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Femme fatale

The feminist seduction of the evangelical church: The New International Version of the Bible--the best-selling English version in the world--is quietly going "gender-neutral"

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Say goodbye to the generic he, man, brothers, or mankind. Make way for people, person, brother and sister, and humankind. By the year 2000 or 2001, if the 15-member Committee on Bible Translation (CBT)--the NIV's controlling body--has its way, the 35 percent of American Bible buyers who prefer the NIV will not be able to buy a new copy of the version they trust.

That may not happen--publisher Zondervan may still choose to put out two separate versions--but the decision of one committee to substitute an "inclusive" NIV version for the pew Bible of choice at many evangelical churches over the past two decades is likely to transform understandings of how God views the sexes he created.

How have we arrived at this point?

Twenty-five years ago, mainline churches were debating whether women should be pastors and whether language should reflect differences between the sexes, but evangelicals weren't worried about it. As Larry Walker, one of 15 members of the CBT, who has been involved with the NIV for 25 years, remembers, "Way back yonder when it first came up, no one was for [unisex language]. Now at the present time, almost everyone is for it," he says a little wistfully. "The language is shifting underneath our feet."

Whether the language has actually shifted that much is questionable, but it is true that feminists have agitated for such a shift. And that agitation has apparently paid off. Pressure for unisex language came from women who, in the words of Mr. Walker, "felt left out" by the traditional language. It also came from the NIV's American publisher, Zondervan, and from Hodder and Stoughton, the NIV's British publisher.

"The British were very strongly pushing this," Mr. Walker said. In England, sales of the New Revised Standard Version, a unisex language revision of the RSV, put such pressure on the NIV that Hodder and Stoughton demanded a new version in order to compete. The NIV's translating committee took several years away from its book-by-book review of the Bible in order to complete the unisex language version, now on sale in England as the NIV Inclusive Language Edition.

The controversy over unisex language bothers Kenneth Barker, secretary of the CBT; the revision, he says, will "reflect new insights on the meanings of Greek and Hebrew words, and shifts in English idiom." It will not, he makes clear, refer to God as "she." Mr. Barker says, "It probably disturbs us that such a big deal is being made over inclusive language." After all it "is not changing the sense of the passage."

But a look at the New Revised Standard Version shows how difficult it is to make changes without tampering with the meaning. The NRSV includes passages that are tortured ("Let us make humankind in our own image.... So God created humankind," Genesis 1:26). It includes passages that are historically misleading ("The warriors who went out to battle," Numbers 31:28; those warriors were men, according to the Hebrew). It includes passages that are doctrinally confusing ("What are human beings that you are mindful of them or mortals that you care for them," Hebrews 2:5; in the book of Hebrews, this passage refers to Christ).

Although the NIV "will be a little more conservative than the NRSV," according to the CBT's Mr. Walker, there still will be difficulties--and, significantly, the changes, except where singulars have been changed to plurals, will not be footnoted. The result of the shift to unisex language may be to cloud the uniqueness of men and women. And that reflects gains made by feminists over the past decades. It also underscores the uphill nature of the battle being fought by those who seek to preserve a "complementarian" view--that, for example, women can be leaders in many spheres but must not be pastors.

The move fits with the trend toward egalitarianism--the denial of any distinctions between men and women--in the church and home. Egalitarians assert that women should be pastors, elders, and co-heads of families. Gilbert Bilezikian, professor emeritus at Wheaton College and author of Beyond Sex Roles, puts it bluntly: "There cannot be authentic community as described in the New Testament without the full inclusion of the constituency of members into the ministry, life, and leadership of the group."

Mr. Bilezikian is a founding elder and influential theologian at Bill Hybels's Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. Willow Creek's rapid growth and its influence on other evangelical churches through the 2,200-member Willow Creek Association makes its position on the issue important.

