New Gender-Neutral Bible Stirs Controversy

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Anne Eggebroten

(WOMENSENEWS)–James C. Dobson, psychologist and radio personality has come out against Zondervan Publishing House’s new edition of its popular New International Version Bible.

The good news is that Zondervan, the world’s largest publisher of Bibles, has decided to replace words such as “men,” “sons,” and “he” (when referring to believers) with “people,” “children,” and “they” in its new edition, Today’s New International Version New Testament with the new language was released this spring and now in bookstores. The complete, inclusive version is expected to be completed in 2005.

The bad news is that Dobson, whose 90-second radio spots are heard on 2,000 stations in the United States, is throwing his weight against these changes. He says they dilute “the masculinity intended by the authors of Scripture” and result in “obscuring the fatherhood of God,” as he recently told USA Today.

Actually, Zondervan’s is “the last translation to get on the gender-accuracy train,” says Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, a group working to overcome sex bias in Christian churches. But still the new edition is notable because, with some 150 million Bibles in circulation, the New International Version is second in popularity to only to the King James Version–which reads exactly as it did when it was published in 1611.

Other translations go much further, changing masculine references to God and Jesus–such as “He,” “Father” and “Son of Man”–to gender-neutral terms. For example, “The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version,” Oxford University Press, 1995, changes the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Father-Mother in Heaven . . .” The “Inclusive New Testament” by Priests for Equality, 1994, offers “Abba God in heaven . . .” For “Son of man,” the messianic title Jesus often used to refer to himself, Oxford uses “the Human One” and Priests for Equality translates “the Chosen One.”

With so many Bible translators and major publishing houses committed to giving the Scriptures a voice that appeals to women today, one wonders why James Dobson is holding out for a male God and men-only in passages that describe the early Christian community. Is the command “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . .” so fragile that it is impaired by loss of the masculine tone?

A look at Dobson’s politics provides some of the answers. After the success of his early books, “Dare to Discipline” in 1971 and “The Strong-Willed Child” in 1978, he founded Focus on the Family, a conservative group that teaches parents how to discipline children, maintain strict gender roles and fend off sex in the media. He now has television and radio programs heard around the world.

As right-wing politics gained ground in the 1990s, Dobson became a voice as well-known as preacher Jerry Falwell and conservative commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson. In the culture wars, he and his organization defended “family values” against such “immorality” as divorce, gay marriages, extramarital affairs and legal abortion. Focus devotes over $4 million annually to lobbying and otherwise influencing public policy.

Dobson’s fear of neutering the Bible may be genuine. After all, such notable Christians as C.S. Lewis held to a theology in which God’s power had some masculine essence, in relation to which all Christians play a passive “feminine” role.

Many thinking men, however–such as scholar Ken Barker, who served on the translation committee for Today’s New International Version–feel comfortable changing men-only phrases to more inclusive ones. “We want to communicate clearly God’s truth to the people of the 21st century,” he says.

Dobson’s opposition may lie either in power politics or in the idea that any change threatens respect for Scripture as the inerrant, eternal word of God. He is not alone in this feeling. An Israeli friend tells me, “We can’t change one word of the Torah, not one comma”–but at least the Hebrew scriptures are an original ancient text, not a recent translation, as is the King James Version. The Vatican also opposes changing “men” to “people” in Bible translations, though many U.S. Catholic congregations are already using inclusive versions in worship.

But most likely, Dobson’s resistance comes from a messy mixture of ideas and emotions–love of the past, inability to abandon eons of entrenched male privilege, fear of empowering women and fear of changing the magical holy words.

When I was mother of a 2-year-old, I bought Dobson’s “The Strong-Willed Child” and sought advice on how to cope with tantrums and willfulness. But after some reading, I grew skeptical. His prescriptions for breaking a child’s will seemed like boot camp in the Army. For children as young as 15 months, he recommends, “two or three stinging strokes on the legs or bottom” for disobedience. He equates a child’s self-will with original sin but somehow thinks that parents, unlike God, should be able to win this battle and produce docile children. Fortunately, I found other books with very different philosophies, and as my children grew older, I began to admire their strong wills. After all, how would a weak-willed child make it in this world? Would he or she become a teen who could “just say no”?

