elaine a. heath

Spirituality, Theology, Creativity, Community

A New Set of Questions about Sex and Sin


My sister Jeanine tells me that she never really understood what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek until she came out.  She says she never really had to show grace—unmerited favor and regard—toward people who hate her until she discovered she was suddenly the despised “other.” What did the hating look like? Excommunication. Bullying. Religious double-speak such as “we love you unconditionally, but…” Hearing her long term, monogamous relationship and her beloved described as an abomination, and worse, all “in the name of Jesus.”

Coming out in an exclusive, shaming Christian world is the very means by which she has had to wrestle with and choose, again and again to pray Jesus’ prayer: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We have talked about the irony of this turn of events a lot over the years, partly because I am a theologian and she is a therapist. We know from our own journeys and from our work in tending hearts and souls, that what passes as teaching on human sexuality in most churches is woefully incomplete and often just plain wrong. The problem, we think, is that the wrong set of questions shapes the discussion. Are you homo (bad) or hetero (good)? Having sex with anyone besides your own spouse (bad)? Married (good) or single (highly suspect)? These questions are too simplistic and too dualistic. They assume too much and ask too little.

It is past time to ask new, better questions about sexual virtue and sexual vice. The springboard for the new questions is not genitalia but imago Dei, the inherent sanctity and dignity of human life.

The homo that has our attention is homo sapiens. Do we understand ourselves and others as human beings made in the image of God?

The question of sexual orientation that concerns us is not whether people are hetero but are vehemens, having an orientation toward violence.

I believe sexual vice is behavior that in some way does violence to self or others sexually. This kind of vice can be physical or verbal, and as Jesus reminds us, mental and emotional. It is always spiritual. Abstinance from sexual vice is far more challenging than resisting fornication.

Sexual vice is sinful first and foremost because it violates, exploits, objectifies, manipulates, takes advantage of, and uses human beings. It treats humans made in the image of God, as commodities. Sometimes sexual vice is carried out to give pleasure to the perpetrator of the sin. Often it is an act in which domination is the goal, rather than sex per se. Sexualizing others, internet bullying around sexuality, sexual abuse of all kinds, sexual domestic violence…these are just a few of the possible sexual sins. So much of the fruit of sexual vice is sexual self-loathing, self harm, and self deception about one’s sexuality.

Sexual sin goes on all the time within the bonds of marriage including rape, sexual shaming, forced marriage between little girls and grown men in some cultures, and many other dehumanizing actions.

Violence against sexual minorities because of their sexuality is yet another area of sexual sin.

Corporate sexual sin is the name of the game in the advertising industry that objectifies and exploits the bodies of women and little girls to sell everything from jeans to plumbing. Ditto for the entertainment industry in which entire television programs are built around shaming women’s bodies. There is the cancerous, lucrative, soul-destroying universe of porn which feeds on images of human bodies, and yes, real humans are harmed in the making of porn.

Sexual sin objectifies and stereotypes men through cultural norms and expectations that reward the bifurcation of emotion from sexual activity, and that sexualize men to the point that every man is viewed as a potential sexual predator.

In light of sexual sin as a violent orientation, what then is sexual virtue? Is it not a deep integrity, respectfulness, and authenticity in how one lives one’s sexuality? Does it not begin with a fundamental respect for one’s identity as someone made in the image of God and then extend outward to other persons? Is it not inherently reverent of embodiedness?

Sexual virtue neither begins nor ends with genitalia, but with fully accepting, loving, and wisely stewarding our whole, embodied life as human beings. It begins with a deep commitment to the theological concept of imago Dei and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It grows with a daily commitment to first do no harm and second, do all the good we can to ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies.

If we will address sexual virtue and sexual vice with a new and better set of questions, we will find our way out of the morass of violence against the sexual “other.”  We will be able to move forward into a deeper, more human and ultimately more holy understanding of embodiment. We will become better practitioners of sexual virtue.

12 thoughts on “A New Set of Questions about Sex and Sin

  1. Thank you for an incredibly thoughtful article. Popular Christianity often emphasizes the idea that humanity is entirely evil rather than created in the image of God. This gives people an excuse to be verbally and emotionally violent in the name of Christian “love.”

