The Power of Words: Redefining Marriage (Part 1 of 2)

My friend and mentor Darrow Miller speaks of the power of words to shape culture.  “When God spoke,” Darrow is fond of saying, “He created the universe.  When man, who is made in God’s image, speaks, he creates culture.”  Our minds and our words have the power to form and shape not only the world we live in, but also the world that our children and their children will inherit.  In short, words are incredibly powerful things.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I did a mini-study on the word “marriage.”  What I discovered shocked me.  No longer is the concept of “words shaping culture” an abstract notion.  It is now very real.  What I discovered is that as the word “marriage” was redefined, there was a direct correlation to specific changes in attitude and behavior with regards to marriage that, in turn, had tragic and disastrous consequences on people’s lives, families, and the larger culture.

If you are not familiar with Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the American Language, I highly recommend you buy a copy.  Unlike contemporary dictionaries, it is firmly rooted in a biblical worldview, and thus words and concepts contained in the Bible (such as marriage) retain their historical, biblical content.  As American culture has secularized, the Biblical basis of these words has been stripped away leading to entirely new definitions.  The word “marriage” provides a classic case study.  Here’s how Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines marriage:

“The act of uniting a man and woman for life; wedlock; the legal union of man and woman for life.  Marriage is a contract both civil and religious by which parties engage to live together in mutual affection and fidelity, till death shall separate them.  Marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children.”

What an incredibly rich definition!  Here are the highlights:

  1. Marriage is between “man and woman”
  2. It is “a contract” that is both legal/civil AND religious
  3. It is “for life . . . till death shall separate”
  4. It is instituted by God
  5. It has three distinct purposes (1) Preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, (2) Promoting domestic felicity or happiness, and (3) Protecting, providing for, and educating children.

Now let’s jump forward 156 years and look at how marriage is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary from 1984, the dictionary I used in college.  In its introduction, the authors make this statement:  “[This dictionary is] meant to serve the general public as its chief source of information about the words of our language.”  Its “chief source.”  This is a bold claim to intellectual authority.  So how did these cultural authorities of our language define marriage?  Here it is:

“The mutual relation of husband and wife; wedlock: the institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining of a family.”

While there is some distant echo of Webster’s 1828 definition, this is a dramatically different definition.  Here’s a brief comparison:

  1. While man and woman (now “husband and wife”) is retained, “legal union” both “civil and religious” is replaced by “social and legal dependence.”  Gone is the concept of “contract,” and gone is the understanding that this is a religious as well as civil arrangement.  Now it is merely “social and legal.”
  2. Gone is any mention of God or the Biblical or religious roots of marriage.  Thus we are left to assume that marriage is a man-made arrangement that we can re-make as we wish.  Here we see the secularization of American culture reflected in the secularization in the definition of marriage.
  3. Webster’s 1828 gives three distinct purposes for marriage.  By 1984, the three have been reduced to only one purpose:  the “founding and maintaining of a family.”  Gone is the concept of the education of children.  Gone is the concept marriage as a bulwark against sexual promiscuity.  Gone is the concept of marriage as a source of domestic happiness.

If words shape cultures, how did this redefinition re-shape American culture?

-Scott D. Allen

  
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7 Responses to The Power of Words: Redefining Marriage (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Dennis Warren says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thank you for recognizing the change in how Marriage has been and now is defined here in the United States.

    Relating to your question about how the redefinition re-shaped our culture, I guess I’m not certain I agree (yet) with the preceding qualifier: “If words shape cultures”, I’m wondering if our culture changed (maybe for other reasons) and the redefinition process followed?

    But that question is not the main thing prompting me to post a comment. I decided to do some looking in an attempt to locate specific Bible verses (or passages, contexts, themes, etc…) which may have prompted Noah Webster to come up with his 1828 definition. BTW, I also really like that dictionary, I’ve carried it with me for several years on a PDA – it’s bundled with a bunch of Biblical materials in MobiPocket format).

    I was surprised to see missing the idea of producing “Godly offspring” as one of the possible purposes for marriage because in Malachi 2:13-16 I located what appears to me to be a clear passage saying producing children (and then I assume training with the idea of helping them to be “Godly”). I also remember very early in Genesis the command to “be fruitful and multiply”.

