This is a post about gay marriage. Specifically, I’m going to argue that Christians should cease their opposition to legalized gay marriage, and I’m going to do so by employing an argument that I’m fairly sure no one has ever used before. I call it the linguistic argument for gay marriage. But first, some background.
My parents are linguists. Both have masters degrees in linguistics; my father is in the last stages of finishing his dissertation and completing his Ph.D in linguistics.
One of my dad’s pet peeves deals with how people, especially pastors in preparing and delivering their sermons, study the meaning of a word. Here’s the type of thing you’ll hear often from the pulpit, when a pastor decides we need to know more about a specific word in his chosen passage: “If you look at the Greek”—or Hebrew, but it’s usually a New Testament passage, so it’s usually Greek—”what this word actually means is…” or perhaps, “…what this word literally means is….” At this point, what they’ve usually done is pulled out Strong’s Concordance and look at the other possible senses of the word. This, says my father the linguist, is a big no-no. This is when you hear the classic one-liner that I’ve heard many times, and repeated almost as often.
“The meaning of a word is determined by its usage, not by its etymology.”
“What is a chair?” he asks. You stare blankly at him for a few moments—this is rhetorical, right? No, he actually wants you to answer. “Okay, it’s something you sit on.” “Nope,” he replies, “it’s a person who leads a meeting.” Now you’re just a bit annoyed. “Oh, fine, if you want to get all clever about it,” you quip.
But this is precisely the point. In most languages, many words have more than one possible meaning. These multiple meanings are called senses, and very often a word’s multiple senses are as divergent from each other as one could imagine, to the point of being completely unrelated. This begs an obvious question: If a word has multiple senses, how do we know which one is intended when we hear it in conversation or read it in a book? The answer is simple and obvious: context. Or, to use another word, usage. We know which sense of a word is intended by a speaker or writer simply by the way that he uses it—and all of this happens subconsciously and on the fly, without our thinking about it.
What most pastors do, when they attempt to help us understand the “deeper” meaning of a given word, will seem pretty silly if we take the same approach in English. Let’s return to the word chair. When presented with a passage in which he suspects that the word chair is of significant importance, a pastor might look up the word chair and discover that it has more than one possible meaning. Then, rather than look at the way the author used the word to determine which one of the possible meanings is the one used here, he does something like this: Aha! So a chair isn’t just something you sit in—it’s a person who leads a meeting. So when this passage talks about a “chair,” what it’s actually referring to is the seat that a person sits in when he or she leads a meeting!
You see how ridiculous this is. The reality is that we are only ever using one sense of a word at a time, and when we do, the other possible senses of that word do not at any point enter into our minds.
I could say a bit more on the topic, and perhaps some other day I will. But linguistics and the proper way to determine the meaning of a word is its own topic, and it’s time for me to get to the point. The point is this: The meaning of a word is determined by its usage, not by its etymology. Period.
Put more plainly: The meaning of a word is determined by its usage, not by its history.
And that includes the word marriage.
What’s more, the meanings of words change. Gay no longer means “happy,” and a dude is no longer a city-dweller from the East Coast who is out of place in the (Wild Wild) West. And here again, the etymology of a word—that is, what it originally meant and the history of how it came to mean that—is irrelevant. To quote my dad, “current speakers have simply lost any awareness of (a word’s) etymology, and it has no influence whatsoever on the way they use any of those terms or what they mean by them.”
What does any of this have to do with gay marriage?
One of the arguments I hear from conservatives, Christians, and conservative Christians who oppose and want to legislate a ban on gay marriage (or, in most cases, preserve the currently existing ban on gay marriage), is that marriage is a Christian institution (or at the very least, a religious one), and that an integral part of its very definition is that it is between a man and a woman. Let gay people get civil unions, they say, but they can’t get married, because that violates the very definition of marriage—not to mention the sanctity of the entire religious institution.
Perhaps such a definition of marriage was once accurate, but it no longer is (though I suspect that even that history they refer to might be quite a bit more nuanced and complex, if not just completely different, than they portray it to be). Are all straight couples who get married Christians, or even religious? Why aren’t we upset that they’re violating the sanctity of a religious institution? The reality is that the word marriage, as it is currently used today, no longer refers to the Christian or religious union of a man and a woman into “one flesh,” administered by the Church.
Today, the word marriage refers to the civil institution whereby the lives and belongings of two people are merged into a single household, which frequently (but not always) results in children and a larger family, and which carries with it a whole slew of benefits and other ramifications.
So you can talk about what marriage used to be until you’re blue in the face, but unless you’re prepared to argue that our God is an awful God, none of it will have any bearing on what the word marriage means today, or on whether that definition should preclude gays from marrying.
Does gay marriage violate the sanctity of the religious institution of marriage? No, it does not, any more so than secular marriage already has. The truth is that the sacramental institution of marriage within the church has existed alongside the secular civil institution of marriage in pluralist societies for centuries. Removing the ban on gay marriage doesn’t change that at all.