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The Gender Gap

Should we embrace the use of gender-inclusive language in modern Bible translations?

March 14, 2012 by Major Cathie Harris and Kristin Fryer


YES. While the Bible was written thousands of years ago, its message is timeless and intended for all people. As such, we should be open to translations of the Bible that speak to all genders.

BY MAJOR CATHIE HARRIS

Should we adopt the use of gender-inclusive language in The Salvation Army? Absolutely!

When we are speaking or writing we should use language that includes everyone. For example, The Salvation Army believes that the good news of Jesus Christ is for all people. But if we revert to the language of previous years and say “the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all men,” most of our daughters, granddaughters, nieces and female visitors to our worship services or family services centres will not understand that they are meant to be included in that statement.

Language changes over time. Not everyone likes the changes or agrees with them, but words matter and language is not neutral. It either conveys a clear message or it leads to confusion. Like any form of communication we need to understand not only what was meant but what was heard. The generic use of “man” and “mankind” of the past is not currently understood to include the female gender. If we want to communicate clearly and be understood, we need to keep our language current. We cannot be a “transforming influence in our communities” if our language erects barriers. One of The Salvation Army’s key principles, first established by Catherine Booth, was a willingness to “adapt our measures,” or applied in this case, to adapt our language.

Certainly gender isn’t the only issue when it comes to adapting language. The Committee on Bible Translation has worked since 1965 on the New International Version of the Bible, the most widely distributed translation. The committee meets each year to keep current with new discoveries in biblical scholarship and the use of Standard English around the world. One of the changes they’ve made more recently is found in Genesis 23:4 where Abraham says, “I am an alien and a stranger among you.” In Standard English the word “alien” now brings to mind someone from another planet. So the updated NIV 2011 reads, “I am a foreigner and a stranger among you.” This conveys both the intent of the original author and is understood accurately by English speakers today.

The same principle is at work when it comes to gender. In the 1984 New International Version, Romans 3:28 reads this way: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” At the time, it was assumed that female readers would understand that they were included. We can no longer assume that. So the NIV 2011 translates it this way:
“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” This maintains the original meaning of the writer and communicates with clarity to readers today.

Using gender inclusive language is not about compromise. It is not about changing the Bible. It is not about neutralizing the differences between men and women. It is about using language that makes sure that all people—men, women and children—know that they are loved by God and are recipients of God’s grace. All of our writing and speaking must clearly include everyone who is meant to be included.

The tricky part is knowing how and when to rewrite the gender-exclusive language of the past. There are times when this is easy. Bible passages that were meant to include men and women have moved from exclusive to inclusive language in new translations to reflect current Standard English. This reflects the work of translation from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek into English. The King James Version translated the original languages into Elizabethan English. Translations today should reflect current usage of the English language.

But should we rewrite hymns and songs? Should we change the words of Shakespeare and Samuel Logan Brengle when we quote them? These are more difficult decisions. We will not all agree. I have been known to change a few words of songs from paper to PowerPoint and I’m not sure that those who might normally object would have even noticed. But I hope that everyone felt included as they sang. I think the principle remains the same as the work of biblical translators: What did the original author mean? How can we most effectively communicate that today? Can we make changes without disrupting the form and structure of the writing? Most importantly, does everyone know they are included in God’s gracious invitation to be in personal relationship with him? Using gender inclusive language is one more way of expressing this. That is why we should intentionally work at doing this in The Salvation Army.

Major Cathie Harris is chair of the Social Issues Committee and lives in Winnipeg.


NO. We should be cautious about adopting gender-inclusive language. Instead, we should seek to understand the Bible on its own terms, within the language and tradition that gave birth to it.

BY KRISTIN FRYER, STAFF WRITER

One of the best classes I took in university was European Literature in Translation. The selected readings, which included The Brothers Karamazov and The Trial, were among the best books I’ve read.

Despite my immense enjoyment of the course, at times I felt as though I was missing something. One day in class, the professor, a native German-speaker, was reading a passage from Faust when he paused and said, “I wish you could read this in the original German. The English translation just doesn’t quite get at the meaning of these words.”

