Why 'sodomite' instead of 'gay' or 'homosexual'?

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One of my seminary professors who remains a dear friend just wrote taking issue with my use on this blog of the word 'sodomy' to refer to same-sex carnal knowledge:

I find your use of the word 'sodomites' a bit inaccurate, because the sin of Sodom was not solely homosexuality, but also (maybe primarily) lack of concern for the poor.

Ezekiel 16:49-50 Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

Jude 7 In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

I hear this objection frequently. One of my dearest friends told me several months ago that he thought my constant use of 'sodomy' and 'sodomites' made me look to our readers like I was a member of the lunatic fringe.

Well, I've thought carefully about it and I can't find another construction that is as helpful, spiritually, in referring to the practice of same-sex sexual intimacy. So if you're one of our readers who's inclined to give us a chance, maybe I'll be able to convince you that this is a usage we can't give up. Anyhow, what follows is my defense.

Growing up in an editor/writer's home, I'm very sensitive to language and I want to say at the outset that my use of 'sodomy' is intentional. Until recently I never used the word. Instead, I spoke of the unrepentant sodomite as "gay" and the repentant sodomite who had put his faith in Jesus Christ as someone "tempted by same-sex intimacy." A very long construction, that last one, but it has the merit of not identifying a man as if he were constantly doing something that is a sin. Also, it avoids labeling the man in such a way as to communicate that this form of sexual temptation is central to his personal identity.

I still refer to those "tempted by same-sex intimacy," but instead of 'gay' or 'homosexual' I now speak of 'sodomy' and 'sodomites'. Why?

First, the words 'gay' and 'homosexual' say things that aren't true. 'Gay' carries a connotation of someone taking pride in his sin and we ought not to join in the lie. Objectively speaking, the man who glories in his shame is in need of correction. To allow him to choose the language we use for his shame in such a way as to deny the shame and evil intrinsic to that sin is to join in his sin, even if we continue to condemn the practice we have allowed him to rename. So the word 'gay' must be repudiated by all Christians, even when we are in dialog with sodomites. It is impossible to use this word without implying a whole host of things that are spiritually destructive and contrary to God's revelation, both natural and special.

But what about the word 'homosexual'—what's wrong with that?

'Homosexual' does not carry the heavy ideological baggage 'gay' does, but it does carry some baggage that's not good. If 'gay' is political, 'homosexual' is clinical; some men have sex with the opposite sex and others with the same sex, hence hetero (different) and homo (same) sexual. To describe the practice clinically is not to speak to men's souls, nor is it to be faithful witnesses to our Lord and His Truth. Scripture condemns sodomy over and over again, and in our libidinous and sexually anarchical culture, it's critically important that we continue to use biblical language to confess the Faith. Thus we speak of fornication rather than 'premarital sex' or 'living together'; we speak of 'committing adultery' rather than 'cheating on his wife' or 'having an affair.'

Today there is a growing movement among adulterers to call themselves 'polyamorous'--literally 'many-loving'. These are men who take their identity from their rejection of marital fidelity and their giving themselves to many different sexual partners. So out with 'adultery' and in with 'polyamory'. The missing element, though, should be obvious. There is no moral judgment. Rather, these men are taking pride in their sin. They are glorying in their shame. 'Polyamory' is not simply an objective clinical description but a political ideology that carries with it an entire rejection of the Seventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

So it could be said that

gay is to homosexual is to sodomite


polyamorous is to polygamist is to adulterer.

To give up the historic Christian term 'sodomy' is for us to bow our knees to Baal. The Church has used this word to refer to same-sex carnal relations for most of two thousand years, now, and in the face of the evil onslaught against God's moral law so pervasive in our culture, we ought to continue to use the word simply because of its biblical witness and the shame it carries.

Sadly, though, Christians today think the real shame belongs to those who have not updated their language, thereby indicating (according to the modern conceit) that they are intolerant, legalistic, censorious, homophobic, or maybe even latently homosexual.

So is this what we're prepared to argue about our church fathers from the New Testament age on? Were these the motivations of Jerome in the fourth century; the writers of the penitential literature of the sixth century; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, in the eighth century; a monk of the Carolingian abbeys in the ninth century; Regino of Prum in the tenth century; Bishop Burchard in the eleventh century; Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century; and so on down to our own time?

Can the Church fathers be sane and those today who use 'sodomy' lunatics?

