An Inclusive Language Lectionary (1983-85)

Victor Roland Gold, et al., An Inclusive Language Lectionary. 3 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983, 1984, 1985.

These three volumes give an inclusivist language version of the scripture readings specified in the Common Lectionary published by the Consultation on Common Texts in 1983, with a few modifications. 1 The version was produced by a twelve-member committee appointed by the National Council of the Churches of Christ. The Preface to the first volume (1983) states:

Seeking to express the truth about God and about God’s inclusive love for all persons, the Division of Education and Ministry of the National Council of Churches of Christ authorized the preparation of An Inclusive Language Lectionary.

A Task Force on Biblical Translation was appointed by the Division of Education and Ministry to investigate how the language of the Bible presented the characteristics of God and of people. In 1980, after almost three years of study and discussion, the Task Force recommended to the Division the creation of an Inclusive Language Lectionary Committee. Twelve women and men were appointed, bringing to the Committee not only their personal commitment to the Christian faith and involvement in particular congregations but also their experience as pastors, teachers, and leaders who have relied on the Bible as their source for inspiration and for an understanding of God’s word for the church today. English, worship, Old and New Testaments, theology, and education are areas of expertise provided by the Committee members. In addition, the members represent a variety of denominations and liturgical traditions. The Inclusive Language Lectionary Committee consists of Robert A. Bennett, Dianne Bergant, Victor Roland Gold (chairperson), Thomas Hoyt, Jr., Kellie C. Jones, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Sharon H. Ringe (vice-chairperson), Susan Thistlethwaite, Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr., and Barbara A. Withers. T. Herbert O’Driscoll, Marvin H. Pope, and Keith Watkins served partial terms. David Ng is the National Council of Churches’ liaison to the Committee.

The Inclusive Language Lectionary Committee followed the general guidelines provided by the Division of Education and Ministry to create for use in services of worship inclusive language lectionary readings based on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, with the text revised only in those places where male-biased or otherwise inappropriately exclusive language could be modified to reflect an inclusiveness of all persons.

The Committee worked on lectionary passages first in subcommittees. The results of this initial study (based on other translations, commentaries, Greek and Hebrew texts) were submitted to the entire Committee for thorough discussion and preliminary agreement. An Editorial Committee then reviewed all the texts for consistency of changes and agreement with guiding principles; then the Preface, Introduction, and Appendix were written. The completed manuscript was submitted to the full Committee for its final approval.

In a revised edition of vol. 2, Readings for Year B (1987), the last paragraph quoted above was revised to read:

All modifications are supportable by the original Greek and Hebrew texts. The Committee worked on lectionary passages first in subcommittees, each committee consulting not only the original texts but also various translations and commentaries. All subcommittee work was submitted to an Editorial Committee which reviewed the texts for consistency of changes and agreement with guiding principles. The Editorial Committee consists of Barbara A. Withers (Editor), Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr. (Associate Editor), Patrick D. Miller, Jr., and Sharon H. Ringe. As the last step, the full Committee reviewed all work and made all final decisions.

One member of the committee has given a contradictory account of the process, stating that there were no subcommittees, and no disagreements that required a vote:

The ILL committee … worked always in full committee. Not only were there not subcommittees in general, but the shift between testaments did not affect how we worked except that some members of the committee had more expertise in one testament than the other…. It was some time before I realized that we had made many decisions but had not taken a single vote. 2

In sharp contrast to this description of the committee’s casual unanimity, an article published in Time magazine shortly after the appearance of the first volume of the ILL describes the atmosphere of controversy that surrounded the project. One of the committee’s original members resigned “because he felt that the project was going too far,” and the finished product was denounced as dishonest and “altogether unacceptable” by leading scholars of the NCC’s member churches:

The task of taking the male orientation out of the Scriptures began in the 1970s, when women’s caucuses in several Protestant denominations persuaded the N.C.C. to establish a Task Force on Sexism in the Bible. In 1980, the N.C.C. decided to form an Inclusive Language Lectionary Committee to prepare new Bible translations for reading during worship. Even before work began, the idea provoked the fiercest reaction in N.C.C. annals; nearly 10,000 letters attacking the project flooded into the organization’s New York City headquarters.

