At times English Bible translations may be too gender inclusive. Of course, this gender inclusiveness works well for egalitarians and those sensitive to women issues. But we must be careful here.
Below are two pieces of evidence that should firmly establish why we need to keep “adoption of sons” in our English Bibles:
1. Greco-Roman Law and Adoption. If it is true that Paul borrowed huiothesia from the Greco-Roman world—a term which refers to the practice of “a childless adult who wanted an heir [and] would adopt a male, usually at an age other than in infancy and frequently a slave, to be son” (Lincoln, Ephesians, p. 25)—then egalitarians should be excited not enraged at the rendering “adoption of sons.”
In other words, by Paul’s use of the term huiothesia, which was reserved only for the adoption of a male child as son and heir, our sisters in Christ may now boast of the same status of acceptance in Christ, with the males.
So there’s no need for “adoption of children” at Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5, and Gal. 4:5, as in the NRSV and NLT.
2. OT Background and Adoption. But if Paul has ancient Israel relationship in mind, as is the case in Romans 9:4, then we also have a Christocentric concept to appreciate. YHWH calls ancient Israel his firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1), no doubt a foreshadowing of Jesus (Matt. 2:15; Col. 1:15). Or as Bornkamm puts it,
The soteriological significance of Christ’s sonship with God also comes out in the fact that sonship of the believers is based on the sending of the “Son” and attested to them by his Spirit. He does not call them to be “Christs” and “Kyrioi,” but “sons” and “heirs” (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:4-7). (G. Bornkamm, Paul, p. 249)
Theologically speaking, “For Paul, Christians are ‘sons’ of the Father in the derived sense of sharing the Sonship of Christ” (A. Thiselton, The Living Paul, p. 57, emphasis added).
So I say to my brothers and sisters who are egalitarians, Don’t be enraged at “adoption of sons” or “sons” in English Bible translations like the ESV and HCSB. Instead, embrace the terms “adoption of sons” and “sons,” because of their theological and christological import.
As a footnote, I hear the objection, “Well, “adoption of sons” is too gender specific, because it excludes women (sisters in Christ).” The solution is not to opt for “adoption of children.”
Rather, we need to teach our people how to read their Bibles—how to dig down deep, until the texts yield their meanings, ala Luther, and to enjoy the discovery, not of our world, but of the biblical world.
But in an effort to make the truth clear, some of our newer English Bible translations have found themselves dumbing down the text too much.