How many times have you heard from the lips of conservatives, “I’m not politically correct, and proud of it!”?
The badge of political incorrectness began as an oft-appropriate response to ideas and values imposed on us culturally by political liberals—a backlash against left-wing “thought police” whose anti-traditional values ironically included opposition to censorship, absolutes, and “legislated morality.”
Conservatives rightly saw through this, noting that thought restriction is itself a form of censorship, that leftwing ideas can become cultural absolutes, and that imposition of liberal values is often an oppression greater than most so-called conservative moral legislations.
Antagonism toward anything politically correct is now the knee-jerk reaction of conservatives and calling something politically correct has become a shortcut for discrediting it. Likewise, to declare something politically incorrect is to ascribe to it a kind of boldness and integrity.
But as I sat watching a news interview recently, I heard a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard make an interesting statement. You guessed it: “I’m not politically correct and I’m proud of it!”
Sadly, this shorthand method of discrediting by calling something PC has been used in at least two recent situations in evangelical circles. First, it was used successfully to derail efforts by the team of scholars known as the Committee for Bible Translation (CBT) to update the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible into truly contemporary English. Second, it was used unsuccessfully at the 1997 Baptist General Conference (BGC) Annual Meeting regarding proposed revisions of the BGC Affirmation of Faith. And though its use in the latter case failed to prevent the needed revisions, it did not fail to damage some people’s respect for the outcome.
In both cases, the literary revisions involved a switch to gender-inclusive language. Simply defined, inclusive language is speech that includes everyone, without making people who are intended to be included feel left out, especially where gender is concerned. According to the editors of the NIV Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI, Hodder & Stoughton), inclusive language translation may be defined in this way: “Where the original languages are considered to refer to humanity in general or to a person of either gender but do so using masculine terminology, revisions have been made to restore the intention of the original texts” (italics added). Note that this kind of translation, as practiced by all major inclusive language versions, including the NRSV and NIVI, in no way attempts to neuter or feminize God or to tamper in any way with the Trinity or members of the Trinity.1 In other words, inclusive language revision is an effort to clarify the original intent of the biblical authors regarding human persons. Nothing could be more conservative or evangelical in motivation.
Likewise, in the BGC’s revision of its Affirmation, most of the delegates saw the changes and the need for them as common sense.2 Where “men” means “all people,” where “fellowmen” means “others,” and where “a Christian” refers to both “he” and “she” rather than just “he,” the changes needed to be made. So voted the assembly. Next year’s final vote on this revision will take place in New England, where BGC churches may be more resistant to these changes. Since the New England churches are likely to be among the best represented, it may be premature to assume the BGC is out of the woods on this issue, especially since the final vote requires a two-thirds majority, whereas the provisional approval only required 51 percent.
There are at least ten reasons evangelicals should support the efforts of scholars and denominations in the quest for inclusive language revision.
1. The Need for Clarity
As BGC President Dr. Robert Ricker noted, in an age when denominations display the Gospel and their faith documents around the world via the Internet, and at such a time when gender-biased language is a barrier to getting one’s message across, these gender-sensitive changes are needed to ensure that the full intent of the Gospel message is communicated. As he humorously put it, “We want to make sure women know they’re sinners too” and that Jesus also died for them. Again, nothing could be more conservative or evangelical in motivation.
Yet the opponents of inclusive language at the BGC annual meeting were quick to take their short cut, charging that this was a concession to political correctness. Some warned of a “slippery slope” leading to a day when the denomination’s affirmation might read: “We believe in the Bible insofar as it is politically correct.”
“If we need to change words that unsaved people don’t understand,” one pastor challenged, “then maybe we should also change words like redemption and regeneration.”
Though changing such words for clarification actually may not be a bad idea, there is a big difference between these words and the gender-accurate ones addressed by this proposed revision. Terms like “redemption” and “regeneration” can be explained without having to correct them, for the general disuse of these terms in contemporary culture has made their meanings only relatively unfamiliar. However, when we come to words like “man” or the Christian and “his” conduct, the best pastors and teachers find themselves saying things like, “It says ‘man,’ but it means ‘men and women’.” No one explains that “It says ‘redemption’ but it means something else.” The word “redemption” says what it means and needs no apologies, although it may need to be explained to some people today. In the case of gender-biased language, however, words like “man” and “his conduct” do not say what they mean. This is the most obvious reason why they need to be changed.
2. A Correct Definition of the Terms Involved Calls for Inclusive Language
If inclusive language is simply speech that includes everyone, then what usage could be more fitting for the Gospel, denominational statements of faith, and Bible translations, where intended inclusivity has been obscured?
As John Stott put it: “When man means human being, and when the use of brothers was never intended to exclude sisters, then to retain such gender-specific words would be offensive.... Even worse, it would actually misrepresent the meaning of the biblical text.”3
3. The Claim That Inclusive Language Is a Compromise with Culture Misunderstands the Relationship of Christianity to Our Culture
We should remember who influenced whom. It was evangelicals, like John Wesley and Charles Finney, whose Gospel preaching not only sparked the flames of revival and abolition but also led to the elevation of women in the life and ministry of the Church and to the women’s suffrage movement in general society.