To do the rewriting, the N.C.C. named a committee, headed by the Rev. Victor Roland Gold of California’s Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, a minister in the L.C.A., whose leaders were to reject the book. Gold’s group includes four other male and six female scholars, one of them a Roman Catholic nun. All are sympathetic to the feminist cause. Another participant dropped out midway, in part because he felt that the project was going too far….

The N.C.C. translators made insertions to change the emphasis of some parts of the Bible. In verses that mention Abraham alone, for example, the committee brings in Sarah, his wife, and even his concubine, Hagar. This kind of alteration especially infuriates critics of the N.C.C. work. “They want to rewrite history, just like the Russians,” remarks the Rev. Elizabeth Achtemeier of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia….

The dispute even flares within the N.C.C. The council is now sponsoring a new edition of its bestselling Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The RSV translators plan to make modest use of inclusive language, such as “humanity” instead of “man.” But they will have nothing to do with the approach of Gold’s panel. Says the Rev. Bruce Metzger, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the head of the RSV committee: “The changes introduced in language relating to the Deity are tantamount to rewriting the Bible. As a Christian, and as a scholar, I find this altogether unacceptable. It will divide the church, rather than work for ecumenical understanding.” 3

One of the strangest features of this version is its attempt to make Jesus Christ into a sexless being. The Introduction explains that the revisers wished to “deemphasize” the fact that Jesus was male, “so that in hearing the gospel, the church may be reminded of the inclusiveness of all humanity in the incarnation.” The theology of this statement is obscure—it is unclear how the revisers can equate the incarnation of God in Christ with an androgynous incarnation of “all humanity”—but apparently a masculine Christ was thought to be incompatible with the kind of “inclusive” theology that the revisers were trying to promote. This feature of the revision may be seen even in the Old Testament’s prophecies concerning the Messiah:

Isaiah 11:1-4
Revised Standard Version: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.”Inclusive Language Lectionary: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots. And the Spirit of God shall rest upon this branch, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of God. And the delight of the one who comes shall be in the fear of God. That one shall not judge by what the eyes see, or decide by what the ears hear; but shall judge the poor with righteousness, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth, and smite the earth with words of judgment, and slay the wicked with sentences.”

The following examples from the New Testament show to what extremes the revisers went in their avoidance of masculine pronouns for Jesus:

John 3:16
RSV: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”ILL: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Child.”
John 1:10-11
RSV: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”ILL: “The Word was in the world, and the world was made through the Word, yet the world did not know the Word. The Word came to the Word’s own, but those to whom the Word came did not receive the Word.”
Philippians 3:20-21
RSV: “Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself”ILL: “Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like Christ’s glorious body, by the power which enables Christ even to subject all things to Christ’s self.”
Titus 2:13-14
RSV: “Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds”ILL: “Jesus Christ, who gave self for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Christ’s self a chosen people who are zealous for good deeds.”
Acts 1:11
RSV: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven”ILL: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Jesus go into heaven”

The determination to eliminate “male bias” sometimes led the revisers to make substantial alterations in the meaning of sentences:

Matthew 14:21
RSV: “And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”ILL: “And those who ate were about five thousand men and women and children”

In defense of such handling of the text, members of the ILL committee pointed out that the Lectionary is designed for liturgical use, not study, and they freely admitted that their alterations involved a distortion of the original text. Robert A. Bennett has said that the revision was “undertaken for the sake of helping male and female alike encounter the Word of God without the cultural biases … of the original text,” and that the result is “an unfolding of the meaning of Scripture beyond its original culturally conditioned limitations” and “a challenge to the up to now nearly exclusive claims to legitimacy given to translations which seek to convey the original historical meaning of a text.” 4 Burton H. Throckmorton speaks of the “patriarchalism of the biblical languages, and of biblical faith as originally formulated.” He asserts that “Patriarchal assumptions … pervade the various writings of the Bible,” but the ILL “translates patriarchalism out,” and presents a text more acceptable to egalitarian thinking “by the deletion of patriarchalism.” 5 Sharon H. Ringe eloquently suggests the possibility that the human authors of the Bible were “mistaking their own reflection for the face of God and hearing in the hollow gongs of their own idolatry the divine-human dialogue.” 6 The Introduction also states plainly enough that in the opinion of the committee “male bias … is characteristic of both the Old and the New Testament in their original languages,” and “Scripture is written in patriarchal language.” Their task was to replace all the sexist patriarchal language with a new egalitarian idiom, so that “all who hear will know themselves to be equal.” All of these statements show that the revisers were well aware of the fact that the Bible does not, in general, support egalitarian ideas, and that its underlying assumptions are actually incompatible with them. The revisers openly avow that the purpose of the revision was to change or suppress undesirable aspects of the text’s original historical meaning.