This is the fundamental “flaw” of translation—and it has led a number of language theorists to question whether translation is ever fully possible. The issue is rooted in the fact that every language is born out of and shaped by a particular people group and their beliefs and traditions. As German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer argues, every language is a view of the world, “not primarily because it is a particular type of language … but because of what is said or handed down in this language.” Tradition and language cannot be separated; language is tradition.

The further removed a reader is from the culture and tradition of a particular language, the more difficult it is for them to understand that culture’s literature.

As such, the translation of a modern French novel into English is likely to be more possible because we share more with the French culture. In many cases, we watch the same films, listen to similar music and are affected by the same major events (e.g. the recent economic downturn).

But in the case of ancient texts, the problems of translation can be particularly acute. Consider how far removed we are—temporally, linguistically, culturally—from the people living in the time of Abraham, Moses or Jesus. The cultural differences between then and now are stark.

And here lies the root of my skepticism toward many modern translations of the Bible, including so-called “gender-inclusive” translations.

It’s not the Bible’s fault that we cannot read ancient Greek and Hebrew. But if we could—and some people can—what would we encounter? To put it bluntly, we would encounter a text written by men, for men. And it should not come as a shock to modern readers that the Bible was written in this way.

Patriarchal language in the Bible is not a “scandal” that must be covered up by gender-inclusive translations. The Bible is what it is. The inspired Word of God: yes. Product of a particular language, culture and tradition: also yes. Going through the Bible and replacing “he” with “they,” “sons” with “sons and daughters,” and so on, does not “fix” this.

And in some cases, as various biblical scholars have pointed out, these kinds of changes can actually obscure the meaning of the Bible. In his essay “What’s Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bible Translations?” Wayne Grudem offers many examples of faulty gender-inclusive translations, such as Psalm 34:20, which contains a Messianic prediction. The Revised Standard Version reads, “He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken,” while the New Revised Standard Version reads, “He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.” According to Grudem, “The individuality of the Messianic prediction, so wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus’ death, is lost to readers of the NRSV.”

It is important to remember that no translation of the Bible is neutral. Every translation is the product of human beings, who have their own worldviews and biases, and a linguistic system, which has its own traditions and biases. Every translation reflects these biases. For hundreds of years, the English language has been heavily influenced by Christianity. But as culture shifts, so also does language. There is no denying that the culture of English-speaking people is becoming increasingly secular, and it would be a mistake to think that our language has not changed as a result.

We must be careful not to demand that the Bible conform to our language and our worldview, but instead seek to understand the Bible on its own terms, within the language and tradition that gave birth to it.

I realize that this may not be a satisfying conclusion for some readers. The reality is that some passages of the Bible make 21st-century women (myself included) uncomfortable. But focusing on this, instead of recognizing that the Bible is a product of a particular language and culture, misses the broader picture.

Modernized language or not, nothing can change the fact that the message of Christ already is gender-inclusive. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Our salvation depends on our decision to follow Christ, not our gender.

Kristin Fryer is staff writer for Salvationist magazine.

Comments

  1. Stephen Scarborough says:

    The problem with many modern translations of the Bible is that too many translators have agendas that they feel they need to publicy air in their particular version. The result: obscuring the true meaning of important Biblical texts (as Kristin Fryer so deftly described).

    The litmus test I find useful for identifying bona fide translations is a pivotal verse: Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a VIRGIN shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel’ “. If the the translation has ANY other word(s) there except ‘virgin’. I don’t buy it. Why? Because there is absolutely nothing significant about a ‘young woman’ giving birth. That happens every day of the year and those are the exact words some translations use. Which, in my opinion, are entirely misleading and confusing.

    Secondly, more should be done to educate churchgoers about the lands of the Bible and the cultures of the Old and New Testaments. Those maps in the back of the Bibles are there for a purpose.

  2. It is very important to observe the language comparison exactly. Formal contemporary English should be used not a slang or street version. I know it’s important to have a relevant translation so the current culture can relate . I too have felt the discrimination when I have read the ( male) text

  3. Change, change, change that is all that I hear. God’s word never changes and never will. It is relevant today as it was in the past. It has stood the test of time. To change certain words to suit someone else it isn’t gong to make one bit of difference.After a while there will not be nothing left of the word of God. It has been translated so may times enough is enough. There are more important issues such as poverty . I am a woman and noticed the last three letters of the word it spells man so I guess that is wrong too. I think the word of God needs to be left alone. We also have to look at the song books that are in our churches then the wording might upset someone what is next. Leave well alone will you please!

