Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

I feel strongly that we should have Bible translations that are gender-inclusive in verses where the original authors were gender-inclusive. So, I was disappointed by two recent conversations where intelligent women stated that “brothers and sisters” is not a valid or accurate translation of the Greek word adelphoi in Paul’s letters. (This Greek word is translated as “brethren” in the KJV.)

Comments about Adelphoi

A reader, who I’ll call Faith (not her real name), suggested I had weakened the credibility of an article because I had quoted Romans 8:28-30 in an English translation that has “brother and sisters” and not just “brothers” at the end of verse 29.

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified. Romans 8:28-30 CSB (italics added)

Faith wrote that Romans 8:28-30 does not have “sisters” in the original text and that the translation in my article had momentarily thrown her. She said “sisters” is added in the English translation I had quoted.

I was dismayed that she believed “sisters” was not part of Paul’s meaning and that “sisters” was unfaithful to the original text.

Here’s some of my reply to Faith.

Paul’s original word in Romans 8:29 is adelphoi. This Greek word can mean “brothers” or “siblings.” Adelphoi probably comes from the Greek word delphys (“womb”): siblings come from the same womb.

In the New Testament, adelphoi (plural) and adelphos (singular) occasionally refer to brothers, as in, male siblings. However, these Greek words usually refer to brothers and sisters in Christ rather than biological siblings.[1]

“Siblings” is not usually used in Christian contexts, and “brothers” can sound like it only refers to men, so several recent English Bibles translate adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” when the context is followers of Jesus.[2] This is not being unfaithful to the original text as it accurately captures the intended meaning.

To be clear, “brothers and sisters” is a meaning of adelphoi, and Paul uses this meaning a lot―approximately 130 times. It is safe to assume that Paul typically means “brothers and sisters” or “siblings” when he uses adelphoi unless the context indicates otherwise (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:1).

In comparison, Paul uses the feminine plural adelphai (“sisters”) only once in his letters (1 Tim. 5:2).[3]

Faith’s remark about “sisters” was a side issue to her. Her comment focussed on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and she referred to a paper by Mark Finney. Happily, Finney made a few statements that are relevant to “brothers and sisters,” and he even used the word adelphoi in an inclusive sense

… Paul’s conceptual ideology of ‘church’ is that of the fictive kinship of believers drawn together as the new household of God. The gospel proclamation goes out to and is embraced by individuals who are bound together in a new and distinct metaphorical family; they are adelphoi in Christ, and so children of God.
Finney, “Honour, Head-coverings and Headship: 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 in its Social Context,” JSNT 33.1 (2010): 31-58, 46.

Redeemed women and girls are fully included! Redeemed people are adelphoi (“siblings”) in Christ and children of God!

Tweets about Adelphoi

I tweeted about my exchange with Faith, and one seminary-educated woman, who I’ll call Dee, agreed with Faith and confidently stated,

“She’s technically correct though, isn’t she? The Greek text only contains adelphois. Sure, we might want to argue for the addition of sisters in understanding and applying the verse. But that’s an interpretative matter, not a direct translation.”

There are a couple of issues with this comment. First, even the most literal word for word translations involve interpretation: we need to understand the meaning of any text before we can translate it. And as Jessica on Twitter pointed out, implying that “brothers” is the better translation of adelphoi is itself an interpretive choice. In the context of Romans 8:29, I believe it’s a poor choice.

Second, while the Greek text contains adelphoi (exact form, adelphois), which is one word, this is no reason to presume that “brothers,” also one word, is the technically correct or direct English translation. Paul did not have only male followers of Jesus in mind. Dee acknowledged in another tweet that “the broader context of the verses makes it clear that all those who God predestined are called.” This “all” includes women and girls, it includes “sisters.”

Dee continued, “My original tweet was simply pointing out that the comment made [by Faith] is technically true.” Dee seems to believe that because the Greek of Romans 8:29 doesn’t have adelphoi kai adelphai (“brothers and sisters”) we can’t technically or directly translate adelphoi as “brothers and sisters.”

Importantly, however, no New Testament author refers to brothers and sisters in Christ as adelphoi kai adelphai. Rather, Paul repeatedly uses the word adelphoi with an inclusive meaning.[4] And translation is about understanding the meaning in a particular text and conveying that same meaning in another language.

Dee also pointed out that adelphoi is a masculine word. (This may be where she is stuck.) However, the masculine grammatical gender is typically used in Greek when speaking about a group of people regardless of their sex, as well as for a group consisting of only males.

By way of example, in Matthew 15:30-31 there are no grammatically feminine words. None. Rather, these verses in Greek contain numerous masculine nouns, substantive adjectives, pronouns, and participles. Yet no one suggests that the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, the many other infirmed (all masculine words in the Greek) were only males.

Even though the language is grammatically masculine, we don’t usually translate typhloi as “blind men,” etc. And this is despite the fact that Greek has corresponding feminine words for people with the various disabilities listed in Matthew 15:30-31.[5] Matthew didn’t need to use the feminine words because the masculine words include women and girls. That’s how Greek works.

There is not the slightest hint that females were not among those being healed, or part of the crowd, in the Greek, and in English translations, of these verses.

“and large crowds came to [Jesus], including the lame, the blind, the crippled, those unable to speak, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he healed them. So the crowd was amazed when they saw those unable to speak talking, the crippled restored, the lame walking, and the blind seeing, and they gave glory to the God of Israel” Matthew 15:30-31 CSB.

Dee continued to tweet, “adelphois is a masculine gendered noun. It means brothers.” And, “the actual word for ‘sisters’ is not in the text …”

Paul didn’t need to add the Greek word that (only) means “sisters” (adelphai) in his letters. The meaning of “sisters” is implicit in his use of adelphoiAdelphoi can mean “brothers and sisters,” it can mean “siblings.” It doesn’t always just mean male “brothers.”[6]

Bill Mounce on Adelphos

Brian, who saw the online conversations, told me that Bill Mounce, a well-known professor of New Testament Greek, has a short video where he speaks about the word adelphos, the singular of adelphoi.

In this video, Dr Mounce gives an answer to the question, “Is translating the Bible with ‘brother or sister’ adding to God’s word since the Bible says ‘brother”’?

He starts off by pointing out that the Greek New Testament doesn’t use the word “brother” because “brother” is an English word. He then uses the example of Matthew 5:22 where adelphos (exact form, adelphō) refers to a member of a faith community.

Dr Mounce goes on to ask, “What word do you use when referring to a member of your faith community? Brother, or brother and sister?” For him the important questions are, Who does adelphos refer to, and how do you convey that meaning in your culture, in your context?

These questions are crucial. I very much prefer “brother and sister” when referring to fellow Christians as clearly not everyone readily understands “brother” as being a gender-inclusive term.[7]

In this video, Dr Mounce plainly states that “brothers and sisters” is not adding to the biblical text.

So, are translators adding to scripture when they say “brothers and sisters” in Paul’s letters? No. In almost all verses where Paul uses the word adelphoi, “brothers and sisters” accurately conveys his intended meaning. “Siblings” may be an even better translation.

Footnotes

[1] Adelphoi can also refer to biological brothers and sisters. Bauer and Danker provide several examples of this usage in non-biblical texts in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG) s.v. ἀδελφός. (Their use of bold and italics.)

The pl. can also mean brothers and sisters (Eur., El. 536; Andoc. 1, 47 ἡ μήτηρ ἡ ἐκείνου κ. ὁ πατὴρ ὁ ἐμὸς ἀδελφοί; Anton. Diog. 3 [Erot. Gr. I 233, 23; 26 Hercher]; POxy 713, 21f [97 A.D.] ἀδελφοῖς μου Διοδώρῳ κ. Θαΐδι; schol. on Nicander, Ther. 11 [p. 5, 9] δύο ἐγένοντο ἀδελφοί, Φάλαγξ μὲν ἄρσην, θήλεια δὲ Ἀράχνη τοὔνομα. The θεοὶ Ἀδελφοί, a married couple consisting of brother and sister on the throne of the Ptolemies: OGI 50, 2 [III B.C.] and pap [Mitt-Wilck. I/1, 99; I/2, 103–7, III B.C.]).

[2] Jesus isn’t just the firstborn of male Christians. So I’m fairly certain that “brothers and sisters/ siblings” is Paul’s intended meaning in his use of adelphoi in Romans 8:29 and in numerous other verses in his letters. Romans 8:29 can be compared in several conservative English translations here: https://biblehub.com/romans/8-29.htm

[3] Paul uses the feminine singular adelphē (“sister”) five times in his letters: when referring to Apphia (Phm. 1:2), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), Nereus’s sister (Rom. 16:15), a Christian woman who ministers with an apostle (1 Cor. 9:5), and a Christian wife who is free after her husband leaves (1 Cor. 7:15).

[4] Believers are rarely referred to as adelphoi kai adelphai (“brothers and sisters”) in surviving early church documents either. An exception is 2 Clement 19:1 and 20:2. (More about gender in 2 Clement here.)
There are only two places in the New Testament where adelphai (“sisters”) is used in the same sentence as adelphoi. In these verses, different family relationships are spelt out. Adelphoi refers to male siblings here.
~ Mark 10:29-30: “home or brothers (adelphoi) or sisters (adelphai) or mother or father or children or fields … homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields …”
~ Luke 14:26: “his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers (adelphoi) and sisters (adelphai), yes, and even his own life …”
Furthermore, Jesus uses the singular adelphos and adelphē in Matthew 12:50 (cf. Matt. 12:49) when referring to his followers: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother (adelphos) and sister (adelphē) and mother” (//Mark 3:35 cf. Mark 3:34).

[5] Ancient Greek has masculine words and feminine words for a mute or deaf person (m. kyphos, f. kyphē), crippled person (kyllos, kyllē), lame person (chōlos, chōlē), and blind person (typhlos, typhlē). But, according to convention, the masculine, whether singular or plural, can include women and girls as it undoubtedly does in Matthew 15:30-31. Likewise, the grammatically masculine word adelphoi (“siblings”) can, and usually does, include women, in the New Testament.

[6] Even Wayne Grudem acknowledges that adelphoi can mean “brothers and sisters.” See footnote 1 here: Manhood and Masculinity in the ESV.
Grudem, John Piper, and several other staunch complementarian men with a strong dislike for gender-inclusive Bibles formulated the “Colorado Springs Guidelines for Translation of Gender-Related Language in Scripture.” In their amended guidelines, dated September 9, 1997, they stated that “the plural adelphoi can be translated ‘brothers and sisters’ where the context makes clear that the author is referring to both men and women.” See here: Colorado Springs Guidelines (bible-researcher.com)

[7] Dr Mounce compares seven popular English translations of Matthew 5:22. The NIV (2011), CSB, and NRSV translate adelphos as “brother or sister.” The NASB (1995 and 2020), ESV, and NET and translate it as “brother.” The NLT has “someone” which is inaccurate and misleading. (The CEB also has “brother or sister.”) This comparison corresponds with my observations of gender-inclusivity and accuracy in these translations here: Which Bible translation is best?

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18 thoughts on ““Brothers and Sisters” (Adelphoi) in Paul’s Letters

  1. Thank you for a good and clear explanation.
    Someone who says it is “technically correct” to translate adelphoi as “brothers” rather than “brothers and sisters” would benefit from some more study of how European languages work. In my book I tried to explain Paul’s use of adelphoi as a generic term including women by referring to the analogy of old-fashioned English:
    “This is like the English word ‘brother’, with the plural ‘brethren’, which carried the same generic meaning until the twentieth century, but in contemporary English this meaning is not reliably understood unless spelled out as ‘brothers and sisters’. See the entry for ‘Brother’, as meaning ‘fellow-christian’, with the plural ‘brethren’, in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1944).” [Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts, p163]
    Why did older translations, such as KJV, always translate adelphoi as “brethren” and not as “brothers and sisters”? Because “brethren” meant “brothers and sisters”!

    1. Thanks, Andrew.

      I was astounded that these two smart, educated women actually believe that “brothers and sisters” is incorrect. And Dee was blunt and persistent about it. If they believe this, then I imagine countless more English-speaking Christians believe it too.

      “Brothers” and “brethren” doesn’t cut it in the 21st-century, now that we’re increasingly using gender-inclusive and gender-accurate language.

      Once when I was on holidays, I thought I’d forgotten my Bible and so I read the letter to the Hebrews in the Gideon’s Bible which was ESV. It was an unpleasant and alienating experience. I felt distanced from the text because of all the unnecessary masculine language.

  2. If one wants to retain the translation of “brothers” then let them do the exegetical work explaining that it really means brothers and sisters. Next we need to discuss the fact God “himself” really means neither male nor female.

    Keep up the solid exegesis!

    1. I’m thinking of the average reader. I started reading that Bible at the age of 10. I read it every day. I didn’t have someone to explain things to me and I had few exegetical skills. As far as it’s possible, like Tyndale, I want translations that the ploughboy and ploughgirl can readily and accurately understand.

      Here’s a start to a discussion on God’s gender (or lack thereof): https://margmowczko.com/is-god-male-or-masculine/

  3. It’s an uphill climb to make these seemingly easy points. Traditions and prejudices are very difficult to break. I appreciate your sound thinking, and also how graciously you attempt to persuade.

    1. Thanks, Mark.

      Some of it also understanding that just because the word is grammatically masculine in the Greek, we don’t have to translate it with a masculine flavour in English.

