"Brothers and sisters" in the New Testament

(6) “Brothers and Sisters”

in the New Testament


The New Testament normally refers to believers as adelphoi, “brethren”. It is sometimes suggested that the masculine is used because the instructions are addressed to male elders. This may be the case at the Council of Jerusalem.

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know....”                         (Acts 15:6-7)

Here Peter is addressing the masculine apostles and elders, and “brethren” translates andres adelphoi (literally “men, brothers”). This use of andres, however, is a formal way of addressing an audience, and it becomes apparent that “the whole church” is involved in the decision making after listening to the speeches.

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.                                                                 (Acts 15:22)

The “whole church” obviously includes the women.

In the New Testament letters, however, adelphoi is used on its own or coupled with words like “saints” or “beloved”, and it is very clear from the opening and closing greetings that these expressions, though masculine in Greek, are addressed to all the believers and are equivalent to our usage “brothers and sisters”. Italics are ours in the following quotations.

To all Gods beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you....            (Romans 1:7-8)

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you....                          (1 Thessalonians 1:1-4)

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:1-2)

That adelphoi means “brothers and sisters” can also be demonstrated from numerous New Testament passages, like Hebrews 2:11, Hebrews 10:19, Philippians 4:8, James 1:2 & 19.

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren....                                                                    (Hebrews 2:10-11)

Does this apparently masculine language (“many sons”, “brethren”) refer only to brothers, not sisters? Are only brothers sanctified? Is Jesus the pioneer of the salvation only of brothers?

The explanation is that in accordance with normal usage (English or Greek) masculine terms and grammar are employed for statements which include both male and female.

He or him, is therefore used when speaking generally and this is understood to include she or her. In the plural, they in English includes both masculine and feminine but without any sense of gender being present, except by context.[1] To refer to males, or to refer to males and females together, masculine terminology is used. Feminine terminology is used only when referring to females exclusively.

How, then, do we know whether a passage refers to brothers and sisters together, or only to brothers? Paul makes it clear that he is referring to all the believers by his usage of terms like “all” and “each one of you”.

It is right for me to feel thus about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel.             (Philippians 1:7)                                                                                                                                            

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus....                                                               (Philippians 2:4-5)


Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.                       (Philippians 4:8-9)


Important Implications

This means that passages addressed to “brethren” refer to all the believers unless clearly specified to the contrary or unless there is overwhelming reason to suppose otherwise. The NRSV regularly translates adelphoi as “brothers and sisters”, and the most recent edition of the Good News Bible does likewise.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.   (NRSV)

It should be noted that we are not citing inclusive language translations (like GNB, NRSV) to prove our point. The reason for using inclusive language in translating adelphoi is because this is what the word means in the way Paul and the other New Testament letter-writers express themselves.[2] This teaching is directed to all members of the ecclesia, both brothers and sisters, and it would not make sense to assert differently.[3] The inclusive language translations make this clear.

As we continue through Romans 12, although the masculine is used and Paul changes to the singular, the teaching is still to all the brothers and sisters, not just to the brothers:

For by the grace given to me I bid everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.                                                                    (Romans 12:3)

Despite masculine terms like “he” and “him”, it is obvious that these words apply to all brothers and sisters in Christ. When Paul continues, as below, does this inclusive use of masculine terminology suddenly cease part way through the paragraph?

For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 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; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.                                                                                 (Romans 12:4-8)

If in this list of activities Paul included some which were universally agreed to be male-only, then his readers would understand this, and not assume that the all-inclusive masculine terms still included feminine. For example, if writing today to a mixed group of believers, someone said, “Some of you are doctors, some train-drivers, some nurses, some teachers” we might be inclined to regard all of these as possible occupations for both men and women, though wonder whether there were in fact any female train drivers.[4] But had this been written a hundred years ago, people then would have thought: doctors (men), train-drivers (men), nurses (women), teachers (men or women).

In this passage Paul describes the various activities within first century ecclesias: prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, and helping others in various ways. Each of these is practised, with approval, by both brothers and sisters: prophecy (1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Acts 21:9), service (1 Timothy 5:9-10), teaching (Colossians 3:16, Titus 2:3), exhortation (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13), charity (Acts 9:36, Hebrews 13:16).[5] According to Paul’s explanation these activities do not vary according to whether they are carried out by brothers or by sisters but vary “according to the grace given to us” (verse 6). This list is in the masculine according to Greek usage. The fact that activities like helping others, giving to charity, doing acts of mercy – Christian activities which apply to both sexes – are described in this manner (using “he”) again indicates that both brothers and sisters are intended.

Romans 12 continues:

Let love be genuine; hate [masculine][6] what is evil, hold fast [masculine] to what is good; love one another [masculine][7] with brotherly affection; outdo [masculine] one another [masculine] in showing honour.                                                                                                (Romans 12:9-10)

Obviously this teaching, though given in the masculine for reasons of Greek grammar, applies to all believers. Some translators, by using the plural or by saying “we” or “you” instead of “he”, make it clear to readers that masculine statements such as those above refer to both male and female.

