A few weeks ago, I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a day. I stopped for about twelve hours between night buses to see the sights, including a beautiful, vibrant mosque near the center of town. I did some online research on dress protocol beforehand: cover your skin, wear something on your head, take your shoes off. Nothing unexpected. I had a scarf and a maxi skirt in my backpack for this purpose. I was happy to be respectful, and excited for a new experience. I arrived at the mosque, circled around to the front, and . . . walked away. I felt nervous, suddenly, and upset.
Consent: a word so bland I once found it almost ugly. Why would I base my framework for romantic relationships on a word as flippant and perfunctory as a waiver to have my photo taken? Bodies and relationships are deeply important to me as a Christian. Naturally, sex is also deeply important to me. Even after I left purity culture behind, I still searched for a rich, God-honoring sexual ethic. Consent seemed like a pretty bare standard for behavior.
While some Christians rationalize sexism and patriarchy by appealing to the “plain reading” of Scripture, others instinctively question whether what they see on the pages of Scripture is a faithful and consistent translation of the original text. At stake is something much more costly than a statue; we risk living our lives based on distortions of Scripture, which, in turn, justify a Christianity centered not on Christ but on male rule.
The challenging complexity of the ministry of Bible translation should spark humility, among translators themselves and among those who critique them. I pledge to keep such humility in mind as I describe four types of shortcomings that can be found in Bible translations, using 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 as a test case.
The truth is, women have always been leaders and exemplars of the faith, and Scripture praises them for it. Let’s do all we can to make sure that one day, every Bible translation celebrates that reality.
Two Bible translations from the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the solo efforts of women scholars. Let me introduce you to Julia Evelina Smith (1792–1886) and Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861–1934).
Important questions, including over women’s leadership in the church and home, often hinge on translation issues. We don’t all need to be translation experts, but a basic understanding of Bible translation concepts helps us judge whether the arguments we hear are valid. It’s my hope that these principles will help us all better appreciate the challenge of translation and approach gender (and other) debates with knowledge and humility.
Evangelical tradition places a high value on the biblical text, which is a good thing. But too often, we buy into a myth that our favorite translation is God’s true Word, pure and untainted by bias. Changes are seen as a threat to God’s truth, motivated by a social or political agenda.
It is often suggested that using a gender-accurate translation is giving in to political correctness or feminism. Sometimes the resistance is based simply on personal preference, as in the case of the pastor who told me he was “too attached” to his Bible translation to make the change. Whatever the reason, we need to realize that our language choices have consequences.
If you are still on the fence about giving up your ESV or NIV1984 for a gender-accurate translation, here are some reasons to make the switch.