      1. I wonder if the confusion on this point stems from the fact that English does not use grammatical gender, so native speakers aren’t likely to be familiar with how it works (and how it differs from literal gender) unless they happen to know a language that does use it. Koine Greek’s use of a grammatically masculine plural to refer to a mixed group seems completely unremarkable to me, since I know some of French and a little Spanish, and both of those languages do this same thing. But if I didn’t have that background, and I was inclined to a gender-hierarchical reading of the Bible, I might suspect you of massaging the text to promote some feminist or liberal interpretation.

        1. I think you’re right, CMT. That’s why I was delighted to include Wayne Grudem (a strong critic of gender-inclusive translations) as someone who acknowledges that “brothers and sisters” is a meaning and an acceptable translation of adelphoi in the context of believers. This understanding really should be unremarkable. 🙂

      2. My previous comment didn’t post in italics. Just re-posting this without it.

        Hi Marg, in a previous comment you mentioned that you are astounded that those ” two smart, educated women actually believe that “brothers and sisters” is incorrect”.

        I guess that simply goes on to show that ‘smartness’ or ‘education’ doesn’t equate to obedience and humility. For those two women, who are not only smart and educated (which are fruitless in the long run), but more importantly are faithful and love God, are more closer to God, than the rest of the populace who are astounded.

        To this comment of yours (there are multiple, but due to time constraints just chose to respond to this), of course I’d disagree.

        “just because the word is grammatically masculine in the Greek, we don’t have to translate it with a masculine flavour in English.”

        Rather, because the word is grammatically masculine in the Greek, we have to translate it with a masculine flavour in English, in order to accurately adhere to what God said, and not cater to what the world says and thus change their ‘flavour’ (or the words, from what they originally meant and still mean).

        1. Neil, That’s not how grammatical gender works.

          Generally speaking, all verses that speak generically about humanity, including redeemed humanity, use words that are grammatically masculine.

          No English translation of John 3:16 that I know of, for example, gives “everyone who is believing” or “whosoever believes” (three masculine words in Greek) as having a masculine flavour. And rightly so. (There are numerous other verses where masculine language completely includes women.)

          Also, Greek has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. What about certain people who are mentioned in the New Testament using neuter language such as the gynaikaria (a neuter word) in 2 Timothy 3:6-7 or the gynaikeia (a neuter word) in 1 Peter 3:7? Should we translate these words with a neuter flavour even though they are women?

          Furthermore, Greek nouns that mean rule, reign, and authority are grammatically feminine, as are the words for the function or offices of being a governor, monarch, overseer, etc. Should we render these words in the New Testament as having a feminine flavour?

          And when Joel and Peter say that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17), should we translate “flesh” as having a feminine flavour because the word is grammatically feminine in Greek?

          And quite frankly, it is ridiculous to make inferences about the degree someone loves and obeys God based on their discussion of a Greek word. This kind of insinuation adds nothing constructive to the discussion.

          My devotion to God and his Word has motivated me to read and understand the New Testament in its original language, something that you clearly cannot do.

  4. Dear Marg, thank you for your great explanations. I am not a scholar, I never studied at a university, I am just a simple nurse, but I learned some biblical Greek and it seems to me that the NT can be gender specific, for example in Acts 2,29 in his speech, Peter specifically addresses the brothers (gender specific) Ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί. He specifies ἀδελφοί by the preceding word “men”. Here he talks to men, not women. Or as in your examples were Paul addresses women specifically. Therefore ἀδελφοί without specification should be meaning: sibling, brothers and sisters.
    Just a humble thought.

    1. Hi Ulrike, adelphos (singular) and adelphoi (plural) can be gender-specific and refer to male siblings. (I mention this in the article.) However, it is usually used in a gender-inclusive meaning in the New Testament. The context of each passage is always key when determining meaning.

      The example you’ve given of andres adelphoi in Acts 2:29 uses masculine language, but Peter was not only addressing the men who had gathered. This is something I’ve looked at previously.

      In the book of Acts, some speeches are addressed to “men, brothers” (Acts 1:16, 2:29, 37; 7:26), “men, Galileans” (Acts 1:11), “men, Jews” (2:14), “men, Israelites” (Acts 2:22; 3:12), “men, Athenians” (Acts 17:22), etc. (The Greek word for “men” in these verses is andres.) This doesn’t mean, however, that women were not in the audience or that the speeches didn’t apply to them. In many cases, there would have been more men than women in the audiences, especially for speeches that were given in public spaces, such as the temple courts in Jerusalem during Pentecost and the Athenian agora. But women were there in most cases and the speeches applied to them as much as the men.
      Andres (“men”), while often referring to adult male people in Greek texts, doesn’t necessarily exclude women. We see this in Acts 17:34 where it says that some men (andres) joined Paul; one of these “men” was an elite woman named Damaris. “Men, brothers,” etc, is a figure of speech and was a formal way of addressing an audience in the first century. Today’s equivalent is “Ladies and Gentlemen.”
      From a footnote here: https://margmowczko.com/the-first-century-church-and-the-ministry-of-women/

      The way Luke presents speeches in Acts, with andres adelphoi as one example, is distinctly different from how Paul addressed believers in his letters.

