Most Christian pastors, teachers, and parents believe that masturbation is a sin, because it gratifies the desires of the flesh, which means we are not walking in the spirit and living by faith. This study will involve ideas and language that many people find offensive, so if that is the case with you, please read no further, for my intention is not to offend anyone.
This treatise is in no way designed to spark controversy (although it will), but is presented in the hope that the guilt and shame many Christians feel, may be dispelled, at least to some extent. It is unfortunate that something so many people do can cause so much emotional heartache. We all have some guilty baggage that we always carry along with us wherever we go, so maybe this article will lighten that load for you.
Masturbation is, probably, the most common sexual activity, but there is a strong stigma associated with it, so just how many people use self-stimulation to pleasure themselves? Most people have masturbated at some point in their lives, but because of social norms, many won’t admit to it.1 Survey statistics concerning this practice vary widely, because it is difficult to get honest answers about such a personal issue, but a reliable scientific source indicates that 95% of men and 89% of women masturbate.2
Before we learn what the Bible says about this subject, we must first describe sin. According to the dictionary, sin is an offense against religious or moral law; an action that is, or is felt to be, highly reprehensible; a transgression of the law of God.3 But how does the Bible describe sin? The Bible declares sin as “a transgression, an iniquity, an unrighteous act. Sin is a deviation from the will of God. It is a form of evildoing since it is in opposition to God’s decrees and desires. It is not merely a deficiency. It is an open rebellion and disobedience to what God has declared is right.”4
Now, we must ask where in the Bible do we find this sin of masturbating, or any kind of deliberate self-stimulation of the sexual organ to the point of orgasm? The answer is — nowhere! Neither the Old Testament, nor the New Testament, mentions anything about this practice. That is correct – masturbation is not even mentioned in the Bible.
Male and female masturbation has been around, and documented in art and text, for thousands of years, so one would think, logically, that if it is a sin there would be some evidence in the Bible. And since there is no mention of masturbation, then there is no Bible scripture that can be directly applied to the act. If there is no scripture, there is no word of God condemning this human activity. Deductive reasoning would assume that there is no sin involved, but let’s dig a little deeper, since there are many Old Testament and New Testament verses used by religious leaders to bring the practice up for discussion. Some can be applied, some can not. Let’s examine some scripture to clear-up any misconception. The first we will consider is a story told at Genesis 38:1–11.
What Does Scripture Say?
Er and Tamar were married by the custom of the levirate,5 which demands that the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow to care for her and produce children for her, in his brother’s name. The children produced by this arrangement would belong to the woman,6 but not the surrogate husband. Er dies and his brother Onan married her. But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so during sexual relations with Tamar, he spilled his semen on the ground. God took his life, because “Onan repeatedly used that law for sexual gratification; he took advantage of the situation, but refused the responsibility that went with it.”7
As you can see, God’s displeasure had nothing to do with masturbation. However, because Onan spilled his seed on the ground, sometimes his name is referenced by the term “onanism,”8 which is applied to the act of masturbation, because of wasting of the semen when males masturbate, as well as applied to ejaculating outside the vagina during intercourse (coitus interruptus).
Since self-pleasuring is generally the outcome of intense sexual thoughts, many times, someone will reference Matthew 5:28 as a reason not to masturbate. Jesus said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”9 What Jesus said was that adultery begins within one’s heart by looking at someone lustfully and then following-up by acting out the thought.10 A lustful heart could ultimately lead to adultery, so the desire is as wrong as the act.
This passage “does not discount a normal interest in women by men and vice versa.” A passing glance or temptation wasn’t what Jesus was talking about, but that “the person who keeps looking or lets the mind dwell on a forbidden sin or on a person who belongs to someone else, or on one for whom he or she has no honorable intentions,” then that person has sinned.11
In this case it is not an act of masturbation that would be the sin, but the idea of whom they are looking at or thinking about, and then dwelling upon it. For a married man or woman, this would be a sin if not looking at, or thinking about, their spouse. It would seem, however, that a married person lusting for his or her absent spouse and acting out a fantasy in their mind would not be a sin. Probably, neither would any “honorable intentioned” thoughts of engaged couples be a sin.
Another scripture people use is 2 Timothy 2:22 which says: “Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” But when the Bible speaks of youthful lust or desire, it can mean much more than illicit sex or masturbation. When Paul wrote his second epistle to Timothy and said to shun youthful passions, he wasn’t talking about sex. Reading all of 2 Timothy2:14–26 for the full context, it is understood that Paul “is talking about theological arguments. He is telling Timothy not to get trapped in speculative conversations about God. He is talking about theological discussions. He is talking about pointless arguments about God that don’t matter.”12 The youthful pursuit of random and meaningless debates about unimportant topics must be turned to discussions on a more mature level.
Even after refuting the use of the inappropriate scripture mentioned above, there are still those who say that masturbation is a sin, because it gratifies the desires of the flesh, which means we are not walking in the spirit and living by faith. But the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) speak about fornication, under which the act of masturbation would not fall, if involving their own spouse. So, considering all these facts, let us glean additional information from other reliable Christian and professional sources.
What Do the Experts Say?
There are many reasons why a married couple might resort to sexual self-pleasuring. Christian writer and counselor, Louis McBurney, gives an example of a Christian woman learning about the sin of masturbation in her Bible study class. This woman explained that it was the only way she could reach a climax. He explained that physiological differences between men and women are common and because of this, masturbation is not a sin. He wrote, “Manual stimulation may be her only option to achieve orgasm. A thoughtful husband can provide that, giving her not only physical release but a sense of being cherished. That clearly completes the biblical picture of two becoming one.”13
Dr. Douglas Rosenau, theologian and sex therapist, said that self-pleasuring is permissible, but you must guard your fantasy so it does not involve fantasizing about others besides your partner. “In the book, The Gift of Sex, Clifford and Joyce Penner suggest that a man or woman ask themselves if self-stimulation is loving. ‘If one partner desires a great deal of sexual activity and the other is less frequently interested, the couple might decide that masturbation is the most loving act the highly interested person can do.’”14
Calvinist minister, Matt Slick, gives this example. “Let’s say that a wife is incapacitated by an accident and is in the hospital for an extended period of time. Is it all right for the husband to masturbate if he thinks only of his wife in order to relieve sexual tension? Again, without a specific declaration of scripture, it is difficult to pronounce it as sinful.”15
When God spoke to Moses about sexual relations (Leviticus 18), he listed prohibited sexual practices. Adultery, rape, incest, homosexual sex, and sex with animals are all prohibited. Masturbation is not on the list; it is not even mentioned. A Christian minister and writer, Bill McGinnis, said, “Thus we see that the prohibition against masturbation is pure ‘doctrine of man,’ the very kind that Jesus speaks against. The simple fact is that private solo masturbation is permitted. And if we reject it as a sin, when it is not, we go against the will of God, who gave it to us as a gift for our benefit and enjoyment.”16
American Conservative rabbi and professor of Jewish theology at the American Jewish University, Elliot N. Dorff, stated that sexual hormones are strong in teenage women and men. He said that “the largest number of ejaculations a male will experience per year during his lifetime occurs between ages sixteen and eighteen, whereas the largest number of physical climaxes a female will experience per year will occur between ages twenty-six and thirty. That means that realistically, the choices for teenagers and people in their twenties are either to masturbate or to engage in non-marital sex.”17
Alexis Roberts, a Reconstructionist rabbi, maintains that masturbation is “harmless, natural and healthy. It may provide release and pleasure, as well as self-knowledge that is useful for pleasurable sex with a partner. It may make it easier for young people to have sexual release in the years when they are too young for a mature, committed, loving relationship.”18
And there are health benefits from masturbating, too. Besides stress relief and a natural sleep sedative for both sexes, there are individual benefits for both women and men. For women, according to Dr. Lauren Streicher, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gyneocology at Northwestern University, self-stimulation is a way to relax both emotionally and physically and if you have a uterine contraction while masturbating, that can help menstrual blood come out faster. Theoretically, it will help with cramps, too.19
For men, improving the immune system’s functioning and building resistance to prostate gland infection is summarized in a 2007 article in the periodical Sexual and Relationship Therapy. Researchers in Australia have also reported that frequent masturbation may lower a man’s risk of getting prostate cancer.20
Author Shoni Labowitz relates that one woman told her, “Masturbating has become a spiritual experience for me. It is a way of my owning my own body and its ability to give me pleasure. I think of it as a prayer of gratitude for all I am.”21 Labowitz wrote, “when a woman befriends her body, she is befriending who God is in her. Self-stimulation can restore the connection between your sexuality and spirituality.”22
Now, let’s organize the answers from our research. The act of masturbation is not in the Bible, and not cited by God as an abomination, therefore it is not an established sin. Many scripture references used to cite reasons to believe masturbation is wrong, are found to reference something completely different. Respected theologians, ministers, rabbis, and researchers have indicated basis for its refutation as a sin, at least in many circumstances. And legitimate research indicates health benefits to its practice. So, can we now say that masturbation is an okay Christian practice? Well, yes and no.
