I started to comment on a recent post by “BabyRx21” entitled: “Marriage, Masturbation and Purity Question.” But the more I thought about it and the more I wrote, the longer it got. So I’m posting my thoughts on that issue here. I wanted to address the mention of Romans 14:23 and the issue of sinning if you do something you believe is not right. I’ve thought a lot about Romans 14 over the years and it has always bothered me the way people have used it and taught it. I’d like to share my perspective on this. Keep in mind this is me “thinking out loud” and that I haven’t ironed out all the wrinkles yet. I’ve personally never heard this version taught from any pulpit or book, but like I said, the way it has traditionally been handled has always bothered me anyway. The more I’ve thought about it since reading the original post, the more I think my view can work. I’m going to try to explain my view here. Hopefully this will make sense. If something is unclear, let me know.
I think Romans 14 has to do with relationships, not matters of right and wrong. And looking at it this way changes the traditional meaning of verse 23.
In Romans 14:1 Paul says to accept the one whose faith is weak. So he’s already dealing with relationships. He is saying for all believers to accept one another regardless of what they believe about things. Because who are we to judge someone else’s servant? (14:4) We don’t have the right to judge one another. He is still dealing with relationships. If you and I are in a relationship and I believe something you don’t (such as one day is more sacred than another – 14:5-6) then I do so to the Lord. So you don’t have the right to judge me for that. Just as I don’t have the right to judge you for thinking every day is the same. For none of us lives or dies for ourselves alone, but for the Lord. (14:7-8)
Why judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat and give an account of ourselves to God. (14:10-12) So again he is dealing with relationships. We have no right to judge one another because we each have to give an account of ourselves to God and nobody else. And each believer holds his convictions “for the Lord” so it’s really between God and the individual. And each individual believer holds his views “for the Lord” so they are doing so out of love and respect for the Lord. (Now this doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for believers confronting other believers. But that has to do more with confronting sin. Here Paul is simply addressing various beliefs that some have and he is saying to accept one another and refrain from judging one another. So that’s different from confronting sin.)
Paul continues by saying not to stop passing judgment on one another. (14:12) The theme continues to be relationships. He doesn’t want believers fighting amongst themselves, especially over what each one believes. So make up your mind, he continues, not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of someone else. (14:13)
Now this verse has caused a lot of problems in itself. Many have used this to say things like: You can’t (fill in the blank) because you might cause someone to stumble. I believe we again have misused the verse. Notice carefully what it says. “Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother.” He says to make up your mind. Decide not to do this. He is referring to a deliberate decision to refrain from doing something that you know will trip someone else up. And how will you know what that person struggles with unless you are in a relationship with him? This is much different than going out in public thinking you “might” cause a total stranger to stumble if you do/wear/say something. And we’ve lived in fear that our actions “might” cause “someone” to stumble. But that isn’t what Paul is saying. He is saying if your brother, whom you are in relationship with, believes something different than you, then you need to make the decision out of love to accept him and not do something that would offend him.
Here’s an example: Let’s say Bob and Joe are both believers and they go to eat. Joe believes that it’s okay to drink alcohol as long as it is in moderation and you don’t get drunk. Bob, however, believes that all alcohol is sin and even one drink means you are sinning. Joe knows this about Bob. So out of love for Bob, he doesn’t order any alcohol when he goes to eat with Bob. But when he goes out with other friends (who share his view that some alcohol is okay) then he feels free to order an alcoholic drink. See the difference? He doesn’t live in fear that he “might” cause “someone” to stumble. No, he is in relationship with Bob and therefore knows Bob well enough to know that Bob thinks drinking is sin. So out of love he refrains. But he is free to drink alcohol in his home or with friends who drink. But he also does not have to worry about some other Christian seeing him and “stumbling” because of him. If he is not in relationship with some unnamed Christian sitting at another table, then this whole discussion doesn’t even apply! He is not obligated to refrain for someone he is not in relationship with. Even if that other person is a Christian.
For too long people have used this verse out of fear. “I can’t wear that bathing suit in public because it might cause someone to stumble.” No. You are not obligated to control other people’s thoughts. And if some other person lusts after you, that’s a problem within HIM, not you. (see Matthew 15:19-20) And again, you are not in relationship with some random person on the beach so this doesn’t even apply. The focus is on relationship. You have to be in a relationship with someone in order to know what their stumbling blocks are! We have used this verse to create a sense of constant paranoia that our actions might cause someone to stumble and all it has done is paralyze us with fear. The relationship comes first. That’s the only way you will know what causes that person to stumble.
Now if you have a friend and you know he used to struggle with porn and lust, then out of love for him you wouldn’t suggest hanging out at the beach! But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to go to the beach. See how this isn’t about establishing right and wrong? It’s about relationship! It’s about love. For as Paul says next, “If your brother is distressed because of what you are eating, you are no longer acting in love.” (14:15) See how it isn’t about the right and wrong of what you are eating, but about the relationship you have with your brother? Because the kingdom of God is not about what you eat or drink, but about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (14:17)
Therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. (14:19) See again, relationship. It’s about establishing and maintaining peace between believers. Now this isn’t a “peace at all costs” suggestion. He isn’t saying turn your head when your brother is doing something wrong just to maintain the peace. Again there is a place for confrontation for sin, but he isn’t addressing that here. This is about two believers who have different views on whether or not to eat the meat…or drink alcohol…or go swimming with mixed genders…or masturbate…the list is endless but the point is the same: make every effort to do what leads to peace between the two of you.
He goes on to say that all food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. (14:20) Now again I emphasize that the focus is on relationship. I don’t think he is saying we should worry about some random person seeing us. If that were the case we would never be able to do anything! For just about everything we do has the potential to offend somebody! Are we to live in fear that what we’re doing might be causing someone else to stumble? No, that’s ridiculous. But if you are in relationship with someone and you know certain things offend them, then out of love don’t bring it up around them. But you can still enjoy it in the privacy of your own home and with other friends who support that activity. And you don’t have to feel guilt over it either.
He then says that it is better not to eat meat or do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. (14:21) Again the focus is not on the activity, but on your brother. It’s about maintaining that peace between you and your brother. So out of love for him, don’t do something you know he doesn’t approve of. Like the example above with Bob and Joe and ordering alcohol. But I don’t see this as a universal rule that you can’t ever do something if someone else doesn’t approve of it. First, you can do whatever you want in the privacy of your home. Second, you can enjoy the activity, food, etc. with other friends who aren’t offended by it. Because this isn’t about establishing the right or wrong of an activity. It’s about relationship and how you interact with others. If you know your brother has a problem with alcohol and he thinks it is sin, then don’t order alcohol when you go to eat with him. It’s that simple. But in your home or with other friends who also order alcohol, then feel free! Because it isn’t about the alcohol, but the relationship.
This is why he says in verse 22 to keep whatever you believe between yourself and God. Because you don’t want to damage the relationship you have with your brother. If you know your brother has a problem with it, then keep it to yourself and God and refrain when you are in his presence. But feel free to enjoy it when you aren’t in that brother’s presence.
Now we come to verse 23. How does all this affect our understanding of this verse? Simple: The context of Romans 14 has to do with relationships. It is not about determining right and wrong for the individual. It is about helping believers to have loving relationships. So the context of verse 23 is still speaking of relationships between you and your brother whom you have a relationship with. So I do not think this verse is saying that if you personally think something is a sin and you do it, then God holds you accountable for that sin.
Let me explain it this way. Let’s say you think eating chocolate is a sin. It’s not though. And there’s nothing in scripture that says eating chocolate is a sin. But you personally have the conviction that eating chocolate is sin. Now, do you really think God is so petty that he is going to charge you with sin just because you “thought” it was a sin? Even though it really isn’t a sin and nothing in scripture indicates that it is? Is God really that petty that he would say, “Well, it’s not a sin, but you thought it was a sin and did it anyway so you’re guilty.” No, God isn’t like that. Now replace eating chocolate with masturbating. If you “think” it’s a sin but it isn’t and you do it anyway, does God charge you with sinning? I would say no because God would see that you were living under false guilt and not true guilt. Because you haven’t done anything wrong!
Here’s what I see Paul saying: He just got done saying that it’s wrong to eat something that will cause your brother to stumble. (vs 20) And so it’s better to refrain rather than cause him to stumble. (vs 21) But remember, this isn’t applicable to everyone, only those with whom you are in relationship. (Because you have to be in relationship with someone to know what would cause them to stumble.) So you may believe something is okay, but keep it between yourself and God for the sake of peace with your brother. (vs 22)
But if you have doubts about whether or not you should eat something (because you know your brother would be offended by it) and you go ahead and do it anyway, THEN you are sinning. (vs 23) Not so much because you are doing something you “think” is a sin, but because you are violating the relationship you have with your brother. You are not acting in love by knowingly doing something that you know he has a problem with. You are not following your convictions by doing this. What convictions? The conviction that tells you: “Your brother will be offended by this so don’t do it.” So by ignoring that and doing something you know will offend your brother, then you sin. Not because the action is sin and not because you personally “think” the action is sin, but because you are not treating your brother with love.
If you believe that it wouldn’t be right to do something because your brother (whom you are in a relationship with) believes it’s wrong, and you do it anyway, then you are sinning. So it’s less about the action and more about the relationship. It’s less about the action and more about love.
So when it comes to the issue of masturbation, I would say Romans 14 doesn’t even apply. Because you aren’t going to be masturbating in the presence of your Christian brother or sister. (At least I hope not!) This is something you do in private. So it’s not something that is sin just because you “think” it is sin. That concept doesn’t exist anymore. And it doesn’t apply anyway because that has to do with the relationship you have with your brother. So if you masturbate alone, you aren’t offending anybody so there is no issue. And the Bible clearly never says it is sin, so again there is no issue here.
Now it would be an issue if you were talking with someone and you learned they believed masturbation was sin. In that case, I would say don’t mention that you think it is okay or that you masturbate regularly. But again not because of the action, because of the relationship with your brother. If you can see that it would offend this person to know that you masturbate or that you think masturbation isn’t sin, keep it between yourself and God.
But on the other hand, this doesn’t mean never share your views with others. For how else will any of us grow and learn if we don’t hear a different viewpoint on things? But you have to read your friend and determine what kind of relationship you are in with them. If you see the opportunity to discuss an issue with them and they are open to discussing it, then carefully discuss it with them. But if they have made it clear they think something is wrong and aren’t open to discussion, keep it between yourself and God so as not to offend them. Do whatever leads to peace and mutual edification. But don’t feel any guilt for continuing the practice yourself outside of their presence. And don’t feel any guilt for anything you may have done while thinking it was a sin. I honestly don’t believe God is that petty that he would charge you with wrongdoing if it truly wasn’t sin.
So to address the issue you are discussing: The Romans 14:23 verse doesn’t apply because when you masturbate it is something you do alone. So it doesn’t affect a relationship. And you said your husband isn’t bothered by it, so it really is no issue. What you would want to address is: WHY do you feel guilty? Because usually guilt over masturbation is brought on by false information and bad teaching. Or lack of teaching! And then read some pro masturbation material, such as articles on this site about it. If you want a good book to read, I recommend “Is it Lust or Legalism?” by Brad Watson. He has some very enlightening and interesting things to say about the subject of lust. And he addresses masturbation in one chapter. And he has some interesting things to say about masturbation as well. (Short version is that he is in favor of it because it is a healthy, God given way of finding sexual release if you aren’t married or if your spouse is unavailable for some reason.)
So your guilt over masturbating sounds like it is built on lies, bad teaching or no teaching. (Or some combination of the three!) Which means it isn’t built on God’s word so it is unfounded. But even so, God convicts us when we have sinned. He doesn’t make us feel guilty. So any guilt you feel isn’t from God anyway. And to me it sounds like you masturbating would be a healthy way to release the sexual tension since you have the higher drive. And what’s the alternative? To hold it in? It has to come out somehow. It might come out by way of you being angry and short with your husband. Or it might come out by way of flirting with other men. Or it might come out by responding to sexual advances of another man. Or it might come out by causing you to turn to food or alcohol to distract from those feelings. Or you might even turn to porn. Any of those would harm your marriage!
But if you masturbate when you feel the need, but you also maintain a healthy sex life with your husband, that would help your marriage. Your husband wouldn’t feel pressured into having as much sex as you want, so he would be able to relax. (This might actually make him more available to you since the pressure is off.) And you would have a way to release that sexual tension so that you could develop your relationship with your husband outside the bedroom as well. You wouldn’t be resentful of him and you would have the emotional energy to give to him in other ways. Which might also lead to more sex or more frequent sex. So I see it as something that can only help your marriage.
I hope this helps!
We are sorry that this post was not one of your favorites!
Help us understand why.