I heard a pastoral counselor once say if you can keep people talking long enough, they will eventually tell you what is really on their mind. I have come to believe he was right. Here’s an example.
For months now, evangelical scholars and preachers have been debating the merits of the new International Bible Society’s translation known as “Today’s New International Version.” The IBS is promoting the new translation as an update of its previous “New International Version.” The old NIV is one of the best-selling modern translations to date.
But the new version is not faring as well. The main sticking point is TNIV translators’ effort to include gender-inclusive language. If the Scriptures are clearly referring to a male or female character, a specific gender pronoun is employed. But when the pronoun references a group of people, such as when the church is characterized as “brethren,” a gender-inclusive pronoun is employed.
Sadly, it’s not always as simple as it sounds. In Acts 17, for example, the apostle Paul addresses a gathered crowd by saying, “Men of Athens.” TNIV renders this verse as “People of Athens.” Biblical literalists want to argue that if the Bible says “men,” then only men were present, or only men were being addressed.
There are other issues. There is dispute over whether all of the uses of the expression “son of man” in the Old Testament should be taken as direct prophetic references to Jesus. Jesus, of course, referred to himself as “son of Man.”
But “son of man” was also a common Semitic idiom used as an alternative to saying “I.” The expression also referred to humans in general. Linguists widely recognize this usage, but many literalists flatly reject it. The end result has been a flurry of noisy complaints that TNIV is not faithful to the biblical text.
Last month, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, weighed in on the controversy. Speaking at a pastor’s breakfast during the recent Southern Baptist Convention, Mohler told the gathering that it is important for Southern Baptists to have a Bible translation they can control.
The backdrop for Mohler’s remarks was the announcement of a new biblical translation published by Broadman & Holman, the SBC publishing arm. Describing the impact of translations in general, Mohler said, “What they have in their hands is what they will have in their minds and what they will hide in their hearts.”
You see, keep them talking long enough and they will eventually tell you what is really on their mind. Gaining control has been the goal of SBC leaders for over 20 years. And not just control of the agencies and entities of the SBC, which is where it started. SBC leaders also want to control what we think.
Controlling biblical translations is by no means the first volley in the battle for our minds. Those shots were fired long ago as the six SBC seminaries were systematically brought in line with the ruling fundamentalist orthodoxy.
The rewrite of the Baptist Faith and Message was another important shot in this battle for thought control. Replacing Jesus as the criterion by which Scripture is interpreted also revealed their deeper agenda. That move, more than any previous action, offered a window into the methodology of the SBC power elite.
Having Jesus lurking about as an independent arbiter of truth made it difficult to control the rank and file. Jesus was constantly being invoked in the most troubling manner and at the most inopportune times. He was constantly upsetting and challenging an SBC monopoly on the truth.
What could they do but find a way to silence Jesus? And they did. Jesus, according to the BF&M 2000, has been subordinated to Scripture. Jesus cannot be invoked as an independent witness to truth. He can only speak and do what has been previously approved and accepted as SBC orthodoxy. In other words, Jesus can only be, do and say what the BF&M allows.
But loopholes remain. Jesus has a way of breaking out of the boxes we put him in. And Scripture itself, as if it were a living, moving force, refuses to be limited by our creedal assertions about it.
And so, Scripture must be controlled. Translations must reflect the SBC worldview. The Bible in the hands of rank-and-file Baptists must speak in clear concert with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
I can’t help but think of the frightening world of thought-control invented by George Orwell in his classic 1984. In the story, the ruling elite consistently tries to control what people think by limiting their language. By eliminating words from the vocabulary, the powers that be are able to limit imagination and control acceptable forms of speech.
Al Mohler and the gang want the same thing. They don’t want to win us over with winsome and persuasive arguments. They want to dominate the discussion by discrediting alternatives. They want to own the stage by allowing only one show to play. They want to drain our imaginations of their power to dream by keeping from us the words and images that might inspire us to think fresh and creative thoughts.
We just need to keep them talking. Eventually they will tell us what they are really after. I just hope by the time we finally figure it out we are not rendered silent by a sheer lack of words left for us to speak.
James Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.
A retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published five books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).