What Does The Bible Say About Tattoos & Piercings?
“The Truth About… Tattoos and Piercings” covers the controversial topic of modern tattoos and piercings. How should Christians view tattoos and piercings?
It’s nearly impossible to go out in public these days without seeing someone with a tattoo or body piercing. The movie stars have them. The sports figures have them. In fact, a news story dated April 30, 2009 says that Barbie now has them. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Barbie doll, Mattel has created a new Barbie, complete with tattoos and a toy tattoo gun so children can stamp themselves with washable tattoos. The American Academy of Dermatology website says that 24 percent of people 18 to 50 reported having a tattoo. A Harris Poll dated February 12, 2008, stated that 32 percent of those aged 25 to 29 had a tattoo, and 25 percent of people 30 to 39 had them. Because tattoos and piercings are so popular, it’s a topic young people have to deal with and about which they naturally have many questions. “Is it right for a Christian to get a tattoo?” “Is it right to have multiple piercings in your ears? What about a ring in your nose?” Parents don’t always know how best to answer these questions.
Sometimes Christian parents who discuss these things with their children aren’t sure if the issues really matter. Are these things matters of right and wrong or just purely matters of opinion? What does the Bible say? Does it even address these issues? We want to be fair in answering these questions. We don’t want to misuse the Scriptures in any way or reach unwarranted conclusions. Neither is it our goal to shame or embarrass anyone. We want to examine this topic in light of relevant Bible passages, and then draw accurate conclusions based on what God says on the matter.
Frequently when discussing the subject of tattoos or body piercings, someone might argue, “The Bible specifically forbids them.” In fact, there is no passage in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not get a tattoo.” Many times people will cite Leviticus 19:28, believing that it addresses our question. It states, “You shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.” This is actually not a proper use of this passage. First, we have to be very careful about trying to use an Old Testament passage as a proof text to regulate activities in the New Testament Christian Age. The Law of Moses was nailed to the cross, and it is not the standard by which we live today.
Notice also the same chapter which forbids putting marks on one’s body also gives instructions concerning animal sacrifices. It also requires leaving certain portions of one’s crops unharvested, forbids sowing two types of seed in the same field, and tells the Hebrews they were not to wear a garment with two different types of fabric (wool and linen). There are restrictions about how a man’s hair was to be cut, and prohibitions as to how he could trim his beard. Are we behaving fairly when we bind just one of these restrictions? Certainly not. The context of Leviticus 19:27-28 is that of avoiding heathen practices and things associated with idolatry. “Cutting the flesh” is mentioned. In 1 Kings 18:28 the prophets of Baal cut themselves in efforts to elicit a response from their god. Archeological evidence shows that some of the Canaanites tattooed themselves with the names or symbols of their favorite gods. Idolatry is probably what God is prohibiting in His injunction against cutting the flesh, not the modern practice of tattoos. Christians should be careful not to create invalid arguments when pulling passages from the Bible. False reasoning not only invalidates the case we are trying to make but also hurts our credibility. When we use such arguments, we are not rightly handling the word of truth. There is a principle in Leviticus 19 that we are not to associate ourselves with ungodly things, but that would be all we could draw from the passage.
So we must conclude that there is no Bible passage that says “thou shalt not get a tattoo.” However, just because there is no direct prohibition against tattoos doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right to get one. There is no passage in the Bible saying, “Thou shalt not inject heroin into thy veins,” but we understand that it’s wrong because of biblical principles. So in determining if an activity is right or wrong, a Christian needs to ask himself certain questions, such as what would this do to my influence? Would this be a stumbling block for others? Is engaging in this practice good stewardship? Will this have negative effects on me as a servant of God?
#1 The Principle of INFLUENCE
Let’s begin by examining a passage in 1 Corinthians 11. A rather unusual discussion takes place in this chapter concerning the wearing of veils. The apostle Paul writes, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved” (11:5). Verse 6 goes on to say, “For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.”
Some believe this passage mandates a woman’s wearing a veil in worship at all times. That conclusion is not correct. In fact, Paul is quite clear in verse 16: “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.” If the point of the passage is not that women for all time must wear a veil, then why does Paul command the women in Corinth to do so? The answer is simple. When Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, it was customary for a woman to wear a veil. Not to wear one was a sign of rejecting the husband’s authority. That culture would find that very offensive. No Christian woman wanted to leave that impression. What connection does this have with tattoos? In our current society, tattoos send a particular message. For years, they have been associated with a counter-culture. Tattoos (and unusual body piercings) send a message of a certain type of person, and they are associated with a certain type of people. A former policeman reflects on the time of his career when more and more officers began acquiring tattoos.
