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Published Date: October 31, 1997

Published Date: October 31, 1997

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The NIVI and the Future of Evangelicalism

An Open Letter to James Dobson, Paige Patterson, Wayne Grudem, Lars Dunberg and Bruce Ryskamp… and the other signers of the Colorado Springs Guidelines

Dear Brothers in Christ:

As someone who has long been committed to a thoroughly evangelical viewpoint, I write to share my concern with: the process surrounding the decision to withdraw the inclusive-language version of the NIV (NIVI), the May 27 guidelines, and their implications for the future of evangelicalism.

I fear that both some of the tactics used in the debate and also the process by which the IBS reversed directions and the guidelines were issued threaten the unity and cohesion of the evangelical movement. Many evangelicals—probably a majority— disagree with your position. That we disagree over some important issues, however, in spite of our common evangelical commitments, is not fundamentally dangerous. But the way we deal with those differences could become disastrous.

Dr. Patterson, in your attack on the NIVI, Zondervan and Willow Creek Church, you denounce Willow Creek leaders for their “feminist ideology” and lack of tolerance toward other views (because they have decided that all leaders there must support women at all levels of church leadership). Then you add: “What will be next at Willow Creek—openness to same-sex marriages, even more openness to the killing of preborns in the wombs of their mothers? Who knows…? All these ideas are the frequent riding partners of the feminist gang” (National Liberty Journal, May 1997).

Dr. Patterson, you know that Willow Creek does not in any way endorse same-sex marriages. Would you want this kind of false innuendo used against you? Do you consider it an honest, fair way to debate important issues within the Christian community? Do we not seriously damage the evangelical movement when we use this kind of tactic against each other?

I am puzzled by your charge that Willow Creek has a “lack of tolerance.” Dr. Grudem, you even comment with reference to the Willow Creek position that “the way an egalitarian view triumphs is by a suppression of information and discussion” (World, March 29, 1997). Yet all of you put enormous pressure on the IBS and Zondervan to withdraw the NIVI so that nobody else could use it. Would it not have been far more consistent with this plea for tolerance to have urged IBS and Zondervan to continue publishing both the original NIV and a new NIVI?

Dr. Dobson, in your column in World (May 3-10, 1997) you begin with an imaginary “inclusive” language rewriting of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address which refers to God as “Father and Mother.” Since you use this imaginary rewrite to argue against the new NIVI, the implication clearly is that the NIVI is connected in some direct way to referring to God as Mother. You know very well that the NIVI does nothing of the kind. Why then this implication of something that is not correct? I do not want to believe that you consciously chose to smear the NIVI by falsely intimating something that is not true. I need your help, Dr. Dobson, to understand what Christian motive led you to this debating tactic.

Here, I ignore World magazine’s tactics except to quote from a letter to the editor (which World declined to publish) written by Dr. Kenneth L. Barker (one of the more conservative members of the CBT who continues to sign the revised Colorado Springs Guidelines). Dr. Barker writes: “The CT article was fair, objective, balanced, and quite positive. Yours was precisely the opposite—slanted, negative, sensationalistic and mean-spirited. In all your articles and editorials on this controversy from March till now (mid-June), I have discerned a consistent pattern of misquotation…incorrect information…wrong connections…sensationalism and tabloid style journalism…negativism…destructive intent…inflammatory rhetoric…etc. (I could easily continue). Now you know why I do not subscribe to World and why I will not consent to another interview with World.”

The process of decision-making is equally disturbing. How, Dr. Dunberg, could the IBS reverse its decision to publish the NIVI in light of this pressure without widespread consultation with the full range of evangelical scholars and without allowing your own Committee for Bible Translation (CBT) to make the basic decisions about the most accurate translations? (After all, the Committee for Bible Translation was designed precisely to insulate the process of careful translation from irrelevant ideological pressure of any sort.)

And how, to make matters worse, could you and Dr. Ryskamp agree, at a highly unrepresentative meeting called by someone with very little training in the question at issue and attended by very few specialists in biblical translation, to endorse detailed guidelines for Bible translation? (I am glad to see that your names are no longer listed as signers of these guidelines.) Magazine and book publishers are hardly the best persons to make technical, complex decisions about the most accurate translation of the biblical Hebrew and Greek. Nor is a meeting heavily weighted toward Focus on the Family and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood even close to being representative of American evangelicalism.

That two of evangelicalism’s most respected and influential agencies (the IBS and Zondervan) would allow such a small, ad hoc, and extremely one-sided group representing only one side of the debate to make decisions that profoundly affect the full evangelical community is extremely disturbing—indeed, potentially disastrous for the future of evangelicalism.

All evangelicals agree on central biblical beliefs. But we vigorously disagree on lesser but substantive issues like double predestination, infant baptism, and just war. It is right for individual churches and denominations to take sides on such issues. It is not intolerant for Calvinist denominations to insist that all their leaders accept Calvin’s understanding of predestination— or for the Nazarenes to insist on their position on free will.

But a commitment to Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his one body (John 17) and a concern for the cohesion of the evangelical movement demands that we have larger, trans-denominational structures where we can work together on the basis of our common evangelical commitments even though we disagree on things like predestination and infant baptism. Not only the National Association of Evangelicals but large trans-denominational institutions like the IBS and Zondervan Publishing House function in this way for the evangelical community. It is right for Mennonites to insist on pastors who reject all killing and for just war denominations to do the reverse. Local churches and specific denominations should insist on those distinctive beliefs when they believe they best represent biblical teaching. But evangelicalism as an important trans-denominational movement will collapse if our major trans-denominational structures do not welcome evangelicals of differing views.

That is why the heavy pressure (even if it had been argued fairly) on IBS and Zondervan to make what had widely come to be seen as “the leading evangelical Bible translation” conform to their own (minority) viewpoint within the large evangelical community is so unacceptable. It is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of the proper roles of different institutions. It is appropriate for Willow Creek and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to disagree on ordaining women. And both ought to try to persuade the other of their “mistake” because both cannot be right. But it is wrong and intolerant for either to use pressure tactics to force large trans-denominational evangelical organizations to adopt only their viewpoint.

In the interest of preserving and strengthening the unity and cohesion of the evangelical movement, I beg you to do two things:

First, urge the IBS to give its circle of translation experts (the CBT) full freedom to make the best scholarly decisions they can about the most faithful way to translate the Scriptures into contemporary English.

Second, urge the IBS and Zondervan to publish both versions of the NIV (modified in whatever way our best exegetes deem accurate). If Focus on the Family wanted to use a version of the NIV deemed a faithful translation by our best scholarly experts on the CBT, I hope I would never (even if I had the power) try to force the IBS to stop publishing that version, even if I thought it had weaknesses. I hope, Dr. Dobson, you will stop doing the same to the vast numbers of evangelicals who prefer the NIVI. As we continue—vigorously but fairly—to debate which translation is more accurate, let’s together display Christian tolerance and urge the IBS to publish both.


Ron Sider