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The ultimate journalistic sin

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Zondervan publishing house of Grand Rapids, Mich., a great name in evangelical publishing over the last 66 years, has taken strong exception to WORLD's March 29 cover story, "The Stealth Bible: The popular New International Version Bible is quietly going 'gender-neutral.'"

Go to Zondervan's website on the internet, and you'll need 10 sheets of paper to print out their response to WORLD, charging bluntly that our story is not true. We've also received criticism from the International Bible Society, the NIV's copyright owner.

When two noteworthy evangelical organizations accuse you of falsehood, you scurry back, doublecheck, and ask yourself: "What did we say?" We have long had genuine respect for both Zondervan and the IBS. We have always used the NIV as our standard for reference here in the columns of WORLD.

But Zondervan, in the entire 10 pages, offers not a single example of something we got wrong. Yet while fussing in vague generalities about our purported errors, they made several of their own that clearly validate our original story.

Zondervan's complaint that we didn't check with them before publishing our story sounds pretty damning. After all, who is more clearly identified with the NIV than Zondervan? But in fact, two other bodies are more closely identified with the actual words of the NIV than Zondervan ever has been. The International Bible Society is the NIV's copyright holder. And the Committee on Bible Translation is, in Zondervan's own words, "a completely independent, self-governing group of 15 biblical scholars charged as guardians of the New International Version translation. While members have been replaced through retirement or death, this committee has overseen the NIV translation since its inception." Zondervan's main role for the last 19 years has been to develop the NIV's commercial distribution.

So it seemed to us--and still does--that the Committee on Bible Translation was the place to go for our story. Members of the CBT provided, through very specific quotes, the essence of our account.

Our story included only four references to Zondervan. The first acknowledged openly, and very early in the story, that "publisher Zondervan may still choose to put out two separate versions." The second indicated that the CBT had felt some pressure from Zondervan to do an inclusive-language edition of the NIV. The third reported that Zondervan last year had published a simplified NIV, written at a third-grade level; "it is 'inclusive,'" our story said, "although it isn't marketed that way, and there is no identifying statement on the cover." Fourth, we quoted a CBT member as saying that while the committee would like just one version in the future--an "inclusive" one--he had heard that Zondervan "will keep making the two editions."

That's absolutely all we said about Zondervan Publishing House.

The main theme of our story was that the Committee on Bible Translation has quietly put its weight behind a move to make the NIV gender inclusive. Two of its own members told us the committee wants that to be the only edition available--although we understand now that the CBT has made no formal decision to that end. In any case, the story was about the CBT, not about Zondervan.

By responding as it has, however, zondervan unavoidably shifts the story to its own role. WORLD picks up that part of the story in another account in this week's issue (p. 14).

In its public response, Zondervan has hurt its own credibility--not WORLD's. "Has a revised NIV been published?" Zondervan asks in its internet blast. "No, not since 1983." But I have on my desk a 1996 NIV, published in Great Britain and purchased last week in London; the title page calls it an "Inclusive Language Edition."

Zondervan also says: "Terms such as 'inclusive language,' 'unisex language,' and 'gender-neutral' can be seen as negative and politically charged.... We have never identified with these phrases nor will we ever." But the Bible I just mentioned, published with the imprimatur of the CBT--with royalties accruing to IBS--uses the term "inclusive language" right on the title page.

Such confusing dodges lend credence to our original suggestion that the American evangelical public is being kept in the dark by those responsible for bringing to us the very words of God.

We take seriously the charges that we haven't been as careful as we should have been in our journalistic efforts. Yet after a word-by-word review, I will tell you as publisher of WORLD that I stand fully with every nuance and detail of our original article. Our writers and editors worked hard and carefully.

CBT, the IBS, and Zondervan might have responded to our story by saying honestly, "Yes, we've considered and are considering an inclusive-language edition of the NIV, and we'd like the response of the American public to that idea." Even better, they should have said that several years ago before moving so far down the road. Now we know that the CBT made the decision in 1992 to pursue a gender-inclusive edition. Was an announcement made to that effect?

The really serious journalistic sin has always been to misquote a source. This story about the NIV revision is about people who, for supposedly good reasons, are willing to misquote God. I know our friends at CBT, IBS, and Zondervan don't think they're doing that. They think they're just helping God say a little more clearly what was obscured in his early drafts. But for a journalist tempted to change a quote, intentions don't matter. You just don't do it.

Joel Belz

Joel Belz (1941–2024) was WORLD’s founder and a regular contributor of commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. He served as editor, publisher, and CEO for more than three decades at WORLD and was the author of Consider These Things.


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