For Mabel

At first glance, the translators of the New Living Translation (NLT) give the impression that they are supportive of Christian women. This is because they have frequently translated the common Greek word adelphoi into “brothers and sisters”, instead of the typical translation of “brothers” or the more archaic “brethren”.[1] However, the translators have drawn a very distinct line as to how far the New Living Translation is designed to encourage and include women.

Gender Bias in the New Living Translation (NLT)

As for salvation, the translators of the NLT make it clear that both brothers and sisters, that is, both men and women, are completely equal before God. As for church leadership, the translators of the NLT make it clear that, in their opinion, leadership is a possibility only for men. The translators have allowed this opinion to influence their translation choices. They have deliberately translated certain passages to make it seem that women cannot have spiritual authority, and that the Scriptures do not allow for women to be church leaders. They have taken a few liberties in their translation to promote the concept of male authority in the church and in the home.

For this article I look at a few Bible verses that have been tainted by the bias of the NLT translators, and I include the corresponding verse(s) from the NIV 2011 as a comparison. The NIV 2011, however, is not my point of reference. I have used the (UBS) Greek New Testament as my main reference for this article.

1 TIMOTHY 3:1-2

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach . . .  (NIV 2011)

Most English translations of 1 Timothy 3:1-6 give the impression that these qualifications only refer to and apply to men. Yet in reality, this passage is remarkably gender neutral in the Greek.[2] The NLT, however, gives one of the the most biased translation of this passage.

This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position.” So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach . . . (NLT 2007, my underlines.)

The NLT translators have taken an enormous liberty with their version of verse 2 and inserted the phrase “an elder must be a man”. This phrase simply does not appear in any Greek manuscript.[3] It is a fabrication.

Their bias against women church leaders is so strong that they have added a phrase to assert their opinion, even though that opinion is not stated in any manuscripts or faithful translations of the Bible.[4]

The NLT translation of the phrase “a noble task” (or “a good work”) into “an honorable position” is also a worry.[5] Do mature Christians aspire to become church leaders so that they can better meet the noble task of selfless service? Or do they aspire to become leaders so that they can attain the rank of “an honorable position”? I would be wary of a Christian leader whose motivation for ministry is an honourable position.

While it is true that the qualification in 1 Timothy 3:1-6 are about social respectability, I believe that by referring to the role of church leadership as an honourable position, the NLT is in fact misrepresenting the function and role of church leaders (elders, overseers, etc), and distorting the ideal of  sacrificial service exemplified and taught by Jesus.

Perhaps the NLT translators have used the phrase “an honorable position” to distance themselves further from the concept of Women in Ministry. Some Christians who hold firmly to traditional, restrictive gender roles may think that women are more eligible to aspire to “a good work” than to “an honorable position” in the church. Thus the phrase, “an honorable position” may appear to exclude women. [More on 1 Timothy 3:1ff and Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders here.]

Elsewhere the NLT also reveals their bias against women church leaders.

2 JOHN 1:1, 5

The elder, To the lady chosen by God and to her children . . . And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command . . .  (NIV 2011)

John’s second letter was written to “the chosen lady” (2 John 1). The Greek word for “lady” used here is kuria. Kuria is the feminine form of kurios meaning “lord” or “master”. Kuria is a common Greek word used as a title of nobility, authority or respect. John used the word kuria twice in his letter, first in verse 1 and then again in verse 5. [More about the word kuria here.]

The plainest reading of 2 John gives the understanding that the lady was a leader and “her children” were the Christian community she cared for and led. Yet, the NLT (2007) have chosen to translate the second occurrence of kuria as “dear friends” in verse 5.[6]

This letter is from John, the elder. I am writing to the chosen lady and to her children . . . I am writing to remind you, dear friends . . . (NLT 2007, my underline.)

There can only be one reason for translating “lady” as “dear friends”: to obscure the fact that the chosen lady was a real woman and probably a female church leader.

The NLT translators treat the the word “lady” as a metaphor for a congregation. However this metaphor does not work. If the chosen lady is a congregation and “her children” are a congregation, then John is redundantly addressing the same group twice.

The NLT have added a footnote to “the chosen lady and to her children” in verse 1 where they give a spurious, alternate translation: “the church God has chosen and its members”. Modern Christians may see the church as being a separate entity from its members, but in fact the church is its members – its people. The first Christians certainly saw the people as being the church, especially as there were no church buildings and few organisational structures in place to distract from the real purpose and function of congregational life.

