Most evangelicals have come to recognize that it is perfectly acceptable and often desirable to translate adelphoi in the plural into English as “brothers and sisters” in contexts in the New Testament where it is unambiguous that men and women alike are being addressed. But James 3:1 is more ambiguous. The NET Bible renders it, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.” The NLT, TNIV and NRSV likewise all employ “brothers and sisters.”
Some argue, however, along the following lines. (1) We know that the first Christian generation did not have female teachers. (2) Including “sisters” as part of the translation of James 3:1 suggests that they did. Therefore, (3) translations such as the four mentioned above are seriously in error at this point and should be shunned.
There are so many holes in the “logic” of this “argument” that one barely knows where to start. But let’s take the three points in order.
Concerning (1), (a) we in fact do not know nearly as much as some complementarians and egalitarians alike confidently affirm about the first generation of Christian history. Some egalitarians believe that there were no “official” first-century women teachers in the church but that because of changed culture, it is acceptable to have women in that role today. Others, however, point to Priscilla (teaching Apollos) or Junia (as an apostle) or Philip’s daughters who prophesied and infer a prominent teaching role from them. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that complementarians have successfully refuted all such claims, there is still (b) the question of how “teacher” is being used here. In Ephesians 4:12 “pastors and teachers” are closely linked but not (necessarily) equated, and a case can be made from Acts 20 and Titus 1 that Paul often uses “pastor,” “overseer” and “elder” interchangeably. A case can also be made that he limited this office to men, but that still stops short of demonstrating that he equated “teacher” with this office. Even if he did, (c) nothing requires James to be using the term in the same way. Luke and Paul, for example, differ in how they use the term “apostle,”—Luke in all but one instance reserving it for one of “the Twelve,” and Paul often using it as a spiritual gift. Finally, (d) Paul clearly uses “teaching” as a spiritual gift in his various lists of gifts which the Spirit gives without reference to gender, and James could be using it that way.
Concerning (2), (a) James regularly uses adelphoi throughout his letter to address his entire congregation, and in no other instance is there any contextual reason for thinking he has only men in view. Even if he had only men in whatever role he was calling “teachers,” (b) he could still be addressing the entire listening congregation. If all New Testament authors were as uniformly conservative as some complementarians suggest, James could be wanting to forestall any women trying to become teachers as apparently had happened in Ephesus, thereby necessitating 1 Timothy 2:12. After all, his comments are cautions against too many wanting to become teachers. In a traditional society he could be gently saying, in essence, “there are already too many men aspiring to this office that we need to cut back on “applicants,” and the women could easily have heard, “so women, don’t even think about it.” Or (c) James might simply have continued his standard form of address to the whole congregation without being nearly so subtle, because he knew both genders would be listening to the letter being read and women would quickly recognize from the standard practice of the day that he was focusing on men at this point.
Concerning (3), even if none of the previous options should turn out to have been the true situation, the number of ways in which James could indeed have meant “brothers and sisters” that we have surveyed suggests that, if he did not mean this, (a) the inclusive translation can scarcely be called a “serious” error. It would be a fairly minor one. Finally, (b) even if someone remained unconvinced and still deemed it serious, every Bible translation ever created has equally if not more “serious” errors in various places and we can’t shun all of them!
What, then, of a final but quite different counterargument? Shouldn’t we still err on the side of a conservative translation if there is any reasonable doubt that James had both genders in mind. Isn’t that part of where translations differ from commentaries because of our high view of the inspired text of Scripture itself? This may be one of the most widespread and dangerous fallacies afflicting certain wings of evangelical scholarship and the conservative church in general in the U.S. today. Every translation, in fact, has to balance some measure of literal rendering (formally equivalent translation) with understandability (dynamically equivalent translation). The only completely literal translations are interlinear Bibles that are consistently unintelligible if one were to read them solely in English! So one always must ask (and balance the answers to the two questions) both what is at stake if someone misunderstands a translation because it is too literal and what is involved if someone misunderstands a translation because it is too free.
In this case, the answer to the first question, in an absolute “worst-case scenario” would be that someone would think there were women teachers in James’ church(es) in some unspecified role when in fact there were not. But no one could fairly derive from the text that James himself approved (or disapproved) of this fact, since the only prescription (rather than description) in the text involves reducing those who would be teachers (from either gender). And all the other passages in other parts of Scripture used by complementarians to ban women from certain roles or offices would remain unchanged in their translation (and all four translations noted above preserve sufficiently traditional translations of those passages for such interpretations to remain completely plausible).
On the other hand, if James did have women teachers and was not discouraging anyone from the role based on gender, merely on overeagerness, and someone misunderstood a more “traditional” translation as gender-exclusive, and if egalitarian interpretations or applications of the other texts in Scripture appearing to limit women’s roles in church leadership turned out to be true, then the translators preserving the more “traditional” translation would have the guilt on their hands of unwittingly stifling a woman’s gifts and/or calling, and perhaps even quenching the work of God’s Spirit in the world.
I don’t ever want consciously to risk that. I’ll stick with “brothers and sisters” in James 3:1. But then I don’t think he was talking about what Paul called elders or overseers anyway!