NIV controversy: Participants Sign Landmark Agreement

If you put twelve men with strongly differing viewpoints on a controversial issue in one room, what do you get? If they are Christian men who are willing to pray together, and who share a desire that the Bible be translated accurately, then you just might get a surprising agreement. That was exactly what happened May 27 at the Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs. James Dobson had asked that the main defenders of the New International Version meet with a group concerned about its “inclusive language” (or “gender-neutral”) editions in England (NIVI) and the United States (NIV).

The participants

The meeting included four representatives of the NIV: Bruce Ryskamp, President of Zondervan; Lars Dunberg, President of the International Bible Society; and, at the request of Ryskamp and Dunberg, Ken Barker and Ron Youngblood, two of the principal translators of the NIV.

Others came to the meeting to express concerns about the NIV: I was there as President of CBMW, along with our executive director, Tim Bayly, and John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis (and a CBMW Council member). Also at the meeting were Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament, Westminster Theological Seminary (and a contributor to CBMW’s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), R.C. Sproul, Chairman, Ligonier Ministries (and a member of CBMW’s Board of Reference), Joel Belz, Publisher of World magazine; Charlie Jarvis, Executive Vice President of Focus on the Family; and James Dobson, President of Focus on the Family, who had convened the meeting.

What happened at the meeting?

The meeting began at 9:00 am with an extended time of prayer around the table. We sought God’s help for what was becoming a major controversy in the evangelical world. We soon saw those prayers answered as open, frank discussion led to expressions of sincere desire, on the part of all participants, to translate God’s Word accurately.

The NIV representatives were dismayed that criticism of a proposed inclusive-language NIV for the US had spilled over into widespread distrust of the current NIV. They were also troubled that they had been linked with secular feminism in the minds of many people, even though the majority of NIV translators were complementarian, not egalitarian, in their personal convictions.

Our “NIV concerns group” then presented a statement we had prepared the previous day. R.C. Sproul opened with an expression of the importance of accuracy in translation, the realization that language does change over time, and the caution that Bible translators must be very careful not to be influenced by wrongful intrusions of secular culture. Then John Piper presented a ten-page list of specific translations in the NIVI and the NIV which we thought to be inaccurate.

Third, Vern Poythress, who had previously studied Bible translation and taught classes in linguistics at Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Summer Institute of Linguistics in Norman, Oklahoma, gave his perspective on the difficulties Bible translators face. Dr. Poythress said that while he appreciated the desire of the NIV translators to communicate effectively in contemporary English, these concerns have to be weighed against some important losses in the accuracy and content of what was actually communicated by the revisions. Fourth, I presented a list of suggestions for guidelines involving the translation of gender-related language in Scripture. Finally, Tim Bayly presented some actions that we were asking the NIV representatives to consider in light of our concerns.

The surprise press release, and some common ground

However, two hours before our meeting had started, the International Bible Society had issued a press release that contained many of the very points we were prepared to request from them! The surprise press release announced: (1) that the IBS was abandoning all plans for gender-related changes in the NIV, (2) that the present NIV would continue to be published unchanged, (3) that the NIrV would be immediately revised to bring its treatment of gender into line with the current NIV, and (4) that the IBS would immediately negotiate with the British publisher (Hodder & Stoughton) to cease publication of the inclusive language NIV in the United Kingdom.

We were both amazed and delighted at these actions. But one aspect still troubled us: the press release said the reason for the decisions was the strong desire of the Christian public for an unchanged NIV, and it said that many scholars still thought the inclusive versions rendered the original texts “more precisely” into current English.

As our discussions continued through the morning, however, we found that we shared even more common ground. The NIV representatives agreed with the concerns about accuracy and cultural pressures that R.C. Sproul had expressed, and also shared concerns over many of the specific translation items that John Piper had raised. In addition, we found that Ken Barker had a list of translation guidelines that he had prepared in recent thinking about these issues, and his list was similar to the list that our group had presented. Several of us saw this as evidence that God had prepared the way for us to reach agreement on a wide number of these issues. From that point on, we began to work on a joint statement that could be issued as a press release. (See the full text of this statement on p. 8.)

What were some specific problems with the inclusive language translations?