I have yet to see a Bible study or commentary that includes “lady” among the usual metaphors for the universal or local church.[7] Moreover, it is unlikely that very early church congregations were referred to using this term of nobility and authority. The only reason why some suggest that the “chosen lady” was a metaphor for a congregation is because they cannot accept that a woman was a church leader. The NLT suggests that the chosen sister (mentioned in 2 John 1:13) is also a metaphor for a congregation. However it was this sister’s “children” who were a congregation.[8] [More on The Chosen Lady in 2 John here.]

It may seem trivial to comment on the mistranslation of “lady” (kuria) into “dear friends” in 2 John 1:5, and yet there can be no doubt that the NLT translators put thought into their decision to translate 2 John 1:5 this way. The NLT translators may find it difficult to admit that women were church leaders, yet the New Testament mentions a few women who were house church leaders. These women include Priscilla, with her husband Aquila, (Acts 18:26; Rom 16:3-5, etc), Nympha (Col 4:15), Apphia (with Philemon and Archippus) (Philem 2), and possibly Chloe (1 Cor 1:11), and others. It was not unusual for churches in the early days of Christianity to be led by women.

1 CORINTHIANS 11:10

It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. (NIV 2011)

1 Corinthians 11 is notoriously difficult to exegete. All New Testament scholars admit that we cannot know with certainty all that Paul was trying to tell the Corinthian church in this passage. Moreover, we cannot even be truly certain which words are Paul’s and which are the words of a letter that Paul was quoting from and responding to. Perhaps the clearest statements in this passage are in verses 11 and 12 where Paul writes (and seems to correct the preceding thoughts), “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For just as the woman [came] from the man, thus also the man [comes] through the woman; but all people [come] from God.”

The preceding verse, verse 10, enigmatically states (literally) that “a woman ought to have exousia upon her head”. The Greek word exousia is usually translated into English as “authority”; however it is also translated as liberty, right or power in the New Testament.[9] A woman has the authority, liberty, right, freedom and even the power to minister. The NLT paraphrase of this verse, however, gives a very different impression.

For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.  (NLT 2007, my underline.)

In this translation, the NLT translators have crafted their words to infer that a woman is under someone else’s authority and that she needs to wear a head covering to show that she is under authority. Yet this is not at all what the Greek text says here. Firstly, the Greek word exousia is always used to mean one’s own authority or right, not someone else’s. The NLT translators have tweaked the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:10 to fit with their understanding of male authority and leadership. This idea of male authority is a widespread belief in Christianity and yet it has no real basis in New Testament Scripture.[10] Secondly, there is no word meaning “head covering” or “veil” in the Greek text of this passage.[11]

1 PETER 3:5-6

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. (NIV 2011)

In 1 Peter 3:5 the apostle encourages the women to be submissive to their husbands. In some churches, wifely submission has been greatly exaggerated. A distinction must be made between military submission and non-military submission. In its military sense, submission (hupotassō) means to “arrange under” or “subordinate”, but the non-military sense can simply mean “cooperate”.[12] Submission in the relationship of marriage has the implication of being cooperative and loyal. [My articles on Submission here.]

This is how the holy women of old made themselves beautiful. They trusted God and accepted the authority of their husbands. For instance, Sarah obeyed her husband, Abraham, and called him her master. You are her daughters when you do what is right without fear of what your husbands might do. (NLT 2007, my underlines.)

Instead of translating hupotassō literally, the NLT translators have written that the holy women “accepted the authority of their husbands”. Why would the NLT translators make up this phrase to translate hupotassō? The answer must be that they want to give the impression that the Bible sanctions the idea of male authority over wives.

1 Corinthians 7:4 is the only verse in the New Testament which states that husbands have authority (exousia) of their wives; however it also states that wives have authority (exousia) of their husbands: “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” (NIV 2011)[13] Evidence of a Biblical mandate for male-only authority in New Covenant relations is, in fact, very flimsy.

In his letter Peter also mentions that Sarah referred to her husband Abraham as her “lord” (Greek-kurios). The word “lord” (kurios) is used many times in the New Testament. Kurios can simply be a term of respect such as “sir”. (Interestingly, Rebekah calls Abraham’s servant ”sir” (kurios) in Genesis 24:18 LXX. And Mary Magdalene called Jesus “sir” (kurios) in John 20:15 when she thought he was the gardener.) Kurios can also be a term of nobility “lord”, and it can mean “master”. In keeping with their agenda to promote male authority, the NLT have chosen to translate kurios using the strongest sense of this word; they have translated it as “master”. To modern ears the word “master” sounds like someone who has all the control and power over subordinates who have few, if any, rights or powers. [My articles on Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:1-8 here and here.]