    I have several questions and observations relating to the aspects of marriage Noah Webster skillfully weaved into is very succinct definition (given such a remarkably robust treatment of the word). Btw, I appreciate how you highlighted the points!

    — One general observation I’d like to mention which may help you to see some of where I am coming from … it’s often difficult to find a specific Bible passage which states clearly something which we may have always just assumed must be “in there somewhere”.

    — For instance, relating to Webster’s point about “(2) Promoting domestic felicity or happiness” — I couldn’t find any direct and clear passages to support that (e.g. of the kind like for other “purposes”: Malachi 2 or 1 Cor 7). In my life Marriage has definitely turned out to result in my own personal happiness. I guess the idea of God providing a “help-meet” for man could be assumed to lead to the greater happiness of husbands, and I would hope also to the increased happiness of our wives, (though given some of the results of the fall, it looks like it doesn’t always work out that way). Maybe also when marriage does help to reduce temptations and/or addictions relating to promiscuous sexuality (as Paul mentions in 1 Cor 7) the lack of that ball and chain may also be considered as leading to greater happiness (since freedom often correlates with happiness), But just because Marriage can and often does help us to be happier, does that (in itself) mean happiness is one of God’s purposes for marriage?

    — The idea of “instituted by God” is another point for which I’m also having a hard time finding a specific text. I think of Jesus mentioning “What God has joined together”, however I have always wondered how to distinguish the marriages God has joined from those He has not. Maybe the assumption I followed in my younger days could have something to do with whether the couple were married in church ceremony (or not). However, as I look through the Bible to learn specifically how God wants such a ceremony to be done, I come up empty-handed. Given cultural differences throughout the globe and the centuries, I think I can see maybe why I’m not finding a Biblical passage laying out specifics for some ceremony (e.g. to use in formally joining a couple who “God has joined together”). I am more perplexed however that I don’t seem to be finding specifics about the marriage “Covenant” – I would be happier if I could find some passage stating the “marriage vows” formerly showing the responsibilities of each party involved in a Godly marriage covenant. Of course permeated throughout our culture and the marriage vows we use are such things as “to have and hold till death do us part” and “forsaking all others”. I wish I could find some passages showing specifically that God was of the opinion that various Old Testament men who were married to many women had violated the “forsaking all others” portion of one of His intended “clauses” of a “Godly marriage” covenant, however since I don’t, I’m not really sure what that means?

    ( I have listened to and read some of the thoughts of Udo Middlemann, and he speaks of how God has allowed a lot of freedom for man to set rules — I don’t remember him linking this concept to any of the ideas related to the marriage covenant — but sometimes I wonder if God doesn’t get really specific in cases when He is willing to let us, both corporately and individually, make some rules for ourselves?) Feel free to send this to Udo if you know how to contact him, I’ve tried to reach him, but I don’t think he received my email. Of course I may have completely misunderstood him, he has certainly done much more thinking – using a much better mind – than I. )

    … OK, I’ll stop for now.

    If you (or anyone) will show me more specific passages – or comment on anything I have written, I’ll be very thankful.

    -Thanks for your time (and patience), I appreciate you allowing comments.

    -Dennis

  2. Scott Allen says:

    Dear Dennis,

    Thank you for the thoughtful and articulate response. Your main question has to do with the Biblical basis for Noah Webster’s definition. I do not know how he did his research in developing his definitions, and my guess is that he was drawing upon creedal confessions and other historical Christian sources in addition to the Bible in defining marriage. My main point related to Webster is that he was consciously writing from the basis of a Biblical worldview as opposed to secular and postmodern worldviews which provide the framework for our contemporary dictionaries.
    Still, there are many direct Biblical references that support his definition.

    Without going into great detail, let me highlight a few which will hopefully respond to some of your concerns:

    “Instituted by God”- See Genesis 1:27-28 and 2:18-24. See also Matthew 19:4-6 which is Jesus’ recap of the creation account of Adam and Eve and their marriage relationship.

    “Covenant” or contract – See Malachi 2:14. I have found the concept of marriage to be a theme deeply imbedded in God’s redemptive plan for creation. So much so that God uses human marriage to illustrate His relationship with Israel (see Hosea) and Christ’s relationship with the Church (see Ephesians 5:25-32). In both cases, God makes a covenant or contract with His chosen people.

