Can a Word Definition Become a Prohibition?

February 29, 2012

This is the fifth installment in a series of blogs responding to the concurrences and dissents attached to the recent GAPJC decision Spahr v. Redwoods Presbytery (Case 220-08). While the decision itself upheld the Presbytery’s rebuke of the Rev. Jane Spahr, HR, for conducting sixteen same-sex weddings, the comments attached to it mapped out arguments for changing the definition of marriage to allow the practice. Today’s topic is the following claim:

4. A definition of marriage as between a man and a woman does not, by its presence in our Directory for Worship, prohibit marriage of same-sex couples. It was wrong for a previous PJC (in Benton) to expand a mere definition of marriage into an actual prohibition of gay marriage.

The point whittles down to the question of whether a specific definition contained in the Book of Order declares a reality that necessarily translates into an action or prohibits another. This is fundamentally a question addressed by philosophy (where I am out of my depth) and logic (where I try to stay afloat). The semantics of postmodernism enter into play, too, as definitions take on a fluid character. In this new world, it would seem that one can use a word any way one wishes and shape its meaning at will. “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” as President Clinton so famously nitpicked under oath.

But we are Christians and we are Presbyterians. We are also exegetes of the Scriptures, which means that we derive our understanding of concepts based on their use and development in the Bible with attention to their context. Throughout the Scriptures, any mention of marriage comes with a strong male-female prerequisite (often assumed but also often explicitly stated, as e.g. in “a man taking a woman’s hand in marriage”). In addition, there exists throughout the biblical narrative a universal condemnation of homosexual practice (always proscribed, never assumed) whether casual, cult-based, or committed. Thus, the Scriptures give us our starting point for understanding the idea that “marriage” exists only between a man and a woman; every other arrangement is out of bounds.

We can say with confidence, then, that our constitution has rightly defined the term marriage within the male-female parameter given in the Bible. The church must not change its definition of the bounds of marriage (the male-female prerequisite), or it will depart from Scripture’s teaching on the matter. As disappointed as the Spahr GAPJC was in the Benton decision, it followed Benton’s lead to honor and heed the definition of marriage found in the Book of Order.

Going further, the GAPJC in Benton was also correct to say that the parameters of God-ordained marriage forbid a homosexual equivalent. The commission did not commit biblical or theological error by extrapolating from the Book of Order definition an actual prohibition of gay marriage. That ban is a legitimate derivative of the definition of marriage and confirmed with scriptural teaching directly. And even though progressives seek a change of wording (replacing “man and woman” with “two people”), they cannot by fiat change the definition. They may seek to change the practice of the church, but such a shift does not in and of itself change the reality that God designed marriage for man and woman.

The church must be warned at this point that changing our practice would sever our ties with the anchor, the Word of God. The inevitable and tragic consequence of this freedom without limits is a drift into the postmodern sea of meaningless terminology.  



6 Responses to “Can a Word Definition Become a Prohibition?”

  1. James Ayers Says:

    A definition creates definiteness: it declares what a thing is, with the clear understanding that it is not its opposite. So if we define a marriage as being the union of a man and a woman, that clearly indicates several things: opposite genders, two individuals, a connection (which would need to be further specified).

    It would mean that other kinds of things would not be marriages: two random adjacent items, such as a pen and paper, would not count as a marriage, even though it met the criterion of two (it fails to be two people); similarly two men (failing to meet the opposite gender criterion); similarly three people (failing to meet the twoness criterion); similarly two people without the specified kind of connection (friendship, perhaps, or cousins, or other relationships that fail to meet the union criterion).

    The criteria within a proper definition spell out what is of the essence of the thing: if these characteristics are present, then the thing is present; if not, it is not. Thus, could we establish a marriage of one person? No. Twoness is defined as of the essence of marriage.

