For you did not receive a spirit that make you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit itself testifies that we are God’s children.
~ Romans 8:15-16 ~
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights as sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.
~ Galatians 4:4-7~
Due to the climate of our modern era, many have attempted to “update” the Bible by changing certain words that they see as reflecting a male-dominated culture. Some say this change is to make the Bible more readable; others to make the language current with our modern way of speaking. Instead of ‘mankind’, ‘humanity’ has been re-purposed from its original definition. Instead of ‘sons of God’, some say ‘sons and daughters’ or simply ‘children’. These changes have various political and social implications that I will refrain from discussing today. My point is that the phrase “adoption as sons” is very specific and intentional. Without this phrase, we lose not only the historical understanding, but also the lasting, eternal, meaning and implication.
The Greek word is υἱοθεσία, transliterated as huiothesia, which means ‘adoption’ or ‘the placing as a son’ (Strong’s “5206.”). It is translated as “adoption to sonship” five times in the New Testament (Rom. 8:15, 8:23, 9:4, Gal. 4:5, Eph. 1:5). While this may seem like outdated language to us, it meant the world to the Gentile Christians at the time, male and female alike. Most people at this time would have been fairly immersed with Roman culture and law. And among these laws, written and otherwise, were those about adoption and rights as first-born sons. To be a first born son was to be somebody, especially if you were a patrician. To be anyone else, especially a woman, was to be disregarded, and often discarded. There was only bondage and a lack of worth in store for most people whom the disciples preached to.
But where Gentile cultures treated everyone – save first-born sons – as lesser people, especially if they were female, Christ and the Scriptures spoke of all people being adopted as sons. This meant that as a Christian, you were of worth simply because Christ loved you and died for you, not because of your status at birth or status of sex. As the letter to the Galatians stated, there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). This does not mean there are no sexes but that in Christ we are simply Christian. All are welcome. All are unified. All have inherent worth. There are neither first-born sons nor women of no worth. There is no one greater or lesser to any degree; there is only God over all and us under Him. All are unified in freedom, dignity, worth, and salvation in Christ.
This was a freedom found only in Christianity, a freedom that is now taken for granted in modern cultures.
Similarly, Roman culture had specifics on adoption. The phrases go thus, “Minus, dicto audientem filium liceat abdicare: Let it be permitted to disown a disobedient son”; following, “Non abdicabis adoptatum: You may not disown a son you have adopted.” (Fantham 325). What does this mean? In Roman culture, a father could disown a natural-born son. But an adopted one? He could not disown him. Why? Because he had been sought out and brought into the family. That was a bond that could not be broken. And it was within this very context that Paul wrote the letters to the Gentiles. They knew what adoption really meant. It meant that all – men and women – were adopted as sons forever. They would not be forsaken by the Lord.
This is what it means when the Scriptures say that we Christians have been adopted to sonship and that we are ingrafted branches. We are not of a natural birth, but sought out and brought into the family of God as sons. We will not be disowned if we stay in Him. Yes, even women are included in sonship. Together, we are called sons of God that we, too, might no longer be strangers to Him, but members of His household and a part of His inheritance (Rom. 8:23, Eph. 1:5, 2:19).
And what does it mean to be adopted as a first-born son? It means that we gain rights as heirs. Heirs were the first born sons in this culture. Now that we are all adopted as sons, we are also such heirs. We Gentiles are heirs and sharers of the promise together with Israel and are made co-heirs with Christ (Eph. 3:6). These are the rights gained as being sons.
Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
~ Romans 8:17 ~
No matter the reason for changing or wanting to change the translation of these Greek words, it is important as Christians to know what the words mean and why they are important. Sonship does not mean only males in this context, nor does mankind. These are words than encapsulate a greater, spiritual meaning. We are more than those who follow a teaching, but are Christians. We are more than children, but those adopted to sonship, with all the rights that come with that. We are more than worshipers, but are sons of the living God who suffered, died, and rose again for the sins of His creation. We are formed in the image of our Father, for that is what He is. He is our provider and protector and creator.
We are His through the adoption of sons and heirs besides. Let us not miss out on the significance of this phrase but cling the promises it represents. Let us strive to know more fully what God has in store for us who love Him because He loved us.
Blessings to you and yours,
Fantham, Elaine. Roman Readings: Roman Response to Greek Literature from Plautus to Statius and Quintillian. Berlin: De Gruyter. 2011. p. 325.
“3207.” The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words. 1996. Print.