    “Lifelong” – See 1 Corinthians 7:39.

    “Felicity” or happiness – See Genesis 2:18-24 and the idea that “it is not good for man to be alone.” See also Proverbs 5:15-20 and the Song of Solomon.

    I realize there is much more to say and am conscious of the dangers of proof-texting. I hope to give a fuller treatment of the biblical basis for marriage in a booklet on the role of marriage and family in discipling nations.

    - Scott

  3. Dennis Warren says:

    Thanks Scott,

    Sorry for taking a couple of days to respond – I was thinking I’d automatically receive an email when anyone also commented on this subject – but I don’t think that happened, so I only noticed you had responded when I happened to come back and look.

    I just read each of the scripture references you provided (btw, for the Matthew passage I think you were meaning chapter 19 rather than 9). Yes, I agree those are most likely the best ones which support the good points Webster made. There are things about them which in my mind raise additional questions and sort of beg for more comprehensive treatment. That’s why I was saying sometimes we may think the Bible makes a stronger case for certain ideas than it actually does (or at least that is how it appears to my skeptical kind of brain).

    For instance, I agree with your comments about how marriage must be very important given how it is used as a picture for God’s relationship both for Israel and for Christ’s bride the (universal) Church. Having said that though, there are “additional questions” in my mind for which the answers I would think could provide very valuable spiritual information – but I am not finding those answers in the Bible and I am asking for help from anyone who perhaps does know the answers.

    – I see the Bible clearly teaching marriage involves a covenant between husband and wife, my question is in regard to what specifically is involved in that covenant. I am looking to determine specific responsibilities which each of the marriage partners accept and agree to as together they enter into it. I seem to recall seeing in scripture where God sets out specifics about His covenant with Israel and also with the Church as well, however I’m not aware of very specific wording about the covenant requirements for a husband and for a wife. Given the scriptural comparisons we both agree with, I would think there would be similarities.

    Perhaps one reason I may think the answer to my question could be important is related to what some people think Jesus was saying about “grounds for divorce”. Did Jesus say when a spouse commits adultery, that act constitutes breaking one of the terms of the marriage covenant which is so important the marriage may be divorced? If so, does that indicate Jesus may divorce me (a member of his bride the Church) when I commit spiritual adultery?

    I think one of the biggest issues in marriages is related to expectations (and dare I say “roles”) and perhaps the fear of not measuring up to what is required of us before we can be loved “unconditionally”. (Maybe you noticed the strangeness of the preceding sentence).

    Does Jesus our bridegroom require obedience from us? If so, does God really love us unconditionally? How – if any way – does that relate to the way we love our spouse? If our marriages are like Jesus’ with us, does “obedience” factor in between husband and/or wife?

    Jesus is one God – we the Church consists of many individual people, does that relate to why the Old Testament doesn’t seem to take much of a stand against men like David being married to many wives? [In the matter involving Bathsheba, David is clearly said to be guilty of adultery against Uriah - but I don't see anything indicating he committed adultery against any one of his wives (or his concubines) by breaking a marriage covenant he had entered into with them.]

    I don’t recall any references in the Bible specifically mentioning that a WIFE can divorce her husband, is that related to the idea that the church would never even think of divorcing Jesus? Generally I find the New Testament presents the ideal very well, but I find it hard sometimes to know how to deal with the present reality, which is so often much short of ideal.

    Sorry for the shotgun type of approach when I start listing some of the questions that torment my mind. I’ll spare you of the many, many more and stop for now.

    Thanks for putting up with me (not many are willing to).

    -Dennis

  4. I wanted to share with everyone a pretty good site I’ve found that deals with many family topics: http://www.profam.org/THC/xthc_principles.htm

    Tim

  5. Florin says:

    You better check it today (March 7th, 2009):

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/marriage

    1 a (1): the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2): the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage

    My family immigrated to this country 22 years ago from what was communist Romania. I joined them as a young man in a desire to live in free country.

    I am in search of a country where my four children can be free from the oppressive hand of culture.

    Where can I rest my children in the way to my holy land?

    The road of the tears has begun. May the Lord have mercy on our children.

  6. Pingback: A Personal Story About Why Words Matter | Darrow Miller and Friends

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