Gender Neutral or Inclusive Language: What’s the difference?

What is a gender neutral translation and does such a translation really exist?

gender neutral2Gender neutral bible translations are translations which attempt to remove all gender distinctions found in Scripture. A gender neutral translation will refer to Jesus as the child of God, God the Father as a parent, etc… Translations like this are unfaithful representations of God’s word and should be avoided. Fortunately, these are also extremely obscure translations that are, for practical purposes, unknown and have had almost no impact on the English speaking church.

Unfortunately, the term “gender neutral” has been frequently used in reference to bible versions that are truly NOT “gender neutral.” Too many Christians believe that “gender neutral” translations are a far bigger problem than they really are because reckless  accusations have been made about some translations being “gender neutral” when the real issue of debate involves their use of “inclusive language.” This has caused the debate surrounding the use of  “inclusive language” in bible translation to become unnecessarily heated and too often irrational. No matter where we stand on this issue, we all need to recognize that the stated goals of “inclusive language” translations are good; all they have attempted to do is to ensure that when the authors of Scripture intended to address both men and women, that modern English speakers understand that both men and women were being addressed. When Scripture speaks specifically of men or specifically of women, the gender designations are retained even in “inclusive language” translations. Recognizing that the motivation for these translations is good, doesn’t require one to agree that the solution these translations present is good. It just means that we begin the dialog in a much healthier place.

The real questions we need to be asking are:

  1. Is there truly a need for inclusive language in English today?
  2. Do scholars agree on the inclusive nature of all passages translated with inclusive language?
  3. Is the solution employed by inclusive language translations to avoid a potential misunderstanding appropriate?
  4. Do inclusive language translations have the potential to create other misunderstandings?
  5. Are the philosophical assumptions underlying the drive for inclusive language compatible with Scripture?
  6. When should we adapt our bible translations to changes that are occurring in the English language.

 

What is inclusive language?

Before we discuss the issues involved in the inclusive language debate, it is important that we truly understand what “inclusive language” really is. Many times people entering into a discussion about “inclusive language” do not even realize that “inclusive language” is used in every major English translation (even the KJV). The question in bible translation is never about whether we should be using inclusive language but rather when should inclusive language be used and how should it be expressed in English.

Many languages, like Hebrew, Greek, Spanish, and yes even English use an inclusive masculine i.e. a masculine noun that is used in reference to males and females. Usually, but not always, the inclusive masculine is used when the referent is plural i.e. it refers to a group of both men and women. Here are some examples in English: “There were 480 students in the freshmen class this year”, “The mailman’s convention was held in Chicago last April,”  “Man alone is created in God’s image.” In all of these examples, we understand that both men and women are included even though the noun used is masculine in form. In some languages, like Hebrew and Spanish, all nouns are either masculine or feminine and every reference to a mixed group of men and women works like the examples above but in English it is sometimes more common to use neuter terms that represent groups of both masculine and feminine referents. For example, if I were to say in Hebrew or Spanish “I have five sons” it could either mean “I have five sons” or “I have five children” but if I say in English that “I have five sons” it means only that “I have five SONS.” Almost every English language translation uses the inclusive language term “children” when translating “sons” unless the context indicates that author really meant ONLY sons because to do otherwise would be very misleading to most English speakers.

 

Our Language is changing

The English language is changing and we use inclusive masculines in English today much less frequently than we did just a generation ago. For example, a generation ago instructions on a student’s test might have read “when a student completes his test, he should turn the test over and raise his hand” but today the same instructions today might read “when a student completes his/her test, he/she should turn the test over and raise his/her hand” or “when a student completes their test, they should turn their test over and raise their hand.” A generation ago, the first choice would have been considered unnecessarily redundant and latter choice would have been considered poor English because it mixes singular nouns with plural pronouns. However, today it is quite common to see both of these forms used in order to avoid using the inclusive masculine. Whether we agree or disagree with the reasons for these changes to our English language, we do need to accept the reality that our language is truly changing.

 

Now let’s look at some of the key issues

With some understanding of what “inclusive language” is and what it is not, let’s return to our original questions.

  1. Is there truly a need for inclusive language in English today?
    • The answer to this question is a clear, yes. Inclusive language is used in every English translation; the real questions are: “when do we need inclusive language?” and “how should inclusive language be expressed in English?” These are the real questions where valid disagreements exist today.