First, the loss ofgeneric “he, him, his”

We had expressed concern that the rejection of generic “he, him, his” had obscured the personal application of Scripture to the individual in cases like, “I will come in and eat with him” (Rev. 3:20, where the Greek pronoun is masculine singular). The NIVI had changed this to “I will come in and eat with them,” which represents Jesus eating with a whole church, not just an individual. Similarly, John 14:23 had been changed from “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” in the current NIV, to the NIVI rendering, “Those who love me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Such a loss of teaching about personal fellowship between God and an individual Christian affected numerous verses. Because of these concerns, we agreed on Guideline A.I., The generic use of “he, him, his, himself” should be employed to translate generic 3rd person masculine singular pronouns in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

We pointed out similar changes that had been made in many but not all of the cases in two children’s versions, the NIrV and, in the Old Testament, the Adventures in Odyssey Bible, but I will focus on the NIVI in this report.

We were aware that the rejection of generic “he, him, his” had led to the changing of person and number in thousands of cases in yet another translation, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and we suspected that at least several hundred verses had been changed in the NIVI (though no computer count was yet available). To prevent such changes in person and number in translation, we agreed on Guideline A.2., Person and number should be retained in translation so that singulars are not changed to plurals and third person statements are not changed to second or first person statements, with only rare exceptions required in unusual cases. This meant that Greek and Hebrew terms for “he” would not be changed to “they” or “you” or “we,” in an attempt to make the translation “gender-neutral.”

But is generic “he, him, his” acceptable in English today? We all agreed that this usage is less common today, but the question remains, is it still correct, and understandable, to say things like, “No one seems to take pride in his work anymore,” and “One should do the best he can,” and “He who hesitates is lost,” and “He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (Ps. 34:20), and “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25)? To answer this question, our group also presented evidence from contemporary dictionaries, style books, and articles in secular journals showing contemporary uses of “he, him, his” in a generic way, and indicating expert testimony that the English language was unlikely to resolve differing preferences about the generic use of “he, him, his” in the near future.

We also cited at least one linguist who knew of no human language that lacked a singular pronoun that was used generically (in some languages it is a masculine singular pronoun; in others, a neuter singular pronoun). Therefore, people who predict that English will soon relinquish generic “he, him, his,” when there is no commonly agreed singular substitute, are predicting that English—perhaps the most versatile language in history—will lose a capability possessed by all major languages in the world. To say the least, this is unlikely to happen.



What if women feel excluded?

During the morning one important difficulty was raised: Some women Bible readers do not feel included by such generic uses of “he, him, his.” In response to this, Vern Poythress commented on how easily people learn hundreds of variations in different dialects, even dialects of English, when they move from one part of the country to another. Our response to women who say they do not feel included by such language should be to teach them that such usage does not in fact “exclude women”—the original author did not intend such an exclusive meaning, the translators did not intend such a meaning, and that is not the meaning the words have when interpreted rightly in their contexts. People who aren’t aware of an inclusive, generic meaning for “he, him, his” can learn it in a moment. But we also must say that we have all been told a lie—for it is a lie that such usage is “exclusive.” We have been told this not by Bible translators but ultimately by secular feminism, which is trying to make these patterns of speech illegitimate. Poythress said that we have all been affected by such feminism, whether we are aware of it or not. It becomes a problem when it tells us that we cannot use certain forms of English expression which are needed for precise Bible translation. We need to be aware of such pressure in our culture, and not give in to it but teach otherwise.

The name “man” for the human race

We were concerned at verses which had rejected the word “man” as a name for the human race, so that these inclusive versions said, “Let us make human beings in our image” rather than “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26; the Hebrew word is the singular collective noun adam, the same word used as the name of Adam, and a word with male overtones-it is used of man in distinction from woman in Gen. 2:22, 25). We agreed therefore on Guideline A.3., “Man” should ordinarily be used to designate the human race or human beings in general, for example, in Genesis 1:26–27; 5:2; Ezekiel 29:11; and John 2:25.

Should men be called men?

In many cases we were concerned that the words “man” and “men” were omitted from the NIVI and the NIrV for no apparent reason, especially when male human beings were referred to in the text. For example, in referring to warriors in Judges 18:7, the NIV spoke of “five men,” but the NIVI changed it to “five of them.” Nicodemus in John 3:1 was changed from “a man of the Pharisees” to “a Pharisee” (thus obliterating the connection with the previous verse, which said that “Jesus knew all men.” The apostle who was needed to replace Judas was chosen from “one of the men who have been with us” in the NIV (Acts 1:21), precisely representing the Greek word aner, which designates a man in distinction from a woman), but it was changed in the NIVI to “one of those who have been with us.” The men in the boat with Jesus during the storm at sea were changed from “men” to “disciples” in the NIVI (Matt. 8:27; the word anthropoi means “men” here).

