likely at risk .. according to Scripture. I can discern, but cannot judge; only God can do that. But, He .. will .. be .. just, with you.

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