Dobson’s books have since gotten more political and polemical. His “Children at Risk: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Our Kids,” 1990, says we are engaged in a “Civil War of values.” He opposes sex education in public schools, childbearing outside of marriage, divorce, homosexuality and gay rights. “When did parents begin to lose control of our children to government bureaucrats and an ‘anything goes’ culture?” he asks.

While other men grow and learn, Dobson remains stubborn in resisting even an inch of change in Bible translations. His behavior looks only slightly related to deep respect for the Bible. Instead it appears bound up with his other political positions, which are rooted in fear, a sense of losing control and wanting to preserve power.

Anne Eggebroten is author of “Abortion: My Choice, God’s Grace,” New Paradigm Books, Pasadena, Calf., 1994.

For more information:

Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus:

Christians for Biblical Equality:

One thought on “New Gender-Neutral Bible Stirs Controversy

  1. I found it sad that you write an article promoting gender neutrality in the bible. Changing sacred text based upon the whims of an increasingly transient culture and its pathetic amoral leanings is bad enough… but to take it and turn it into a personal attack on Dr. James Dobson is weak and pathetic. By the way – get your facts straight…see what your sources – whom you so gleefully revere for no apparent reason – say about 1769 and the King James Version.

    Dr. Dobson is not someone who is ‘barely holding on’ to some outdated personal values. He is a bible scholar who will not bend and pander to a culture who believes murdering of babies is OK. He is upholding Scripture: the inerrant word of God. The mere idea of a ‘gender-neutral bible is frankly one that would make millions of real Christians ill. The portrait you paint of any one version or person being the last to ‘finally get on the train’ is the problem with today’s culture. For some reason people want the benefits of being called a Christian but not the limits a true Christian will – if they’re honest with themselves – be convicted to comply with as per Scripture.

    Anne Eggebroten, your insinuations that gay marriage, abortion, homosexuality and other hot button topics are -with regard to being accepted in culture – imminent are simply wrong. That may be the case in the world of MTV and Hollywood, but not amongst the majority of mainstream Americans. Your insinuations that Dr. Dobson’s positions on those things and other controversial issues are somehow based in fear and that that fear is somehow related to men losing some centuries-old superiority over women are absurd – read the bible Ms. Eggebroten…it’s all in there. Your comments make it evident to me that you haven’t even taken the time to read the very book you’re writing about! His unwillingness to move an inch is PRECISELY what this country needs. You wouldn’t ‘dumb down’ a trigonometry book or book intended to teach a different language? That would be counter to the fundamental intent and teachings of the book. This country’s – and the world’s – ‘cherry-picking’ of the bible … the categoric avoidance of passages that might make a person adhere to morally upright, scripturally-based guidelines for their lives …instead of the ‘free for all’ we see nowadays in movies, music videos, schools and all around us – including (alarmingly so) an increasing presence in churches themselves is because people are NOT following Scripture. They are rewriting it so it is a warm,fuzzy ‘feel-good’ book with less and less accountability all the time. Take your gender neutral bible and go to some coffee shop and read it between Yoga sessions or something…but do not associate it with Jesus Christ. He DIED for the sins you’re trying to minimize. You ought to be ashamed of yourself Ken Barker. As a scholar, what gave you the notion and the audacity to take out the prophetic references in Daniel that tie it so intimately with Revelation? Where are the ten toes? What’s next to go? The deification of Christ? The Resurrection? You need to read the bible and you and Ms. Anne need to repent and I think at least one of you owes a big apology to Dr. Dobson and also to his family – who continues to give sound biblical advice to families who seek to raise godly children with a Biblical worldview. We need more children like that…not less. And we’re not going to get them by telling them that gay marriage and sexual experimentation and multiple sexual partners before marriage are OK. Teach them the (unadulterated) Bible, kindness, love, respect for their spouses and their parents and we’ll end up with some good kids. Teach what you’re promoting and we’ll end up with angry lost kids with no respect for themselves, their parents and most importantly GOD.