     

  2. Do scholars agree on the inclusive nature of all passages translated with inclusive language?
    • In the vast majority of cases there is clear agreement about the inclusive nature intended in the original text but in a handful of cases there is significant disagreement. It is these cases that should raise the greatest concerns. One example is found in Acts 6:3 which reads in the NIV 2011 as “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.”  There are two questions related to the use of inclusive language in this verse. First, in the first century culture would women really have been involved in choosing the church’s leadership? Regardless of our views about women in leadership, given what we know about the first century culture, it is very unlikely that women would have be participants in that decision at that time in history. A faithful translation should communicate what the author’s point of view was and not what we would like it to have been. Second, even if some evidence did show that this was a possibility, the translation should leave this question open unless the evidence were so overwhelming that no other conclusion could be reached. The use of inclusive language in the NIV 2011 translation of this verse settles the question for its readers about whether both men and women were being addressed but that is a question that is not clearly answered in the text itself and the NIV 2011 interpretation is rejected by many scholars. The views we hold about a woman’s role in ministry should not influence our translation of the text.

     

  3. Is the solution employed by inclusive language translations to avoid a potential misunderstanding appropriate?
    • Maybe or Maybe not. This is something that needs to be evaluated on a case by case bases. We need to be asking questions like “Do English speakers really no longer understand the inclusive masculine terms used in older English translations?”, “Would potential misunderstandings be better addressed through teaching rather than emending the text?”, etc…

     

  4. Do inclusive language translations have the potential to create other misunderstandings?
    • Yes. First, one of the common way to make a passage “inclusive” is to change singular masculine pronouns to plural neuter pronouns. And while a change from “he” to “they” might avoid a misunderstanding related to gender, it could create a misunderstanding related to number. Second, using inclusive language, rather than the inclusive masculine, forces the translator to decide for the reader which verses are inclusive and which are not; sometimes (as mentioned above) there is considerable debate about the inclusive nature of a particular passage and when the translator makes a wrong choice, he has miscommunicated the intention of the author. Third, our understanding of the masculine inclusive in English mirrors the understanding of the Hebrew and Greek speakers to which our Scripture was first given. Moving away from the masculine inclusive in English moves us one step farther away from understanding culture in the way the original writers understood it. These issues are some of the many aspects that should be weighed when considering whether to use inclusive language.

     

  5. Are the philosophical assumptions underlying the drive for inclusive language compatible with Scripture?
    • Probably not. The driving force for adopting more inclusive language terms in English has largely come from the most radical elements of the feminist community. For those who would like a better understanding of the reasons why some feminists want to see these changes made to the English language, there is a a good (neutral) article on Standford University’s philosophy website that outlines many of the reasons that feminists have actively sought to change the English language and includes a large number of reference for further study. For the bible translator there are two questions we should be asking before adopting translation practices that require more extensive use of inclusive language. First, are the philosophical assumptions about men and women and the relationships between men and women held by these more radical elements of the feminists community in harmony with Scripture? Second, has the language already changed so much that its original understanding has been lost? If the answer to the first question is “no” then we should tread very carefully before adopting the language choices suggested by these groups. The tougher question to answer pertains to the second question i.e. “when has language changed to the point where the original understanding has been lost?” and this is a question we need to wrestle with before changing our bible translations. Regardless of the reasons why our language is changing, when it truly changes, we do need to update our translations so that they are truly understood.

     

  6. When should we adapt our bible translations to changes that are occurring in the English language?
    • Words like “conversation,” “meat,” and “gay” are just a few of the words used in the 17th century English that are understood very differently today. In the 17th century “conversation” referred to ones behavior, “meat” described any kind of food including bread and vegetables, and “gay” meant “fine.” Most modern English speakers understand these words very differently today but because these are common words that most believe they understand, passages in older English bibles that use these words will likely be misunderstood. When a word no longer communicates the same meaning to modern speakers that it did to those in generations past, it must be updated. However, we should refrain from moving to quickly to adopt our bibles to the current trends in English usage. Sometimes, meanings of words change only temporarily as a new “fad” quickly develops and then is forgotten just as quickly; sometimes (as is the case with gender inclusive language) the motivation for the changes is theologically troubling and misunderstandings might be better addressed through teaching while a memory of a prior understanding still exists in our modern culture. Translators need to remember that teachers and translators always need to work together to ensure that Scripture is correctly understood. No translator can, by himself, resolve all potential misunderstandings. Often attempts to resolve misunderstandings by adapting the vocabulary of a translation simply creates other misunderstandings; translators should tread carefully.

     

    I believe there are very legitimate concerns related to the use of “inclusive language” in bible translations today that should engender vigorous debate. Unfortunately, too often this debate has turned ugly and the real issues are replaced (on both sides) by issues that are only imagined. The name calling and misrepresentations that have too often characterized this issue have no place in this discussion. Let us all take the time to understand the real concerns held by those on both sides of this issue and begin a discussion that reflect God’s grace, love, and truth.

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  1. […] on this topic have so far been able to do. There has been a raging debate regarding the use of inclusive language (i.e. language that doesn’t identify gender) in bible translation for almost two decade. Some […]