I was privileged to be interviewed for Christianity Today’s Podcast The Calling about my burdens for women in the church. We talked about my start as a lay theologian, the good and bad at Mars Hill Church, and a path forward for discipling women in the deep things of the Word.
Traditional marriage and evangelical celebrity culture have collided the last week. I often think that the evangelical church has missed some important needs and opportunities around the topic of marriage and its role in God’s kingdom. I hope to contribute something helpful here.
It probably goes without saying that not all government sanctioned marriages, traditional or non-traditional, reflect God’s good purposes for the institution. Note that I define traditional marriage more strictly than is often used in Christian circles, particularly in terms of politics. While true traditional Christian marriage is between a man and a woman, it is also a binding covenant. I write from the United States where no fault divorce was first introduced in California in 1970 and is available in most states with very short waiting periods. In that sense, I don’t think our nation has held to traditional Christian marriage for the majority of my life.
Consider the point of a contract. I could agree to pay a bank back for a home loan without entering a contract with them. They could give me the money, and I could start paying them back every month. But the point of the contract is two-fold. It provides security for the one loaning the money (and for the one paying it back). But how does it provide that security? Not by mere good will or affection but by binding the parties so that they can not default on their promise without severe consequences. When the going gets rough and I have a hard time making my house payment, the contract causes me to work hard to preserve the relationship. Get a second job. Receive financial counseling. Sell an extra vehicle. Eat ramen for a month. Whatever the sacrifice I have to make, the contractual obligations I have are incentive for doing the work necessary to keep the relationship.
This too is the point of the Christian marriage covenant. We gather witnesses before God as we make solemn vows of faithfulness until death do us part. We do so because this solemn commitment before God provides security to both parties, a security that is necessary for human flourishing in long term relationships. We all know someone who is insecure in a relationship. Most of us at some point have felt insecure in a relationship. It is very hard to live confidently in the world in a close but insecure relationship.
The point of marriage vows is to introduce security in the relationship through commitment in the image of God, who is eternally committed to His covenant with His people. Yet, many men and women in the church have experienced a harmful lack of commitment to covenant vows. This was a problem in Jesus’ day as well.
3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
(Though in Scripture the issue was primarily men putting away the wife of their youth, women in many modern cultures have reached equality with man on this issue.)
The same men who would later throw the woman caught in adultery at Jesus’ feet to be stoned want to continue the practice of putting away a wife for any reason in this interaction with Jesus. Conservative Christians often mourn the acceptance of the label of marriage for civil unions between those of the same sex. But I wish we would spend equal or more energy discipling in the value of persevering in relationship when it is hard to honor covenants made before God. Our society has been harmed greatly by sexual promiscuity outside of marriage and the easy breaking of covenants in marriage. Because we haven’t understood or celebrated such traditional marriage, we have lost moral high ground to stand on other issues.
With a stricter definition of traditional marriage, a binding covenant that restrains a man and a woman in a family unit for life, there are two particular ways to approach the gospel and traditional marriage. First, the gospel is visible in traditional marriage. And second, the gospel is needed for traditional marriage.
The Gospel Visible in Traditional Marriage
Marriage was given by God to both accomplish His purposes and to give testimony of His relationship with His people. As to the first, I imagine that God could have set up His creation with only one gender, but He didn’t. He created two similar yet different genders, and He did so with a conversation within the Trinity of creating mankind, male and female, in His/Their image. There is something in the yin and yang, give and take, tug and pull of two different genders who think similarly about some things and very differently about others, who overlap in ways and are distinct in others, that was good and helpful for God’s purposes in creation. This yin and yang of two genders extends past marriage. Dads need daughters, moms need sons, sisters benefit from brothers, and grandsons from grandmothers. This extends to relationships in the church and work environment as well. There is benefit to two overlapping but different genders approaching a task together in God’s kingdom work.
Marriage between a man and a woman was also given as a visual testimony of the gospel. Paul says this explicitly in Ephesians 5. Husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church. Wives respect their husbands and align with their mission as the church aligns with Christ’s.
But these image-bearing purposes instituted before the Fall and the potential testimony of the gospel after the Fall show the utter need of the next point.
The Gospel Needed for It
Such image-bearing purposes and gospel testimony are impossible after the fall of man without a robust understanding and application of the gospel. After the fall of man, these differences between men and women which should have worked together for God’s holistic purposes instead cause chafing. They catch on each other instead of flowing smoothly in and out of each gender’s giftings. Frankly, apart from Christ it is much easier to be in close relationship with someone who thinks just like you.
Many who put away orthodox views of traditional marriage do so because it is hard. If, because of your personal inclinations you feel attracted physically or emotionally to the same sex, then enduring in such close relationship with someone of the opposite sex seems too hard to try. But for those who do feel attraction to the opposite sex, it remains hard, and the temptation to quit on the covenant commitment remains strong, whether you experience same sex attraction or not. We need more than idealistic notions of romance to sustain us in traditional marriage. We need hope from the good news of Jesus Christ. We need to know God’s good plans for man and woman in the garden and how Jesus equips us once more to be image-bearers of God. We need to understand the Creation Mandate of Genesis 2 and 3 and Jesus’ reclamation of it in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. We need inspiration through Jesus to persevere in something that gives testimony of Jesus’ love for His Bride not because it is easy but by the very fact that it is hard.
Of course there are circumstances that call for divorce, abuse and infidelity being the primary issues. Jesus allowed for divorce, but he limited it because He knew, when the going got tough and the bloom of the wife of their youth had worn off, those with power would try to get out of marriages because the grass seemed greener in someone else’s yard. Traditional marriage gives a testimony of the good news of Jesus and His love for us, His people. But it is also this very good news that is the singular hope we have to endure and even flourish in a relationship that by definition involves two different people coming together as one, with all the struggle and work involved.
Proverbs 5:18 Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.
I have a lot of friends who grew up under the concept of the “umbrella of protection” associated with Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles. In their lives, this resulted in an authoritarian family and church structure that was particularly limiting to women. In the last few years, it’s become known that, as often happens in strict religious groups, many young women were sexually abused in families and churches that implemented Gothard’s principles. In fact, Bill Gothard was forced to resign from his organization after allegations of sexual abuse and harassment were put forward in a lawsuit.
