Perhaps the most-prayed Christian prayer is the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven…” But why Father and not person or parent? Is Christianity sexist?
Our home church denomination recently held a national Synod meeting, and one of the things they discussed was the updated 2011 translation of the NIV Bible. I think the general consensus was that the new NIV is a bad idea, due to gender-neutral language creeping into places it shouldn’t be.
On the positive side, the 2011 NIV has reverted many of the over-the-top gender-neutering in their previous attempt, the TNIV. Also, they don’t change pronouns for God into gender-neutral pronouns. All credit to them for being careful, for listening to feedback, and for taking the Bible seriously. What with idioms and word-play, vastly different grammars, and cultural issues — translation is hard.
But still, is this as hard as all that? If it said “father” in the Greek, then we should probably leave it that way — God, and the human writer might, just maybe, have had a reason for using that gender. On the other hand, if a word or phrase is ambiguous or gender-neutral in the original, translate it that way. The Bible is (among other things) a literary work, and if these things are translated out, we’re going to lose all those thematic connections our English teachers told us about.
But what about gender-neutral language more generally? I’m going to go out on a limb, though not a very long one, and say that Christianity and Gender Neutralisation can’t coexist. You see, the Bible says that God is our Father — not our mother, and not our caregiver. It tells us how God made Adam and Eve in his image. And it shows how God, through Jesus, became a man, and represented the human race as a man.
If you define sexism as recognising differences between the sexes, then yes, the Christian religion is sexist. For example, the Bible talks about fathers disciplining their sons. Does that mean that mothers shouldn’t discipline their sons (or daughters)? Of course not, but it is saying that in this respect, fathers are representative, that they should be setting the example. It also reminds us that God is our father, and He disciplines us like earthly fathers should discipline their kids.
But if you define sexism as treating the other sex unjustly, then Christianity is not sexist. The powerful statement in Galatians 3:28 makes that clear: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God doesn’t get overly excited about equality — that’s a mathematical concept, as in “two plus two equals four” — but He is keen on equity, that is, justice.
I don’t think this is trivial. In some strange way, it’s woven into the fabric of our “diverse universe”. Perhaps the doctrine is not very likeable. But I’d much rather live in a world with two very different sexes than in a world of androgynous sameness. Do we really like it when we can’t tell whether someone’s male or female? Trust me, it happens far too often here in New York, and it’s not pretty. Maybe such people have noble motives, but what happens is that they all end up looking like 17-year-old boys who can’t grow facial hair. Though it does make for a good (whispered) game on the subway: “Is that a guy or a girl?”
We’re human, and that means male or female. Yep, that’s pretty binary. As you relate to someone, their sex is a key part of how you interact with them. (Try it sometime: have a face-to-face conversation with a stranger, forcing yourself not to notice whether they’re male or female. It’s basically impossible.) Whether you’re a guy or a girl is crucial to your identity. This is strangely controversial to many today — but why reject what our Maker has so obviously put in place?
In other words: Christianity is only as “sexist” as Creation.
Good commentary! For more on Bible translations, read “The Word of God in English,” by Leland Ryken. It was a real eye-opener for me.