Several years ago, I spent two semesters at a bible college. During one of the lectures that I sat through, the teacher brought up a passage of scripture that he claimed would take away any doubt that masturbation was wrong. It says something about the strength of his exposition that I have no memory of what verse he used, or why he thought that it was so clear. The tricky thing about masturbation, is that there are no passages in scripture (to my knowledge) which directly address it. This makes it a dangerous subject to take a hard stance on, especially if you believe (as I do) that the church cannot command anything that scripture does not. That being said, there are some passages in scripture that apply indirectly to this issue.
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:28
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Exodus 20:17
The first premises that apply to the issue of masturbation are Christ’s admonition in the sermon on the mount that it is sin to look at a woman and lust after her, and the Tenth commandment, which forbids covetousness. To define the terms of this statement, I assert the following:
- By “Woman”, this statement applies to lusting after anyone whom you cannot justly desire or have sexual relations with. Conversely, to desire or lust after one’s own spouse is natural, good, and right (proverbs 5:18-19). There are some people (such as St. Augustine in “On Christian Doctrine”) who have made the assertion that it is somehow wrong to lust after one’s own spouse. This is complete and unmitigated nonsense, and has no place in the church.
- By “lust” is meant the Greek term “ephithumia” which can be translated “desire”, “passionate longing”, or “lust” (Strong’s concordance). “Lust” in English is defined as “usually intense or unbridled sexual desire” (Merriam Webster online). In this case, I think the English translation is correct.
- To covet is defined as “marked by an inordinate desire for wealth or possessions, or for another’s possessions” or “having a craving for possession” (Merriam Webster Online)
Based on these principles, it is sin to engage in sexual fantasies or allow and fuel sexual desires within yourself for any woman who is not yours to desire. It is also sin to desire to have someone else’s spouse. Coming back to masturbation, the act itself may not be sin, but if you do it while fantasizing about a classmate, a woman from a magazine, a painting of a model long-dead, or your co-worker’s wife, you are sinning.
As a side note, I do not believe that Jesus’ command in Matthew condemns all desire, as there is a desire between sexes which serves to motivate men and women towards marriage and procreation. This is good, inasmuch as it is exercised within the boundaries of the scriptures.
Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them, for their hearts devise violence, and their lips talk of trouble. Proverbs 24:1
The next principles that impact any discussion about masturbation has to do with wisdom and thought. Psalm 71 and Proverbs 24 warn against envying the wicked. This applies to the subject manner in that it indicates that envying the actions or opportunities of wicked men, such as casual sex, orgies, or sexual violence, even if you would never do such things in real life, is something that the scriptures strongly warn against, and is not a wise thing to do.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” 1 Corinthians 10:23
Is it possible to engage in this activity without falling afoul of any of the commands previously presented? Yes. It is significant though, to note that there are some other concerns. In this regard, I speak by myself (without the authority of scripture), but I would assert that masturbation can be detrimental to an unmarried person’s future sex life on the basis that it teaches their mind to find gratification in something that is not their spouse.
“If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until the evening. And every garment and every skin on which the semen comes shall be washed with water and be unclean until the evening. If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water and be unclean until the evening.” Leviticus 15:16-18
The Old Testament law covers many topics having to do with sexual ethics. It is interesting that, under the law, any time that a man ejaculated, he was considered unclean. This could be construed to mean that masturbation is sin, but to do so would be very bad exposition. The “uncleanness” spoken of in this passage is not sin, otherwise it would have been sin to have a wet dream or for a married couple to have sex, both of which caused the involved parties to become ceremonially unclean (verse 18). What it does mean is that a man who ejaculated, for any reason, could not engage in certain activities or ceremonies on that day, and also needed to bathe himself, and to wash anything that his semen got on. What does this mean for new testament believers? All orthodox Christians agree that we are not bound to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, but I find it very interesting that when God set up, in exhausting detail, the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws of his chosen people, he did not choose to forbid masturbation. It is also interesting that there is no other passage in scripture that does so, especially when so many sexual sins are condemned in great detail. Based on this, I do not believe that any person has the right to categorically condemn masturbation as sin.
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5
The pattern for sexual activity in the Christian marriage is one of mutual submission. As the verse stated, in a Godly marriage, the husband’s body belongs to his wife, and the wife’s body belongs to her husband. The scriptures also command married couples not to deny each other sexually, except by agreement, and only for a short time. Based on this, I think it proper to draw two applications:
- Anything sexual that is done in a marriage should be done with the agreement of both spouses.
- If a man is engaging in masturbation, even with complete compliance to all of the above principles, and in doing so is left unable to fulfill his marital duties to his wife, he is sinning.
As an aside, I have read bible teachers who assert with confidence that it is sin for a husband to masturbate over thoughts or images of his wife when they are not together, such as when a military man is deployed. Based on my study and meditation on God’s word, I do not believe that such a position is defensible, as long as the scriptural principles in this post are honored.
The sin of Onan (Genesis 38:6-11)
In Genesis 38, a man named Onan is called to take his dead brother’s wife and father a son to preserve his brother’s family line. Instead, Onan withdraws at the last minute and spills his seed on the ground. God strikes him dead for this. There are those who have taken this passage as a divine condemnation of masturbation. This is an error, for the sin that Onan committed was not masturbation, but willfully refusing to continue his brother’s line. As such, this line of reasoning should not be given credence.
What about drawings?
After reading the principles above, some may ask about sexualized art, such as may be found in tattoos, or some forms of animation and drawing. If such art is not based upon, or an accurate representation of, a real woman, is it still wrong to lust after it? One could argue that Christ’s commands in Matthew 5 apply only to real women and not to art, or that said command applies to any form of sexual lust. As for myself, I would apply this verse to lusting after the forms in art as much as in real life. I would also say that even if such actions are lawful, they are unwise on the basis of training oneself to desire something that is not real, and inasmuch as they involve fantasizing about wicked actions.
In conclusion, I believe that there is nothing in scripture which categorically condemns the act of masturbation. There are, however, many commands and principles in scripture that restrict how one may do so.
As a final note, none of the sins in this post are the unforgivable sin. If you find yourself having failed in any of these areas, then these words from 1 John 1:9 are for you: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Also, if you find yourself trapped by pornography, wicked or violent fantasies, or any other sexual sin, DO NOT suffer in silence. No matter what your sin, no matter how dirty it is, you are not the first Christian to struggle with it. James 5:16 tells us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” This is what the church is for. Find an older Christian (of the same gender) and ideally one who has beaten similar sins, and if married go to your spouse, confess your sins, and let them pray for you. This is God’s pattern for victory over sin.