Besides, just because a position reflects secular culture, this does not automatically discredit that position. For example, few if any Bible-believing evangelicals today would argue in favor of slavery. Our culture ended slavery through an uncivil Civil War rather than by the mere spread of biblical teaching. Yet the abolitionist movement was first espoused by Christians who believed that, though slavery appeared to be accepted by biblical authors, the seeds of abolition could be found in the Bible. The same evangelists whose Gospel preaching sparked revival and abolition also led the way in the suffragist movement and in elevating women in the church. Convince the public of slavery’s injustice, one abolitionist wrote, and it would be “an easy matter to take millions of females from their knees and set them on their feet... transform[ing] them from babies into women.”4 So just as we do not compromise with our culture today when we reject slavery, neither do we compromise with it when we stand with those abolitionists who also pioneered the inclusion and equality of women in their schools, churches, and society.
4. We Have an Obligation to the Great Commission to Reach an Inclusive Culture with the Truth
In a fallen world, languages are imperfect. English and the ancient languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are no exception. Yet God’s revelation through imperfect human authors and imperfect human words remains perfect. This revelation teaches that when God created “man” in his own image, he created them male and female (Gen 1:26-27). Therefore, “man” was intended by God to be an inclusive term. But we live in a time when the intent of that inclusiveness has been lost and confused by cultural language barriers. Inclusive language restores the original intent. If the language we speak can be redeemed to clarify that no group of people is less equal or less valued by God than others, it is our moral obligation to the Gospel to do so.
5. The Cultural Cry for Inclusive Language Is a Cry for Acceptance and Love
Yes, inclusive language and “politically correct” speech reflect concerns within our culture. But this only shows that our culture and a significant portion of its members are crying out for acceptance, equality, and the affirmation that they too are loved and valued by God and others. What is the biblical message if not that Christ died for all and that all are forgiven and accepted equally in Christ?
6. Inclusive Language Is a Moral Issue That Should Be Observed By All Conscientious Christians
Just as no Bible-believer should tolerate racist language, neither should we tolerate sexist language. We oppose racism because it is morally wrong to degrade, devalue, discriminate against, or subjugate any part of humanity based on created, natural, biological, or socio-cultural differences. What racism does according to racial distinctions, sexism does according to gender. Therefore we must reject and purge ourselves of sexist and gender-exclusionary language wherever and whenever possible.
It behooves us as God’s redemptive agents to act as salt and light in transforming our culture’s use of language so that it better reflects God’s Kingdom values. If in fact the culture is ahead of us in this, it is to our shame. The Church of Jesus should be on the forefront of this transformation process, showing the way and setting new standards of excellence. Those who resist this transformation look to the conventions of the past to determine today’s and tomorrow’s standards for English, instead of looking to Kingdom principles. In other words, having put their hand to the plow of modern translation, they now look back and become unfit for the task of communicating the Gospel to modern minds. As a result, they not only hinder the spread of the Gospel, but they deter the Church from carrying out her work of reclaiming the world and of reversing the effects of the Fall in culture.
7. No Current English Translation or Expression of the Gospel Can Claim To Be Truly and Accurately Contemporary Without Inclusive Language
Inclusive language is simply the new standard for English today. It is how English is being taught, adapted and adopted across the English-speaking world. The future of English is therefore inclusive. Again, it is to our shame if the Church is behind in this, since these inclusive changes are so much more suitable to the Gospel than are those conventions of fallen patriarchalist cultures.
In purely pragmatic terms, organizations like the International Bible Society who ignore the tremendous shift now taking place in the English language will simply find their publications increasingly regarded as dated and as belonging to shrinking markets in the generations to come.
8. The Need to Translate Into Inclusive Language Is Therefore the Same as the Need to Translate At All, And Especially the Need to Translate Into the Vernacular
It is remarkable how the outcry against changing the NIV is so similar to the long-heard resistance to modern translations in general. Have evangelicals simply replaced the old King James Version with another translation of fossilized language? And with that fossilization will we again make the Word of God less accessible and more foreign to our lost neighbors and loved ones? Will our prayers, affirmations of faith, and the songs we sing sound as archaic and out of touch as when we sanctified Elizabethan English as a hallmark of spirituality?
As a pastor, I have for years discouraged the use of the KJV because of our strong evangelical tradition that calls for the Word of God to be translated into every tongue, including our own modern-day idiom. This tradition dates back to the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek because Hebrew and Aramaic had ceased to be the common languages of the people. Likewise, the New Testament was written in koiné Greek, the language of the streets. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate reflects the fact that Latin was the “vulgar,” or vernacular, tongue of his day. Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther risked their lives to keep the Word of God accessible to their times and cultures. This tradition is the reason why we all can worship in our own languages and are not required to do so in a preserved Greek or Latin—or, in the case of the Baptist General Conference, Swedish.