Gothard used the phrase umbrella of protection to put forward his version of the Biblical concepts of headship and authority. I actually like the phrase, but I have not wanted to use it because of the associations with his ministry of limiting women’s voices and usefulness in the church and then using women for his own perverted sexual purposes. I haven’t wanted to talk about headship at all the last few years as my concerns grew over the theological backflips complementarian leaders such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem took to try to prove a headship that pre-dates the Fall in order to preserve a type of universal female submission/subordination to men.
But then I studied I Corinthians 11, the classic confusing passage on headship, for my upcoming book, Is the Bible Good for Women?, and haven’t been able to get the concept out of my head since. Like most things in the Bible, if we can get past the way a concept or teaching has been misused for private gain or to support biases against a specific group, there is always something life giving in the actual Biblical concept that aids in human flourishing. Headship is no different.
[I wrote on Thomas Jefferson as a case study in what headship was supposed to protect against in I Corinthians 11, particularly the sexual subjugation of captives prevalent in Corinth that was associated with shaved heads of captives or covered heads for protected married women.]
I Corinthians 11 speaks of God as the head of Christ, Christ as the head of the man, and the man as the head of the woman. Whatever headship is supposed to mean between the man and the woman, we can learn from the headship of Christ to His church and from God to Christ. By the way, this is why Eternal Subordination of the Son became so important to the founders of complementarian thought. They couldn’t prove an eternal, functional, categorical subordination of women to men without first proving it between Christ and God. But that ship has sailed, and I am glad to see such teaching fall by the wayside even among strong complementarian proponents.
As I pondered writing this post, I wracked my brain trying to think of the best examples in Scripture of true headship. I read through Deborah’s story in Judges 4-5, but there wasn’t enough between the lines to figure out anything of the personal dynamics of her life. I thought about Phoebe in Romans 16:7. Paul seems to cover her and protect her with his words of introduction and affirmation of her so that she is welcomed and heard by the church at Rome. Could I learn anything about headship from Priscilla? Or maybe Ruth? But then it dawned on me, as I Corinthians 11 indicates, that I should first and foremost look to Jesus!
If you want to read an inspiring case study in headship, read the book of Luke and watch Jesus’ interactions with both the men and the women in its pages (remember that Jesus is the head of all believers, male or female). I could read and reread the account of Jesus and the sinful woman at the end of Luke 7. It is such a helpful look at Jesus’ headship. According to Ephesians 5, He is the example for husbands of love, care, and self-sacrifice for their own wives.
When I look at Luke 7’s story of the sinful woman or John 8’s story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus tweaks my idea of the umbrella of protection. An umbrella stands over you. It covers you from above. But the clear indication in Gothard’s teaching of the concept was that it also limited you. You had to stay UNDER the umbrella, and if you got out from under it, you were in rebellion to authority and likely to get stoned, figuratively or literally like the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The problem in Gothard’s system was how often the ones that would figuratively stone you were the same ones claiming to hold the umbrella of protection.
There is a sense in which Jesus did indeed protect the woman caught in adultery in John 8 from being stoned, acting as a barrier between her and her accusers like an umbrella of protection. But the analogy to an umbrella misses that Jesus then sent her off. “Go, and sin no more,” He said. Rather than an umbrella of protection, I see Jesus as this woman’s safety net that allowed her to get up and go forward after a disastrous fall.
Consider the difference in a net under acrobats at a circus and the netting around an eagle at a zoo. Both limit from danger, right? But one also restricts God-given potential. The netting around an eagle may keep it from being harmed, but it also keeps the eagle from soaring over its territory and finding its own food as it was designed to do. This difference is of utmost importance in how we discuss headship, authority, and protection in Christian circles. Jesus protects us from spiritual harm, but He also sends us out to fulfill our God-given calling.
But do not go in sin. Go, be, and do as God created you to be in perfection and is restoring you now through Jesus Christ. While Jesus’ headship protects, it is also very much a launching pad for great upward mobility, for true human flourishing, though not in the sense of the prosperity gospel.
This is the type of headship Jesus models for us and that husbands should aspire to in their homes. This is the type of headship that Jesus models for us and that women should receive as beneficial, life-giving, and LAUNCHING for God’s purposes in our lives.
I am thankful in my own life to have been in relationship with a number of men in authority over me, particularly my dad and four of my last five pastors, who modeled such Christlike sacrifice and launching for me. Men who instructed me. Men who listened to me. Men who supported me. Men who had my back. Men who saw my giftings and encouraged me to develop them and use them. The limitations I have felt with them were the ones that constrain all of us, those of God’s word to us. But the safety net they provided for me have allowed me to go further and higher than I could have on my own, living out God’s call on my life and using my gifts for His name.
This is a headship that is good for women and, in turn, good for the entire Body of Christ.
This blog has always been called a “lecture to myself.” In that sense, it is fairly me-oriented. However, for this post, which still begins with a me-oriented slant, I felt it important to have the clear voice of my sister in Christ, Dierdra Gray Clark, giving insight into racial tension rather than me attempting to talk about what black folks experience.
I’ve been thinking through the complicated dynamics for Christians of different races wading in on the current issues of social justice in light of recent police shootings. I am a willing ally, raised in the lowcountry of South Carolina and privy to more than enough first hand racism to have no doubt to the authenticity of every concern from black leaders and friends that I’ve heard. On the flip side, I was raised in the lowcountry of South Carolina in an area of multi-generational racism, attending a private school that didn’t allow blacks to attend until 1985, when I was a freshman in that high school. I felt dissonance and concern with racist statements and jokes I heard for as long as I can remember. And, yet, I was raised in it as the norm. Like learning a language without thinking of how you learned it as a child, racist constructs are built, often without any personal awareness of it happening.
I moved to the most diverse zip code in the United States (98118 in Seattle) in 2003. I loved my neighborhood. I loved my boys elementary school, which was the most diverse school in our zip code. We decided to label ourselves the most diverse elementary school, therefore, in the entire United States. With over 60 different languages spoken in the school, that may well have been the fact.
I also taught math to at-risk adults in a welding program at our local community college. I got to know a large number of different men of color, many coming out of drug rehab programs, some homeless, some in half way houses. I remember when I started seeing former students around Seattle, at a light rail stop or walking along the streets of downtown. It made me happy to greet them by name and give them a hug, but I was also simultaneously aware that had I not known them in person from teaching them, I would likely have been nervous in their presence.
Which leads to another aspect of my story. In 2008, my 68 year old aunt was murdered by a young black man who knocked on her door after church one Sunday. It was devastating to our family – the kind of horrible act that you can barely start to process because the pain and senselessness of it all is too hard to face.