EPHESIANS 5:31-32 

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (NIV 2011)

Verse 32 is genuinely difficult to interpret, and it can be helpful if translators make the meaning clearer to readers, but the NLT’s paraphrase presents a dangerously misleading premise.

As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. (NLT 2007, my underline.)

Is marriage an illustration of the unity between Christ and the church as the NLT states? Some complementarian Christians believe this to be the case. Furthermore, they wrongly believe that husbands and wives are to abide by certain narrowly prescribed gender roles, otherwise they will fail in their duty to display the beauty of Christ’s relationship with the church to the cosmos (cf. 1 Cor. 7:29). This faulty teaching has caused too many Christians to become overly concerned about their “roles” or “rank” in marriage. (This introspection is often at the expense of reaching out in ministry outside of the family.)

Kristin Rosser argues that verses 32-33, and the entire passage of Ephesians 5:22-33, show that the NLT translators have got it the wrong way round and that it is the unity between Christ and the Church which is the illustration. Her articles are herehere and here. I also have an article on Ephesians 5:22-33 here, and a shorter article here.

Interestingly, the NLT puts the Ephesians 5:21-33 passage under their given heading of “Spirit-Guided Relationships: Wives and Husbands”. Verse 21 states: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The NLT translators correctly recognise that submission is required of husbands too, and they have made some interesting choices of wording in this passage which makes it sound as though mutual submission is just for husbands and wives. However, it is for all Spirit-guided relationships: mutual submission should be a feature of the relationships between all Christians.

GENESIS 3:16b

Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.  (NIV 2011)

This verse lists one of the ramifications of sin entering the world. Eve’s desire (teshuqah) would be for her husband, but he would rule over her.[14] Before the Fall,  Adam and Eve – husband and wife – were equal, but sin would result in men taking the upper hand and ruling their wives. Despite the loss of harmony and equality between the sexes, most women have still desired marriage and motherhood.

And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.  (NLT 2007, my underline.)

The NLT translators have added the words “to control” in their version of Genesis 3:16. Susan Foh was the first to suggest that the Hebrew word teshuqah might mean a desire to control.[15] In particular, she suggested that, because of sin, women would seek to control their husbands. Following Foh’s thesis, the NLT’s version of Genesis 3:16b seems to promote male authority while simultaneously implying that women who want to function with any kind of authority, where men are involved, are being sinful. In reality, patriarchal social structures, which favour male dominance and primacy, have given most women little control over their own lives, let alone control over their husbands’ lives. [More on the meaning of teshuqah here.]

Conclusion 

I actually love much of the language of the NLT and the way it expresses certain verses and theological thoughts. And I can see that the NLT may be useful for those readers who find the language and expressions of more accurate Bible translations difficult to comprehend. However, it is important for readers to be aware that the NLT promotes male authority in the church. It also seems to promote male authority in the home but, at the same time, acknowledges that mutual submission and honour in marriage is the biblical ideal (cf. 1 Pet. 3:7 NLT).

The few verses which I’ve highlighted in this article are incorrectly translated from the Greek, and are misleading in the NLT.[16] Other verses, such as 1 Timothy 2:11-12, are also paraphrased in a way that departs signifIcantly from a literal translation.

Sadly, the NLT translators cannot make the same claim that Paul made in 2 Corinthians 4:2b:  “. . . we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

The NLT translators have stated that their goal in translation “was to be both faithful to the ancient texts and eminently readable.” The NLT is eminently readable; however, several of their passages about men, women, and ministry are not faithful to the ancient texts. 


Verses marked (NIV 2011) are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2010 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Verses marked (NLT 2007) are taken from Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.


Endnotes

[1] The precise meaning of adelphoi is “brothers”.  Traditionally, English translations of the New Testament have translated the word as “brothers”; however it is clear by the use of this word in the New Testament and other early Christian writings that adelphoi can refer to both believing men and women. Several modern English translations of the New Testament (including the NLT, TNIV, NRSV, CEB, NIV 2011, etc) translate adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” or simply as “believers”.

[2] Please see my article Paul’s (gender-neutral) Qualification for Church Leaders here.

[3] “The translators of the New Testament [of the NLT] used the two standard editions of the Greek New Testament: the Greek New Testament, published by the United Bible Societies (fourth revised edition, 1993), and Novum Testamentum Graece, edited by Nestle and Aland (twenty- seventh edition, 1993). These two editions, which have the same text but differ in punctuation and textual notes, represent the best in modern textual scholarship.”  http://www.newlivingtranslation.com/05discoverthenlt/faqs.asp?faq=5#go5

Neither of these Greek texts contain the phrase, “an elder must be a man” (or anything remotely similar.)

