Scripture Says, ‘Sisters, I’m Talking to All Y’all’
As much as I try to be a good listener, it’s still amazing how much I don’t hear on any given day. Of the tens of thousands of words that float by my ears from speakers (both human and electronic), relatively few seem to cross the auditory abyss and register in my brain. My six-year-old was stunned to discover recently that I didn’t know what had happened to our hero in the storybook chapter we were reading—even though I was the one who had just read it aloud. Apparently, I’m even capable of tuning my own voice out.
Our ability to tune out noise is part of the way God has made us. Scientists call this auditory selective attention, describing how our brains are wired to filter out a multitude of sounds so that we’re able to acutely focus on others. The question is: What does it take to get us to “tune in” again? High on the list of ways to get people’s attention is to speak to them directly. “Using a person’s name when you address them is an excellent way to get [someone’s] attention,” says marriage and family therapist Bianca Rodriguez. “It displays both familiarity and directness.”
The Bible includes a whole lot of “you” verses, and they pack more punch than we might expect. One of my first lessons in New Testament Greek was to discover that most of my deeply loved verses were not addressed to me personally. What I was used to reading as “you” in my English Bible was, in fact, a plural form of you in the Greek—something closer to the South’s all y’all in translation.
Realizing that Scripture was not just a book for my personal devotion but one addressed to a community—all y’all—was my first big wake-up call that the ethical instructions and invitations in the Bible were things we did together. As it turns out, suiting up in the armor of God isn’t something I can do alone in my quiet time. It’s something we each have a responsibility to do as individuals so that, together as a community of God’s people, we all can stand (Eph. 6:13).
As a seminarian, I’d expected ancient languages to open new horizons of insight into believers in the past. But what I hadn’t expected was how much light they would throw onto my experience as a believer in the present.
When I took my first (mandatory) Latin class, I found it comical to learn there was something called the vocative case—meaning that every noun can be written in a form which makes it clear you’re speaking to it: “O, table! O, sheep! O, zucchini!” Greek, the language of the New Testament, also has a vocative case, which is used mostly in relation to people. In other words, the Scriptures were written to address readers directly, personally, vocatively.
Some recent research into the idea of family in the Bible drew my attention again and again to one particular vocative word that appears more than 135 times in the New Testament: adelphoi, translated in most places as “brothers.” In more than three decades of Bible reading, I had seldom noted this word at all and instead tuned it out (using auditory selective attention). In the same way that I don’t notice when people pause their spoken sentences to say “ummmm,” my brain glossed over the adelphoi addresses to get to what I thought were the “spiritually meaningful parts” of the verse.
However, I was missing out. The adephoi address is deeply significant. The New Testament’s words are not just addressed to disciples and servants but to family, and this collective address underlies the entire theological framework of the Bible. The gospel declares that God the Father has through his Son, Jesus, made a way for us to be adopted into his family. It’s not a metaphor: It’s who we are! (1 John 3:1). The guidelines for holy living are spoken to us as God’s gathered children, the way I might sit my children down around the dinner table for a family discussion. The Bible’s lessons come to us directly and with familiarity: “O adelphoi! Brethren! All y’all, listen up!”
As a woman, I take joy in watching the growing recognition among scholars that adelphoi can be better translated as “siblings” or “brothers and sisters.” Greek has a word for a brother or a sister, but when you use the plural—adelphoi—it’s a gender-neutral catch-all. The decision to use “brothers and sisters” as the optimally equivalent translation reflects a commitment to gender accuracy and is not a concession to gender inclusivity.
In their handling of adelphoi, the translators of the Christian Standard Bible “chose to avoid being unnecessarily specific in passages where the original context would obviously include men and women,” explains Trevin Wax. “If the original used a masculine generic word to refer to both male and female, the translators made that clear. This is why, often in Paul’s letters, adelphoi is translated as ‘brothers and sisters’ instead of just ‘brothers,’ because Paul obviously had the whole church in mind when using the generic masculine form in Greek.”
I’ve always known I was generally included in the broad sweep of humanity’s plural pronouns: I’m part of mankind even though I’m a woman, and brothers includes me as a sister, too. But something deep within me pays better attention when these verses specifically include me as a woman. I listen not as a passively engaged eavesdropper but rather as a fully committed part of the intended audience. “Sisters, I’m talking to all y’all,” it says. Scripture’s teaching and tending is for my ears, specifically.
In this age of individualism, men and women are doubly compelled to tune in to the gospel’s corporate call. We are addressed directly and with familiarity—the children of God gathered around the Father’s table. And when he speaks to me as a sister in this family, I need to do more than listen in. I need to listen up.
Bronwyn Lea is a South African-born author and Bible teacher and the editor of Propel Women’s online wisdom resource, Propel Sophia. She lives with her family in Northern California, and her book on men and women in the family of God is forthcoming from Thomas Nelson in 2020. Find out more here .