New Gender-Neutral Bible Stirs Controversy

Many religious women and men herald a new, non-sexist translation of a popular version of the Bible, yet a strong-willed conservative critic cries foul.

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: