Should We Stick with the Gender-Inclusive Language in the New Testament?

The following is excerpted from the High Definition Commentary: James. It is a sidebar about the linguistic implications of adopting (or rejecting) gender-inclusive language when NT writers directly address their audience. Should we stick with “brothers” or switch to something more inclusive?

Background

There has been an ongoing, divisive debate about the merits of using gender-inclusive language in Bible translations. The debate stems from the frequent use of expressions like ἀδελφοί μου “my brothers” in James 1:2 to address both male and female members of the audience. There is little doubt that these expressions were considered gender-neutral to the original audience. But the open question is how such expressions will be understood today. Are they still gender-neutral, or do they convey chauvinistic overtones? Some argue this common expression should be translated as “my brothers and sisters” so as to explicitly include both genders, as we see in the NIV 2011. Others argue that any such change we might make represents a disregard for the authority of the text. Both of these are valid points, but is there some way forward that respects both? The answer to this question will influence how we read and teach a book like James based on the number of times expressions like this crop up. Although this matter has some complexities, there is indeed a way forward.

Required Uses

We can divide the uses of direct address like “my brothers” into two types: those that are needed to know “who did what to whom,” and those that are not needed. For instance in Ephesians 5:22, 25; 6:1, 4, 5, and 9, Paul directly addresses subgroups of the audience; the direct address signals the switch from the church to wives, then to husbands, to children, to slaves, and then to masters. Without the direct address, we would have a difficult time recognizing Paul’s switch to some new sub-group of addressees. These are examples of required uses of direct address; they are “mission-critical” to the text and cannot be changed. Admittedly there are a few instances where one could make a case for or against the need for direct address, but the important thing to recognize is that there are linguistic criteria to guide such usage.

“Extracurricular” Uses

Believe it or not, these necessary uses of direct address represent only a minority of all uses. The majority of direct addresses found in the NT are not semantically required. So then what are these other uses of direct address accomplishing? A good many help us identify boundaries in the discourse. When the NT was originally written, there were no conventions like punctuation, paragraph breaks, or chapter divisions to help readers know where to divide the text. Redundant forms of direct address are one means writers could use to signal such boundaries. How? Think about how the semantically required addresses operate. Forms of direct address like “wives,” “husbands,” and “children” signaled the beginning of a new section addressing the new group of people. Using a generic form of address—one that doesn’t do anything to change the audience—is a natural extension of the same linguistic device. In colloquial English we use expressions like “bro,” “dude,” and “man” to do the same thing.

Another use of redundant address operates at a more local level. Instead of signaling a new paragraph, sometimes the expression is found in the middle of a sentence, as in James 1:2. This unneeded direct address creates a speed bump, delaying our reading of what lies on the other side. This delay results in anticipation or suspense, drawing extra attention to what is typically an important thematic statement. So instead of drawing attention to a new addressee or a new section of the discourse, this use in the middle of a clause draws attention to a something surprising or important.

Implications

If we consider the generic forms of direct address used in languages, most share an interesting trait: They are nearly always masculine. Why? Well, the masculine form of something is most often the generic one; it doesn’t limit the gender. I can talk about a female lion or female sheep but not about a male lioness or a male ewe. This isn’t linguistic chauvinism; it is simply an economy of language. It is easier to have one form serve double-duty (masculine and generic) than to have a third, androgynous form for generic references.

If we consider at how Greek hearers would have responded to “brothers,” or how modern English-speakers respond to “bro” or “dude,” it is doubtful that gender figures significantly into the processing of the term. Although in some communities women address each other as “sister,” more often I’ve heard women calling other women “dude” instead of “dudette” or “dudess.” Again, this has nothing to do with linguistic chauvinism and everything to do with the constraints and economy of language.

So how do we move forward in properly handling these generic forms of direct address in James? The call for changing to inclusive forms of address misunderstands the important distinction between required and redundant direct address. If you are going to change terminology—which is a completely legitimate choice—then be sure to choose something that does not create the impression that you are narrowing the audience down to an actual sub-group of people. Plural expressions like “folks,” “church,” or “family” can play that role, but may sound awkward at first. My preferred option when preaching is “folks” because most people are used to hearing it, but it omits the family overtone of “brothers.” Whatever you decide to do, keep in mind the reason these redundant forms were used, and do your best not to undermine their important function.

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Written by
Steve Runge
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4 comments
  • “My preferred option when preaching is “folks” because most people are used to hearing it, but it omits the family overtone of “brothers.””

    But isn’t the idea of family the whole point of the apostle’s use of ἀδελφοί μου? Or are you suggesting that such language was common Greek usage outside of the community of believers?

    • Hi Kenneth,

      You said “isn’t the idea of family the whole point of the apostle’s use of ἀδελφοί μου?” I’d not say it’s the WHOLE point, but certainly one of them. I was trying to draw attention to the OTHER points he (and James and others) use these unneeded references. I posted a paper I presented at an academic conference that goes into more detail over at the HiDef Bible Study group. There is also more information in section 5.4 of Discourse Grammar of the GNT .

      The key thing to keep in mind is that the family reference doesn’t become meaningless if the direct address is not required, it simply opens the possibility of additional effects to be achieved.

  • I would submit that male-gender terms such as brother, man, etc. carry a more complex and nuanced connotation than is considered here. Did James intend to convey that woman also should consider it all joy when they encounter various trials? Certainly! That said, the choice to use male-gender terms may also reflect the view that man is the head of woman which most certainly would have been the view of the early church. James may very well have used these terms inclusively, but speaking to and about men as representatives of mankind and using the terms completely generically are different things. Ultimately, we can’t derive from the text to what extent James or other authors may have affixed respect for role distinctions between men and women to their use of inclusive terms such as those discussed here which is why the safest choice for translators is to render the terms as closely to the original usage as possible leaving the interpretation up to the end readers. As someone once said, the most subtle form of interpretation is translation.

  • Steve,
    Thanks for a balanced and respectful intro to this topic.

    “keep in mind the reason these redundant forms were used” — This sentence hints at the risk in this approach: That there is only one reason these forms (I won’t call them redundant, though I think I know what you’re trying to say) were used, and the translator has accurately analyzed it. Or more generally, that the translator has figured out all the reasons these particular forms were used.

    As one who has spent a lot of time around Bible translators, I heard these kinds of discussions frequently. One of my colleagues used to compare God’s Word to an iceberg. The part showing above the water is the part of the significant meaning that a given reader, at a given point in time, is able to discern. We’ve all had experiences where God’s Spirit opened up new details to us that we had never before noticed in our years of reading a particular passage. We’ve had experiences where details that seemed unnecessary (“redundant”) to us turned out to be very important to someone else. Translators need to be very careful about translating the tip of the iceberg and depriving readers of the rest of it.

    Granted, as translators we have to make some decisions of this type based on our fallible understanding, whether we want to or not. It goes without saying that these decisions must be made prayerfully. But we should humbly recognize the risks we’ve taken, acknowledging that there are valid concerns about the meaning that’s left out (or added) by our translation.

Written by Steve Runge
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