Why is the word Brethren or Brothers used in the New Testament to describe those who believe in Jesus? Does "Brethren" include women too?
Pentecost hits and BOOM: instant church! Well, not quite. The church as we know it today—with all its blessings and imperfections—didn't leap into existence fully formed. It was a new thing built on the foundations of something much older, the promises made to David, Abraham, and as far back as Eve. The new church arrived on the scene in a real place, at a unique point in history, and in a society with a culture much different than our own.
Sometimes the titles in the Bible seem very male-centered. The phrasing can rub modern readers the wrong way. Did the church begin as something for men, and women had to fight for the right to be included? Did the women of the early church feel left out whenever they heard the believers addressed as brothers? Read on to learn more!
Jesus put a big emphasis on our spiritual family
Why use the term brother at all? Well, when someone pointed out to Jesus that his mother and brothers had arrived, Jesus looked around at those who were seated to learn, and said,
"Behold My mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother." - Mark 3:34-35
When the disciples were worried about having to give up everything and face persecution to follow Jesus, he promised them,
". . . but he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms . . ." - Mark 10:30
The church is meant to function as a family. Though your biological family might reject you because of your Christian beliefs, you are given hundreds (millions!) of new brothers, sisters, and mothers within the church. In biblical culture's terms, we are a new household! (Galatians 6:10, 1 Timothy 3:15, 5:1-2)
Not only do we receive a new family, but we are also adopted by God as sons and heirs! (Romans 8:15-17, Galatians 3:5-7, Ephesians 1:5) Women are included in this promise, receiving an inheritance just like a son—something that would surely be considered progressive in their culture.
So, if we are all sisters and brothers and mothers together in this new spiritual family, why is the term brothers or brethren used more often than any other title for the believers? Why didn't the original writers say "brothers and sisters", as many Bible translations do today?
The New Testament was written in a man's world
While it's true the first century was a male-dominated era, there is plenty of encouragement in the Bible for women.
The same author wrote both the book of Acts and the book of Luke as a two-part work. Luke wrote as a man of the first-century, but he also wrote with a positive perspective of women that I believe stood out to readers. Unlike the scathing opinions of writers who lived just a century or two prior—men who focused heavily on the sin and moral weakness of women, like the sage Ben Sira—Luke highlights faithful women and their contributions to the ministry of Jesus and the early church. While Ben Sira wrote about the disgrace of a man being supported by a wife, Luke writes openly that several women were bankrolling Jesus' ministry and the early church. (1)
See my post Women in the Gospel of Luke for three incredible, faithful, and inspiring women!
The place of women a "Ben Sira world"
If the writing of Ben Sira shows the popular attitudes of the time, it was believed that a woman was a blessing to her family and her husband by being hardworking, obedient, quiet, modest, and fertile. A daughter is a source of anxiety to her father, in Ben Sira's mind, because a father worries constantly that she might become pregnant while under his roof or be infertile while under her husband's. Sira warns husbands against a wife who has a bold eye, and to not be surprised when she “is a quiver for every arrow”. Convinced that daughters could not be trusted, Sira goes so far as to advise that young women shouldn't have windows facing the street. (2)
These types of attitudes towards women's moral weakness were prominent in the centuries leading up to Christ, in Greek and Roman culture too. Even the freedoms that some women enjoyed in the Old Testament world were taken away such as:
Miriam, the sister of Moses who could lead in worship
Ruth, who could choose to leave her homeland without a man's input and who gleaned in the fields of strangers
the judge Deborah, who gave the word of God and judged the people
the prophetess Huldah, who advised a king
how Hannah could approach the door to the tent of meeting
how the men listened to Rahab's guidance
or the bold picture of a woman in Proverbs 31, who wisely considered and bought land and marketed her goods
These freedoms were stripped away by a new culture that had a narrow view of a woman's worth and virtue.
If this was the typical view on women in society (though opinions surely varied by location and family) how likely would it be that women would be noticed in a crowd? In this culture, how would men address a crowd, even a public one that included women?
Three Popular titles for groups of believers in the book of Acts
It seems there were several words that described groups in the early church: saints, the church, disciples, congregation, brethren/brothers, the flock, the Way, etc, etc. The title brethren (or brothers, depending on your translation) is used more than any other. Does this masculine term include women? Many scholars believe so.
Before dipping our toe in the Greek, let's take a look at three popular group names that appear to include women: saints, disciples, and brethren.
Paul refers to locking up many of the saints in Jerusalem in Acts 26:10. In Acts 22:4, Paul says that he put men and women into prison. So in Paul's definition, "saints" include women.
Then we see Tabitha is called a disciple in Acts 9:36. Though this is the only place the feminine word for disciple is used in the Bible, when she dies, a group of disciples sends men to Joppa to fetch Peter. Peter comes and raises Tabitha back to life and presents her to these same people, here called saints. It would seem that disciple and saint are used interchangeably to talk about the same group of people. (And as we see above, those saints include women.)