Just as sexual intercourse is proper and expected between married couples, but an abomination to God if done outside of marriage, likewise for self-stimulation. If sexual intercourse with your neighbor’s spouse is a sin, then so is masturbating to a fantasy involving that person, just as it would be through pornographic images. Therefore, self-pleasuring while with your spouse, or while thinking of your spouse, is definitely not a sin. For those persons that are engaged, but not yet married, they are positioned in a possible gray area of acceptable masturbation, but most assuredly, if it is not done with your betrothed partner or thinking of your betrothed partner, then it would definitely be a sin.
If you are feeling worried, anxious, guilty, or ashamed because of this practice, please use prayer to address the issue. Even if it is not a sin, you must be comfortable in dealing with this matter and you must make your own decisions. Of course, if you feel it is not for you, that is okay, but remember to respect other people’s decisions. The apostle Paul tells Christians of different backgrounds to respect others’ consciences, because they honor the Lord in their own way. Each group should accept the other, just as Christ has accepted both.23
It is not the purpose of this article to promote masturbation. It is to give answers about the biblical view and show that it is not sinning against God, if you do practice this common sexual activity within the boundaries of God’s idea for marriage. Remember, prohibition against masturbation is clearly a doctrine of man – not God. Human sexuality is a way for people to experience and express themselves which involves biological, erotic, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual feelings and behaviors.24 All of these feelings and behaviors are gifts from God; he created us and knows what we need. If you are so inclined, use this technique for pleasure and give thanks to God for such a wonderful gift.
Copyright © 2018, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
1. Bachai, Sabrina, “Sex For One, Please,” (Medical Daily, 24 June 2014), https://www.medicaldaily.com/sex-one-please-15-facts-about-female-and-male-masturbation-289764
2. Coon, Dennis & Mitterer, John O., Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior, (Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010), p. 371.
3. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Wester, Inc., 2003).
4. Slick, Matt, “What is sin?” (CARM, [Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry], 21 November 2008), https://carm.org/what-is-sin
5. “Levirate marriage,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 7 May 2018), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levirate_marriage
6. Author’s Note: Abraham had sexual relations with Hagar with similar results; any son born of the union of husband and concubine was considered the child of the mother, not the father.
Hermann, Ray, “My Knights Templar Sword: A Story from Abraham to Muslims, the Crusades, and Pirates,” (The Outlaw Bible Student, 5 May 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/my-knights-templar-sword-a-story-from-abraham-to-muslims-the-crusades-and-pirates/
7. Allen P. Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books,1985), vol. 1, p. 88.
8. “onanism,” (Wiktionary: the Free Dictionary, 19 November 2017), https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/onanism
9. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
10. Barbieri, Louis A., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, pp. 30–31.
11. Horton, Ralph W. (Ed.), The New Testament Study Bible, (Springfield, MO: The Complete Biblical Library, World Library Press, Inc.), vol. 2 (Matthew), pp. 90-91.
12. Penley, Paul, “The ‘lust’ all young people have: and how we missed it because of bad Bible interpretation,” (Reenacting The Way, 16 July 2013), http://www.reenactingtheway.com/blog/the-lust-all-young-people-have-and-how-we-missed-it-because-of-bad-bible-interpretation
13. McBurney, Louis, “Is Masturbation a sin?” (Today’s Christian Woman, Christianity Today, August 2013), https://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2013/august/is-masturbation-sin.html
14. Dillow, Linda & Pintus, Lorraine, Intimate Issues: Conversations Woman to Woman, (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press), p. 129.
15. Slick, Matt, “Is masturbation wrong?” (CARM, [Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry], retrieved 12 May 2018), https://carm.org/is-masturbation-wrong
16. McGinnis, Bill, “Is Masturbation a Sin?” (Bible Explore, retrieved 12 May 2018), http://www.godrules.net/articles/masturbation.htm
17. Dorff, Elliot N., “Masturbation: A Touchy Subject,” (My Jewish Learning, retrieved 15 May 2018), https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/masturbation-a-touchy-subject/
18. “Judaism and masturbation,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 19 April 2018), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judaism_and_masturbation
19. Vaglanos, Alanna, “13 Reasons Every Woman Should Masturbate Regularly,” (HuffPost, 14 January 2015 [updated 12/2017]), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/14/reasons-women-should-masturbate_n_6172092.html
20. Fulbright, Yvonne Kristin, “The Health Benefits of Masturbation,” (Fox News, FOXSexpert, 11 August 2008), http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/08/11/foxsexpert-health-benefits-masturbation.html
21. Labowitz, Shoni, God, Sex and Women of the Bible, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1998), p. 187.
22. Ibid., p. 186.
23. Knowles, Andrew, The Bible Guide, 1st ed., (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), p. 574.
24. “Human sexuality,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 17 May 2018), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_sexuality