Last week, the conservative news website WorldNetDaily reported that the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary has revised its definition of the word marriage. In its online and print editions, the dictionary includes in its definition of marriage the following line: “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.” The WorldNetDaily report also references the above YouTube video and implies that the expanded definition somehow means that the dictionary’s publisher has taken sides in the current debate over same-sex “marriage.”
Why am I writing about this now? How is it relevant to a Christian worldview vis a vis same-sex “marriage”? Contrary to what many may think, the inclusion of this definition in the dictionary is almost totally irrelevant to the current debate. Dictionaries are not prescriptive books but descriptive ones. In other words, dictionaries do not prescribe for users how they are to speak and use words. On the contrary, they describe how speakers and writers use words at any given time. There was a time when the English word “gay” only meant “happy” (see for example the King James version of James 2:3). But no one thinks that fact should prohibit Webster from publishing its modern definitions as well. Likewise, it is without question that “same-sex marriage” and “gay marriage” are common fare among current users of the English language. That a dictionary would include that fact is not surprising at all.
This pseudo-hubbub is troubling, however, because it appears that some conservatives (and I fear some Christians) still don’t understand what the same-sex “marriage” debate is all about. That is why I cringe whenever I hear someone appeal to the dictionary definition of “marriage” as if it were some kind of an authority to settle the whole issue. It is not.
What Christians need to realize is that they have but one authoritative word on this question, and that word does not change though English usage and dictionaries might. “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The Bible sets forth the covenanted union of one man and one woman as God’s ideal and prescription for the family (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6), and it is this ideal that we are supposed to contend for in our churches and in our families–not a line in the dictionary.