Language and Social Programming

In Fuller’s Biblical Division, we have a requirement that students use a gender-inclusive translation of the Bible (NRSV or TNIV) as their English translation. My students often ignore this, despite my desperate pleas, so I have to find ways of compelling them against their will. *ahem*

This spring a student asked some good, pointed questions about this requirement, so I figured I would answer him here, perhaps in hopes of getting some discussion going.

To the overall question, why require a gender-inclusive translation? My overall answer is this: to keep transforming the culture of the church until we actually believe (and therefore act like) that women and men are equal members of the body of Christ, equally addressed by the word of God, and equally empowered by the Spirit to serve in it (and therefore lead it).

My non-theological answer to why gender-inclusive language is essential: I am raising a daughter. At the age of 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 gender identity is one of the key ways she’s making sense of the world. She counts boys and girls (and whether the presence of a female dog ups the ante on the girls side so that they win). And, when she hears masculine language, she automatically excludes herself from the addressees.

As a man, this is something that experientially I will never be able to relate to, but as a dad I know that I want my daughter to hear the words of the Bible and know that they are expressed to her as much as they are to her brother. I don’t want girls or women who pick up the Bible to think that they are only members of the family of God by implication or by necessary consequence.

My student asked specifically about requiring the now defunct TNIV and the NRSV that was sponsored by the World Council of Churches and has not been well received in evangelical circles.

This is a crucial question. In my estimation the reason that these gender inclusive translations have not caught on in evangelicalism is precisely because conservative churches are theologically opposed to gender equality. It is because they are guarding against the sort of transformation that I think needs to take place that they choose to preserve and further language of masculine hegemony. In resisting even gender-inclusive language for humanity, however (e.g., not allowing α͗δέλφοι to be translated “brothers and sisters,” but instead insisting on “brothers”), the English translation expresses an exclusivity that was not there in the Greek. This is a case where “more literal” is not equivalent to “more accurate.”

The final couple of questions from my student were along the lines of who cares? and why bother? Why not use “mankind” and “man” rather than human? In addition to what I’ve outlined above, the reason I care is that women who are learning to locate themselves, as women, in the world, need to be told and have reinforced from every angle that they do not have to become male (or approximate maleness) in order to fully realize their humanness, to become who God desires them to be as restored image-bearers of Christ.

The church has been shackled by the idea that maleness is ontologically superior to femaleness. This has ramifications for how the church thinks about Jesus and how it thinks about gender among us humans.

With respect to Jesus: the ESV gives some hints as to the necessity for certain people to hold onto Jesus’ maleness as a sine qua non of salvation. A translation that prides itself on rendering words consistently and accurately translates ἄνθρωποι as “people” in 1 Timothy 2:4, “…desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” With this desire for all people as the set-up, however, the ESV simply cannot bring itself to say that a human is a sufficient category for a savior. No, it has to be male: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men [!, ἄνθρωποι], the man [! ἄνθρωπος] Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

We need to embrace gender-neutral terminology for humanity so that we can start to disentangle ourselves from skewed notions about maleness and salvation. And if you think I’m just making up the idea that the maleness of Jesus is an essential part of conservative evangelical theology, then maybe you can drop a note to Paternoster Press and ask why, after printing Neil Williams’ new book The Maleness of Jesus, they canceled the contract and are refusing to distribute it.

Of course, as soon as being male is required to represent humanity before God, then being male is required to represent God before God’s people. The continuing deafness of the evangelical world to the biblical passages that give counter-testimony to 1 Timothy 3 from the early church is another lingering effect of gender-exclusive Bible translation. So long as we think that to be truly human is to be man, and so long as we think that a man must be the mediator between God and man, women will never be able to participate as full, co-equal partners.

So yes, I care. And as a man I think it’s more important for me to champion this cause than it is for women to champion it themselves. Because the call of the gospel isn’t to spend all our time getting worked up over our own rights, but to spend all our time getting worked up over how life can come to the other.

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