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? Before giving an ethical position, we should consider several key observations that can inform our viewpoint.

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. If take a strong stance on masturbation (something the Bible never mentions), then are we prepared to take an even stronger stance on lust (something the Bible explicitly mentions)?

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. sharing their faith, materialism, lack of love, etc.). This is surely a misplaced ethical 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 none other than Dr. 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]

Commentator Craig Blomberg writes,

But what of people who, for whatever reasons, never have the opportunity to marry? How can they find appropriate sexual release for one of the body’s strongest drives? Though still controversial and seldom talked about in public Christian discourse, a limited use of masturbation would appear to be the most appropriate answer. No biblical text directly addresses this practice, but if the one thing sexual sins have in common is the misuse of another human being to whom a person is not fully committed, then self-stimulation would seem to be exempt from this abuse. To be sure, it too can become addictive or lustful, but it need not, and it may in fact prevent improper interpersonal sexuality by periodically calming intense urges.[5]

Blomberg goes on to cite a number of Christian thinkers who affirm this perspective.[6]

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, diminishing sexual unity with our spouse (1 Cor. 7:3-5).


Since the Bible is silent regarding the subject of masturbation, we should not make strong moral pronouncements against it either. This seems like a subject that should be relegated to the area of Christian conscience for the individual, rather than an objective and universal moral imperative. In other words, an individual might have an issue of conscience in this area, but they shouldn’t absolutize this for all Christians everywhere.

[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.

[5] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p.130.

[6] Jack O. Balswick and Judith K. Balswick, The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 184-87; Clifford and Joyce Penner, The Gift of Sex (Waco: Word, 1981), 230-36; Lewis B. Smedes, Sex for Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 160-64, 243-46.