[4] Perhaps the NLT translators are so sure of their position against women pastors and church leaders that they think they are doing the church a favour by altering the scriptures to align with their view.

[5] Kalos translated as “noble” in the NIV, may also be translated as “fine”. An implication of the adjective kalos is that the thing it is describing looks outwardly beautiful, fine or respectable. Ergon translated as “task” in the NIV, may also be translated as “work” or “activity”, but not “position”. Why do the translators of the NLT bring in the concept of “position”, or “rank”, into this passage?

Consider: The woman who anointed Jesus with the costly perfume is described by him as doing a kalon ergon (Mark 14:6). The NLT translates kalon ergon in Mark 14:6 as a “good thing”.

[6] In the NLT, “dear friends” in verse 5 is footnoted so that people can see that the Greek really means “lady”. However, many people do not check the footnotes. If you’re reading this footnote, you a rare person. 😉

[7] Metaphors for the church usually include: body, bride, family, etc, but not “lady”.

[8] Calling the children in 2 John 13 a “sister church” comes from reading non-New Testament concepts into the text.

[9] I liken the meaning of exousia to having a driver’s licence. When you have a driver’s licence you have the authority, right and freedom to drive a vehicle on public roads. The following are a sample of most of the verses from 1 Corinthians (New American Bible Version) where exousia appears.  (I have italicised the English translation of exousia.)

The wife doesn’t have authority over her own body, but the husband.  Likewise also the husband doesn’t have authority over his own body, but the wife (1 Cor 7:4.) [Compare this translation with the very good NLT version in endnote 13.]
But he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own heart, to keep his own virgin, does well (1 Cor 7:36).
But be careful that by no means does this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Cor 8:9).
Have we no right to eat and to drink? (1 Cor 9:4.)
Have we no right to take along a wife who is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord,and Cephas?  (1 Cor 9:5).
Or have only Barnabas and I no right to not work? (1 Cor 9:6).
If others partake of this right over you, don’t we yet more? Nevertheless we did not use this right but we bear all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the Good News of Christ (1 Cor 9:12).
Then the end comes, when he will deliver up the Kingdom to God, even the Father;  when he will have abolished all rule and all authority and power (1 Cor 15:24).

[10] The  husband (or man) is never called the “leader” or “authority” of the woman in the New Testament, nor is he referred to with any other word which suggest that man has primacy. The husband is called the “head” (kephalē) of his wife (Eph 5:23). While “head” can mean “leader” or “chief person” in English, it did not usually have these meanings in Classical or Hellenistic Greek. It is interesting to note that the most exhaustive and prestigious lexicon of Ancient Greek by Liddell and Scott does not offer “authority” or “leader” as a possible translation of kephalēIt is only in Greek lexicons influenced by church conventions which include the word “authority” as a possible translation.  More information on the  Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters here.]

[11] Because 1 Corinthians 11 is difficult for us to understand, translators have traditionally included the words “head covering” or “veil” in an attempt to make sense of this passage. However it is likely that Paul was instructing women not to have their hair hanging down loosely, or some other hairstyle, which was culturally inappropriate at that time and suggested sexual promiscuity. I have more information about 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 here.

[12] “Hupotassō: A Greek  military term meaning ‘to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader’. In non-military use, it was ‘a  voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and  carrying a burden’.  www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/hupotasso.html

[13] “The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives  authority over his body to his wife.”  (NLT 2007)  More on 1 Corinthians Chapter 7 here.

[14] It is unclear what sort of desire is being spoken about in Genesis 3:16.  Perhaps the wife’s desire is merely for the companionship from her husband, or the desire to have children with him.  Sadly, because of the fall, many women have to put up with a husband lording over them if they want to see their desires being met.

[15] What is the Woman’s Desire? by Susan T. Foh, The Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/75) 376-83 is online here.

[16] The NLT claims to follow a dynamic-equivalence translation philosophy. While all translation involves a degree of interpretation, I believe the NLT translators have deliberately translated certain passages about women with a bias that goes beyond objective interpretation.                                             http://www.newlivingtranslation.com/05discoverthenlt/faqs.asp?faq=18#go18

Their translation is not as simple or as literal as they indicate in this statement: “The translators of the New Living Translation set out to render the message of the original texts of Scripture into clear, contemporary English. As they did so, they kept the concerns of both formal-equivalence and dynamic-equivalence in mind. On the one hand, they translated as simply and literally as possible when that approach yielded an accurate, clear, and natural English text. Many words and phrases were rendered literally and consistently into English, preserving essential literary and rhetorical devices, ancient metaphors, and word choices that give structure to the text and provide echoes of meaning from one passage to the next.”


More articles on Bible translations here.