One member of the committee (Patrick D. Miller), with less candor, argued that the revision was motivated by a desire to convey the meaning of the original text. He maintained that all attempts to translate the Bible are “inevitably an interpretive enterprise,” and that the revisions in the ILL are in accordance with a “dynamic” method of translating, in which a translator may legitimately “assume a rather large interpretive task in behalf of communicating clearly to the reader the translators’ understanding of what a word/sentence/text means and not just what it says.” 7 He argues that in its approach to translation the ILL does not differ essentially from the American Bible Society’s Good News Bible. We also note that the revised Preface of 1987 goes in this direction with its claim that “All modifications are supportable by the original Greek and Hebrew texts.” This statement is not only false, but deliberately misleading; it misrepresents the committee’s true opinions and motives.

Regarding the comparison to the Good News Bible, we note that in a book co-authored by Eugene Nida, who developed the approach to translation exemplified in that version, the following remarks are given on the Inclusive Language Lectionary:

In addition to letting the Scriptures speak for themselves, it is essential to accurately reflect the cultural contexts of biblical times, whether ideological, sociological, or ecological. In biblical times the earth was regarded as flat, and the sky was simply a dome for the sun, moon, planets, and stars. People took demons seriously, and God is described with many human characteristics. The biblical culture was also a male-oriented culture, and to try to rewrite the Scriptures in so-called “inclusive language” introduces cultural anachronisms and serious contextual distortions. To insist that God be spoken of as both “father and mother” is to create a bisexual God, not a sexually neutral God.

By shifting a form into the passive to avoid a pronominal reference to God in John 1:12, one seriously distorts the message about how people become God’s children. In Matthew 3:9 the committee preparing liturgical materials in inclusive language for the National Council of Churches has produced an almost incredible distortion which would certainly never be uttered by Pharisees or Sadducees. In place of the Greek text which reads, “We have Abraham as our father,” this rendering in “inclusive language” has, “We have Abraham as our father and Sarah and Hagar as our mothers.” 8

In 1995 a volume titled New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version appeared, with six of the ILL revisers listed as its authors (Gold, Hoyt, Ringe, Thistlethwaite, Throckmorton, and Withers).

1. Common Lectionary: The Lectionary Proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1983). The Introduction to the second volume of the Inclusive Language Lectionary, Readings for Year B (1984), includes the following account of the origin of the Common Lectionary.—“The International Commmission on English in the Liturgy created an ecumenical group known as the Consultation on Common Texts. One of the tasks of the Consultation was to explore the possibilities of creating a lectionary that would be acceptable to most English-speaking Christians: Anglican, Protestant, and Roman Catholic. To that end, a small working group known as the North American Committee on Calendar and Lectionary was formed. Over a period of five years a revised table of lections, or readings, was developed that took into account the acknowledged critique of the Vatican II lectionary (early 1960s) and its subsequent adaptations by the major Protestant denominations. The report of the North American Committee was approved by the Consultation on Common Texts in 1982, and this ‘common texts’ lectionary has been recommended for trial use in the churches beginning with Advent 1983” (p. 5). In the Appendix of the same volume, there is a section explaining that the ILL committee “has determined that it is appropriate to add certain lections about women that have not been included in the listing recommended by the North American Committee on Calendar and Lectionary,” Judg. 4:4-9, 2 Sam. 14:4-17, John 8:2-11, and Rom. 16:1-7. Moreover, “the Committee has occasionally shortened a lection or substituted a reading where consistent with our mandate,” eliminating 2 Sam. 5:6-12, Psalm 45, 1 Cor. 6:15b-18, and substituting Eph. 6:1-4 for Eph. 5:21-33 (p. 248). In the third volume of the ILL, Readings for Year C (1985), additions are Luke 13:10-17 and Acts 16:11-15, and a reading of Heb. 13:8-16, 20-21 is substituted for Philemon 1-20 (p. 263).

