Southern Baptists have long defended literal approaches to the Bible, but their recent translation of the Good Book might have them switching sides.
Last fall, the publishing arm of the 15-million member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). LifeWay Christian Stores, America’s largest Christian retailer, which is owned by the SBC, sells the translation at hundreds of its locations nationwide and touts it as a work of superior scholarship. But patrons are largely unaware that the denomination-approved translation is gender-inclusive.
Such news would presumably shock many in the evangelical body. The denomination has affirmed that the Bible commands wives to submit to their husbands and that modern notions of transgender identity blur the line between God-ordained masculine and feminine roles. The group has passed numerous resolutions since the late 1990s publicly condemning Bible translations that attempt to utilize gender-inclusive language.
When several revisions to the popular New International Version (1984) appeared to employ gender-neutral language, for example, Southern Baptists condemned the translation by name and chastised its publishers. A 2011 resolution even instructed LifeWay to cease selling the translation in its stores. (LifeWay has continued to sell the NIV despite the resolution to remove it; the translation remains the most popular among Southern Baptists with a 40 percent share.)
The rationale behind the rebuke was two-fold. First, inclusive translations abolish many gender-specific terms. For example, they may change “father” to “parent,” “son” to “child,” and “man” to “mortal.” And second, these translations added words and phrases not found in ancient manuscripts for the sake of inclusion. A common example is the translation of “brother” as “brother or sister.”
Some scholars defend translation decisions like these, arguing they most clearly express the meaning of each passage. But the SBC disagrees, seeing such translations as part of a larger cultural push to erase distinctions between genders and diminish masculinity. It believes political correctness is threatening the integrity of its holy scripture.
In response to this perceived menace, the SBC commissioned its own Bible translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which was finalized in 2003. It was intended “to champion the absolute truth of the Bible against social or cultural agendas that would compromise its accuracy.” The translation was well received and the Bible battlefront quieted for more than a decade. But when a revision was released last fall, a number of the same “gender-neutral” elements that the SBC previously condemned were inserted into its own translation.
The CSB now translates the term anthropos, a Greek word for “man,” in a gender-neutral form 151 times, rendering it “human,” “people,” and “ones.” The previous edition had done this on occasion; the new revision adds almost 100 more instances. “Men of Israel” becomes “fellow Israelites;” when discussing Jesus’s incarnation the “likeness of men” becomes “likeness of humanity.” The CSB translates the term adelphoi, a Greek word for “brother” in a gender-neutral form 106 times, often adding “sister.” “Brotherly love” is translated “love as brothers and sisters.”
The gender-neutralizing pattern is also present in its translation of the Old Testament. For instance, where the NIV “gender-neutral” revision uses the term “human” or “humanly” for a masculine term, the CSB concurs with a “human” “humanly” or “human being(s)” 67 times. As the CSB translates the Hebrew term ‘dm (the word for adam), the generic “man, men,” it uses gender-neutral language of “human(s), humanity, human kind, people, person(s)” 242 times. The CSB also uses the term “mortal” or “mere mortal” to replace a masculine term 6 times. Numerous other instances of gender-neutral translations of masculine terminology exist across both testaments.
The FAQ page for the Christian Standard Bible explains that the translation committee “chose to avoid being unnecessarily specific in passages where the original context did not exclude females.” Such an approach is similar, if not identical, to those taken by inclusive Bible translators, and parallels the logic laid out on the New International Version website.
In email correspondence this week, Trevin Wax, Bible and Reference Publisher for Holman Bibles, defended the translation. He rejected the notion that the translation is “gender-neutral,” calling it “gender-accurate” instead. “It uses male pronouns for God, for pastors, and in places where its obviously male—and it uses male and female, where that’s what the author intended,” Wax said.
A gender-accurate approach often uses inclusive language, Wax said, but only in places “when the original would have been understood to refer to both males and females.” Such a defense of the CSB mirrors those offered by NIV defenders in years past.
Although the CSB’s translation isn’t totally gender-neutral, it’s difficult to deny its significant deviations from rigidly literal interpretation methods. Perhaps gender-inclusive would be a more accurate term. The examples listed here are not exhaustive, after all. In the CSB, there are hundreds of verses that fall within the “gender-neutral” category condemned in Southern Baptists’ own resolutions. Together, they provide an illustrative survey of the kinds of quietly progressive changes that have been inserted into this conservative denomination’s Bible translation.
Such changes in Southern Baptists’ Bible translation of choice are more than a mere denominational matter. The SBC is America’s largest Protestant denomination and one of its most conservative. If its leaders and members are tolerating a softer, more inclusive approach to gender, it might be a bellwether of things to come in the culture war over gender.
This week, Southern Baptists will gather in Phoenix for their annual gathering. Whether they ignore or resist the new version of the Good Book may tell us much about the future of gender debates in American society.