  4. David Cavanagh says:

    I think the key issue here is what the Bible in question is being used for. In terms of communicating the gospel to the modern world, I am all in favour of using gender-inclusive language to make it clear the gospel message applies to men and women alike. I have a few more reservations about the attempt to avoid masculine language in reference to God – but mainly because it makes for rather rough sentences, because often the only way to avoid the masculine pronoun is to repeat “God” rather woodenly.

    On the other hand, for my personal study I do not want a modernised text. The second contributor is absolutely right that the biblical texts reflect a patriarchal society, and we risk over-domesticating the Bible if we produce translations which obscure that.

    Two further comments: I several years ago abandoned the NIV (which I had previously used for 20 years) partly because I was finding I knew it so well it was losing its’ impact on me. However, the decision was also confirmed by an increasing awareness that the NIV is actually has considerable “theological” bias and tends to harmonise difficulties in the original text.

    I’m afraid one example of that is the issue raised precisely by the first commenter of this article: Isaiah 7.14 is translated “virgin” precisely because it is viewed through the lense of the use made of it in the New Testament. In the original Hebrew “almah” may imply “virgin” but the correct linguistic translation is “young woman” and the objection Stephen makes misses the point. So far as Isaiah is concerned there is nothing extraordinary about the birth – the key point is that before the child knows right from wrong the menace facing Israel will be a only distant memory.

  5. I agree that God’s word does not change, however language does as time goes on…example: the word Retarded used to be common to describe the process of slowing down, in our day and age however it is more commonly associated with people who suffer from mental disabilities. It is an offensive word, so we have to consider issues like this when talking about language.

    In John chapter three Jesus changes the way he is saying the message he is trying to get acorss three times to help Nicodemus understand. I think like Cathie suggests that the language can be adapted to help people understand the gospel message provided that the actual meaning of the message is not being changed.

    There can be different ways of relaying the same message…

  6. I do not think the word of God has ever changed or will ever change. But has the message I recieved as a child to now changed? You bet. You see growing up I learned alot of stuff that was taught to me as being biblical isnt correct. People need to research on their own the bible and what it means, what is being said. Its easier today then when I was a little kid as we have tools like the Concordance, and the Internet. We need to be modern Bereans. It might surprise you. It might change you. It might even empower you.

  7. I have thought for a very long time that the churches – here, the Salvation Army – should all be using inclusive language in all things.

    Language has power, and to be referring to the most powerful being in the universe(s) as a “he” impacts each of our subconscious minds at the very least, and for some of us, our conscious minds negatively. To refer to God as “she” would have the same negative impact. Either gender use alone goes to a gender power imbalance.

    Further, this is a non-factual use of language, as God is neither male nor female.

    Given what we know about the prevalence, both past and present, of both male and female childhood sexual abuse, to insist on continuing to refer to God by one gender assignment only is to be simply obtuse. The time has come for thoughtful considerateness on behalf of all persons.

  8. Mary Nye says:

    I’ve been confronted with this debate since the 1970′s and believe it is agenda driven rather than a sincere desire to seek truth.
    No mention is made of the power of the Holy Spirit to teach what the scripture means.
    A person reading alone will not only read gender pronouns but will also read how Jesus’ message and compassion were given to women, men and children; the demonstration of the message verified that the spoken/written word was for all humanity.
    Jesus wasn’t bound by the culture He lived in. Instead, it was at that very TIME and in that culture that GOD chose to reveal Himself fully in the person of Jesus Christ.
    The Word is to be read, preached and demonstrated. In Nehemiah, the priests read the scripture as written, but also explained it so that the people would have good understanding. The ministers/teachers in the church should do likewise rather than change what is written.
    If a gender neutral bible is used, then I suspect many redemption patterns from the O. T. won’t work as well. (the role of kindred/redeemer is one example)
    In Lukes gospel, the title ‘Son of man’ uses the word ‘anthropos’ for man, which is gender neutral. However, Luke specifically said in Acts 17 that God is going to judge the world by that ‘man’ (male) who was raised from the dead. Consider the implications of how these changes would affect future theologies concerning the resurrection/ascension/coming again of a physically embodied Lord. There is more I could say, but enough for now.

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