    The situation is complex, of course, because there are numerous examples from the Bible and from contemporary world where marriage exists with more than two partners. Jacob, David, and Solomon are perhaps the three best known biblical examples; Mormon families have openly or secretly had multiple wives for nearly two centuries in America. So there would be those who would argue that twoness is not of the essence of marriage.

    Nevertheless the Presbyterian definition of marriage insists that two individuals, a man and a woman, are required to make a marriage: and thus the Presbyterian definition of marriage would insist that the situation of Jacob, David, and Solomon, with their multiple wives, was an improper understanding of marriage. We are not always comfortable telling a Bible story that it’s a bad story because it shows us what not to do, but I do believe we encounter such situations where it is up to us to recognize that the Bible is not giving us an example to follow, but an example to repudiate. (I see Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter as the most obvious such example.)

    The PCUSA can, of course, change its definition of marriage. We could say that twoness is not, after all, of the essence of marriage. Or we could say that opposite genders is not of the essence of marriage. That is an argument that could be made, and perhaps made persuasively; thus far, though, it has simply been tossed around as an assumption, offered without sufficient grounding to be persuasive.

    The dissenting argument within the case conclusion, though, is specious. To claim that a definition doesn’t really define is silly. If a marriage is defined as x, that means that some non-x is not a marriage. Change the definition, if you will, but as long as it is what it is, then that’s what counts as a marriage, and something else does not.

  2. Alan Wisdom Says:

    The very word “define” comes from Latin roots meaning “off” (de) and “limit” (finire)–i.e., to set a limit to a thing, to mark off its boundaries. Definitions tell us what a thing is, in large part, by telling us what it is not–the characteristics that distinguish it from all other things. The definition of marriage in the Book of Order (and, incidentally, in related passages of the Book of Confessions) excludes all sorts of things from marriage as it is understood in the PCUSA. For instance, when we say marriage is a gift of God, we exclude the notion that it is merely a human invention. When we say marriage is intended to be lifelong, we exclude temporary contracts between two persons. When we say marriage is to be celebrated publicly before the community of faith, we exclude private or secret marriages. The fact that nobody may have previously imagined these variant relationships does not alter the fact that they are excluded from the category of “Christian marriage” as understood in the PCUSA. If we wanted to include temporary contracts or secret marriages, for example, we would have to change the definition of marriage in the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions. The same principle applies to same-sex marriages.

  3. noelanderson Says:

    Wisdom (sophia, not Alan) is gone. Deconstructionism has replaced common sense.

    Marriage between a man and a woman may be otherwise described or distilled as “a lifelong covenant between two personst” While not entirely untrue, The abstraction strips both individuals of gender, soul, and anything other than their mere existence has human beings. We begin with a man and woman standing next to each other but are left with two, otherwise nondescript humanoids. Is this not dehumanizing?

    It’s like saying that music is an “arrangement of notes with particular rhythmic, melodic and harmonic characteristics.” It’s not an untrue statement, but it fails to capture what makes music music. We could say a murder is nothing more than an “extroverted suicide,” but should we? No, probably not.

    The American zeitgeist is saturated with redefinitions. The power to determine which definition will stand to define reality has been seized from all Christian sources of authority and is now held by cultural anarchists.

    Wisdom is gone. Common sense has fallen prey to deconstructionism. The PCUSA, absent Wisdom, has no power to define anything on its own; it’s just going to go with the cultural flow. Any efforts to the contrary will be shot down as “limited,” “exclusionary,” or “patriarchal.” Without the ability for Wisdom to demand certain definitions over others, we’re destined to remain lost, wandering in the wilderness of unresolvable ambiguities.

  4. Bruce Becker Says:

    Thanks to the PJC for so much silliness! Of course, definitions prohibit, Silly! A definition of “death” prohibits those to whom it applies from continued living. When did everyone stop thinking?

  5. TPT Says:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
    “Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
    “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

  6. Dave Moody Says:

    Mary, I ruminated on this a few years back…. thanks for your witness to the truth as revealed by our triune God of grace.

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