Now it is time to do the same with inclusive language. As our predecessors stood against the scorn of rigid and petrifying religious institutions, so ought we.
9. The Gospel and the Church Were Intended To Be Inclusive
It was Jesus’ stated mission to lift up the downtrodden and release the oppressed (Lk 4:18). The Spirit of the Lord was intended to empower both men and women with authority from on high (Ac 2:16-18). And the Church was to be a place where ethnicity, gender and social status were irrelevant (Gal 3:27-28). Inclusive language affirms and consistently applies these truths.
10. The Accusation That Inclusive Language Revision Capitulates To “PC” Culture Is Naive and Fails To Be Self-Critical
Inclusive-language opponents wrongly assume that culture has not also greatly influenced the use of exclusionary language from ancient times to today.
Any first-year student of the ancient languages knows that if one is addressing a group of men and women in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, and if there is only one man present among a hundred women, yet the group is to be addressed in the masculine. This kind of convention is but one of many possible examples of how culture had to have impacted how the Scriptures were written. Saying this only acknowledges how language worked for the biblical authors and casts no aspersions on the authors themselves. They operated within the conventions of their day and the limitations of their languages. But since today in English we have the option of rising above such conventions, we should do so.
Genesis 3:16 tells us that men would dominate women as a result of the Fall. In fact, though humans were given dominion over all creation, this is the first reference to one human having dominion or rule over another. Anyone who thinks the idea of a created equality between our first parents is a feminist innovation should consider that even Martin Luther recognized this equality as something lost in the Fall.
If Eve had persisted in the truth, she would not only not have been subjected to the rule of her husband, but she herself would also have been a partner in the rule....”5 and “if the woman had not sinned, she would have been the equal of Adam in all respects.6
Christ came to redeem and restore what was lost and so a redemptive community needs to restore women to their lost position. But the fallen mindset of human domination has polluted every culture and continues to prevail among opponents of inclusivism. However, whereas sexist language is consistent with the fall, inclusive language is consistent with redemption (cf. Mt 20:25-28; Gal 3:13, 26-28). To assume, therefore, that conventional language and patriarchal culture are somehow less fallen or inherently more valid can only be viewed as a blind spot that betrays the uncritical bias of inclusive language critics.
Ironically, those who charge that inclusive translation and revision are concessions to social pressure are asserting a social pressure of their own. The effects of this were seen when the IBS abandoned its plans to inclusify its American editions—based not on the scholarly decisions of the CBT but on marketing decisions made by administrators with ties to vocal “conservative” organizations.
The result is what Christianity Today recently called “evangelical political correctness.” While placing “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” in front of “PC” may seem like a good Christian alternative, all this really does is perpetuate the problems associated with “thought police,” creating a new set of restrictions that prevents us from dialoguing creatively, constructively, and with integrity. Soon we’ll be discrediting or extolling arbitrary points of view because someone labels them EPC or FPC— “and proud of it!”
It is time to start thinking about issues based on their intrinsic merits, weaknesses, and strengths, rather than on stigmas attached to labels, or solely on the basis of what prominent names are associated with the issues.
It is time to adopt a redemptive mindset about women, language, and how we articulate our faith to the world so that all of humanity can know it is redeemed. What matters is not whether or not something is politically correct but if it is redemptively correct, and how we can therefore use it to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Unfortunately the same regard for the Trinity cannot be attributed to some of the opponents of gender-inclusive speech. For example, the departure of John Piper, Wayne Grudem and others in the gender-exclusionary camp from historical trinitarianism has been well documented by Gilbert Bilezikian, “Historical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS), 40/1 (March 1997) 57-68.
- Here are those changes, as excerpted from the standard, August/ September 1997, official magazine of the Baptist General Conference:
Provisional Changes to the Baptist General Conference Constitution
[At its July 1997 annual meeting, delegates of the Baptist General Conference] gave provisional approval to minor modifications in Article III, Sections 3, 6 and 8 of the BGC’s Bylaws ....
3. God the Father
We believe in God, the Father, an infinite, personal spirit, perfect in holiness, wisdom, power and love. We believe that He concerns Himself mercifully in the affairs of men all people, that He hears and answers prayer, and that He saves from sin and death all who come to Him through Jesus Christ.
We believe that all men people are sinners by nature and by choice and are, therefore, under condemnation. We believe that those who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior are regenerated by the Holy Spirit.
8. Christian Conduct
We believe a Christians should live for the glory of God and the well-being of others, that their conduct should be blameless before the world; that he they should be a faithful stewards of their possessions; and that they should seek to realize for themselves and others the full stature of maturity in Christ.
- Quoted on the back jacket cover of the NIVI New Testament, Psalms & Proverbs, (Hodder and Stoughten: London, 1995).
- Theodore Weld in Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angela Weld and Sarah Grimké, 1822-1844, vol. 1. ed. G. H. Barnes and D. L. Drummond (New York: Appleton-Century Co., 1934), p. 427.
- Ibid, at Genesis 3:16.
- Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), at Genesis 2:18.