Willow Creek has had women elders since its founding in 1978. But in the past year the church has made explicit among its leaders the reasons for its position--and demanded a level of agreement from staff and prospective church members. In January 1996, John Ortberg, one of Willow Creek's teaching elders, taught a two-hour class to church ministry leaders, in which he said that staff needed to share the convictions of the church, or study until they shared those convictions; and they had a year to do so.

Mr. Ortberg's teaching became the basis for a draft position paper dated January 1996, which WORLD has obtained. The paper, which was distributed only to Willow Creek's ministry leaders, says the church "has sought to insure an appropriate level of consensus on this issue with new staff members" to avoid an environment that "would be destructive to authentic community and effective ministry." The statement makes clear the church's belief that "when the Bible is interpreted comprehensively, it teaches the full equality of men and women in status, giftedness, and opportunity for ministry," despite "a few scriptural texts [that] appear to restrict the full ministry freedom of women."

What does Willow Creek mean by "appropriate level of consensus?" In practice, it means that complementarians are encouraged to look elsewhere for a church. As Dr. B--that is what Willow Creekers affectionately call Gilbert Bilezikian--explains, "Anyone who is a member adheres to the statement of beliefs and practices of the church."

Dick Carr had attended Willow Creek since 1992. "I came to Christ there, was baptized there, married there," he says fondly. That's why Mr. Carr's dissent over the women-in-leadership position is painful for him to talk about; he still loves the church. But last year, when Mr. Carr decided to join the church, he ran into difficulties. An appendix of the membership book "threw up red flags for me."

Mr. Carr asked his division leader, who told him to read Dr. B's Beyond Sex Roles. That raised even more questions. He read a complementarian book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, which made sense to him. But when Mr. Carr recommended the book be carried by the Willow Creek bookstore, he says the bookstore manager told him "it was deemed not appropriate."

Mr. Carr went back to his division leader, who referred him to a female elder who is the author of a paper called "Elders' Response to the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Membership at Willow Creek." In that document, volunteer membership coaches are told, "We ask that Participating Members of Willow Creek minimally be able to affirm with integrity the following: that they can joyfully sit under the teaching of women teachers ... that they can joyfully submit to the leadership of women in various leadership positions at Willow Creek."

A letter from Mr. Bilezikian to Mr. Carr confirmed the church's position: "I commend you for wanting to serve with integrity in a church that is compatible with your view. Obviously Willow Creek is not that place." At that point Mr. Carr gave up the idea of membership.

Willow Creek teacher Mr. Ortberg says the need for agreement is an "issue of integrity." But complementarian Wayne Grudem uses no euphemisms in his analysis of the Willow Creek position: "The way an egalitarian view triumphs is by a suppression of information and discussion."

Willow Creek makes explicit the connection between the egalitarian position on women's roles and Bible translations. The January 1996 statement on sex roles states that Willow Creek is committed to "encourage the use of translations of Scripture that accurately portray God's will that His church be an inclusive community."

Willow Creek has been spared great division over its egalitarian position because the church has always had female leadership, but the story is different in Boston where the nearly 200-year-old Park Street Church faces an uncertain future. After a year's study, a church committee failed to arrive at consensus on the issue. Although Park Street turned down one proposal that would have required a certain number of women elders, several weeks ago it elected its first woman to that position. The vote to elect the woman elder was 60 percent in favor, 40 percent opposed.

Park Street's dilemma is likely to be repeated in evangelical churches throughout the country. The pressure for change comes not from new discoveries about the Bible; it comes from social changes occurring in the culture. As women perform all kinds of tasks outside the church, it raises a question that wasn't there before: What outlets are women going to have in the church?

Dan Doriani, dean of faculty at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, says one problem in meeting this challenge is that "a great number of evangelicals rest their faith on either custom/tradition or experience, with experience becoming increasingly important." The argument, he says, goes like this: I have gifts and people affirm them. I have the sensation of being called, therefore I am called. I need to exercise my gifts, therefore I'll exercise them. But they don't ask how to exercise those gifts in a biblical manner.

Other complementarians acknowledge that the church has sometimes unnecessarily limited the roles women can fill. But with the changes in Bible translations, it will be harder to tell what Scripture actually teaches. Last year Zondervan published the New International Reader's Version (NIrV), a simplified NIV written at a 3rd-grade reading level, which is intended for children or adults whose first language isn't English. It is "inclusive," although it isn't marketed that way, and there is no identifying statement on the cover.

Will the NIV publicize the nature of its turn-of-the-century revision? In England there are two versions, the unisex-language and the traditional one. But Mr. Walker says the consensus of the Committee for Bible Translation in America is to have the unisex-language version "take the place of the other." Mr. Barker says it will be the publisher's decision: "If our committee had its way there would be no separate inclusive-language edition." But he says, "I've heard--I can't say that this is actual fact--that Zondervan will keep making the two editions," at least for a while if the traditional version finds a market niche.

R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, is cautious about the push for unisex-language Bibles. The translations should "seek to be as inclusive as the original text intends and no more inclusive than the original text intends," he says. He fears that some translators employ a hermeneutic that "predisposes them to see any differentiation in roles as arbitrary or irrelevant."

How can the church stand firm in the face of all this outside pressure to cave to new cultural norms? It is not going to be easy. Although Dan Doriani of Covenant Seminary says, "Wrestling with this issue is either nonexistent or close to nonexistent on our campus," he acknowledges that cultural pressure could make it an issue in future years. "If we keep our commitment to biblical authority," he says, "if we keep our exegetical skill ... and if we keep our willingness to remain counter-cultural, then we should stay relatively free of controversy."

The pressure to conform, however, is intense. At a recent gender symposium at Vanderbilt University's divinity school, Mr. Doriani found himself one of the few conservatives in a meeting dominated by liberals and moderates. Mr. Doriani later told his students at Covenant "how tempting it was to cut my remarks in order to be liked, but it was my responsibility to say what I believe the right position to be."

At Southern Baptist Seminary, Mr. Mohler successfully defended the traditional view despite student, faculty, and media pressure to conform. His 1995 veto of the appointment of a prospective faculty member who supported women's ordination led one of his deans to call a press conference to make known her opposition to his veto.

But Mr. Mohler, with support from his trustees, stuck to his guns. The trustees agreed that all prospective faculty be able to affirm, among other things, that women should be restricted from the office of senior pastor or overseer. The president said at the time, "I am convinced that this issue will be in the coming decade one of the crucial dividing lines separating evangelicals committed to biblical authority and inerrancy from those who are seeking to transform evangelicalism from within."

Since 1995, when the seminary's position was "conclusively clarified," there has been an 85 percent turnover in faculty, as members retired, left for pastorates, or went to "friendlier" seminaries. The result has been "great peace and common purpose" at the institution.

Within the Southern Baptist Convention, ordination continues to be a burning issue only "within the elites of the denomination with access to the press," Mr. Mohler says; he points out that the Southern Baptists have fewer than 50 female pastors out of 38,000 churches. Mr. Mohler's tough approach ended the controversy at Southern Baptist Seminary, at least for now.

But Wheaton's Gilbert Bilezikian is confident that the egalitarians will win. "It is a quiet reform movement that is unstoppable," he says. "In two or three generations from now it won't even be an issue." He predicts there may be groups that hold to the traditional view in 100 years, but they will be relegated to the margins.

It is easy to understand Mr. Bilezikian's triumphalism. After all, when egalitarians lose a vote, they just come back for another vote. In effect, they wear down the opposition. As Larry Walker of the NIV Committee says: Unisex language "bothered me to begin with very much. I guess I've evolved."

But Wayne Grudem hasn't given up hope. The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood boasts many prominent evangelicals as members. "Though this controversy is painful," Mr. Grudem said, "I think ultimately the Lord will bring good out of it."

Susan Olasky

Susan is a former WORLD book reviewer, story coach, feature writer, and editor. She has authored eight historical novels for children and resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas.



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