The ESV Bible Translation is Terribly Sexist–and It Was Designed to Be!

by | Nov 8, 2023 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 41 comments

The ESV is a Sexist Translation

The ESV is a sexist Bible translation.

And they even said that when they were translating it! It was commissioned in order to counteract the TNIV translation, which tried to be gender neutral in all places where the Greek was gender neutral, replacing words like “men” and “man” with people, human, humanity, etc. Wayne Grudem, who headed up the ESV translation team, doesn’t like things being gender neutral, and so they endeavoured to make a translation that was not gender neutral–even if the Greek or other original languages were.

I shared about this on Facebook yesterday, using some information from my good Australian friend Marg Mowczko, who has dedicated her adult life to studying Greek, and has an amazing website where you can look up different Bible passages pertaining to women and read her short articles on the original text, the context, and more.

That Facebook post went over really well, and many people had no idea about this stuff, so I thought I’d write a quick post going over some of the issues.

Let’s talk gender-neutral language.

There are two reasons that the Greek may be gender neutral, while English translations may not be.

The first is simply historical with English language changes.

For instance, as Carolyn Custis James points out in her article about the ESV, English has changed. And Bible translations need to change as language changes. The word “man” used to mean humanity in English, but today that doesn’t sound right to our ears. Think of the Declaration of Independence–“all men are created equal.” We now read that and assume it means “all PEOPLE are created equal.” If the Declaration had been written in a different language, and we were translating it today, a more accurate translation would be, “everybody is created equal,” or “all people are created equal.”

The point of Bible translation isn’t just to translate word for word, but to translate so that the meaning in the original Greek (or Hebrew, or Aramaic) comes out in the English.

The second is the nature of the Greek language.

French, Spanish, and other language speakers often have an easier time with this, but Greek has “masculine” and “feminine” nouns that have absolutely nothing to do with human males and human females. And a feminine noun will have a feminine article, and a male noun will have a male article. Think la chaise (the chair) in French, a feminine noun, versus le chat (the cat) in French, a masculine noun. A female cat is still usually referred to as le chat (la chatte is actually more of a vulgar term), and a chair is just a chair. It’s not male or female. But grammatically it’s feminine.

Just because something has a male article (an article is a word like a or the) or even a male pronoun (he) does not mean it only refers to men.

Likewise, in Greek there are two words that are translated “man”: anthropos (from which we get words like anthropology), which doesn’t actually mean an actual man but rather a generic person, and aner, which actually means male person (or husband).

When one translates “anthropos” as man, you lose the fact that it is actually more of a gender neutral word.

Similarly, the word “brothers” in Greek didn’t mean just men, but rather siblings. When you had a mixed group of people, you use a word that is male. French does this too (perhaps Spanish does as well, but I’m Canadian so I’m more familiar wtih the French!)

  • Ils = a group of males
  • Elles = a group of females
  • Ils = a group of men and women together

So if I referred to my nieces and nephews, I’d call them “Ils”. But if one translated that to mean that I’m referred to only my nephews, then my nieces would be left out of the picture, and that wouldn’t be fair.

Translating “brothers” as “brothers and sisters”, then, is more accurate to the original language.

The ESV uses sexism to make translation decisions.

Quite simply, it’s horribly biased. Marg Mowczko wrote a comprehensive post on some of the worst assertions, but I’ll deal with just three today.

Let’s look at how Genesis 1:27 is translated in the NRSV vs. the ESV:


Genesis 1:27

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.



Genesis 1:27

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.


The ESV ignores the gender neutral language in the original, and insinuates that only men are created in the image of God.

Romans 12:6-8

In Romans 12, Paul is giving a list of gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the church. Here’s what Marg Mowczko says about this passage:

Romans 12:6–8 is a useful passage to gauge how translations deal with inclusive language. Comparing different translations of these verses demonstrates how context and one’s own doctrinal preference informs interpretation, which then determines whether these verses are translated inclusively. Romans 12:6-8 contains no masculine personal pronouns in the Greek and no word for “man,” yet the NIV 1984 contains 8 masculine personal pronouns and adds the word “man.” Conversely, the CEB, CSB, NIV 2011, and NRSV contain zero masculine pronouns and no word for “man.”

