The gender-inclusive bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 October
Psalm 8.4 KJV
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Psalm 8.4 NLT
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?

If you grew up with a King James Version, as I did, you’ll notice lots of verses refer to “man,” “men,” “sons,” “fathers,” “husbands.” They address men. Talk about what men do and what men oughta do. Refer to the promises God made to men—curses upon evildoing men, blessings upon God-fearing men. Men men men.

With some exceptions (and I’ll get to them in a bit) most of us Christians are agreed these verses don’t only refer to men. They refer to anyone who follows or seeks God; anyone whom he interacts with. Or not.

Unless a verse refers to specific men, like Abraham or Moses or David or Simon Peter, or unless a verse refers to the specific male-only duties of husbands and fathers, it should rightly be interpreted as gender-inclusive: These commands, proverbs, promises, and instructions apply to both men and women.

So when the LORD commanded, as is phrased in the KJV

Leviticus 19.3 KJV
Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father, and keep my sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.

—this doesn’t mean, even though it clearly says אִישׁ/ish, “man,” we gotta assume it only applies to men… and women are exempt from this command. And if a woman so chooses, she can dismiss her parents and skip sabbath.

Properly, ish refers to any human being—whether a man or woman. Even though there’s a different word for woman—the feminine form of ish, אִשָּׁה/ishá. God nevertheless expects the same of women as he does men.

But if that’s what ish properly means, why not just translate it “person,” and clear up any doubt? And in fact this is what many bible translations do—going with “each of you” rather than “every man.” (Although you notice a lof of ’em split the difference, and still refer to “his” mother and father.)

Amplified. “Each of you shall respect his mother and his father, and you shall keep My Sabbaths; I am the LORD your God.”
CSB. “Each of you is to respect his mother and father. You are to keep my Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God.”
ESB. “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.”
ISV. “Each of you is to fear his mother and father. “Observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.”
MEV. “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you will keep My Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.”
NASB. “Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father, and you shall keep My sabbaths; I am the LORD your God.”
NET. “Each of you must respect his mother and his father, and you must keep my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.”
NIV. “Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.”
NLT. “Each of you must show great respect for your mother and father, and you must always observe my Sabbath days of rest. I am the LORD your God.”
NRSV. “You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.”

Believe it or don’t, a lot of these translations do not consider themselves gender-inclusive. As you can tell from the ones which still use the masculine pronoun “his” to describe “every one of you,” figuring it’s more accurate than “your” or “their.” And figuring, probably incorrectly, it’s still generic enough in the present day. Yet even so, y’notice all of ’em translated ish as “everyone,” instead of the literal “man.” Because the verse doesn’t solely apply to men.

The gender-inclusive translations want to make it crystal clear that such verses apply to everyone regardless of gender. So they intentionally drop the pronoun “his” in favor of gender-neutral ones, like the singular “they.”

Psalm 1.1 KJV
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners,
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
Psalm 1.1 NLT
Oh, the joys of those who do not
follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand around with sinners,
or join in with mockers.

Or they’ll swap out the third-person “he” for the second-person (and more personal-sounding) “you.”

Leviticus 5.5 KJV
And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing:
Leviticus 5.5 NLT
When you become aware of your guilt in any of these ways, you must confess your sin.

Whatever makes it most obvious these scriptures are addressed to all.

Of course, controversy.

Obviously there are people who are perfectly happy with their favorite bible translations. (Particularly those who worship the KJV) They don’t see why anyone needs to adjust the bible to fit contemporary English. To them, it’s a form of compromise. We need to adapt to the scriptures, not the other way round.

There is the valid concern of how a gender-inclusive translation makes the bible less exact. Fr’instance Psalm 1. The psalmist referred to a generic individual (“Blessed is the ish/‘man’”), so it’s probably best to keep that translation individual (“Blessed is the person”).

Problem is, we use pronouns. And English’s only gender-neutral singular pronoun is “it”—a pronoun people object to, because it feels like it depersonalizes people. Even though we use it all the time for people: “It’s me!”

Over the past few decades, a lot of us have used “they” and “their” in the singular sense. I frequently do. But a number of grammar nerds find this awkward, and really don’t wanna do that. Hence the NLT’s translators decided to just turn all the individuals into plurals. “Blessed are the people” instead of “blessed is the man.”

The obvious problem: The scriptures frequently refer to individuals, not a group, ’cause the authors wanna make it clear God blesses or condemns or instructs or empowers us on an individual, case-by-case basis. Yes, he can and regularly does bless people-groups and nations. But in many cases that’s not what the authors of scripture intended to teach. Our translations always need to consider the author’s intentions. We don’t wanna slip inaccurate ideas into our translations—and from there, slip inaccurate ideas into Christian theology.

There’s a valid concern a gender-inclusive translation might make a passage inclusive where it shouldn’t be. Fr’instance God’s commands to the ancient Hebrews about their priests. These commands were only for men. ’Cause back then, only men could serve as priests. Lv 21 For us Christian priests the rules are different, but these commands aren’t about us. Making these commands gender-inclusive misses the point: We’re to translate verses as inclusive when they actually do apply to everyone.

