6/5/97 NIV publisher alleges magazine violated evangelical press code

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (BP)--In a 10-page complaint filed with the ethics committee of the Evangelical Press Association, Zondervan Publishing House is alleging World magazine violated the association's code of ethics.

At issue is a series of World articles on a gender-neutral revision of the New International Version Bible translation. World's publisher, Joel Belz, is the press association's current president.

World's NIV articles ignited controversy among evangelicals, prompting the International Bible Society, the NIV's U.S. copyright holder, to abruptly halt the NIV revision May 27.

IBS also has filed a complaint with the Evangelical Press Association, but Baptist Press did not have access to a copy by June 5.

Zondervan, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the NIV's U.S. publisher. Its complaint to the press association's ethics committee additionally decries harm done to the NIV, which accounts for 45 percent of all Bibles sold in the United States.

"World has caused confusion and distrust among readers of the NIV Bible," Zondervan contended. "Zondervan has received hundreds of letters, phone calls, and e-mail messages from people who believe the misinformation World first printed. Pastors have pulled the NIV from their pews and have recommended people no longer read it."

Belz, in an interview with Baptist Press, said, "Had the NIV sponsors stuck with a version that was widely accepted and deeply trusted, there never would have been a story in World magazine. Full responsibility for all that has happened lies squarely with those who chose to tinker with a good thing. This is a classic case of blaming the messenger."

Belz voiced no retreat over his magazine's reporting of the NIV gender-neutral revision, which brought Zondervan and the International Bible Society into national scrutiny, along with the Committee on Bible Translation, a 15-member group of scholars with authority over the NIV translation.

Belz said World will continue to use the NIV as its editorial standard. Since its founding in 1986, the Asheville, N.C.,-based magazine's masthead has stated, "All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted."

And Belz said he will continue to use the NIV in his personal Bible reading, as he has for the past 20 years.

Ronald E. Wilson, executive director of the Evangelical Press Association, said there is no deadline for the three-member ethics committee to decide on the Zondervan and IBS complaints. The EPA panel will seek to make "a good decision, not a rushed one," Wilson said.

The EPA's code of ethics states, "Christian publications should be honest and courageous, their presentations characterized by sincerity, truthfulness, accuracy and an avoidance of distortion and sensationalism. Those responsible for the publication must exercise the utmost care that nothing contrary to the truth is published. Whenever substantive mistakes are made, whatever their origin, they should be conscious of their duty to protect the good name and reputation of others. In dealing with controversial matters, opposing views, when presented, should be treated honestly and fairly."

Zondervan's complaint contends: "This code was disregarded by World. ... Rather than avoiding distortion and sensationalism, World employed them. Utmost care was not exercised. Opposing views were not treated honestly and fairly. And World seemed to be unconscious of its duty to protect the good names and reputations of Zondervan Publishing House, International Bible Society and Committee on Bible Translation."

Belz responded, "We think the code is correct and we think we have observed it. The overarching outline of the story has been substantiated by every subsequent development, and the preponderance of details have never been challenged."

A key complaint by Zondervan notes World's reporting "erroneously attempts to convey a conspiracy of evangelical Bible translation with radical social feminism. It disjointedly begins by focusing on the NIV translation process, then makes a leap to somehow connect that with the role of women in church ministry."

Belz responded, "We have never claimed or implied that the NIV's sponsors identify with a radical feminist agenda. What we do assert is that all of us have been profoundly seduced by cultural feminism. The question is, the extent to which we recognize that seduction and build defenses against it. We believe the NIV's sponsors were neither adequately sensitive to that seduction nor prepared to build defenses against it."

Zondervan charged that World, in describing the NIV revision as "gender-neutral," used "a misleading pejorative," while the term, "unisex," is "inflammatory and wrong," communicating that Zondervan intended "to make male and female distinctions in the Bible completely indistinguishable. That is not true." Zondervan, in its news releases, had described the NIV revision as "gender-accurate."

Belz responded, "All such terminology in this era and in this particular context has to be interpreted through the eyes of the beholder. All of us, including Zondervan's own spokespeople, have struggled to find appropriate words. Readers will have to determine what is appropriate. The debate is too new for the dictionary to be of much help."

Controversy over the now-canceled NIV revision also spilled over to another gender-neutral translation, the New International Reader's Version (NIrV), which Zondervan already has published in children's and elementary adult Bibles.

Zondervan's complaint to the press association noted, "No objections have been raised to the NIrV since it first appeared in 1995. And we are not aware of any significant objections to similar treatment of gender issues in other recently published Bible translations, coming from other evangelical publishers, which are popular in the evangelical market."

Belz responded, "It may be a sad commentary on how much actual Bible reading is being done by any of us. But whether objections were raised on not, they should have been. All of us should have been more alert to what amounts to an erroneous translation."

The International Bible Society, in its May 27 announcement of halting the NIV revision, also stated the NIrV would be revised back to the current NIV style.

Zondervan also complained World initiated no contact "for comment or even factual confirmation" before the evangelical magazine did its initial story March 29. "This is simply the most rudimentary of all professional journalism principles and it was not practiced," Zondervan stated.

Belz responded, "By my count, there were four references to Zondervan in our original story. As I have said repeatedly, the story was not primarily about Zondervan. As soon as the focus of the story shifted to Zondervan, we began talking extensively with them. In our second story, we had a whole sidebar giving their point of view.

"It is by no means unusual for a major story not to include quotes from every party. Stories in the past week in The New York Times and on 'All Things Considered' about this very controversy make extensive reference to World, but we have never heard from reporters from The New York Times or National Public Radio."

Zondervan, in its complaint, recounted the NIV revision process:

"From its start, when the complete NIV was published in 1978, the translators specifically and publicly stated that revisions would continue in three areas: 1) as more ancient manuscripts are found which could affect the underlying Hebrew or Greek text, 2) as new linguistic and scholarly insights into the ancient languages clarify presently obscure words or idioms and 3) as English words change their meaning. The Preface to every NIV Bible speaks to this revision process."

The work of the Committee on Bible Translation, Zondervan said, "is to constantly review critiques, analyze new textual finds such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and note changes in the English language. The focus is on maintaining complete accuracy to the original text in the face of these findings and changes. The message never changes, not even the slightest bit. The goal is that where a masculine, feminine or neuter noun or adjective is changed, it can only be revised in order to be more unmistakably accurate. Clarity, not confusion, is the objective."