Biblical Ethics of Masturbation

By James M. Rochford

Picture9We might not feel the need to develop an ethical stance regarding masturbation. Yet the subject arises among the majority of people in their lifetime, and singles ask questions about the topic frequently. What sort of moral stance should Christian counselors take on this subject?

Masturbation is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Christian ethicists Feinberg and Feinberg write, “We note that Scripture never directly addresses masturbation.”[1] Likewise Mark Regnerus (Christian professor of sociology at University of Texas at Austin) writes, “Biblical commentary on masturbation remains unclear.”[2]

This is a significant omission for several reasons: (1) The Bible mentions just about every other sexual sin, including fornication, adultery, homosexuality, incest, pederasty, lust, rape, and bestiality; (2) these descriptions cover the full range of possibilities from the very serious (adultery, rape, etc.) to the commonplace (lust); (3) while we can still say masturbation is wrong, we also think its lack of mention means it isn’t important.

Masturbation is closely connected with lust. Of course, lust is morally wrong (Mt. 5:28). It’s nearly impossible to masturbate without lusting; on the other hand, one can also lust without masturbating.

Masturbation brings unnecessary guilt to singles. In most churches, singles feel perpetually guilty regarding masturbation, but they don’t have any conviction regarding their sins of omission (e.g. witnessing, materialism, lack of love, etc.). This seems to be misplaced emphasis—especially when we consider that the Bible never even explicitly mentions masturbation. Misplaced guilt feelings over masturbation probably cause more serious spiritual harm in the lives of many singles than the act of masturbation itself ever could. We agree with Christian counselor James Dobson, when he states,

It is my opinion that masturbation is not much of an issue with God. It is a normal part of adolescence which involves no one else. It does not cause disease. It does not produce babies, and Jesus did not mention it in the Bible. I’m not telling you to masturbate, and hope you will not feel the need for it. But if you do, it is my opinion that you should not struggle with guilt over it. Why do I tell you this? Because I deal with so many Christian young people who are torn apart with guilt over masturbation; they want to stop and just can’t. I would like to help you avoid that agony.[3]

Likewise Richard Foster writes,

Masturbation is not inherently wrong or sinful. In the main, it is a common experience for most people and should be accepted as a normal part of life… We simply must not lay impossible moral burdens upon people, especially when we have no specific biblical teaching against masturbation.” Regarding the obsession of quitting masturbation, he writes, “This obsession is especially painful because one failure can cast a person into despair. It becomes a desperate all-or-nothing situation. And this is sad, because it is completely unnecessary. We do not need to put people into impossible either/or binds. What we are after is control, balance, perspective.[4]

Masturbation should be treated more seriously in excessive amounts. Obsessive masturbation is unhealthy, and leads to compulsive lust. Yet masturbation should never be the emphasis of our Christian walk (see “Prioritized Ethics”).

Masturbation is more serious for marrieds, rather than for singles. Masturbation can lower our sex drive, replacing our duty to our spouse (1 Cor. 7:3-5).

[1] Feinberg, J. S., & Feinberg, P. D. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 163.

[2] Regnerus, Mark. Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 20.

[3] James Dobson, 1989. 83-84. Cited in Regnerus, Mark. Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 262.

[4] Foster, Richard. Clark, David (ed). Readings in Christian Ethics Volume 2: Issues and Applications. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996. 163.