Sister As Brother
© 6.19.05 By D. Eric Williams
A number of gender neutral or gender inclusive Bible translations have cropped up over the past several years. The onslaught from the major Bible publishers began with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) in 1989; other versions that have hit the market since then are the New Living Translation (NLT), the New Century Version (NCV), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the New International Version - Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI). The conservative element of the Christian Church has rightly responded in a negative fashion to these recent innovations.
However, there has been a bit of compromise from some quarters on the issue. For instance, an essay written by Wayne Grudem in 1997 admits that there are certain verses in the Bible that are better translated in a gender neutral fashion. Concerning John 12:32 wherein Jesus says "and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" Grudem writes that replacing men with people "...is an improvement: the word men isn't specified by the Greek text, and all people is a faithful rendering of the Greek pronoun pas. Changes like this use ‘gender-neutral' language without sacrificing accuracy in translation."1
I'm not troubled by Grudem's view concerning this particular verse (and others like it), but I do question his position in reference to the use of the Greek term adelphoi (adelfoi, the plural form of adelfos [adelphos]), meaning "brothers" or "brethren." In Grudem's mind, since the term is used in the New Testament to refer to groups of men and women (such as the recipients of Paul's letter to the Church at Rome, cf. Rom. 12:1), then adelphoi is better translated as brothers and sisters. This assumes that adelphoi is a grammatically generic word - a general term with an elasticity of meaning. However, I believe that Grudem is overlooking the theological aspects of the word and therefore is too quick to make a concession to the advocates of the gender-neutral Bible translations. Thus we need to ask the question; in the New Testament, to whom does adelphoi refer and what meaning does the term convey?
To begin with it is important to remember that the New Testament writers did use the feminine form of adelphos when the situation warranted. For instance, in Paul's first letter to the Church at Corinth he gives instructions to Believers concerning divorce, saying, in part, that if an "unbeliever departs let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases" (ei de o apistos cwrizetai cwrizesqw ou dedoulwtai o adelfos h h adelfh en tois toioutois, 1 Cor. 7:15a).2 Here we see Paul using the masculine and feminine forms of the word adelphos rather than resort to the plural masculine form alone. Elsewhere in the same letter Paul addresses the entire Church as adelphoi meaning brethren (1 Cor. 1:10, 1:26, 2:1, 3:1 and many more). If Paul wanted to use the masculine and the feminine forms of the term in these other instances he certainly could have. More fundamentally, if the Holy Spirit had desired to use gender inclusive language in the instances cited then He certainly would have. And yet, it is because of our limited understanding that we miss the fact that the use of adelphoi is actually inclusive language of the most astonishing kind. Not because it is a term that has the broad meaning of men and women addressed as a group, but because it is a word that typically refers to men only; and that has theological implications that we must not overlook.
Now, I'm well aware of the fact that adelphoi was used in non-biblical Greek literature to refer to men and women collectively. Yet that really doesn't dictate how adelphoi will be used in the New Testament. It is common knowledge that at times "new meanings come to old words" when used in the Greek New Testament.3 For instance, the word daimon (daimon), in the "street" usage of the koine Greek is "morally indifferent"4 and refers to something like the divine spark within, or the human conscience as a gift from the gods.5 Nonetheless, in the New Testament "the demon is invariably an ethically evil being."6 The point is that the New Testament writers where not adverse to redefining common words and using them to convey theological concepts for which there were no other appropriate terms. In such cases one can often see a hint of the "secular" use in the new theological definition. So it is with the New Testament writer's use of the word adelphoi.
To better understand why adelphoi was used to refer to all individuals in the Church - men and women - we first need to come to grips with certain aspects of the person and work of Jesus Christ. A good place to start is Paul's letter to the Church in Galatia.
The main thesis of Paul's Galatian letter is the idea that Believers are heirs of the Abrahamic promises not by works of the law (i.e., by adopting Jewish cultural norms), but through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul says that Jesus is the true Seed to whom the promises were made (Gal. 3:16). Thus, "you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. ...And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:26, 29, cf. 4:7). Why "sons" and not "sons and daughters?"7 The reason is found in Paul's words as recorded in verse 28 of chapter three:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In other words, anyone who is in Christ is reckoned as a son of God. They are no longer a Jew, nor a Greek, but a son of God; ethnicity is irrelevant. They are no longer seen as merely a slave or a free man but as a son who shares equally in the inheritance. They are no longer categorized according to sex but are reckoned as a son - regardless of gender - and embraced as one who has a full share in the inheritance. Being in Christ eliminates the differences that seem insurmountable to the human mind and makes everyone of us a comrade, a friend of the true Son, Jesus Christ (John 15:13-15). This is why the covenant sign of circumcision was replaced with the sign of baptism. All true comrades of the Second Adam, Son of Abraham, Son of David are circumcised of heart and the new covenant sign declares as much.