A few weeks after I returned from her funeral, a black man got angry at me in a parking lot in Seattle, and I had a panic attack. It terrified me. But I also knew in that moment that it was equally devastating to me and others for me to have fears of murder every time a black man looked cross to me. I knew the reasons for my negative reaction, but it was still unjust to the next guy all the same. I did at least understand that the young man who murdered my aunt was just that, a single young man. It would be hurtful if African Americans shied away in fear from my white sons or nephews after white Dylan Root murdered nine folks at Emmanuel AME Church. How unfair, how blind to the various individual stories of each unique black man I came in contact with if I projected onto young black men in general the same. I had work to do, though I didn’t know exactly how to do it.
In the elementary school, despite the fact that it was only about 30% white, white moms dominated the PTA board. When I was elected president of the PTA, I knew that had to change and thankfully had another mom on the board who was both passionate and well-trained on the subject (an important combination). I set aside 10 minutes at the beginning of every PTA board meeting, despite some push back, to discuss systemic racial injustice as we tried to get our PTA board to better reflect the families of all of our students. We planned our first PTA meeting of the year with the goal of creating a welcoming environment for all races. I was earnest and trying. I went to Mr. Green, a wonderful staff social worker who was one of the only black male role models we had in our school, and asked him to please be at this first PTA meeting and help me have a diverse group of people there so that people of color felt welcome. Later, he gently pointed out to me, correctly, some language and presuppositions I had used in planning this event. I can’t remember exactly what I said or exactly how he corrected me, but it dawned on me then, and has been confirmed many times since, that my attempts to improve and correct where I have influence still often have trappings of language of bias that offends. The mere fact that you have to ask a black social worker to help make sure you have black representation at your PTA meeting is inherently offensive to the black social worker. But he was gracious to me and helped make sure the event felt welcoming to all races. By the time I left the PTA, we had a Somali mom on the board and input from African-American staff and parents at most meetings. We hadn’t reached the goal of accurate representation on the board of the diversity of families in the school, but we had made progress.
No one has ever had to convince me of the imago Dei in the person of color. I have always known of the value of my black brother or sister as I have known the glory and worth of God. But like my first book, Practical Theology for Women, this theology means nothing if not attached to practical reality. Just as looking at my practical responses in trial clarified what I truly believed about God, looking at our practical responses around racial issues clarifies what we really believe about humanity as image bearers of God.
Here, at this blog which was originally conceived as lectures to myself, I write on this from time to time. But early on when writing about it, I recognized as I did with Mr. Green at the elementary school that it is easy to offend through assumptions we don’t even know we are making.
I’ve asked Dierdra Gray Clark to interact with me on the blog today around this tension. After hearing how an officer referred to Terrence Crutcher as a big, scary dude before he was fatally shot, I wrote recently on my Facebook page of the need for whites to continue to work to rid themselves of such biases. Dierdra responded with a comment about the demoralization for her to hear of people still having to work to see a black man broken down on the side of the road as a human deserving of basic dignity. We dialogued some about this, and I wanted to bring some of her thoughts to the blog.
Dierdra, please tell us about yourself and then speak into the tension of how whites can harm when trying to understand or even help.
I am a northerner and to be more specific, a New Yorker. Educated in the suburbs of New York City and then the halls of New England’s elite colleges and universities, I mistakenly made my way through life thinking my education and associations would insulate me from the vestiges of discrimination and racism. This of course was the hope of my parents, as well as generations of African Americans who marched, protested and fought for the opportunities that I have been afforded. Our God was the one after all who brought our people out of slavery, through Jim Crow laws, to a black President in the White House today.
But despite all of this, I was also aware that the hope of my parents was not quite the reality. I knew that hiring practices were different for African Americans. As I looked for jobs, I was aware of how I dressed or how I wore my hair, always knowing that the color of my skin could impact my success in a job interview in a way very different from my white college classmates. I joked about not being able to get a cab in New York City, but really that is not a joke. I knew my brother and father were subjects of DWB (driving while black). I sometimes heard disparaging remarks about blacks, often waiting for my white friends to step in only to be left to endure it on my own. While no one called me a racial slur, slaps in my face and slight indignities are very familiar.
Despite everything I knew and had experienced about race, I had no idea how much more I would feel the impact of race in my life once I married my husband, who is white. While our love for each other has provided some protection against the sordid history of race in America, neither one of us was prepared for how the repeated viewing of police brutality on our smart phones and on the nightly news could shift the ground in our very own home.
Almost anyone who is black has a relative or friend who has experienced a negative encounter with the police. For blacks, the police and the criminal justice system are not places of safety or peace. My husband’s reality is quite different. For him the criminal justice system is a place he goes to find justice and fairness. Despite my best attempts, it is hard to not have flashes of anger and despair about this fact. To see this up close and personal is sometimes very hard to accept.
Speaking into the tensions
I remember some time ago my father-in-law told me that I sounded angry about race. I was somewhat befuddled, confused and annoyed. Of course I was angry. Hadn’t he been watching what was on the news? Didn’t he see the same videos that I did? But it was at that moment that I realized that we were experiencing two entirely different Americas. This is not to excuse him. To be honest, in past conversations I might write him off as ignorant, misinformed or even racist. But I could not do that this time. My in-laws, who live in Kentucky adore my children. Every summer my children spend summers with them in Kentucky. They visit museums, learn about the derby and get pampered from head to toe by their grandparents. The relationship between my in-laws and my children is so strong that I believe there is nothing they would not do for my children—and by extension for me. Yet there exists this tension, or divide between the world I experience, the world my nephews, brother and father experience, and the world my husband and his parents experience. Because whites do not experience the same indignities, the same injustices, the same brutality, the same systemic inequalities, they question what blacks are seeing and feeling. This is heartbreaking and maddening at the same time.
My father-in-law did not mean me any harm when he asked about my anger. I have no doubt that he loves me. But here I was once again explaining the injustices, explaining the indignities, and giving reasons for the righteous anger that is part of my very existence. Sadly, when I need to prove myself to even well meaning whites, the chances of reconciliation and understanding feel slim to none. I feel once again that my views and life experiences are not as valid as those of white America. And we are back at the beginning, a place where I feel lesser valued than my white counterpart. When this comes from a white Christian, I am left to wonder if they really believe the doctrine of the Imago Dei. This is a tough place to be.