While there are no pronouns in Romans 12:6–8, there are five masculine articles in the Greek …

The ESV, however, reveals its bias in Romans 12:6–8. The ESV translators have chosen to insert the masculine pronoun “his” in regards to teaching and exhortation, but not for contributing, leading, and doing acts of mercy. This translation choice is not based on the Greek text…

The CEB, CSB, NIV 2011, and NRSV translate Romans 12:6–8 as potentially applying to both men and women, with no trace of gender bias. The ESV translators seem to have decided that most of Romans 12:6–8 is gender-inclusive except for the ministries of teaching and exhortation.

Marg Mowczko

Which Bible translation is best?

Here is the NIV and the ESV, side by side:


Romans 12:6-8

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.


Romans 12:6-8

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (italics mine)


There is absolutely no reason to insert “his” like this except for bias. There is no “his” or male pronouns in the original Greek. If they believed “his” should be there, then it should have been there for ALL the gifts. The fact that they only put it in two places and not all five meant that they were making not a translation decision but a doctrinal decision, adding to the text to support their male hierarchy doctrine that only men should teach.

Genesis 3:16

I won’t belabor this one a lot, because others have written quite a bit about it (here’s a list of Marg’s articles on Genesis 3:16, and here’s Scot McKnight on the ESV interpretation of it), but let’s look at these side by side as well.


Genesis 3:16

To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”


Genesis 3:16

16 To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”


Again, the idea that the text says that her desire is “contrary to her husband” is not supported by the vast majority of scholars, and is a totally new idea first put forward by Susan Foh in the 1970s. It fit with the ESV agenda that women desire to rule their husbands or women are rebellious and want to take control, and that this is women’s main sin.

Listen in to our podcast with Bruce Fleming about Genesis 3!

Not all translations are sexist.

When I shared this on Facebook yesterday, many people were saying, “can we trust anything?” And I think the answer is a resounding yes. The ESV should not be trusted; it is not merely a translation, but it is a translation with an agenda, and that’s never okay.

Not all translations are like this, though. In her article on Bible translations, Marg recommends the CSB or the NRSV, as she believes both of those do a very good job, are accurate to the language, and are beautiful to read. (I use the NRSV myself). And I trust Marg because she’s looked into this far more than I have.

I just thought you all should know that about the ESV! Marg has many more examples of how the ESV is a sexist translation, and I’m just scratching the surface. But I hope that helps you choose a Bible translation which won’t make you feel left out, and which won’t make you feel like, as a woman, God doesn’t really welcome you.

ESV Sexist Bible Translation

What do you think? Do you have a Bible translation you like best? Have you noticed this before with the ESV? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Angharad

    I’m actually gutted by this news, because the ESV is my favourite translation as I find it so easy to read after trying a good half dozen… Back to square one!

    • Lisa Johns

      Just keep the wite-out on hand and use it in the appropriate places! I have been known to correct the text in my personal bibles…

      • Dara

        I guess I never noticed it. I always took any time it says man or his in those passages as everyone and not just men.

        I use the NIV because that’s the one I found in high school youth group back in 2000 and what got me into reading the Bible back then. Admittedly, I haven’t read much lately enough so I am unfamiliar with the CSB and NRSV

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I’m sorry! I know it can be so frustrating.

      • Angharad

        I haven’t read all the article – 32 pages is a bit much to wade through in one go! – but so far, I don’t have an issue with most of his other ‘problems’. I’m assuming the writer is American? A lot of the phrases that he says people would ‘never’ use or understand are fairly common where I’m from! I think I may keep reading the ESV but just make sure to compare it against other translations particularly when it is talking about gender.

        • Rebecca Bourne

          I grew up with the KJV, so I’m pretty used to understanding that “brethren” means everyone in the church. But, I feel like changing “brethren” to “brothers” does make it sound more male-centric than brethren? Is that just me? But it also doesn’t bother me too much – I know that “brothers” and “sons” in the New Testament is usually talking about male and female believers.
          I have an ESV that is the older edition (2011?) and it doesn’t say “contrary to” in Genesis 3. I then bought an ESV for my son which is the 2016 edition, and I was horrified to find they’d inserted “contrary to” in the text. Plus the example in Romans is really egregious.
          I am so disappointed because as someone who grew up with the KJV, I enjoy the poetic language, particularly in Psalms, and I find some of the newer translations hard to connect with on a deeper level because the wording feels stale. I liked a lot of the wording in the ESV until I realised the issues 😩

          • Angharad

            Same here – I find the ESV has the poetry of the KJV while being much more readable. My version (copyright date 2002) doesn’t have ‘contrary to’ either. I think I’ll keep using the ESV for daily reading while keeping an eye open for something I find equally readable but more accurate – because ultimately, I guess the ‘best’ Bible translation is the one that you will actually read! Someone recommended the NLT to me a few years back, and while I know many people love it, I found I was starting to dread reading the Bible because I found the phrasing so awkward!

  2. Cynthia

    Re Genesis 1:25 – one issue is that 2 completely different Hebrew words are both translated into English as “man”. If you look up a word-by-word transliterated edition, you can see this.
    The first word is ha-adam. That is the name for the first human created, and it is related to the word “adamah” which means dirt, and the Hebrew text is saying that the “adam” was created from “adamah”. It is a singular word that refers to humankind.
    The second word is “ish”. This word is only used AFTER the creation of woman, which is “ishah”. It refers to a male individual.

    Note that the very next clause is a commandment to be fruitful and multiply. How exactly could that commandment have been given to a specifically male individual alone?

  3. Nathan

    > > Wayne Grudem, who headed up the ESV translation team, doesn’t like things being gender neutral,

    In general, I don’t like gender neutral either, when the original term is gender specific.

    Some things, though, ARE gender neutral, such as “God loves all people”, as opposed to “God loves all men”, and so on.

    Obviously, the purpose behind this “translation” is to enforce the idea that God loves MEN, and that MEN are supposed to serve God, and that MEN should always take the lead, and so on. And I use the term loosely. It’s hard to call it a “translation” when they’re DELIBERATELY AND KNOWINGLY AND WILLINGLY altering the meaning of certain things. I’d call this a “propagandization” instead.

    • Lisa Johns

      So true! Mr. Heresy is going to have a lot to answer for when God asks him how he handled His words….

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It’s like they said, “we really don’t want women to feel included at all.”

    • Angela

      I prefer the term “gender accurate.” And these recommended translations do translate in a gender accurate way, vs forcing gender inclusion or neutrality where it genuinely doesn’t belong. The CSB for instance quietly updated to gender accuracy because they could see it was more accurate and less biased. And thats extremely conservative Baptists.

      • Nessie

        Gender accurate. Hmm, I’ve not heard that before but it makes a lot of sense!

  4. Jen

    I’m reading through again this year but using ERV. The simplicity is actually catching me off guard to where I’m having to go back to NIV to reread the familiar wording, and I end up thinking, “Wow! I never thought about it like that.”

    I also like NLT and Amplified. I avoid ESV and believe it should be renamed COMP so that people know they are getting a complementarian’s power grab interpretation.

    • Jane King

      It is almost like you could rename the ESV “The He-Man Women Haters Club” Bible.

      • JG

        Wasn’t that the name of a club on “Little Rascals”? I watched the old shows with my brother and sister. I vaguely remember that they had one.

    • Angela

      NLT is pretty bad in this area even if they didn’t intentionally have a bias. They often make me furious, but I do have an NLT Life Application Chronological Bible that I love. But for the helps, not the translation, lol. I hope they update soon and do better. Even though it does a terrible job in the clobber passages, it’s major publisher tends to have much more pro-woman notes in their study Bibles. I’m finishing a large project of reviewing all major study Bibles for how they talk about women, and having much good to say about anything on the market is rare.

  5. Laura

    I had heard about th ESV being males centered so I’m not surprised. I like seeing those comparisons you have on here. When I am finished with my master’s program, I want to learn Greek and Hebrew. Years ago I met a counseling pastor for deliverance ministry and after I told him Scout struggling with certain Bible verses regarding the ones about submission and head. He pointed me to the Greek word for head which does not mean authority and he reminded me of Ephesians 5:21 that we are ALL supposed to submit one another out of reverence for Christ. It felt so freeing to learn that, but try telling this to other Christians who are still hung up on gender hierarchy. That here is the struggle for me and why I am just not keen on organized religion these days. Recently, I found a small church that has a few female pastors.

    • Nessie

      Yay on you finding a small church with some female pastors, Laura! (I believe you had been going with a friend elsewhere and there were some sermon points that didn’t sit well…?) That’s so great! Finding a small, healthy church last year has been so helpful in my healing- I hope you have a similar experience! 💗
      The SBC church we once attended made sure to sing the praises of the ESV often. Now I understand better just why that was.

      • Laura

        My friend (now boyfriend) still attends that church (the Baptist church) every other week. He doesn’t agree with that pastor on everything and he is okay with me not attending that church. This pastor says terrible things about the LGBTQ+ community, talks about politics a bit too much, and once said that women should not be pastors “because Scripture commands it.” That there was the last straw for me. The church I have been attending is a Nazarene church. I feel more comfortable there. The Sundays that my boyfriend and I don’t go to our churches, we visit different churches.

  6. Wild Honey

    Another example of misogyny in translations, and a personal pet peeve, is John 2:4, when Jesus addresses his mom as “woman” during the wedding at Cana.

    When was the last time you heard a woman addressed as “Woman!” in Americanized English and it was a respectful thing? But even the CEB (and I think NRSV) choose this translation.

    There’s better options out there:

    • Lisa Johns

      When I copy out my version of the stories I always have Him saying “Ma’am.” I think it’s a lot more true to how he would have addressed His mother!

  7. Nathan

    > > It’s like they said, “we really don’t want women to feel included at all.”

    Sort of like God’s love, mercy, grace and salvation are for MEN. Women can show up too, to do the cooking, cleaning and “other duties as assigned” (all in silence and non-complaining cheerfulness, of course), but aren’t really in the inner circle.

  8. Chrysti

    Well, this has given me some food for thought. Thank you. It never occurred to me that the ESV was sexist, but all the reading I did because of this article gives me reason to pause. I don’t think this means we should burn all our ESV Bibles though. The translation can help us start a discussion and remind us to refer to more reliable translations when studying and interpreting Scripture.

  9. Donald Johnson

    Here are some of my relevant understandings in this area of your post.

    1) The ESV translators believe that “man” is a good translation of Gen 1:27 as it includes women, like 1950s English. It is now considered obsolescent if not obsolete to do so by style guides, but that is their rationale when they did it. I just find their use confusing.

    2. The Greek anthropos often means human, but sometimes means (male) man. One language does not really have a one-to-one mapping of words in another language in many cases, as they carve up reality differently.

    3. The Greek aner usually means (male) man, but rarely can refer to a woman. This is because the plural form of aner can include women, as a grammatically masculine plural noun can be used when a group is all men all the way to where the group is all women except for 1 man, only if the group is all women is the grammatically feminine noun used. So a specific member of a group of “men” can be a woman, but it would never be the case that a man would be included in a group of “women”. One was supposed to be able to tell from other contextual clues what was the intent when it was ambiguous.

    4. On the ESV, my take is that they chose the most defensible masculinist choice whenever there was a choice. If you use the ESV without knowing their bias, you are over halfway to thinking the comp. position is what is plainly taught in Scripture and that was their intent. It is also clear to me that their primary objective was to be a masculinist biased translation, as they add words in some cases overriding their claim of being “essentially word for word” for example in 1 Cor 11 and elsewhere.

  10. Kenny

    I agree!