  2. If the prophecies of Hebrew scripture are so spot-on accurate in their predictions of Jesus Christ’s entry, ministry, exit, and re-entry into the world, why are the rest of the scriptures constantly being thrown out to suit the personal philosophies of the common man or woman? Messing with or trying to re-write what is already written could be dangerous to the soul. Everyone is born a sinner–that is clearly stated–and we are not in any position to judge each other. Christ is the answer to sin. He defines it. He is the Ultimate Word–we believe that or we do not. To slam and put down those who wish to obey and follow Him is every bit as judgmental as those who do not wish to. It is shooting the messenger forgetting there is an original message: Do we believe the following. Would like to hear someone address the following:

    Paul nails it in his letter to the Colossians 1:10-15 as a starting point for any of our own theories. Our “eloquence” doesn’t mean much if the message contradicts what was written long before we were put on earth to begin our theories.

    Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,[a]

    for through him God created everything
    in the heavenly realms and on earth.
    He made the things we can see
    and the things we can’t see—
    such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
    Everything was created through him and for him.

    He existed before anything else,
    and he holds all creation together.

    Christ is also the head of the church,
    which is his body.
    He is the beginning,
    supreme over all who rise from the dead.[b]
    So he is first in everything.

    For God in all his fullness
    was pleased to live in Christ,

    and through him God reconciled
    everything to himself.
    He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
    by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

    • If we were born sinners then how can we be born in the Image and likeness of God?God’s message to us is LOVE

      • Peg, in the ancient tradition especially in the eastern church, the image of God is not obliterated by sin in our lives, only distorted. In the Quaker tradition the understanding is that the imperishable seed is in us from conception precisely because we are made by God and are in the image of God, and nothing of sin can eradicate it the divine seed. That is true also in Julian of Norwich’s theology. In Wesleyan theology the understanding is not that we are born guilty of sin, for how could that be the case? Rather, we are born with a bent toward eventual sin. All of that to say, there are varieties of interpretation about this and all of them are within the realm of Christian tradition. The Bible clearly teaches that human beings are made in the image of God (imago Dei).

      • We were created in the image of God originally–without sin but with free will. Adam and Eve sinned–and that destroyed mankind forever–Jesus came to offer Himself as the blo

    • “Our ‘eloquence’ doesn’t mean much if the message contradicts what was written long before we were put on earth to begin our theories.” I don’t see anything in what she’s saying that contradicts Colossians 1:15-20, which is mostly a non-sequitur which doesn’t have any direct application to the issue at hand.

  3. Pingback: Elaine Heath: ” A New Set of Questions about Sex and Sin” | Wheneftalks

  4. Thank you Elaine. This is very helpful in discussions with people who say “where do you draw the line?” You’ve spelled it out quite well. Love between two straight or LGBTQ people is a gift from God, a reflection of divine love.
    Very different from any uneven relationship or act that is harmful to one of the persons. (I’ve interpreted Paul’s words in the NT to be cautions against such relationships).

  5. This reminds me a lot of Margaret Farley’s Just Love. If you want a Biblical source for what you’re basically saying here, look at 1 Corinthians 7:32-35. It’s the only place where Paul shows his cards and gives the underlying principles for his sexual ethics. Then if there are any of the Bible-thumpers who aren’t using the Bible as cover when their real investment is having a scapegoat, they might listen to you.

    32 I want you to be *free from anxieties*. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote *good order* and *unhindered devotion to the Lord*.

    1. Freedom from anxieties (integrity of self)
    2. Good order (love of neighbor)
    3. Unhindered devotion to the Lord (love of God)

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with your questions and descriptions of virtuous sexuality. The greatest damage to people is happening due to heterosexual abuse and pornography. I don’t see your questions as either/or, but both/and. In other words, the church needs to be concerned about how to encourage virtuous sexuality in terms of attitudes and manner of sexual expression. That doesn’t negate the Bible’s teachings about who qualifies as a proper sexual partner in God’s eyes.

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