Thus when the writers of the New Testament refer to believers as adelphoi they are not merely using a common term that has intrinsic malleability in its usage. Instead they are telling us something about the relationship each individual believer has with Christ. Individually we are all brothers sharing in the Abrahamic promises. Indeed Christ is the first born among many brothers (adelphoi), not brothers and sisters (Rom. 8:29). And so we are all comrades in arms marching side by side into battle. We are friends of Christ bound by a covenant love like the love which joined David and Jonathan. Men and women alike share this special personal bond with Christ.8
This is part of the reason that the covenant sign underwent a dramatic change at the dawn of the new covenant age. Since men and women are all reckoned as sons of God, it was necessary that the covenant sign be appropriate for the adelphoi. Thus baptism takes the place of circumcision in the new age of the Son of Man so that there is no differentiating between members of the covenant household.
Most Christians are familiar with the concept of the (corporate) Church as Christ's Bride. And most men have trouble relating to the idea. I imagine that many women have a hard time identifying with the concept of being a brother to Christ. Nevertheless both the corporate and the individual aspects of our relationship to Christ are critical to the Christian experience.
Although male headship is mandated in the corporate Body and in the home, a believing woman's relationship to Christ on an individual basis is no different than that of a believing man's. If she walks in obedience to Christ, she is His friend (John 15:14). Like a believing man, she is called upon to arm herself in Christ and do battle against the powers of darkness (Eph. 6:10-20, a passage which begins with, "Finally my brethren...). She is expected to study and understand the "mysteries" of the Bible (Rom. 11:25). She is required to offer herself as a living sacrifice, giving herself completely and totally to the service of God - not in the way that a woman gives herself to a man, but in the fashion of a warrior who pledges himself to fight to the death for the cause of His commanding officer, his Comrade and Friend (Rom. 12:1). And this is the difficulty for women; to learn to understand the mind of a man in devoting himself to one he loves (just as a man must learn to understand the mind of a women in devoting herself to her beloved and therefore understand the posture of the Church before her Bridegroom Christ). As an aside, I believe that one of the reasons the Lord has established these differences in the corporate and individual relationships is to "force" men and women to understand the mind of the opposite sex. Any man who meditates on the feminine corporate identity will invariably increase his understanding of his wife's mind. Likewise, any woman who contemplates the masculine character of the individual believer's relationship to Christ will make strides in understanding her husband's way of thinking as well.
I'm not suggesting that God desires a Church made up of androgynous beings. I am saying that the relationship of the individual believer to the Lord Jesus Christ is akin to that of soldiers, forged in the heat of battle. Thus;
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down ones life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you (John 15:13-15).
Moreover, it is a relationship that should be free from the mystic eroticism that has often characterized Church teaching on the subject9, especially in Roman Catholicism and the Pentecostal and Charismatic branches of Protestantism. Remember, it is the corporate Body that is the Bride of Christ; the individual believer is the friend of his Captain and His comrade in arms. Yet the tendency of the Church is to feminize the individual's relationship to Christ thus shortchanging Believers of both sexes. In short, to misunderstand the meaning of adelphoi10 in the New Testament unnecessarily narrows the participation of women in the work of Christ's kingdom.
There is more that may be said on this subject - as there is concerning the ramifications of the corporate Body's Bride-like character. But, I'm out of time once again.
7. The Greek here is hioi (uioi), meaning "sons" the plural form of uios or "son."
8. This isn't to say that men and women relate to one another as if everyone is a man (see 1 Tim. 5:2 and etc.). The point is that every Believer is reckoned a son before God.
9. Leon J. Podles, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999).
10. We should take note when we come across the term hioi, (sons) when reading the New Testament. For instance: "For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salivation perfect through suffering" (Heb. 2:10, italic added). Again, we must not consider "sons" (hioi) here and elsewhere to be a term inclusive of men and women in a generic grammatical way. Women are reckoned as sons, in exactly the same way that men are reckoned as sons, in Jesus Christ.