If our gift is to speak God’s message, we should do it according to the faith that we have; if it is to serve, we should serve; if it is to teach, we should teach; if it is to encourage others, we should do so. Whoever shares with others should do it generously: whoever has authority should work hard; whoever shows kindness to others should do it cheerfully.                                                      (Romans 12:6-8 GNB, italics ours.)

In 1 Corinthians 12 we also find a list of ecclesial activities. Once more the believers are addressed in the masculine “brethren”, but again it is necessary to realise that the masculine includes feminine.[8]

For by one spirit we were all [masculine] baptized into one body – Jews [masculine] or Greeks, slaves [masculine] or free [masculine] – and all [masculine] were made to drink of one Spirit.    (1 Corinthians 12:13)

When we look at the list of activities we once more note that there is no indication of any male/female division:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.             (1 Corinthians 12:27-28)

Paul does not say, nor does he appear to imply, that God has appointed men to be apostles, prophets, teachers, and women to be workers of miracles, healers and helpers.

When in 1 Corinthians 14 we read a description of a first century ecclesial meeting, the same applies. Although in the masculine, it is addressed to all brothers and sisters and describes the varied activity.

What then, brethren? When you come together, each one has a hymn,

a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or interpretation. (1 Corinthians 14:26)

The NIV (inclusive language version, 1998) translates:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.                                          (1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV)

There is no distinction made as to whether it is a sister or a brother who brings a hymn, a lesson (didache, “teaching”), a revelation, a tongue, or interpretation. By saying “each one” when addressing the brothers and sisters, Paul indicates clearly that he is referring to both. Nowhere does Paul add, “Naturally, I mean only the men!” – although it would be quite possible and simple to have said this in Greek.

Two objections can be made to this conclusion. The first is to suggest that Paul disapproves of their coming with “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or interpretation” for he goes on to say: “Let all things be done for edification” – the implication being that what they were doing was not “for edification”. We should remember, however, that Paul established the ecclesia in Corinth and stayed there for a year and a half (Acts 18:11). In this letter he is regulating things which have gone wrong (including several people speaking at once), but the basic pattern of worship with “everyone” contributing, and with brothers and sisters praying and prophesying must surely have come from Paul himself. As he says:

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.                    (1 Corinthians 11:2)

It would be surprising if the teachings (“traditions”, RSV, “ordinances” KJV) did not include how they were to run their meetings. Paul is criticising not what they do but how they do it, as with his comments about “the Lord’s supper” (1 Corinthians 11:17-21).

The second objection is drawn from 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Does Paul now make himself clear (in case anyone from his all-inclusive previous comments thinks otherwise) and declare that women should not speak at all? If the New Testament gave no indication that sisters were involved in teaching, exhorting and leadership, it would seem possible that Paul’s all-inclusive statements would be understood by his hearers (on points like these) in a non-inclusive fashion. Hence much depends on how we see verses 34-35 in the context of the whole of the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is discussed in detail in Chapter 8, and 1 Timothy 2 in Chapters 10, 11 and 12, but the overall evidence from Paul’s letters (and specifically from 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, and 14:1-5, “I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy”) indicates that both brothers and sisters normally did speak, and Paul wished them to speak, at ecclesial meetings.

This may seem surprising if we are accustomed to assuming that only brothers took a leading part, but Ephesians 4 illustrates the same point. All the brothers and sisters are addressed:

I ... beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.... There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.... But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.                                                      (Ephesians 4:1-7, italics ours)

As in Romans and Corinthians, the activities are described with no distinction made between male and female roles.

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ....

(Ephesians 4:11-16)

Ephesians 4 continues with teaching addressed to all brothers and sisters.

... putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members of one another.           (Ephesians 4:25)


The question might be asked: “If these different roles were carried out by both brothers and sisters, who were these sisters? We know names of brothers like Paul and Timothy. Who were the sisters?”

In Romans 16 there are twenty-nine people, at least eight of whom are women. More sisters than brothers are listed here as workers.[9] As we observed in the last chapter, Phoebe is called a “deacon/servant” and “helper” (or “leader”), Prisca and Aquila and Timothy are “fellow workers”, Mary “has worked hard among you”, and Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis are “workers in the Lord”. In Philippians 4:2-3 Euodia and Syntyche are described as women who “have laboured side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers.”

To respond that these sisters simply worked hard supporting the brothers like Martha did for Jesus (Luke 10:40), seems more than inadequate. Does preparing food or discussing only in private really suit these descriptions?

It would, in fact, be difficult to find any way of making a closer identification between the work done by the brothers and by the sisters than presented here. What work was it? Paul uses the same words for work (kopos and ergon) that he uses of himself and of the brothers. Was it not the work of spreading the gospel and establishing and building up ecclesias – the work listed by the apostle Paul in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4?