In a similar way, the NIV had rightly said that the Old Testament high priest was selected “from among men” (Heb. 5:1) but the NIVI changed it to “from among human beings.” (Are we to think that a woman could have been a priest in the Old Testament—to say nothing of high priest?) Similarly, the writing prophets of the Old Testament included no women, but still these writing prophets were changed from “men” to “human” in 2 Peter 1:21. We could see no reason for such changes except a general antipathy toward the word “men.”

Although we had not found the following additional verses by the time of the May 27th meeting, we subsequently have found that similar changes were made in other passages where the Greek word aner (or its plural andres), which nearly always means a man in distinction from a woman, was “neutered” in the NIVI. Therefore, Jesus’ disciples were changed from “men of Galilee” to “you Galileans” in Acts 1:11. The representatives Judas and Silas who were sent from the Jerusalem council were changed from “two men who were leaders” to simply “who were leaders” in Acts 15:22. The false teachers who would arise from the midst of the Ephesian elders were changed from “men” to “some” in Acts 20:30. The Jewish men who were summoned to help drag Paul out of the temple area (where no women were allowed) were changed from ““men of Israel” to “people of lsrael” in Acts 21:28. And Paul himself, instead of saying “when I became a man,” in the NIVI says “when I became an adult” (I Cor. 13:11).

With regard to the Old Testament, we were concerned that the Hebrew word ‘ish, which ordinarily means “man” in distinction from woman, had also been “neutered” in a number of cases. Once again, such “neutering” of language about people who were evidently male human beings, and who were described with such a distinctively male Greek term, simply diminished accuracy in translation.

Should Jesus be called a man?

Ina similar way, the masculinity of Jesus was downplayed in six verses that we found in the NIVI: the words of Caiaphas were changed from “it is better for you that one man die for the people” to “it is better for you that one person die for the people,” (John 11:50, and similarly in John 18:14; see also John 10:33). Paul’s statement that “the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man” was changed to “through a human being” in I Corinthians 15:21. In a similar way, Philippians 2:8 was changed from “being found in appearance as a man” to “being found in appearance as a human being.” Finally, I Timothy 2:5 was changed from “the man, Christ Jesus” to “Christ Jesus, himself human.” Such translations obscure the theological truth that it was Christ as a man, in parallel to the man Adam before Him, who was the representative head of His people.

Because of these concerns, we agreed on GuidelineA.4., Hebrew ‘ish should ordinarily be translated “man” and “men,” and Greek aner should almost always be so translated. We also agreed on the second part of Guideline A.5., The singular antbropos should ordinarily be translated “man” when it refers to a male human being.

Legitimate uses of inclusive language

On the other hand, we recognized that there were times when some forms of “inclusive language” were appropriate in translation when the original Hebrew or Greek text was not specifically male in its meaning and when the other kinds of inaccuracies prevented by the other guidelines were not introduced.

Therefore we agreed with the first part of Guideline A.5., In many cases, anthropoi refers to people in general and can be translated “people” rather than “men.” For example, it is perfectly acceptable to translate Matthew 12:36, “On the day of judgment, people will have to give an account for every careless word they speak.”

We also agreed on Guideline A.6., Indefinite pronouns such as tis can be translated “anyone” rather than “any man.” For example, Matthew 16:24 should be translated, “If anyone would come after me.” Similarly, Guideline A.7. affirms, In many cases, pronouns such as oudeis can be translated “no one” rather than “no man,” as in Galatians 3:11 , “No one is justified before God by the law.” Guideline A.8. affirms, When pas is used as a substantive it can be translated with terms such as “all people” or “everyone.” This is seen in verses such as John 12:32, “I will draw all people to myself.”

None of us objected to any of these kinds of “inclusive language” and in fact these principles had been largely followed several years ago in the current NIY.

The phrase “son of man”

We were also concerned that in some cases the phrase “son of man” had been omitted, as in Psalm 8:4, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, the son of man, that you care for him?” which in the NIVI was changed to, “What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” This obscured the connection to Hebrews 2:6 where the verse is quoted. We agreed therefore on Guideline A.9., The phrase “son of man” should ordinarily be preserved to retain intracanonical connections. And of course all participants wanted to clearly affirm Guideline A.10., Masculine references to God should be retained.

Brothers, sons, and fathers

We recognized that the Biblical authors were perfectly capable of saying “brothers and sisters” when they wanted to (as in Josh. 2:13; Mark 10:30), and we were concerned that the NIVI had added the phrase “and sisters” in many cases where the original text had not done so, as in Romans 8:29, “in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (the Greek text has only adelphoi, brothers, referring to all Christians—it was not our concern to decide how we today might speak of a group of Christians, but to represent faithfully in translation how Paul spoke of a group of Christians.) We agreed on Guideline B.1., “Brother” (adelphos) and “brothers” (adelphoi) should not be changed to “brother(s) and sister(s).”

In the same way, Guideline B.2. affirmed, “Son” (huios, ben) should not be changed to “child,” or “sons” (huioi) to “children” or “sons and daughters.” (However, Hebrew banim often means “children.”) This was because the New Testament authors were able to speak of “children” (tekna) when they wanted to do so (as in Jn. 1:12, “He gave power to become children of God,” and Rom. 8:16–17, “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”). But in other verses the Bible spoke of us as “sons,” and faithful translations should not change this to “sons and daughters” or “children” as the NIVI did in Galatians 4:7, “Since you are no longer slaves, but God’s children, and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.” The problem with this translation is that the Greek text specifies “sons” (huio), not “children” (tekna), and to translate it “children” obscures the connection with Christ as son in that very context, and also obscures the fact that we all (men and women) gain standing as “sons” and therefore the inheritance rights that belong to sons in the Biblical world. (Similarly, it should also be noted that we all-men and women-have a sort of female identity as the bride of Christ in 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25–33; and Rev. 19:7, and we should not “neuter” these references to make us the “spouse” of Christ.)

Finally, we recognized that the words “father” and “fathers” faithfully represent the male leadership present in Biblical families, and we agreed in Guideline B.3., “Father” (pater, ‘ab) should not be changed to “parent,” or “fathers” to “parents” or “ancestors.”

However, we recognized that in unusual cases, exceptions to these statements about brothers, sons and fathers might have to be made to produce legitimate English, so we spoke in Heading B of Gender-related renderings which we will generally avoid, though there may be unusual exceptions in certain contexts.

Finally, we realized that these guidelines probably did not cover every case, so we added Guideline C., We understand these guidelines to be representative and not exhaustive. We thought that if translators were willing to follow these guidelines, the principle of precision in rendering the gender orientation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts would be established, even though we may not have spoken about every possible type of translation problem.

Summary statement

We left the meeting with a strong sense of thanksgiving to God for the broad agreement He had enabled us to reach. We rejoiced that at least our two groups, seemingly so far apart before the meeting, had been willing to say in a public statement, “We agree that it is inappropriate to use gender-neutral language when it diminishes accuracy in the translation of the Bible, and we therefore agree to the attached guidelines for translation of gender-related language in Scripture.” In affirming this statement, we put ourselves on record as saying that translations which violated these guidelines did in fact “diminish accuracy in the translation of the Bible.” We also affirmed that there are some kinds of “inclusive language” that are valid, because we stated, “We agree that there are limited times when the use of gender-neutral language enhances the accuracy of translations,” and we specified several such valid uses.

As a result of the discussion, and after much reflection in the past several weeks, the NIV translators and publishers joined us in agreeing that “many of the translation decisions” in the NIVI “were not the wisest choices.” Finally, we expressed hope that other translators and publishers would decide to follow the guidelines we agreed on as well.

Publishers’ commitments

We also rejoiced that Zondervan’s president, Bruce Ryskamp, expressed willingness to give refunds to customers who ask for them for their current NIrV Bibles. In addition, James Dobson clearly wanted to state that Focus on the Family had ceased distributing their Adventures in Odyssey Bible, which was a children’s Bible based on the New Century Version. Focus on the Family said it would give refunds for this Bible to anyone who asked for them. (We were also happy to hear a few days later that Thomas Nelson/Word Publishers had agreed to remove the gender-neutral language from this Bible.) We called on other publishers of gender-neutral Bibles to issue similar public statements showing similar reappraisals of their translation principles.

