The Bible is by no means gender-neutral. It presents from beginning to end a thoroughly masculine perspective, and it often leaves it to the reader to decide what application to females or what inclusion of females is implied. Sometimes, a reference to men or brothers should be understood to include women; other times, men just means “men.” The context will provide the clues.
Determining whether the word man or brothers includes women comes down to rightly translating the passage and then properly interpreting its meaning. Good hermeneutics leads to accurate interpretations and the ability to know when a passage about “men” is exclusive (referring to strictly males) or inclusive (referring to both genders).
Some words are masculine in form, and it is clear from the context that they should be understood as referring to males only. For example, in Acts 7:2, when Stephen addresses his audience as “brothers and fathers,” he is not using those terms generically. The Sanhedrin body to whom he spoke was comprised of men, with no women.
Other words, although masculine in form, can be used as generic terms for both sexes. For example, man and sons are sometimes used to refer to “mankind” and “children” in general. In Ephesians 4:8 we read, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (ESV). Men here is a reference to all mankind—the Lord did not limit the spiritual gifts to the male population in the church. In Mathew 13:38, Jesus speaks of “the sons of the kingdom” and “the sons of the evil one” (ESV). The word sons is masculine, of course, yet in this context it simply means “people” or “offspring.” These examples demonstrate an important point about language. Most words in any language do not have a single, all-encompassing meaning, but context plays a part in determining definition.
Sometimes, the translation of a text makes subtle changes in gender-related words. For example, the King James Version of John 1:12 says, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” However, the English word sons, a masculine word, replaces a neuter word in the Greek; a better translation is “children of God,” which is how the King James 2000 has it.
A related question is why does the Bible use only masculine generic terms? Why can children be referred to as “sons,” but they are never called (generically) “daughters”? It is apparent that, in the culture of the biblical writers, it was standard practice to use the generic masculine. It was just how people thought and how they talked. For centuries in modern English, we also used the generic masculine—he was an acceptable substitute for he or she when referring to an unknown person. In contemporary language, people in the West have grown sensitive to gender-specific language: calling a firefighter a “fireman” is frowned upon as sexist, even if he is obviously male. English students are taught to say “he or she” or, more commonly, “they” (even when referring to a single individual), since the plural is gender-neutral.
Many Bible translations in recent years have adopted a more gender-neutral wording. For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:1 is translated as “brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God” (NIV), even though the word for “sisters” is not in the Greek text. The translators added “and sisters” in the interest of gender neutrality. Does the insertion of and sisters result in a less exact rendering of the Greek text? Yes, it does. But, since Paul was obviously writing to the entire church (which included sisters in Christ), the inclusion of and sisters does no damage to the intent of this particular passage. God’s Word is not distorted by such a modification. Using more generic words such as people, parents, and descendants instead of man, father, and sons may help eliminate confusion, avoid misunderstandings, and avert unnecessary offense in modern times.