  5. I knew for years that adelphoi meant brothers and sisters. I am also surprised a seminary trained female did not know this. Not her fault, but it certainly makes one wonder what are they teaching in those seminaries that teach basic koine Greek. I am not seminary trained nor do I know koine Greek, but I always read books by different scholars-egal and comp-that support that this word means brothers and sisters. I also find it awesome that the word in kinship terms means from one womb ,i.e., the same mother. An important point since ancient Israel was a patriarchy where polygamy was allowed so different mothers and same father were what counted. Even in cultures like ancient Greek or Rome, children of the same mother, but different fathers did not have the same legal standing as paternal siblings. As someone who grew up in a home with older maternal half siblings and a father who told me they were “nothing” to me, this means a lot that it isn’t all about patriarchy.

  6. Hi Marg,

    We engaged in this blog a few months back, and it was real helpful. Right now, I’m watching thru a series done by Mike Winger on YouTube of issues related to gender roles in church and he looks at egalitarian and complementation arguments, comparing them to the Bible. He seems well informed, for example, easily noting that adelphois refers to brothers and sisters, so you’d agree there. His arguments are compelling. He gives good reason to doubt common arguments from both the egalitarians and complementarians.

    Have you seen any of these videos? It’s be good to get some pushback where there’s disagreement, or else to see where you can affirm what he affirms.

    Taylor

    1. Hi Taylor, I haven’t seen the videos.

      Someone asked me about a few ideas brought up in a video about Genesis 2. Here are my brief responses to his questions.

      ~ The temporary naming-of-the-animals exercise was simply to demonstrate that the first human in Eden needed something, someone, much better than the animals.

      ~ The first human in Eden was given a special task, but it distorts the story to think this signifies he had a lasting greater authority than a woman who hasn’t been created yet. (In Genesis 1, male and female humans are given authority over the animals.)

      ~ Calling the woman “woman” is simply his observation of her relationship to him. She is the ishshah to his ish. More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/adam-named-eve-because/

      ~ As is frequently pointed out, naming is not necessarily a demonstration of authority but is usually about recognising characteristics of a person. Hagar gave God a name based on her observations, a name that has been recorded in scripture with seeming approval. https://www.blog.cbe.org.au/name-giving-in-genesis-2/

      ~ The first human was altered during the operation, so the idea of his firstness is not clear cut–a part of this first human was removed and made into the woman. https://margmowczko.com/the-created-order-nutshell/

      ~ Paul undoes any sense of firstness in creation being “special” in 1 Cor. 11:11-12 for those who are “in the Lord.” And that’s us. I really wish Christians would understand this vital point. Rather, Paul uses creation (or, origins) to argue for mutuality among believers.

      ~ God doesn’t seem interested in the human custom of primogeniture. He ignores it in several significant instances.
      https://margmowczko.com/adam-created-first/

      ~ There is no doubt the focus is on Adam in Genesis 2. But this doesn’t imply Adam is the leader of the woman who appears right at the end of chapter 2.

      ~ The context or backstory of 1 Corinthians 7 is quite specific. We need to understand the context before we make general statements about this passage. https://margmowczko.com/tag/1-corinthians-7/

      ~ There is zero evidence in the Bible for a student-teacher role between Adam and Eve. There is simply no statement or story of Adam teaching anything to Eve. https://margmowczko.com/eves-statement-to-the-serpent/

      More about man and woman in Genesis 2 here: https://margmowczko.com/gender-hierarchy-creation-narrative-genesis-2/

  7. A belated addition to this, albeit not Paul. I was looking at Matthew 12:49,50, which the ESV has as:

    And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!
    For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

    my brothers is, of course, ἀδελφοί, but v50 spells out the previous verse in the singular explicitly as μου ἀδελφὸς καὶ ἀδελφὴ καὶ μήτηρ.

    It seems hard to me to read ἀδελφοί in v49 as referring only to males when v50 so explicitly includes both male and female.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the seemingly inclusive “brothers” in Matthew 12:49.
      I’ve mentioned Matthew 12:50, and similar verses, in footnote 4.

  8. Thanks Marg and Andrew for clear and logical explanations. We all know a little knowledge can be dangerous when it comes to interpreting language!
    Your research is comprehensive and i love that Paul refers to brothers and sisters about 130 times – mutual, equal, co-workers.

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