One issue remained unresolved. Zondervan Publishing House continued to state publicly that World magazine was unethical and untruthful in its coverage of this issue. Although World’s publisher Joel Belz, Zondervan’s president Bruce Ryskamp, and the president of IBS, Lars Dunberg were present at our meeting, they graciously decided not to make these differences a major agenda item of our meeting since they felt (and we agreed) that the far more important issue was accuracy in translation of the Word of God into English. These differences between Zondervan and World are yet to be resolved as I write this article, and we need to pray for God’s grace especially for Bruce Ryskamp, Lars Dunberg and Joel Belz, that their differences will be resolved in a way that is pleasing to the Lord. (Readers who wish to see the charges that Zondervan has filed with the Evangelical Press Association, and responses from World, can find the entire text of them at:

We reached substantial agreement on all of these points before the meeting broke up about 2:30 in the afternoon on May 27, but the document had to be circulated by fax and phone three times throughout the subsequent five days, before total agreement was reached on the final wording of all of the guidelines. Then on Saturday night, May 31, complete agreement on the wording of the guidelines was finally reached by phone. By Monday morning, June 2, all twelve participants had signed the final document and faxed their signatures to the Focus on the Family headquarters. The press release was then issued on June 3.

The influence of many others

This meeting had been preceded by several weeks of public and private discussions among many Christians. Those of us who came to the meeting with concerns about the NIV were thankful for the prominent Christian leaders who had spoken out against inclusive language translations, or whose publications had voiced serious concerns. These leaders included not only James Dobson, who had convened the meeting, but also J.I. Packer, Jerry Falwell, and R.C. Sproul (all of whom are on our CBMW Board of Reference). In addition, we knew of other leaders who were concerned and would also have spoken out if necessary. We thought that the influence of the Southern Baptist Convention, as voiced through Paige Patterson, President of Southeastern Seminary, and AI Mohler, President of Southern Seminary, had been especially significant. In addition, Southeastern Seminary professor Andreas Kostenberger (editor of CBMW NEWS) had provided extensive research for us on over 700 uses of Greek words for “man” in the NIV and the NIVI in preparation for our meeting. And we all knew of many people who were praying regularly for the meeting. Our overall assessment of this meeting (and I think I speak for all twelve participants) is one of thankfulness to God that we were able to reach such a broad and significant agreement in such a short time. We are all hopeful that the Lord will use this as a positive influence on Bible translation into English for many years to come.

This article is reprinted with permission from the newsletter of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW).

Guidelines for Translation of Gender Related Language in Scripture ADOPTED IN COLORADO SPRINGS ON MAY 27, 1997


1. The generic use of “he, him, his, himself” should be employed to trans., late generic 3rd person masculine singular pronouns in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. However, substantival participles such as ho pisteuon can often be rendered in inclusive ways, such as “the one who believes” rather than “he who believes.”

2. Person and number should be retained in translation so that singular are not changed to plurals and third-person statements are not changed to second-person or first-person statements, with only rare exceptions required in unusual cases.

3. “Man” should ordinarily be used to designate the human race or human beings in general, for example in Genesis 1:26–27; 5:2; Ezekiel 29:11; and John 2:25.

4. Hebrew ‘ish should ordinarily be translated “man” and “men” and Greek aner should almost always be so translated.

5. In many cases, anthropoi refers to people in general, and can be translated “people” rather than “men.” The singular anthropos should be ordinarily be translated “man” when it refers to a male humanbeing.

6. Indefinite pronouns such as tis can be translated “anyone” rather than “any man.”

7. In many cases, pronouns such as oudeis can be translated “no one” rather than “no man.”

8. When pas is used as a substantive, it can be translated with terms such as “all people” or “everyone.”

9. The phrase “son of man” should ordinarily be preserved to retain intracanonical connections.

10. Masculine references to God should be retained;


1. “Brother” (adelphos) and “brothers” (adelphoi) should not be changed to “brother(s) and sister(s).”

2. “Son” (huios, ben) should not be changed to “child,” or “sons” (huioi) to “children” or “sons and daughters.” (However, Hebrew banim often means “children.”)

3. “Father” (pater, ‘ab) should not be changed to “parent,” or “fathers” to “parents” or “ancestors.”