In more recent centuries some have also used the word to refer to forms of non-procreative sex, but the overwhelming usage of the Church was the more basic definition of same-sex carnal knowledge. To refer to same-sex carnal knowledge as 'sodomy' has never been an abuse of the biblical account of the men of Sodom.

But many are prepared to argue this point. And through their deceptive biblical scholarship, they have succeeded in getting Christians to change our language.

In the past few decades a whole school of biblical interpretation has grown up around the effort to repeal the Church's biblical condemnation of sodomy and one of that school's principal tactics has been to deny the connection between God's destruction of the people of Sodom and the effort to engage in same-sex carnal knowledge by the men of Sodom just prior to their destruction. This school has used various tactics. Some have argued that the real sin of Sodom was not same-sex carnal knowledge but rape. Others have tried to turn the focus away from same-sex carnal knowledge to additional sins also mentioned in Scripture as typical of Sodom--particularly the sin of not being hospitable.

Typical of such pro-sodomy biblical scholarship is The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (University of Chicago) by Mark D. Jordan. Kirkus Reviews describes Jordan's work:

A scholarly critique of how the term 'sodomy' arose in the Middle Ages and came to influence Roman Catholic moral discourse. Although the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is at least as old as the book of Genesis, the view of sodomy as a form of sexual sin seems to have been invented in the eleventh century by the Italian ascetic St. Peter Damian. Jordan (Medieval Institute/Notre Dame Univ.) restates the now generally accepted view that the sin leading to Sodom's destruction was transgression of the laws of hospitality rather than same-sex intercourse per se, and he gives some very relevant philosophical warnings about using centuries-old texts to find answers to modern questions.

It's now "generally accepted... that the sin leading to Sodom's destruction was transgression of the laws of hospitality rather than same-sex intercourse"?

Well, there you have it. Two millennia of biblical scholarship and pastoral language has been thrown to the side and those of us who continue to refer to same-sex carnal knowledge as 'sodomy' are on the lunatic fringe.

Care to join up? (Here's a helpful review of Jordan's work).

But seriously, no student of Scripture has ever denied that Sodom was guilty of greed, pride, and certainly inhospitality. Scripture condemns these sins of Sodom in no uncertain terms, but it also condemns the Sodomites' sexual perversions. The Genesis narrative itself condemns them and Jude 7 makes explicit what is only implicit in Genesis 18 and 19. Sodom and Gomorrah, we are told, "indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh (and) are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire."

"Gross immorality" and going after "strange flesh" will result in "the punishment of eternal fire." Is this one of Christ's teachings that we ought to disseminate? Teach? Preach? Should our language concerning the Sodomites "gross immorality" and going after "strange flesh" make the transfer into our discussion of same-sex carnal relations today so that God's warning will continue to live on in the consciences of men down through history? Or is this something men should only learn if they choose to come inside an evangelical church where private truths are privately, and ever so tactfully, "shared."

In the letters to the seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation, Jesus says this to the church of Laodicea:

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,' and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. (Revelation 3:14-18)

Note that the Laodicean church was "neither hot nor cold." So across the centuries the Laodiceans have been known for being lukewarm and therefore in danger of being spit out of the mouth of our Lord. Thus the word 'Laodicean' is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "indifferent or lukewarm especially in matters of religion" and the Online Etymology Dictionary traces this usage back at least to 1564.

But note also that the Laodicean church was guilty of other sins--including presumption and complacency. They thought of themselves as rich and needing nothing when actually they were "wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked."

So if I were to call a lukewarm individual or church "Laodicean," would I be corrected? Would men remind me that the church of Laodicea was presumptuous and complacent, too, and that I ought not to use the word 'Laodicean' to refer only to those lacking spiritual zeal?

Of course not. There's no affirmative action for the lukewarm. So when it comes to Laodicea, our biblical language is not under assault. What about calling those who go after strange flesh and engage in the gross immorality of same-sex carnal knowledge "sodomites? Can "Laodicean" be right and "sodomite" wrong?

Some among us might be prepared to accuse God of cruelty in making an example of the Sodomites by the awful judgment He meted out to them for going after "strange flesh" and indulging in "gross immorality. But the rest of us should acknowledge that the battle over the language of sodomy that rages around is will determine whether we continue to love sodomites by presenting to them the warning God deposited in His Word.

We can appear reasonable and refer to those going after strange flesh and indulging in gross immorality as "gay" and "homosexual." Or we can join the lunatic fringe and continue to use the biblical language we inherited from the Early Church.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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