Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Gender Neutral Bible?

In recent days there has been much controversy over "gender neutral" translations of the Bible. This year saw the publication of the most recent edition of the New International Version of the Bible (NIV). This latest revision has caused a storm of controversy because it incorporates many of the gender neutral readings of the ill-fated "Today's New International Version" of 2001. That version retained masculine pronouns to refer to God, but the word "brethren" used in traditional translations became "brothers and sisters" in the TNIV. It looked like an accommodation to Political Correctness.

    It has to be admitted that the English language has come peculiarities that make it difficult to render certain passages into English. Greek, like other languages, has one word (anthropos) to refer to a generic human being regardless of gender, and a different word (aner) to refer specifically to a male human being. English, however, does not. Traditionally the English "man" would be used to translate either Greek word, thus creating a certain ambiguity. But then again the English language is filled with ambiguities like that.

    The NIV relies on a principle of translation known as "dynamic equivalence," and critics have complained from the very beginning that this method tends to lead to excessive paraphrasing. It could be argued, however, from a translator's standpoint, that "brother and sister" is a legitimate dynamic equivalent of "brethren." When Paul used the underlying Greek word (adelphoi) he clearly meant to include all the members of a given local church, regardless of gender. The problem, if there is one, lies in the translation method itself.

    The real question, however, is this: do gender distinctions exist in the Bible itself? So-called "Biblical Feminists" insist that they do not. Appealing to Gal. 3:28 (". . .there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." – NKJV), they argue that gender distinctions have been obliterated by the gospel.

    But what about all those passages in which the apostle Paul tells women to be subject to men? The Feminists reply that Paul was mistaken, that these passages merely reflect his cultural background, or perhaps his own distorted personality. The genius of the gospel is gender equality; the other passages do not apply to us today.

    There are, however, serious objections to this interpretation. First of all, it was not just the apostle Paul who said those things. Peter also made similar statements (I Pet. 3:1-7). In fact, a comparison of I Pet. 2:18-3:9 with Eph. 5:15 – 6:9 and Col. 3:12-4:6 suggests that this was a standard form of teaching throughout the early church. And that it was not confined to any one personality or locale.

    Secondly, in making his argument, Paul frequently appeals to the basic facts of creation, as in I Cor. 11:8-12 and I Tim. 2:13,14. Male/female distinctions are rooted in nature itself and reflect God's creative will. The basic principle is this: "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Gen. 1:27). Both men and women are created in the image of God – in that sense they are completely equal. But God did create them "male" and "female" – in that sense there is a difference.

    Thus gender relationships are contained in Scripture. God did make men and women different from each other, and understanding these differences is the key to maintaining harmonious relationships.

    But we have to be very careful here. Male headship does not give men the license to mistreat or abuse women. As we will see in a future blog post, husbands are to love their wives and that means to treat them in a gentle and understanding way.

    We must also be careful not to engage in stereotyping! Each person has a unique personality and background, which makes it difficult (and treacherous!) to make generalizations about the opposite sex. The Bible prescribes the general roles for women in the family and the church, but beyond that there is tremendous latitude for individual interests and talents.

    The point of it all is this: we live in a world that was created by God, a God Who is infinitely powerful, wise, good and just. He knows what is best for us. Both men and women are called upon to live their lives in humble submission to His will. Our happiness and sense of fulfillment come when we conform to His created order, and that order does, in fact, include gender differences.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the gender relations which are clear in Scripture (such as the passages from Paul and Peter that you refer to) are a useful indication that the NIV approach has some merit.

    Leaving aside the issue of whether the gender-neutral options improve the elegance of the text, they do at least make it clear whether a passage refers to men specifically or men and women together.