The title of this article begins with a question: are Christians called to mature manhood? The answer is no, not all Christians are called to mature manhood. Complementarians would be quick to affirm that women should strive for mature womanhood, not manhood. Why, then, would Paul confidently refer to a time when “we all attain . . . to mature manhood” (ESV)? Is Paul addressing only men here in Ephesians 4:13? If so, why doesn’t he make that clear?
The problem doesn’t lie with Paul, but with the translation.
When Is It Okay to Cherry-Pick Bible Translations?
The more I learn about the complexity of Bible translation, the more hesitant I am to criticize the choices of Bible translators. They are well trained, well intentioned, and hard working. Who am I to cherry-pick their work? As if learning Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek weren’t hard enough, Bible translation also requires careful attention to English (or to a different target language, as the case may be).
For example, after I typed “cherry-pick” in the paragraph above, I looked it up to see if it actually means what I intended. As it turns out, my use of “cherry-pick” may be a bit off. And I have no idea whether it means the same thing, or anything at all, to English speakers around the globe. That is to say, choosing the right word can be tricky.
In some cases, what first strikes me as an odd translation choice, or even a misleading one, ends up changing my mind after I consider it more carefully. In other cases, I simply agree to disagree with the way a particular Bible translation translates something.
Nevertheless, in spite of my hesitancy to criticize, critique is sometimes necessary—for the good of us all.
What Does “Mature Manhood” Mean to the ESV Translators?
Critique is warranted in the English Standard Version’s rendering of Ephesians 4:13. Ephesians is famous for its long sentences, so let’s look at verses 11–14 to include context:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (ESV)
The phrase “mature manhood,” in the middle of verse 13, translates the Greek words andra teleion, which on their own mean “a full-grown man” (as an ESV footnote states). So why is “mature manhood” not a good translation?
Let me first state and then dispense with the obvious: I am an egalitarian and the ESV translators are largely complementarian. I am less comfortable with a translation such as “mature manhood” or “full-grown man” than the ESV translators are. But to be clear, that is not the issue here. This article does not argue that they should have done what I would have done, that they should follow my preferences rather than their own. On the contrary, I believe the translation “mature manhood” does not, in fact, mean what the ESV translators themselves intend it to mean!
The word “manhood,” like “cherry-pick” and most other words, has a range of meaning. Each use of “manhood” will fall somewhere in that range.1 So how do I know what, specifically, the ESV translators understand “manhood” to mean? My best resources for this are the readily available definitions of “manhood” by complementarian authors, especially authors who have connections to the ESV. In the opening chapter of the influential book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, co-author John Piper describes “manhood” as follows:
AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AND PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.2
Piper goes on to describe womanhood, which he also calls “mature femininity.” The broadest takeaway from his opening chapter, and from the book as a whole, is that biblical manhood and womanhood are real, distinct, and should not infringe on one another.
The RBMW co-editors are Piper and Wayne Grudem. Piper wrote the lead endorsement for the ESV and contributed to the ESV Study Bible.3 Grudem served on the ESV Oversight Committee and was the general editor of the ESV Study Bible. There is other leadership overlap as well: Vern Poythress, for example, wrote a chapter for RBMW and served as the ESV New Testament Chair.
Surely it is problematic—given the frequent, intentional, and gender-specific use of the term by leading complementarians—that the ESV would use “manhood” to translate something Paul said about both women and men.
Who Is Included in Andra Teleion?
Let’s return to Ephesians 4. Verse 12 mentions “the saints,” and verses 13 and 14 refer to some of these saints simply as “we”—meaning Paul, his missionary team, and the Ephesian Christians. These are the people who, with Christ’s help, strive for andra teleion. Appropriate translations for andra teleion include “maturity” (CSB, NRSV), “mature” (CEV, NIV), “mature person” (NCV, NET), and “mature adults” (CEB).
We can have confidence that these saints Paul had in mind included women. This confidence is bolstered, for example, by Clinton Arnold, a member of the ESV translation team, who refers to them as “the various members of Christ’s body” and as “each person.”4 Similarly, Benjamin Merkle—in The ESV Expository Commentary—refers to them as “all believers,” “every member,” and simply “the church.”5
In light of this, let me stress that Ephesians 4:13 is not a typical case of the ESV using “man/men” to refer generally to “people,” as it does in “I will make you fishers of men” and “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:19 and Luke 4:4, ESV). While I would prefer the ESV used “fish for people” in Matthew 4 and “People will not…” in Luke 4, I do not expect complementarian translators to follow egalitarian translation preferences.
Instead, here in Ephesians 4:13, the key is that the ESV’s “mature manhood” can only mean “mature personhood” if the ESV breaks with the standard, essential complementarian understanding of “manhood” as being something distinct from “womanhood.” Put another way, by making this translation decision, they either undermine their own understanding of “manhood,” or they change the accepted meaning of this verse.
So What’s At Stake?
Some readers, complementarian and egalitarian, will understand “mature manhood” here to mean something like “mature people” and simply move on. Some complementarian men, however, may feel that it bolsters the “masculine feel” with which God supposedly infused Christianity.6 Some complementarian women will wonder if they can become mature Christians to the extent that men can. They may also struggle to discern when “man,” “mankind,” and in this case “manhood” refer to them and when they don’t. It is because of the distinct definition that complementarians give to “manhood” that “mature saints” would have been a more appropriate choice for the ESV translation team. By opting for an explicitly masculine translation, they have themselves changed the meaning of Ephesians 4:13.
This article appears in “Gendered Language and the Church,” the Autumn 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
- For more on “range of meaning,” see “How Much Does a Word Mean? Word Studies, Part 3,” Mutuality (blog), 30 September 2020, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/how-much-does-word-mean-word-studies-part-3.
- Crossway, pg. 29 in the 1991 edition, pg. 35 in the 2006 edition, use of all caps is Piper’s.
- “Endorsements,” ESV.org, accessed 2 September 2021, https://www.esv.org/translation/endorsements/.
- Arnold authored the Ephesians portion of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Zondervan, 2002).
- Merkle (Crossway, 2018), 77.
- John Piper (in)famously said, at his 2012 Desiring God Conference, “God has given Christianity a masculine feel.”