Then, right near the beginning of Acts, we have Luke describing a group that is in constant prayer. He states that this group includes women, namely Mary the mother of Jesus. Then, without skipping a beat, Luke says that Peter stands up among these brethren to speak. So here, the term brethren includes a crowd that has women among them.
The Greek word for brethren or brothers
The word brethren is masculine in the original Greek: ἀδελφος, (adelphos, plural adelphoi). There is a different word for sisters, ἀδελφή (adelphe). Adelphos means a male who shares a parent, is a close relative, or it can be used for a person considered an equal, such as when addressing a group of Jewish men.
Some modern translations say “brothers and sisters” or “believers” in place of brother/brethren. This is an attempt by the translators to show that the plural word brethren does not exclude women when used in certain contexts, especially when brethren is the preferred title of Paul for the church. (3)
Why have a masculine title, like brethren, for a Christian group?
Ian Howard Marshall has this to say about the ancient practice of using male terms to talk to people, in particular, the word brethren:
“It is freely admitted that the scriptural language is male orientated, just as it was in English until recently, but without any intent to exclude women. There is a difference between being male-orientated or male-centered and being exclusive of females.”
“What we are suggesting is that the usage is one in which sometimes the context may make it clear that the reference is exclusive and purely to males, but that the letters are addressed to mixed audiences, and therefore generally adelphoi [brothers] is used in a way that does not exclude women, even if it is probably that the author may have been thinking primarily about men.” (4)
Generally, in the ancient Mediterranean world, men spoke to crowds of men. Men were the ones who were educated, more out and about, and who were the decision-makers. It seemed natural for men to address their speeches to other men. Unlike our modern, “Ladies and Gentlemen” opening, when a Jew spoke to a crowd of predominantly Jewish men, he might say “Brethren”. (See Acts 3:17, 22; 7:2; 22:1; 23:1, 5, 6; 28:17 in the NASB when the term "brethren" is used for a Jewish, non-Christian gathering.)
Taking a look at the context, the word brethren in the early church does include groups with women
From the examples above in the book of Acts, the words saints, brethren, and disciples can be used interchangeably, including groups that have women. Based on our understanding of the language, when you read about the actions of the brethren, such as Acts 6:3, 9:30; 10:23; 11:1, 29; 12:17, etc, there is nothing in the language that excludes the presence of women.
Based on the ancient culture, and your personal views about women in the early church (complementarian or egalitarian) you can judge how involved these women were, but in many cases, we are confident women were there.
Read more about women's roles in the church with my post: The Problem of Eve and Her Impact on Women's Roles in Ministry
What about using the title "sister" to refer to believers?
The Greek word for sister, adelphe, shows up 25 times in the New Testament. It is used in connection with the word brother in Matthew 12:50, 19:29; Mark 3:35, 10:29, 10:30; Luke 14:26; 1 Corinthians 7:15; and James 2:15.
Three times adelphe is used for a specific person in a similar context to "brother Timothy". We have "our sister Phoebe" in Romans 16:1, "Apphia our sister" in Philemon 2, and "The children of your chosen sister greet you," in 2 John 13—the only letter in the Bible written specifically to a woman. (5)
Replacing "brethren" with brothers and sisters
So can we confidently apply the title "brothers and sisters" to those places where someone is addressing the church? I think if you find it helpful, there is no real harm with doing so in context, as some Bible translations do already. I do think there is something to be said about coming to grips with the word "brethren" in its cultural setting, and to brush off any feelings of being left out as a woman believer. At least, that was freeing for me.
If you want my complete list of the Greek word for brother/brethren in the New Testament, click to immediately download this PDF:
I hope you find it useful for your own studies!
I have highlighted text within the PDF that helped me organize my search results. You will see color-coded verses for:
Where the NIV translation shows the word "brother" as gender-inclusive
Where the NIV translates NASB's "brethren" as "brother" (I don't fully understand why the NIV is gender-inclusive is some passages, but not others)
A few places where I thought adding "and sisters" didn't make sense culturally (men cannot draw a woman aside privately unless they're family or married, nor can a woman be taken to court in the first-century)
The places where it specifically says "brother and sister" in the Greek
The places where the term "brothers" is used to address a non-Christian group of Jews
Plus, the places where we see the word "sister" in the New Testament.
(If you find errors or wish to comment on the PDF or this article, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me!)
The popular use of the word brethren for a group of believers might say something about the male-orientated culture of the first century, but as I understand it, using the word brethren doesn't negatively portray the role of women in the early church—or the place of women as adopted children and heirs in the family of Christ Jesus.
What do you think?
1. Sirach 25:21
2. Sirach 25:12-25; 42:9-14
3. Branick, Vincent P. The House Church in the Writings of Paul. Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1989 4. - Ian Howard Marshall, “brothers embracing sisters” 'Technical Papers for the Bible Translator 55/3, July 2004, pages 308 and 306.
5. For more on this chosen lady, who she may have been, and if "chosen lady" is simply a name for a church, see this article "Who was the Chosen Lady in 2 John?" by Marg Mowczko.