2. Patrick D. Miller, Jr., “Musings of a Translator,” Theology Today 47/3 (Oct. 1990), p. 234. In another article this same author conceded that “to a large degree” the Inclusive Language Lectionary appeared to be “avant-garde and out of touch with where people in the churches are.” (Patrick D. Miller, “The Inclusive Language Lectionary,” Theology Today 41/1 [April 1984], p. 27.)

3. Richard N. Ostling, “O God Our [Mother and] Father,” TIME, Oct. 24, 1983.

4. Robert A. Bennett, “The Power of Language in Worship,” Theology Today 43/4 (Jan. 1987), pp. 546, 551.

5. Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr., “Why the Inclusive Language Lectionary?” Christian Century, August 1-8, 1984, p. 742.

6. Sharon H. Ringe, “Standing Toward the Text,” Theology Today 43/4 (Jan. 1987), pp. 554, 56.

7. Patrick D. Miller, Jr., “The Translation Task,” Theology Today 43/4 (Jan. 1987), pp. 540-1.

8. Eugene Nida and Jan De Waard, From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), p. 24.


(From the first edition of vol. 1, Readings for Year A, 1983)

A lectionary is a fixed selection of readings, taken from both the Old and the New Testament, to be read and heard in the churches’ services of worship. A lectionary follows the church year, not the calendar year. Most lectionaries are simply indexes of readings to be used. They cite the biblical book from which the reading is taken, as well as the chapter and verses: for example, on Christmas Day, Luke 2:1-20. But this lectionary contains the selections printed in full: that is, the whole of Luke 2:1-20 is given.

It is apparent that any selection of scripture read in a service of worship has been lifted from its biblical context. In the study of the Bible, the context in which a biblical passage occurs is crucial to its interpretation. But when passages are read in a service of worship, they are read in a new context, in relation to each other and to the church year. This radical change in the context of selections differentiates a lectionary from the Bible.

A lectionary thus has a special function in the worship of the church. It does not supplant the Bible. The Bible is the church’s book—created by and for the church. A lectionary is also the church’s book, being a prescribed set of readings selected by the church from its scripture for its own special use in worship. The unique feature of this inclusive language lectionary is that it recasts some of the wording of the Revised Standard Version in order to provide to both reader and hearer a sense of belonging to a Christian faith community in which truly all are one in Christ.

Why inclusive language? The leactionary readings are based on the Revised Standard Version and original Greek and Hebrew texts, with the intent of reflecting the full humanity of women and men in the light of the gospel. Women have been denied full humanity by a pattern of exclusion in English usage. Consider, for example, the traditional English use of the word “man.” A man is a male being, as opposed to a female being. But in common usage “man” has also meant “human being,” as opposed to “animal.” On the other hand, “woman” means female, but never human being. No word that refers to a female person identifies her with humanity. So, in the common English idiom, “man” has been defined by his humanity, but “woman” by her sex, by her relationship to man. “Woman” becomes a subgroup under “human.” Man is the human race; woman is his sexual partner in traditional English usage.

This is simply one example of how language reflects the way in which we think but also informs the way in which we think: English translations of the Bible perpetuate the assumption that man is primary and woman secondary.

How the Revised Standard Version Has Been Recast

Most biblical scholars in this country agree that the RSV is the most accurate and reliable English version of the Bible. However, in this lectionary the wording of the RSV has been recast to minimize the male bias reflected in its language about human beings and language about Christ and God. For example, the word “brethren” has been rendered in this lectionary in a variety of ways, including “sisters and brothers.” Formal equivalents have been adopted for other specific male-biased words and phrases. For example, “kingdom” is rendered “realm,” and “king” is rendered “ruler” or “monarch.” Where appropriate, additions to the text to include women have been made and noted—e.g., “Abraham [and Sarah].”

