Should Bible translations use gender-inclusive language?
Question: "Should Bible translations use gender-inclusive language?"
Answer: In the last century, more English Bible translations were introduced than at any other time in history. Some of those Bible translations have strived for gender-inclusive language that changes the original meaning of God’s inspired Word (see 2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16). Making a document “gender-inclusive” can be as simple as changing a few references to “every man” to the more neutral “everyone.” But gender inclusivity can also involve the blurring of gender lines that were never intended to be blurred. Not all languages have such difficulties, but English has no gender-neutral singular pronoun that means both “he” and “she,” so translators have usually defaulted to the “generic masculine,” using the pronouns he or him, even when the context applies to everyone. In recent years, some have objected to the use of the generic masculine, declaring it gender discrimination.
New archaeological finds and the discoveries of earlier manuscripts have given Bible translators better tools and broader understanding with which to determine elusive meanings of terms no longer in active use. However, accuracy is not always the motivator in creating a new translation of the Bible. Some cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have created their own versions of the Bible to support their agenda and ideas. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation omits words and adds others in ways that twist passages just enough to change their meaning. This type of Bible translation is not a translation at all but a perversion of God’s holy Word. God has harsh words for people who say, “Thus says the Lord,” when He did not say that (Deuteronomy 4:2;18:20; Jeremiah 23:16; Ezekiel 13:1–7).
Likewise, political correctness and gender inclusion have invaded the world of Bible translation and often pervert God’s intended message. But gender-inclusive language is not always wrong. When the intent of the translation team is to retain the original meaning as much as possible, it is right to use words such as everyone instead of the outdated every man, because the meaning does not change. For example, Colossians 1:28 in the New American Standard Bible says this: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (emphases added). Paul is clearly speaking about “every human being,” not males only. So most modern translations word the verse this way: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (NIV, emphases added). This gender-inclusive language does not detract from the original message of Scripture, but rather enhances our understanding of what Paul is saying.
Another way modern translations preserve gender-inclusive language is by using plural pronouns instead of the singular, even when the antecedent is singular. For example, Leviticus 24:15 says, “If anyone curses his God, then he will bear his sin” (NASB, emphases added). The masculine pronouns he and his are used in the NASB for two reasons: because they are literal translations of masculine words in the original Hebrew and because anyone is singular and normally takes singular pronouns (which in English are gender-specific). The NIV gets around the gender specificity by changing the personal pronoun to its plural form: “Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible” (emphasis added). Again, this form of gender-inclusive language is justified—except perhaps to grammar purists—because the meaning of the passage has not changed. The law in Leviticus did not just apply to men but to men and women.
Other instances of gender-inclusive language involve the addition of words to ensure that women have an “equal showing.” For example, the Holman Christian Standard Bible follows the original Greek in 1 Thessalonians 4:10, “We encourage you, brothers.” The NIV adds a phrase not found in the original in order to be more gender-inclusive: “We urge you, brothers and sisters.” Since Paul was writing to the whole church, which included men and women, adding “sisters” to “brothers” does not really change the meaning of the verse. A similar example is the changing of the masculine sons to the gender-inclusive sons and daughters in Hebrews 2:10.
Other examples of gender-inclusive language are more problematic, however. If the original intent of a verse was to limit the meaning to a masculine idea, it is an error to change that perspective to suit modern sensitivities. For example, some gender-inclusive versions replace references to God’s being a “Father” to us with statements that He is our “Parent.” This is wrong, as it fundamentally changes our perspective on the relationship. The masculine wording was God’s choice in explaining Himself to us, and we have no right to alter that.
When Bible translators use a formal equivalence approach, they will keep the masculine wording of the original languages. Bible translators who lean toward dynamic equivalence will be more likely to apply gender-inclusive language. One goal of any good translation is to present the Scriptures as closely as possible to their original meaning. When the use of gender-inclusive language does not in any way alter the original intent of the author, it may be acceptable. But if changes made in the name of gender-inclusion change the intent or broaden the meaning outside the inspired boundaries, it is sin. Political correctness should not be allowed to tamper with the Word of God.
Recommended Resource: How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions by Gordon D. Fee & Mark L. Strauss
Why can’t all Christians agree on one Bible?
Textual criticism - what is it?
Why is it important to know Greek and Hebrew when studying the Bible?
What are the different English Bible versions?
Should I use a paraphrase of the Bible?
Questions about the Bible
Should Bible translations use gender-inclusive language?