    However, just to point out in regards to your opener that the ESV was originally published in 2001. It seems that Zondervan’s purported plans for the TNIV were at least part of the reason. The TNIV NT was first published in 2002.

  11. Zeek

    From the email that lead me here….

    seemed to add in exegesis (their interpretation of a text) to their translation…..

    Did you catch it?

    Also the implication is that the ESV is not something we should use because no women were involved in the translation. Well there no women involved in writing the scriptures so now what?

    • Jo R

      “Well there no women involved in writing the scriptures”

      Can you cite a source for this assertion?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Actually, scholars believe Priscilla is the most likely writer of the letter to the Hebrews.

  12. Willow

    Our church spent a year using Dr. Wilda Gafney’s translations in “A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church.” Her lectionary intentionally centers any and all stories about women in the Bible. Her translations use alternate terms for God that do not have male and/or slavery/colonial connotations (like “Master” or “Lord”). She also takes great care to use gender-accurate language.

    Her translations can often be shocking to someone who grew up on more “traditional” English translations, but they are certainly thought-provoking. We eventually voted to go back to the standard lectionary so we could be aligned with the schedule other churches followed, but make use of her translations where appropriate to open our understanding.

    As for me, for many years I’ve used a French Bible, the “français courant” translation. I find this not only to be more vivid language than many English translations, but the fact that I’m reading it not in my native language means I am not held up by all the “churchified” English words – words that used to have ordinary meaning, but have now become so encrusted with religious overtones that we forget the original meanings – like justified, righteousness, heavens, brethren, etc. For example, it really broke my brain open when I realized that Paul was talking about the struggles between different groups of believers as equivalent to squabbling siblings. Using this translation has revealed humor, irony, slang, and more. It’s brought the Bible alive for me and spurred me to find new and fresh meanings to portions I often struggled with. I encourage everyone to explore multiple translations until they find one where the Spirit is speaking “their language.”

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I read the bible in French for a few summers! I don’t think I could do it anymore (my French isn’t as good as it used to be), but I really enjoyed it then too.

  13. Katie C

    Hi Sheila!

    I’m interested in digging deeper on this topic for sure, since ESV is and has been my go-to translation for years. Do you have the source(s) you used for the opening claim here? “And they even said that when they were translating it! It was commissioned in order to counteract the NIV 2011 translation, which tried to be gender neutral…” I was first introduced to the ESV during college, and I graduated in 2007 when I was given a second ESV Bible. How could the ESV exist before the 2011 NIV if it was a reaction to it? I’m very genuinely curious about this – your Facebook post rocked me and it was the first time I’d heard anyone say the Bible version I read daily is sexist. Thank you!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      At the time (the turn of the millennium) many translations were coming out with more gender accurate versions, and they were specifically trying to go against that. Zondervan published the New Testament TNIV in 2002, but there were other translations already doing it as well.

    • Sara Phillips

      Wayne Grudum’s own words about the NRSV, which the ESV was in response to “I discovered that on nearly every page they had made “gender-neutral” changes that distorted the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek text.” Also the “ESV translation committee removed every trace of liberal influence that had caused such criticism from evangelicals when the RSV was first published in 1952”.

  14. MH

    Long-time reader, first time commenter! I was really surprised by this post, so I pulled out my Bible. 🙂 I have a Lutheran Study Bible ESV published by CPH, and in this version, Genesis 3:16 reads like this:
    “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
    The other two examples are the same though. But I wonder if that means there are different translations of the ESV?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, in the 2016 revision they changed Genesis 3:16.

  15. Heretoserve

    Something that probably saved me a lot of unknowing trauma. I just decided to insert myself and or my gender into every verse of the Bible. It’s obvious when something is to a particular gender or person, but I think it’s fine to take this approach. Because I’m looking for God to speak to me now, through these stories. As a result, I think I had less wrong assumptions about equality than most. Because in the eyes of God we are all equally human beings. Further strengthen by my ywam missionary bios…..half of them women who had to rely on God and God alone.


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