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: