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Adoption of Husband’s Name after Christian Marriage: A Gain or a Loss?

By Rev. Fr. Vitus Ugwu

We have come to a point in history where nothing is question-proof. Here is an era where there is no absolute! The seeds the rationalists sowed in 17th century has germinated and grown with fruit. We seem to have come to a period where we want to discard everything we inherited from the past; one has the feeling that from all angles, men want to build on new foundations—no longer on existing ones. In religion, we seem to be mired in a declined appreciation of God occasioned by hue and cry of relativism. In our society, the impacts of abolitionists’ kicks against socio-cultural norms are felt. Between man and woman, the push for equality has become so vocal that femininity reeks of a lost at the altar of feminism. From another side, globalization is nibbling at culture. Everything is wobbling. Zygmunt Bauman is correct in announcing the advent of “liquid modernity” where like liquid, everything is fluid. This Polish-British sociologist coined the phrase to depict “a chaotic continuation of modernity, where a person can shift from one social position to another in fluid manner. Nomadics becomes a general trait of the liquid modern man as he flows through his own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, spouses, values and sometime more—such as political or sexual orientation—excluding himself from traditional networks of support, while also freeing himself from the restrictions or requirements those networks impose.”(Late Modernity-Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org.)One of the institutions that have been worst hit by this endless shift and quicksand we have found ourselves in is marriage. In the spirit of liquid modernity, values that have helped marital institution in the past are being ripped off by vocal minority at the expense of indifferent majority. The attack is subtle, imperceptible, veiled, and consequential instead of confrontational in many cases. Thus, people only realize by hindsight after the deeds had been done. Tell those who propose a woman’s retention of her maiden name that they are not furthering cohesion but confusion in marriage, they will deny it. But that is exactly what they do in a wave of dramatic irony and in pretext for the equal right of both genders. Is the clamour for the rejection of husbands’ names by newly married women not unjustified?

One of the foremost arguments adduced in support of women’s right to reject the adoption of the names of their husbands as their own names is the claim that the adoption of such names are not biblical. But this claim is flawed. That claim is guilty of demanding historical precision from the Bible. The Bible contains history but it is not a history book. What we want to ask is: “Is it in the bible?” But the vital complementary question is: “Is it against the spirit of the bible?”Many who stop at the first level of questioning remain little babes and suffer the blindness of every thoroughgoing biblical empiricist. The bible as revealed reveals the mind of God about what is not revealed. To rush and conclude that a matter is not in the bible simply because it is not explicitly stated in the Bible is akin to arguing that the oak tree is not in the oak seed just because one cannot see the tree in the seed. What is biblical is not limited to what is empirically seen in the bible but also what is in agreement with the spirit of the bible. Both the letter and spirit of the Bible come under what is known as biblical (2 Cor. 3:4-6)).Wherefore it is biblical that a woman bears the name of a man because it is not a-biblical. That which is not biblical (if by this we mean explicitly written in the Bible) may not necessarily be a-biblical. The Bible is not a minutes’ book of God’s relation with his people or vice versa.

As a loss of name, it is not in the bible, but as a gain of new name, it is biblical. It is known from the scripture that marriage is a union of two into one. After marriage, both persons acquire new identity. The man becomes the husband of the woman while the wife becomes the wife of the man. That much we know from the bible. The identification of mutual belongingness is what we see when the bible says: Joseph, husband of Mary, Sarah wife of Abraham etc. How is it that one side is stressed today? To understand the theology of a gain of new name, we have to go back to the first marriage in the Bible between Adam and Eve. Eve did not give Adam a name, instead Adam did. This passage is so important that Jesus returned to it to answer the objections of the Pharisees concerning divorce (Mtt. 19:1-6).What is the theological import of the naming of Eve by Adam? The giving of a name was the giving of a new identity by Adam, a new identity that affected Adam too. He lost his loneliness and gained the companionship of Eve. Adam called his wife Eve which means the mother of the living. Besides giving her a name, Adam showed by the meaning of the name that Eve depended on him because Eve could not have been the mother of the living independent of Adam. The giving of a new name to Eve by Adam signified Eve’s belongingness to Adam and vice versa, belongingness that none of the other creature can share. She belonged to Adam but not in the sense in which a property belonged to the owner. On the contrary, she belonged to Adam as Adam belonged to her. This mutual belongingness is what is characteristically unique about the mutual ownership of partners in marriage. Partners in marriage are not owned in the sense in which property is owned. Property belongs to the owners but the owners do not belong to their property. A man who owns a car is not owned by the car, but in marriage, a man who owns a woman by virtue of marriage is also owned by the woman in the same sense. In every marriage, therefore, there is an echo of Adam’s acceptance speech: “she shall be called Agnes or Juliana, etc, because she was taken out of me.” No one who reads this passage and believes it will claim authoritatively that the gain of a new name from a husband is not biblical. And to cap it all, the Lord God said: “a man leaves his father and mother and is attached to his wife and with her become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). It is easier to join names into one with someone than to join flesh into one with someone. If in marriage which is most difficult is united as one, how much more the one that is easy? To read Gen. 2:24 and yet turn to say that a woman taking the name of a husband is not biblical is like receiving N1000 from a donor and denying that by giving you N1000 he invariably gave you N100 too.

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The Hebrew people are patrilineal. When it is said that a man should leave his father and mother, what does it mean then? Does it imply that the woman remains immobile? The bible has presented to us the radical change that is brought about by marriage. The change is so thorough that it can be likened to taking a man from the nursery house of his father and transplanting him on a fresh soil. The least likely person to be moved in patriarchal Israel is the man. But God says that in marriage he leaves his father and mother (independence) and clings to the wife. Please note that having spoken to the one whose movement was unlikely, it was not necessary that the bible should waste time addressing the one whose movement was likely. The departure from father and mother by the woman was taken for granted. The Jewish term for marriage is Kiddushin which means: sanctification or consecration, set apart for someone one. “Anything totally surrendered to God is Kiddushin.” (William Barclay). Put differently, anything totally surrendered to a husband (wife) is Kiddushin. “Marriage is given not that two people should do one thing together, but that they should do all (I add Possible) things together.” (William Barclay, (2009), The Gospel of Matthew, vol.2, p.236). Those who are married in persons should be married also in names. They should own their names together.

The addition of the names of husbands’ by women is implicit in the Bible. Hebrew language with which a large portion of the Bible was written is largely descriptive in relation to names and possession. Thus, when we hear Jesus the Nazarene, it means Jesus whose origin came from Nazareth. Joseph the husband of Mary or Mary betrothed to Joseph in marriage was the biblical way of calling partners in marriage through the other. The Bible did not say Mary Anne or Mary Joachim or Mary the daughter of Joachim and Ann. In Hebrew, a wife’s name is mentioned in relation to the husband except there is a disqualifying reason in which case a woman is mentioned in relation to her father’s house. Joseph the husband of Mary shows the belongingness of Mary to Joseph. Mary was mentioned in connection with her husband, not in connection with her family. We have in Hebrew men who answered to their family names even in marriage. Benjamin is a farrago of two Hebrew words: Ben (son) and Jamin (which is the father’s name). He retained this name even in marriage. Similarly, we have Bartholomew and Bar is a variant of Ben which means son. Bartholomew means son of TholmaiorPtolemy (William Barclay: 2009, The Gospel of John, Vol.1, p.111). These names show the rootedness of the bearers to their families—they are names conjoined with the surnames of their families. I cannot recall a woman who bore similar names from maidenhood to womanhood. Joseph the husband of Mary is a Hebrew equivalent of our present day Mary Joseph. Note that the Bible supports Mary Joseph and not Joseph Mary. Even though we know that both belong to each, the fact that man takes the initiative to marry, pays the dowry or bride price and is culturally taken as the provider, gives him the privilege, not right, to be imitated in name. If he surrenders this to the wife, or chooses to take up a neutral name, it is commendable so long as love is the driving force. The mentioning of wives’ names not independently from their husbands’ was the ancient way of writing women’s names via their husbands’ names as we generally do today.

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Furthermore, Hosea’s prophesy is unique in that he spoke of God as a husband and Israel as his wife.  As a husband, God did not hide his ownership of Israel and Israel’s belongingness to him. How did God capture his possession of Israel? It was simply done by describing Israel as a wife and his people. To be called God’s people is to be named after God. That was a biblical surname given to all the children of God. If surname is a name that shows someone’s root, the people of God was a common surname to all the children of God. The style of the ascription is different from what we have today but the goal is the same. Hebrew people then did not have the flair for surnames in the manner we do today. But it is wrong to conclude that just because their style of naming persons after whom they belong to or are identified by differed from ours that women did not answer their husbands’ names in Bible. The title “People of God” was a biblical style of saying what we would have mentioned as: “Israel God or Israel Chukwu”. The latter is a high-tech summary of the former. As a people of God, it means that Israel as God’s wife was called by God’s name, a description that marks them out as God’s possession. To have a wife called by the husband’s name is to show the intimacy between the two. The “of” in “wife of” signifies His. It was not God who got his name from the people of Israel but the other way round. And because Israel accepted the ascription, God too became the God of Israel. Israel as the wife of God was commonly mentioned in reference to God her husband.

The gain of a new name is an apt illustration of the mysterious union of two persons into one flesh. Does this gain of a new name mean a loss of identity for the woman? Do we see a woman who bears a husband’s name as one who has lost her identity? Does it even cross our minds at all when we speak? No! The everyday understanding of the change of name, or better, acquisition of a new name is a gain. It is a gain of a new name, and not a loss of an old name. Even when newly married women go for official change of name, what we hear mostly reads: “I formerly known and addressed as Cecilia UGWU now wish to be known and address as CECILIA Ojo. ALL FORMER DOCUMENTS REMAIN VALID….” Does this portray a loss of identity? As far as Cecilia is concerned, she has not changed her name; she has gotten a new name. She still answers to Cecilia Ugwu. So, the acquisition of a new name as occasioned by marriage is totally different from the change of name as a result of stigma from one’s ancestry which one wants to discontinue with. For instance, if Ayo Omaga is from a notorious light-fingered lineage and Ayo grows up to realize the damage the surname Omaga has brought to him, he may decide to go for a Change of name. In that case, he may change his surname to Omale. But if Ayo Omaga has been the thief himself and suddenly repents, he may choose to change his name entirely as a proof of his change of character. He may now answer Bertrand Omeh. The reception of a new name after a happy marriage is totally different from any of the two instances above. The new name at marriage is not received to shirk a familiar stigma or to represent one’s repentance from evil. Instead, the new name at marriage signifies a new status. As such, it is a dignifying and not a demeaning name. A woman who accepts to marry a man does not accept him partly but wholly. The same is true of the man. In matrilineal society, men acquire new identity of their wives as women acquire new identity of men in patrilineal society. These changes are done not with the erasure of the former identity in view but with a crucial addition of a new name.

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The acquisition of a new name by woman is a significant primordial concession (so one may consider it now at worst, but in the past, it was an honor at best) that marriage will demand from both partners. The struggle for the retention of the former name is a struggle for a right that does nowhere exist between two persons who have become one in love. No woman should be forced to marry but if she chooses to marry, she should know that a new name is important for her from the husband. A husband’s name/surname/title is a word or phrase or clause which identifies a woman as belonging to him as a particular man. It is a description or title or name that qualifies a woman as belonging to a man. It is a name that defines a woman as a particular man’s partner just like a woman’s wear should set her apart from those who are single. Such names protect a woman from other men; it sets a red flag that a woman is possessed, not by evil spirit but by a man. It is another wedding ring that women wear after marriage. In line with this explanation, the oldest, commonest surname borne by women is “wife of….” You find this surname in every culture in Africa and beyond. Some women bear that surname even after the death of their husbands. Women only reject it in case of formal divorce and even at that, people do not automatically cease calling them that name. Just like you can suspect a woman who dresses up like a girl instead of a wife as an adulterous woman, the same way one can suspect a woman who consciously rejects her husband’s surname. Such rejection shows either that the woman is not proud of the husband (or too proud of herself), or is unfaithful or a radical feminist. Any of the reason is strong enough to keep her from marriage…TO BE CONTINUED

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The Choice Flame Newspaper is geared towards blazing the trail in modern journalism, committed to smart, truth-centered, in-depth and objective reporting on the Church and society through quality contents that empower and elevate the human spirit. It is the publication of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu with the aim to dispel the darkness of ignorance and misinformation.
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Admin Administrator
The Choice Flame Newspaper is geared towards blazing the trail in modern journalism, committed to smart, truth-centered, in-depth and objective reporting on the Church and society through quality contents that empower and elevate the human spirit. It is the publication of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu with the aim to dispel the darkness of ignorance and misinformation.
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