Male bias, however, is not unique to English translations of the Bible; it is characteristic of both the Old and the New Testament in their original languages. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament were written in languages and in cultures that were basically patriarchal; and as the English language is also patriarchal, the patriarchal character of both Testaments has slipped easily into the great English versions of the Bible.

Keeping this cultural context in mind, the Committee deliberately utilized some language that includes women even in nontraditional settings. For example, “watchman” (Ezek. 33:2) has been rendered “watcher,” even though the Hebrew word clearly refers to a male sentry who protected the city or town from surprise attack. In this lectionary, women can hear themselves as those who are called to watch for the deeds of God.

In a few instances the RSV Bible committee has already avoided male bias. For example, in Rom. 7:1 the RSV has used “person” (“the law is binding on a person”) as a translation of the Greek word anthropos (meaning “man” or “person”). But most of the time anthropos is translated “man,” or in the plural, “men.” For example, Matt. 5:16 in the RSV reads, “Let your light so shine before men” where the meaning of “men” is obviously “people,” but not male people exclusively. In this lectionary the reading of Matt. 5:16 is, “Let your light so shine before others—i.e., men and women, which represents the clear intention of the words.

Male bias also appears when pronoun subjects are supplied with third person singular verbs. Compare, for example, the RSV of John 6:35-37: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who belives in me shall never thirst …, and him who comes to me I will not cast out.” What is the intention of this passage? It surely is not that only men come to Jesus and believe in Jesus. Why, then, does the RSV read “he” and “him”? It is because of the assumption that “he” also means “she,” though we know that it does not.

In this lectionary all readings have been recast so that no masculine word pretends to include a woman. When the scriptures are read in and to the church, they will not exclude half of those who hear. All who hear will know themselves to be equal. A major function of a lectionary is to facilitate the oral reading of the Bible in worship. To this end, pronouns have been frequently replaced by the proper names, both for clarity and to reduce the preponderance of male references. Punctuation marks have been added or changed in accordance with changes in sentence structure.

Language About Jesus Christ. Jesus was a male human being. But when the Gospel of John says, “The Word became flesh” (1:14), it does not say or imply that the Word became male flesh, but simply flesh. Of course, to “become flesh,” the one from God had to become male or female, but this lectionary tries to overcome the implication that in the incarnation Jesus’ maleness is decisive—or even relevant—for the salvation of women and men who believe. From the very beginning of the church the salvation of women has been assumed to be equal to the salvation of men.

In this lectionary the fact of Jesus’ maleness is, of course, taken for granted. However, it is deemphasized, so that in hearing the gospel, the church may be reminded of the inclusiveness of all humanity in the incarnation. In reference to Jesus, the pronoun “he” is frequently replaced by the noun “Jesus.” Formal equivalents for the phrases “the Son of man,” “Son,” and “Son of God” are “the Human One,” “Child,” and “Child of God.” (For discussion of these terms, see the Appendix.)

Language About God. The God worshipped by the biblical authors, and worshipped in the church, is beyond sex, as God is also beyond race or any other limiting attribute. Nevertheless, biblical language used of God is frequently masculine, as the Bible’s images and metaphors for God are frequently male. Yet when one says “God,” it is clear that if one means male God, one falls into idolatry.

This lectionary tries to speak of God as beyond differentiations of sex, so that when the church hears its scripture read, it is not overwhelmed by the male metaphors, but is also allowed to hear the female metaphors for God. For example, God as mother is found in the Old Testament: “Now I will cry out like a woman in travail” (Isa. 42:14); and God is compared to a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12); a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21); and a midwife attending a birth (Job 3:12; Ps. 22:9-10a; 71:6). In the New Testament, the parable of the woman seeking the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) is a female metaphor for God.

The formal equivalent adopted in this lectionary for “God the Father” or “Father” is “God the Father [and Mother]” or “God the [Mother and] Father.” The words that are an addition to the text, which may be omitted in the reading of the text, are italicized and in brackets. (For an explanation of metaphor, and of specific ways in which this lectionary has recast scriptural language about God and images for God, see the Appendix.)

Toward the Future

An Inclusive Language Lectionary is a first attempt to rethink the language of scripture as inclusive of both men and women, and as such it is provisional and experimental.

Scripture is written in patriarchal language, but God is not a patriarch. According to scripture, “There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).