I believe God when he says in the second commandment to love your neighbor. I believe Paul when he teaches that the Church has a ministry of reconciliation through Christ. I believe the biblical text points us towards the need to be in relationship with each other. In these times especially, we need relationship not just with those that look like us, but particularly with those that are a different color.
One thing Wendy asked me to speak on is practical dos and don’ts for people who want to be in a place of reconciliation and understanding. The work Wendy did to address the lack of representation on her school’s PTA board was a good example (of both what to do and not to do). The most important thing for me is what Wendy alluded to. For Christians to really believe the doctrine of imago Dei. For my white allies to listen to their fellow Christian sister and brother of color, and to truly know them personally.
Thank you, Dierdra, for opening yourself up to us. Your story of two different Americas depending on race is valuable for those of us who have not lived your story to understand. I know it is painful to regularly have to defend yourself to those who only point out the anger rather than lamenting the injustices that provoked it.
To friends and readers who need to do the work to recognize biases and disconnects between what you say you believe about imago Dei and the reality of your practice – if you have to do the work, do the work, but understand why it is offensive and wearisome to your black friends that you have to do the work. If you don’t like black anger, first and foremost lament with your black brothers and sisters the causes of such anger and then work to address the injustices they reveal.
To black brothers and sisters who find the need of white folks to do such work offensive – yes, I understand that completely. It is offensive. You bear inherent dignity that should be as easily recognized in the church as that of the unborn infants we often rally to protect, and no one should even have to say it. And, yet, the work needs to be done nonetheless. My encouragement is that the harvest is plenteous in this particular avenue of gospel work. The kingdom of God is coming and His will is being done as many denominations and individuals within them recognize past and present sins and repent. Please stay as a worker in this harvest, God’s harvest. You will be blessed with fruit even as you endure through the weeds and thorns.
And always know that our God sees.
10 The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
11 (The oppressor) says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
12 Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
forget not the afflicted.
13 Why does the wicked renounce God
and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?
14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
call his wickedness to account till you find none.
16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
In Part 1 and Part 2, we recounted a story of Wendy interacting with her dad’s doctor when he mistakenly prescribed ibuprofen despite the fact that he was currently taking the blood thinner, Coumadin. The doctor heard Wendy’s concerns because they shared a commitment to the health of her father, her concerns were based on the published research of other respected doctors, and she had intimate knowledge of her father’s health. These reflections are offered in the same spirit.
Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson
In this final post, we’ll highlight the potential harm that could come from rendering Genesis 3:16 as “your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” If the Scripture brings life and health, we must also acknowledge that perversions of Scripture bring turmoil and pain. If the recent change to Genesis 3:16 does not accurately represent the text of Scripture, this is not a neutral choice.
In saying this, we recognize that translation is a work in progress. As scholarship grows, so will our ability to understand the original text; as language changes, so will the need to update and revise translations. Our concern is not how the limitations of scholarship and linguistics have affected the translation of Genesis 3:16 but how commentary has. And if it has, then this rendering has the potential to harm men and women the same way any extra-biblical teaching does.
Our reflections in this final post come from our experience of discipling women both privately and publicly for years. Just as Wendy had intimate knowledge of her dad’s health, we have intimate knowledge of how Genesis 3:16 affects women’s spiritual formation. At the same time, we quickly grant that a working knowledge of women’s discipleship does not outweigh Biblical authority or the need for scholarship. In matters of textual criticism, we happily defer to those with more lexical and linguistic knowledge. But our experiences with women do give us knowledge of the implications of this rendering as well as a keen awareness of how high the stakes are.
First, we want to establish the Scriptural context in which this change occurs. Genesis 3:16 is set in the middle of God’s descriptions of a post-Fall world. Instead of a place of flourishing, the world will now be marred by suffering, toil, and futility. (We read God’s words as descriptive of the current state of affairs, not prescriptive.)
But to understand the brokenness, you must first understand Creation’s original state. In Genesis 1, God creates woman and man in His image so that they may reflect and represent Him on the earth. He commands them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Genesis 2 illuminates this account by telling us that God created the man first, but that the man was not sufficient to the task of ruling over the earth on his own. He could not tend and cultivate this new Creation without a partner equal to him as an image bearer. And so God created woman as an ezer/helper to fulfill the call to steward creation. Made in the image of her Creator, the woman was to emulate God Himself as the model ezer/helper to the man.
But while equal, these two image bearers are not the same. By creating them as male and female, God invested their bodies with strengths and weaknesses that would bind them together in mutual dependence as they fulfilled the Creation Mandate. The woman’s body would allow her to cultivate new image bearers, but this would also make her more vulnerable. The man’s body would be unable to bear life, but his physical strength would allow him to protect and provide for the new image bearers. The differences between them were not an end in themselves; they were a means to an end. They were the means by which they would together cultivate the good bounty of the earth and their own bodies. Together they would rule and reign over the new creation as King and Queen.
In Genesis 3, however, we see the image bearers fail. Instead of exercising dominion over the beasts of the field, we see the serpent leading and guiding them. Instead of submitting to the Creator, we see the image bearers submitting to the creation and ultimately denying their own identities. As a result, the entire creation is plunged into brokenness and disarray.
It’s not surprising, then, that when God describes life after the Fall, He does so in terms of the Creation Mandate. The beast of the field is returned to a place of subjection, and the man and woman’s work becomes difficult. The desire to fulfill the Creation Mandate—to be fruitful and multiply and to exercise dominion over the earth—is still present because this is an essential part of what it means to be human in the image of God. What is affected is the man and woman’s ability to accomplish this work.
We believe the most natural reading of Genesis 3:16 honors the parallel (and interdependent) callings of the man and woman. As we noted in Part 2,
Just as the man’s desire to produce fruit from the ground is rewarded with sweat and pain, a woman’s desire to produce children from her own body is rewarded with sweat and pain. Just as the man turns his attention to the earth looking for fruitful relationship, a woman turns toward (not away from) a man seeking fruitful relationship.
The woman’s desire in 3:16 can be understood in terms of her larger calling to bring forth life. Colloquially, we talk about this life-bearing instinct as a woman’s “biological clock.” Not all women are called to bear children, but as a category, a woman’s body has been made to do something different than a man’s body. And her body will naturally move her toward this end. In a broken world, however, this natural and good impulse will be met with frustration, pain, and disappointment. The woman’s desire will be directed toward the man as one means of fulfilling the Creation Mandate, but the man will respond with control and rule.
Some may be uncomfortable with this reading because it seems prejudicial to the man, positing him as a selfish oaf who will only ever abuse his relationship with the woman. Remember that this is describing the state of the world under sin. It is not describing the nature of either the man or woman, but the broken context in which their distinct callings play out. Remember as well that this section of text is directed to the woman to explain how the entrance of sin will make her work more difficult. And it’s all preceded by the foretelling of our rescue through the birth of Jesus.
Uncomfortable or not, in our fallen world, the inherent physiological differences between the sexes result in men ruling over women.* The statement “he shall rule over you” is neither judgment nor command; it is a simple statement of fact about the post-Fall world. Because women are the physically “weaker vessel,” women as a category cannot rule over men as a category. This does not mean that women are not equally sinful to men or try to harm them. It simply means that they do not have the physical capacity to impose their will on men as a general category. Remember Genesis 3:16 is addressed to the woman, explaining to her the challenges she will face. Because of her physical weakness and her desire to bear children, she will become subject to the control of unregenerate men.
*It’s important to distinguish between the concept of headship and rule. In the beginning, God made human beings to rule over the Creation, not each other. We understand headship to be the responsibility to provide and protect for the more vulnerable member of a relationship. Headship includes the authority necessary to fulfill this responsibility, but headship itself should not be understood solely as hierarchical rule. (see Thomas Jefferson and Headship for a longer explanation.)
Our first concern about the latest rendering of Genesis 3:16 is that it does not fit the larger rhetorical frame of the passage. It implies a sinful motivation for the woman’s desire rather than describing the broken context in which she finds herself. It also disrupts the parallelism of the text. God speaks to the woman about how the Fall affects her. He then speaks to the man about how the Fall affects him. Rendering 3:16 as “your desire shall be contrary to your husband” injects a statement about the woman’s nature when there is no corresponding statement about the man’s nature in terms of his work. We believe there is no parallel statement because Genesis 3:16 should not be read as an indictment of the woman’s desire.
As we discussed in Part 2, you can only arrive at a negative reading of the woman’s desire if you read negativity back into the passage from Genesis 4:7-8. But such a reading is highly prejudicial because it implies that the woman’s desires by their very existence are contrary to her husband. Because the rest of the passage is read as a statement of fact about this post-Fall world, the sentence “your desires shall be contrary to your husband” will also be read as a statement of fact. The rhetorical affect is to create suspicion around every desire that a woman has.
What if a woman wants red curtains but her husband wants blue? Is this “contrary” opinion a result of the Fall and her sinful inclination to resist her husband? Should she give up her desire for red curtains? Based on the current rendering of Genesis 3:16, yes, she should. She should give up her contrary desire because to hold it would be to participate in the brokenness of the Fall. This may seem like a ridiculous illustration, but the logic is intact.
A regenerate woman seeking to live beyond her fallen state will relinquish all desires that run contrary to her husband because this rendering teaches her that it is her sinfulness that puts her in opposition to her husband. Not her expertise in design, not the validity of her own preferences, but her sinfulness. And such a paradigm cuts to the heart of a woman’s imago Dei identity.
Part of being made in God’s image is the capacity to think, to choose, to desire. It is true that our human desires have been corrupted by sin—the heart is desperately wicked, after all. But the corruption is not horizontal; it is vertical. We are not in sin because our desires are contrary to another human being’s. We are in sin when they run contrary to God’s; or we assume God’s place and force our desires upon another human being.
For a woman to have a different, or contrary, opinion to her husband is not sin. In fact, sometimes it would be sin for her NOT to have a difference of opinion, especially if he himself is in sin (consider Abigail and Sapphira). But rendering Genesis 3:16 as “your desires shall be contrary to your husband” places a woman’s desires in context of the Fall and positions them forever as suspect.
Practically speaking, this paralyzes women. We have seen this in our own lives as well as the lives of the women we disciple. When women are told that their very desires are sinful in a way that men’s desires are not, godly women end up doubting everything they think or do or say. Rather than risk the possibility of imposing her “contrary” desires on to her husband or the men around her, she will stop desiring entirely.
Ironically, this does not fulfill the Biblical concept of submission; it actually undermines it. When a woman abandons her own opinions, she is not submitting. She is abdicating her imago Dei identity. Submission only happens when two conflicting desires meet and one defers. A woman can only submit when she holds an opinion in the first place and then chooses to defer out of her own agency. She does not defer because her desires are corrupt, but because she loves her husband and the Scripture. Anything less is co-dependency.
Further, the ESV’s current rendering can lead a woman to doubt the work of God in her heart. When the Holy Spirit moves her to take action, she will question whether it is truly God or the deceitfulness of her own contrary desires. Having lost a category for goodness of her desires, she will freeze and become subject to the control of those around her. She will be led by the desires of her husband, her children, her friends, and her community. Rather than being led by the Spirit, she will be led by other human beings.
Finally, this rendering will cause men to mistrust women. Not only will women doubt their own opinions and the Holy Spirit’s leading, men will begin to doubt the validity of women’s voices. If women’s desires are de facto “contrary,” when a woman speaks up or offers an alternative view, men will naturally be suspicious. Is she simply trying to undermine the men around her? What’s her hidden agenda? And when she rightly challenges evil men for evil behavior, her words will be neutralized entirely. Because after all, the woman’s “desire shall be contrary.” She’s unsubmissive and not to be trusted.
This is how women become trapped in abusive relationships even within the church. One of the criticisms of complementarianism is that it can lead to the physical and spiritual abuse of women. We do not believe that all streams of complementarian thought lead to abuse. But we are concerned that this rendering of Genesis 3:16 would. At the very least, it puts a woman constantly on the defensive, forcing her to justify the validity of her complaints, concerns, or mere different desires.
When William Tyndale translated the English New Testament, he did so, in part, to break the power of spiritual abuse. He wanted to give the most vulnerable members of the Church the power to defend themselves through truth. We believe the straightforward translation of Genesis 3:16 as “your desire shall be for your husband” honors both the original Hebrew text, as well as the larger context of Genesis 1-3. Such a reading helps pastors, lay leaders, and women themselves to understand the larger context in which women find themselves in this broken world. This in turn, aids in promoting the spiritual growth that is necessary to break the bonds of emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse. In many cases, only when a woman grows in her understanding of her God-given agency and identity as an image bearer can she finally step away from such abuse. As well, only when the godly men around her have a healthy understanding of her God-given agency and identity can they help free her from abuse.
For some reading this, it may feel like we are suggesting a major paradigm shift. We are simply suggesting that you consider the natural, straightforward reading of Genesis 1-3 as it relates to this text. We are asking you to listen to women who have been actively engaged in the work of discipleship; if you do, we hope you hear, not simply our voices, but the Scripture itself. And ultimately, we hope that these posts will aid you in discerning the root issues underlying a woman’s struggles in a post-Fall world. She may choose sinful responses to the challenges—she may choose either abdication or manipulation—but she does not do so because her desires are inherently “contrary.”
After Wendy’s conversation with the doctor, he prescribed a pain killer for her dad that didn’t interfere with Coumadin. It was a similar pain killer but just different enough to relieve the pain of the pinched nerve without causing new complications. Just as Wendy and the doctor mutually cared for her dad, we hope that the ESV translators will hear our concerns about this change to Genesis 3:16 and consider reversing their decision so that no further harm comes to either women or men.
Together we wait and hope for the day when all God’s image bearers—both male and female—are restored to His likeness through Christ.
This is Part 2 of a three part series on the ESV changes to Genesis 3:16. You can read Part 1 here, where we emphasized our shared commitment to the essentially literal, word-for-word translation philosophy of the ESV translation team.
–Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup
In 1525, William Tyndale finished the first translation of the New Testament into English. Despite severe persecution and eventual martyrdom, Tyndale devoted his life to ensuring that common people had access to the Scripture in their native tongue. Tyndale’s passion to translate was fueled both by a desire to see the Scripture take root in common people’s hearts, as well as a desire to break the monopoly that the clerical class held over them.
Because the Word of God is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, it was essential that lay people have access to the Scripture to defend themselves in situations where leaders misused and abused their spiritual authority. In this sense, careful translation work was a way to protect the most vulnerable members of the church. Once when confronted by Church authorities, Tyndale famously replied, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you do.”
During the Reformation, new translations and the advent of the printing press led to increased Biblical literacy across Europe. Today, five hundred years later, advances in scholarship and the advent of the internet have led to even more Biblical engagement. Not only can the plough boy read the Bible, the milk maid also has access to online helps that allow her to engage it in the original languages. The accessibility of scholarship does not negate the need for scholars any more than Wendy’s accessing a study from the Mayo Clinic negated her father’s need for a doctor (recounted in Part 1). But online technology does offer us the ability to work cooperatively with scholars for the good of the church. It allows the laity to be informed–to access lexicons, scholarly articles, historical documents, academic journals, and even professors and researchers personally. We live in a time when a translation change like that of Genesis 3:16 can be easily examined and compared to historic precedent by, yes, even the plough boy and milk maid.
Toward vs. Contrary
In this post, we want to focus on the most significant change in the ESV: rendering the Hebrew preposition ‘el in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 as “contrary to” when it had been previously rendered as “for.” Discussions of Genesis 3:16 often focus on the meaning of “desire” (teshuquah) which is found in only two other places in Scripture (Genesis 4:7 and Song of Solomon 7:10); regardless of the contextual meaning and the positive or negative nature of the desire, the word itself is reasonably clear and so ESV translators have rendered it as “desire,” with which we agree. What has been altered in the ESV is the preposition (‘el) that is connected to the woman’s desire.
The ESV originally translated this passage as desire “for” the man. Some argued that the preposition may also be rendered “against” and was noted in a footnote. In the latest (and permanent) edition, the ESV had translated it to be desire “contrary to” the man. At first, this might seem a reasonable progression in English (see Denny Burk’s article), but we want to emphasize that while the progression from “against” to “contrary to” may be reasonable in English, it is not at all reasonable in Hebrew.
The Hebrew preposition in question tells us something about the direction or focus of the woman’s desire. Historically, English translations have translated it in Genesis 3:16 as “to” or “toward.” Consider this brief survey and you discover that most English translations since the 1500’s support the ESV’s original translation of “Your desire shall be for your husband…”*
But more than simply offering a historical accounting of Genesis 3:16, access to online and digital lexicons also offers clarity into how this Hebrew preposition is translated across the body of Scripture. While ‘el can be translated a variety of ways, we could not find evidence that it has ever been translated “contrary to” in any previous version of the ESV, any other English translation, or in any of the over 5000 other times that it is used in the Old Testament. We believe that there is no other example of ‘el being translated as “contrary to” for the simple fact that it does not mean “contrary to” the way we use it in English.
As mentioned, the Hebrew preposition ‘el consistently communicates some variation of terminal direction; it shows the direction something is pointed or headed. You talk TO someone. You direct something TOWARD someone. You are heading FOR the door. In Genesis 3:16, a woman’s desire is directed toward the man. In Genesis 4:7, sin’s desire seems directed toward Cain. (** See note for discussion of gender problems between sin and desire in 4:7). While ‘el tells us where the desire is directed, it alone cannot tell us the quality or nature of the desire. It simply points to which object is being desired.
Unlike the Hebrew ‘el, the English word “contrary”—the word chosen by the ESV translation committee—inherently implies a movement away from or opposite to something. We understand this in the colloquial sense when we describe a child as “contrary.” He or she has a disposition to move in the opposite direction of what is expected of him or her. ‘El, on the other hand, specifically indicates the direction of movement toward someone or something.
Even when ‘el is translated as “against,” it still retains the idea of being directed toward someone or something. Consider how we can use “against” in English to show direction. We say, “The rake is lying against the tree” to describe the physical relationship of the rake toward the tree. Or to give an example of negative usage, Genesis 4:8 records that Cain “rose up against” Abel. Here the use of ‘el has a negative connotation because it is attached to the Hebrew verb quwm for “rise up,” but the direction of the movement is unchanged. Cain is not moving away from Abel; he is moving toward him, albeit in violence. By changing Genesis 3:16 to read “contrary to”, the ESV fundamentally changes the direction of the woman’s desire and the meaning of ‘el itself.
What’s Going On
So what happened? How did desire “for” the man become desire “contrary to” the man? To extend the metaphor from Part 1, why was ibuprofen prescribed when it is contraindicated when taking Coumadin?
At this point, we must note the difference between translating the words of a passage and interpreting the significance of a passage. The work of translators who share the ESV philosophy is to give the literal sense of the Hebrew or Greek in as approximate English as possible. This work will include understanding idiomatic expressions, original audience, and cultural context; but the goal is to give the most accurate translation of the words themselves, not to invest those words with certain significance. While translation work does include the work of weighing texts against other texts, searching for the thread that illuminates a difficult word, and tracking down lexical clues, it should not be confused with commentary. The goal of translation, particularly the philosophy espoused by the ESV translation team, is to preserve an intact text so that believers can read and interpret in community.
The easiest explanation for why translators changed the “for” to “contrary” is that they moved from translation to commentary, projecting the negative meaning of Genesis 4:7-8 back into Genesis 3:16. To be fair, the two passages have lexical similarities, but the question we must answer is “What are the similarities?”
In the height of the battle against feminism in the 1970s, Susan Foh proposed that the similarity between 3:16 and 4:7 was that a woman’s desire toward a man was similar to sin’s desire to destroy Cain. It was, dare we say, contrary to him. This connection is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that the language of Genesis 4:7 is unclear and may actually refer to Abel’s good desire toward Cain.**
Worse, from an interpretive standpoint, Foh used the confusing and obscure text of Genesis 4 to project something back onto the clearer Hebrew in Genesis 3. In contrast, a straightforward chronological reading of Genesis 1-4 actually affirms the lexical definition of the preposition ‘el as “for” or “toward.” In terms of the fall, the woman’s desire for children, her desire for her husband, and the man’s efforts at cultivating the ground are all good things to be pursued in fulfillment of the Creation Mandate; but post-Fall, these good desires are thwarted with painful consequences. Just as the man’s desire to produce fruit from the ground is rewarded with sweat and pain, a woman’s desire to produce children from her own body is rewarded with sweat and pain. Just as the man turns to his attention to the earth looking for fruitful relationship, a woman turns toward (not away from) a man seeking fruitful relationship. (We will explore this more in Part 3.)
The only way translators can justify rendering ‘el as “contrary” is to assume something negative about the woman’s desire based on the use of desire in Genesis 4:7-8. But such a novel change relies solely on commentary, not on accepted definitions to the Hebrew ‘el. In fact, Denny Burk, current president of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood concedes this in his article on the changes. Instead of arguing that the new changes fit the ESV’s essentially literal, word-for-word philosophy, he argues why it is OK that they do not. It’s worth noting that Denny also says that he does not prefer the new translation and wished that they had stuck with the original, more literal translation.
The problem we present is more than a technicality. When non-academics come across this change in the ESV—a pastor or Sunday School teacher or woman’s Bible teacher—they may notice the difference but they won’t understand the significance because in English the word “against” acts as a bridge across the gulf of meaning. In their previous version, the verse had a footnote indicating the word “for” can also be translated “against.” In the updated version, the text has changed to “contrary to”—not much of a leap from “against,” right?
If “for” can mean “against”
And “against” can mean “contrary,”
then “for” can be replaced by “contrary.”
Again, the problem is that “against” in English can have two different shades of meanings—both inclined toward and opposed to; ‘el in Hebrew does not. Unfortunately, those of us who don’t read the Scripture in Hebrew (the majority of ESV users) would have little way of knowing that the translation has shifted so dramatically. They won’t understand that the meanings of ‘el that allowed it to be translated “against” in Gen. 4:8 are the very ones that make “contrary to” completely inappropriate.
William Tyndale, the scholar who was martyred for translating the Bible in the language of the common man, said this: “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus Christ to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience.” We make no claims to be a William Tyndale or even to have credentials equal to those of the ESV translation committee. We do, however, have access to online scholarship, peer review, and (we hope) the ability to form a rational argument. Our desire is that those with more education than we have will give pause and consider the potential risk of these changes – risk to women, yes, but more importantly, the risk to very Scripture itself. Instead of revealing and preserving the text of Scripture for the common man, this translation change corrupts with commentary a critical text dealing with theological anthropology.
In part 3, we will look at the ramifications of these changes in light of the larger creation narrative of Genesis 1-3 and the potential affect on women’s discipleship.
*The only Bible translation that translates Gen. 3:16 remotely close to the new rendering of “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband…” is the New Living Translation, whose translation philosophy is much broader than the ESV, functioning in places as an interpretive paraphrase. Using the NLT to support the new rendering of Genesis 3:16 would simply confirm our concern that the ESV has strayed from its original translation philosophy.
**It’s important to note that scholars throughout Church history have strongly disagreed as to whether the pronoun attached to “desire” in Gen. 4:7 refers to sin or to Abel. The pronoun itself is masculine while the Hebrew word for sin is feminine. It’s possible that this phrase refers to Abel’s desire for Cain and Cain’s corresponding ruling over him (John Calvin interpreted it this way), not sin’s desire for Cain. This is a more natural parallel to the language of Genesis 3:16. Abel’s desire is toward his brother, but Cain seeks to master him, actually rising up against him physically in the next verse. Regardless, the preposition ‘el still signals movement toward an object, not away from it.
Over the next week, we are posting a three-part series reflecting on the recent changes to the rendering of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 in the English Standard Version of the Bible. The most recent changes have only appeared after this latest round of revisions although the ESV has undergone two significant revisions over its fifteen year lifespan. The changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 are made permanent by the decision of the translation committee to forego any further revision cycles.
—Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson
A few months ago, Wendy took her dad to the doctor after he began experiencing pain from a pinched nerve in his neck. When the doctor recommended ibuprofen to ease the pain, Wendy almost immediately questioned his choice and even had the gall to suggest a different pain reliever entirely. But instead of becoming angry with her for challenging his medical degree and decades of experience, the doctor welcomed her input and ultimately agreed with her.
Why? Why would a man with professional standing in the medical field acquiesce to a woman who had none? As you’ve probably already guessed, there is more to the story than we’ve shared. In fact, there are three mitigating factors that explain why the doctor changed his mind at Wendy’s suggestion.
1. Both Wendy and the doctor had her father’s best interest at heart. The doctor was able to receive Wendy’s feedback (as she did his) because they viewed each other as allies in the cause of her dad’s good health. Instead of reading her question as a threat to his authority, he received it as constructive feedback, both because of how she offered it and because his main objective was the same as hers—her dad’s well being.
2. Wendy had access to scholarship about how ibuprofen would affect her dad’s overall health. When she questioned the doctor’s initial prescription, she did not do so from her own scientific education (limited to a handful of undergraduate science courses from 25 years ago); she relied on information from established sources like the Mayo Clinic—information she had been able to access because of the digital age. She questioned the doctor based on the educated opinions of other doctors. In other words, she acted as a proxy consultant, offering the doctor access to a second opinion from his peers without either of them having to leave the examining room.
3. Wendy had intimate, daily experience with caring for her father. Because of this, she remembered something that the doctor—who saw dozens of patients a day—had forgotten. What had slipped the doctor’s mind was that Wendy’s dad takes Coumadin, a blood thinner. When ibuprofen is taken with a blood thinner such as Coumadin, it can put a patient at risk of serious bleeding. The doctor may have been an expert in medicine, but Wendy was the expert in her dad.
Ultimately, Wendy chose to speak up because of what she had learned from other professionals about the danger of combining Coumadin and ibuprofen and her desire to care for her dad. The doctor heard Wendy’s concerns because he shared Wendy’s desire to care for her dad and respected the opinions of his peers that came to him through her. If either had not responded the way they had, Wendy’s father would have used ibuprofen as originally prescribed and put himself at risk for potentially life-threatening bleeding.
This vignette illustrates some of what we hope to accomplish with this 3 part series. Wendy spoke up for her dad to mitigate risk. The doctor listened to mitigate risk. And we are speaking now in this series about the ESV’s changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7, in part, to mitigate risk toward women, but more importantly, to mitigate risk to the authority of Scripture which is the foundation of our life and practice as Christians. As we enter this conversation, we do so from a place of shared commitment to the authority of Scripture, access to scholarship of others well versed in Hebrew translation and a daily, intimate knowledge of how misreading Scripture can affect the lives of the women we disciple.
The Wrong Prescription for a Pinched Nerve
Crossway Publishers recently announced permanent changes to the English Standard Version’s translation of Genesis 3:16. Since its release in 2001, the ESV has consistently rendered this text as
“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”
The ESV also included a footnote indicating that “for” can also be possibly translated as “against” because the Hebrew word, el, designates the direction in which an object is moving or directed, called terminal direction. For example, in English, we say “The rake is leaning against the tree” when we want to convey that the direction the rake leans terminates at the tree.
In the latest and permanent rendering, however, Genesis 3:16 now reads
“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
Interestingly, the translators still include a note at the bottom of the page explaining that the word “contrary” can also be rendered “shall be toward.” This note is neither clarifying nor helpful as it offers readers an entirely contradictory translation of the Hebrew text. The official translation gives the understanding that the woman’s desire is moving in the opposite direction to the man but this note indicates that it is moving toward him. So which is it?
But more than simply creating confusion, the change to Genesis 3:16 is significant because it touches the pinched nerve that is gendered relationships in the evangelical church. While all of Scripture is necessary to life and godliness, Genesis 3:16 has particular bearing on the gender conversation because it helps to frame our understanding of the difficulties that men and women face after the Fall. And how we understand the brokenness of the world drives the solutions that we try to reach. This is not simply a matter of differing opinions about the proper translation of an isolated passage of Scripture. Set in the middle of the account of the Fall, Genesis 3:16 identifies and thus guides the nature and challenges to women’s spiritual formation in a post-Fall world. Translating this passage accurately has both academic and pastoral implications.
Before we analyze the difficulties with the most recent rendering, we want to emphasize our shared commitment to the stated goal of the ESV translation committee. Both of us have used the ESV as the primary translation in our previous books, in part, because “the ESV Bible is an essentially literal translation of the Bible in contemporary English, emphasizing ‘word-for-word’ accuracy, literary excellence, and depth of meaning.” We are concerned that this new rendering of Genesis 3:16 shifts away from this shared commitment. More specifically, we’re concerned that this new rendering repeats the very mistakes that led to the formation of the ESV in the first place.
According to a report in World magazine, one of the initial driving forces behind the ESV was a desire to offer an alternative to the increasingly gender-inclusive language of other translations, including the NIV. The exact degree to which the gender debate drove the decision to begin work on ESV is unclear (and likely varied from committee member to committee member); but what is clear is that several principal parties who advocated for the ESV have also consistently expressed concerns with the translation philosophy of the NIV and TNIV.
To be specific, the concerns were that the translators go beyond a literal “word-for-word” rendering of gendered passages. While president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Wayne Grudem helped negotiate the initial rights to use the 1971 Revised Standard Version as the basis of the ESV and eventually acted as lead editor of the ESV Study Bible. Other members of CBMW leadership have contributed to the work of the ESV over the years, while simultaneously tracking and highlighting perceived problems with gender-inclusive translations. (Officially, Grudem has minimized any connection between the work of CBMW and his work with the ESV.)
The point here is not to expose some secret cabal or suggest nefarious motives on the part of the initial translators. The point is to highlight our shared commitment to the careful translation of potentially controversial passages. As users of the ESV, we have always known that the translation of the ESV occurred in context of concerns about gendered language. We understood the concern as such: Because Bible translators can read meaning into gendered words based on current sociological agendas, we want to be constrained by the actual words of the text even if it makes us uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, the ESV’s permanent change to Genesis 3:16 seems to move away from this shared commitment. Instead, it favors an interpretative reading that elevates a specific interpretation of a gendered passage–one that is not shared across the spectrum of conservative thought. Even worse, this change also has the potential to undermine the very conservatism it ostensibly seeks to protect.
Just as Coumadin interacts with ibuprofen to put a patient at risk, a shift in translation philosophy necessarily interacts with gender philosophy. We can only reach and sustain a conservative reading of gender through a conservative approach to translation. If the Scripture is not carefully guarded from sociological constructs (both conservative and liberal), we risk losing the very authority on which we base our understanding of gender. How can we call the Church and the world to reflect the Scriptural teaching on gender if we lose the Scripture itself? Without the Scripture, liberalism devolves into androgyny and conservatism into misogyny.
But with the Scripture as our guide, we have the potential to regain the beauty of gendered relationship. With the Scripture as our guide, we have the potential to be restored to the likeness of the God in whose image we are made as male and female. But to reach this place, we must have the Scripture. This is why careful, precise translation—the approach ostensibly adopted by the committee of the ESV—is essential.
As we continue our reflections in Part II and Part III later this week, we will rely on the knowledge of experts on Hebrew translation and historical evidence from previous translations. Then, we will conclude with the practical ramifications of misreading and mistranslating this passage. Again, we offer these reflections from a place of shared commitment to the authority and sufficiency of the word of God. At the end of the day, our man-made constructs, whether conservative or progressive, cannot protect more than God’s own words can. We may find safety in them for a time, but only God’s word stands for ever. And so it is to these words, we commit ourselves.