Now here’s where we get to the dumber worries.

Obviously there are sexists in Christendom. They have serious hangups about gender roles, and don’t wanna be gender-inclusive about anything if there’s any question it might not be. And sometimes when there’s no question; when a scripture totally does apply to everyone, but they don’t see why “man,” “men,” “he,” and “his” can’t be considered generic, like they used to be.

Yeah, there’s also the suspicion such translations are the product of some sneaky liberal agenda. Meant to weaken men, over-empower women, and turn the church into something powerless and corrupt. Of course, when we look at all the adjectives these folks use to warn people away from this “agenda”—an “impotent church,” an “emasculated leadership,” a “sissified gospel”—notice how all of ’em are references to men’s genitals. To these people, their penises are the source of their power; not the Holy Spirit. It’s downright fleshly, and not just because it’s literally fleshly.

I’m not sure how these men reconcile their toxic macho concepts of church leadership, with the biblical description of the church as Christ’s bride. Jn 3.29, Rv 21.2 That’s right, men: You’re the bride of Christ. Deal with it.

I’m guessing they don’t wanna. But let’s stop talking about their wholly inappropriate phallolatry, shall we?

Gender-neutering God?

Another thing the naysayers fret about, is the belief if you let some translators have their way, they’ll go overboard and make God gender-inclusive.

And to be fair, I’ve heard Christians in theologically liberal churches do this. Instead of calling God “our Father,” or referring to the LORD by the customary pronoun “he,” they’ll call him “our Heavenly Parent,” or use “s/he” as his pronoun. And who knows?—in time they may stop referring to Jesus as “he.” All in the pursuit of inclusiveness gone mad.

Okay, lemme point out two things. First of all, God technically has no gender. God is spirit, Jn 4.24 not biological. Bluntly, he doesn’t have a penis. He invented gender. He creates; he doesn’t procreate. He created male and female in his image, Ge 1.27 which means if women bear his image, it’s not an exclusively masculine image.

Yes, by custom we use masculine pronouns for God. (Same as, in languages with a formal form of “you,” by custom we use the informal “you” to address God.) This was a human custom; one God didn’t discourage. Jesus’s point in calling him Father Mk 14.36 was not to emphasize God’s gender, but his—and our—tight relationship with him. Anybody who starts fixating on God’s gender (or his lack thereof) is concentrating on the wrong thing. Probably not for the healthiest of reasons.

Which brings me to the second thing. Christianity reaches out to the lost. Consequently we’ve got a lot of unhealthy people among us. Working on getting healthy, but still. They grew up in environments, including churches, where masculinity was worshiped, not God. Such people are gonna have serious hangups about a male God: They’re gonna imagine him as an angry male deity, much like their angry earthly fathers.

While they’re getting over these hangups, the kind thing to do would be to temporarily accommodate them.

Yeah, temporarily. Not permanently. They can’t spend the rest of their lives fearing men, nor avoiding the customary ways we refer to God. ’Cause some of us have no such hangups, and God is our loving Dad. Ro 8.15 We don’t flinch at calling him that. I myself grew up with a lousy father, but because I grew up Christian, I knew there’s a vast difference between my earthly dad and my heavenly one. Sometimes that idea takes a while to sink in. But it needs to.

Where it goes wrong is when people refuse to heal. I’ve seen what goes on in their churches: Instead of recognizing God is an infinitely better Father than their earthly parents, they refuse to see God as any kind of father, and demand the right to invent their own analogies instead of accepting the one Jesus taught us. Deep down they’d like to neuter their own abusive fathers, but since they can’t do that, they’ll neuter God. Then claim they’re now healthy. They surely aren’t.

The point of the bible is to reveal God to us, and explain what he’s like and what he wants of us. When we reject the bible’s ideas and embrace our own, or when our interpretations of the bible make God less clear instead of more… well, it’ll appeal to those people who’re already trying to avoid God, but it’s gonna drive away all those people who truly seek him. That’s why the churches who insist God must only be described as our Parent, tend to attract only heretics, fringe Christians, pagans who wanna stay pagan yet imagine themselves Christian, and unhealthy people who refuse to get better. Ultimately they won’t produce fruit.

So how do we tell whether a Christian group is supporting or resisting gender inclusiveness for good or evil reasons? Same as usual: Fruit.

Do they insist on gender-inclusive language because there’s no male or female in Christ? Ga 3.28 Or because they balk at a Father who sounds way too male for their tastes? Do they reject gender-inclusive language because they feel it makes the bible less accurate, or are they slapping it away like they do their backtalking wives?

Are they trying to draw more people to God, or insisting for no good reason we have to interpret God through their small lenses? Are they making him more accessible, or trying to drive people away because they’re not comfortable?

Yep, you’ll know them by their fruits. Mt 7.16, 20 Keep your eyes open.