This does not mean that every sister did every job, any more than every brother did every job. The evidence supplied above is that capable sisters like capable brothers did what they could to promote the gospel and build up and run the ecclesias – “according to the grace given” (Romans 12:6). This activity, which involved prophecy, teaching, administration, acts of charity, received full divine approval and was done by both sexes.


Finally, three questions need to be asked.

If Paul had intended his teaching to be all-inclusive, need he have written any differently? From a grammatical point of view the answer is: “No”. He need not have done. As it stands, his remarks are in all-inclusive Greek.

Secondly, if Paul had intended his teaching to refer exclusively to males, would he have needed to write differently in Greek. The answer is: “Yes”. He would have had to specify: “I mean that men should do this, not women,” using the words andres for “men”, gynaikes for “women”, or the words “male” and “female” as in Galatians 3:28 (where, of course, he says there is not male and female).

Thirdly, if Paul had intended his remarks not to be all-inclusive, would he have repeatedly used all-inclusive terms like “all” and “each one of you”?


[1] Greek, like English, does not have a neutral third-person singular pronoun which is neither masculine nor feminine, other than the neuter it, which is not appropriate when talking of a person. In Greek, masculine adjectives, pronouns and participles are used in general statements, without any specifically masculine meaning being necessarily intended.

[2] We consider that every time Paul writes adelphoi as a vocative (i.e. addressing people) he means “believers” or “brothers and sisters”. Anyone can check this with a concordance, and we invite you to do the research and see. Go through every instance of “brethren” in the New Testament letters in Young’s Concordance; look at the letter and the surrounding circumstances to see to whom it is addressed. “Brothers and sisters” is also usually the meaning when other grammatical cases are used, with only a few exceptions where one or two males are referred to and the word there has to be translated as “brothers” masculine. This might be the case in 1 Cor 6:8, if the example about going to court is against men, as is quite probable; it is certainly the case in 2 Cor 8:22-23 where Paul is talking about Titus & another brother (verse 17), so to translate “brothers and sisters” would not make sense. The same could apply to 1 Cor 16:12 “I strongly urged him [Apollos] to go to you with the brothers.”

In 1 Tim 5:1 the meaning is the normal family meaning: “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” Similarly with Stephen’s mention of Joseph’s brothers in Acts 7:13.

In Rom 9:3 adelphoi means the people of Israel, as in Heb 7:5, and when Paul addresses the crowd in the Temple (Acts 22:1), the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1), and the Jewish leaders in Rome (Acts 28:17). In these cases, the inclusive language versions continue to translate correctly, i.e. they do not say “brothers and sisters” out of some misplaced concern (as some critics allege) to be politically correct!

The Book of Acts has varied uses where adelphoi is often coupled with andres (men), generally in formal speeches (about 10 times). This use of andres (men) appears to be a specialised usage for beginning a speech, and we should not assume that women were not present, e.g. in Acts 1:16, where Peter addressed the 120 believers, or at Pentecost when Peter addressed the crowd (Acts 2:22, 2:29) and as a consequence “there were added that day about three thousand souls” i.e. men and women (Acts 2:41).

There are about 130 examples of adelphoi from Romans to Revelation. Apart from the exceptions above (about 6 occurrences, and never in the vocative case) we maintain that every time the word adelphoi is used from Romans to Revelation it means “brothers and sisters”. About 120 examples of adelphoi meaning “brothers and sisters” compared with 6 against is quite a strong statistic!

[3] The preface to the NIV 1995 Inclusive Language edition (page vii) gives further reasons for using inclusive language: “A major challenge facing the Committee is how to respond to the significant changes that are taking place within the English language in regard to gender issues. The word ‘man’, for example, is now widely understood to refer only to males, even though that is not the intention of the corresponding Greek or Hebrew words. Instances of potential confusion abound, as in instructions about preparing for the Lord’s Supper (‘A man ought to examine himself’, 1 Corinthians 11:28), or in pronouncements of beatitude such as in Psalm 1:1 (‘Blessed is the man ...). In these and many other passages, it has become increasingly necessary to have a translation that makes it clear that women and men are both included.”

[4] It was announced in The Scotsman 2nd February 2007 that 21 of ScotRail’s 900 drivers are women, and the company has launched a recruitment drive for more women and ethnic minority applicants.

[5] This is based on the RSV which translates Romans 12:18, “He who gives aid, with zeal”. The KJV reads “He that ruleth with diligence”. The Greek can be translated either way. Examples of ruling by women can be seen in instructions about Paul’s workers and fellow workers (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 1 Corinthians 16:15-16), some of whom were women (Romans 16). See Chapter 7 “Paul’s General Teaching”, pages 48-60. So too in 1 Timothy 5:14 where young widows are to marry and “rule their households”. See Chapter 5 “What Happened in the Early Ecclesias?”, pages 30-39.

[6] The English verbs are masculine participles in Greek.

[7] “one another” (allelous) is masculine.

[8] The letter is addressed to all believers: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:2)

[9] This fact assumes even greater significance if statistics computed from the Roman Empire are correct. It is calculated that there were twice as many men as women in ancient Rome.

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