The department issued a new policy: officers could get tattoos only if they were hidden by their uniforms. The reason? Because of the message tattoos send. Numerous news stories on the internet discuss the problem of tattoos and body piercings in the workplace. One article from Fox News points out that some employers are having to write very specific dress codes to address the problem. Many employers are requiring that their staff dress in such a way as to hide their tattoos. The new tattoo Barbie doll was mentioned earlier. Here is an excerpt from an article discussing this new doll. “Parents have already rallied up against Mattel, asking for the dolls to be pulled off the market.” One parent asked, “Whatever will they bring out next? Drug addict Barbie? Alcoholic Barbie?” Why are parents rallying against Mattel? Because in our society tattoos have negative connotations.
A Native American man named Apache Crying Bear has tattoos all over his body. He has worked for many years as a professional tattoo artist. Apache says, “Police and judges look at you differently.” Apache can hardly find a job because of his tattoos. People don’t view him in the same light as if he had no tattoos. What does all this have to do with 1 Corinthians 11? The principle is that society’s view of an issue can make its practice sinful for a Christian. If society views not wearing a veil as rebellious and overstepping one’s bounds, then a Christian should not do it. In that light, if we conclude that Christians having tattoos or excessive piercings are considered rebellious or associated with sin, then without a doubt Christians should avoid them. Otherwise, they will hurt their influence and the influence of the church.
On the subject of influence, let us consider also that many times Chapter 1 5 the places a person has to go to get a tattoo will be harmful to his/her influence. Going into a bar is wrong even if one doesn’t drink. Going into a strip club is wrong even if one doesn’t look. Going into a casino is wrong even if one doesn’t gamble. Why? Because those practices are very destructive to one’s influence. What about tattoo parlors? Generally speaking, they have very seedy reputations. Sometimes their names alone speak volumes:
- Sinful Inflictions
- Dark Images
- Red devil Tattoo and Piercing
It is disturbing how many tattoo and piercing parlors have the word sinful in their names.
#2 The Principle of MODESTY
The point being made here is not what you might think. Although it could be related, this is not in reference to showing too much skin. Rather, we are referring to a word that appears in the Bible in 1 Timothy 2:9-10. It says, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but which becometh women professing godliness with good works.”
Let us consider four words and phrases in this text. First is the word modest. It means “orderly, well-arranged, or decent.” The idea is that this woman is not to adorn (beautify) herself in a way that draws undue attention to herself. In the immediate context, Paul is discussing a woman overdoing it—wearing flashy clothes, lots of makeup, and expensive jewelry. Of course, a woman could also draw undue attention to herself by under doing it, that is, by wearing too little. But consider this statement in light of the “tattoo and body piercing” discussion. Can we draw undue attention to ourselves with tattoos, nose rings, or navel piercings? Of course we can!
The second word to consider from this passage is shamefacedness. Shamefacedness is actually closer to our modern word modest than the first word we discussed. The Greek word for shamefacedness means, “a sense of shame, modesty.” The third word is sobriety. When we think of sobriety, we usually think of alcohol. That is because sobriety relates to being sober, not having the senses and judgment dulled by alcohol. In the original language, sobriety carried with it the idea of “soundness of mind and self-control.” It speaks of a person who is exercising good judgment.
The fourth thing to take from this passage is the phrase in verse 10: “which becometh women professing godliness.” In other words, “in a manner that says to the world, I am a servant of God. My most important concern is to be godly.” Let’s pull all of this together and see what we have. Christians are to adorn (decorate) themselves in a way that does not draw undue attention to themselves. They should have a sense of shame and modesty about them. They ought to exercise good judgment; they are to dress and adorn themselves so as to communicate godliness. Do tattoos communicate godliness? What about a stud in one’s tongue? Does that show a sense of shame and good judgment? Is that what people conclude when they see a person with multiple tattoos and piercings? There is a particular type of tattoo that has been very popular in recent years. It is typically worn by women and is placed at the base of their back so that when their shirt raises, the observer’s eye is drawn to that part of the body. That specific tattoo is commonly known as a “Tramp Stamp.” In light of what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2, a person would have to admit that such a tattoo does not mesh with godly principles.
#3 The Principle of STEWARDSHIP
The two points to think about under this principle are the stewardship of our bodies and the stewardship of our money. Before you reject the stewardship argument as weak, think about the risks and consider the stewardship of your body. The Mayo Clinic website states, “Tattoo inks are classified as cosmetics, so they aren’t regulated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The pigments and dyes used in tattoo inks aren’t approved for injection under the skin. Long-term effects of these are unknown.” The site also lists some of the specific risks associated with
getting a tattoo. First there are the blood-borne diseases, including:
- Hepatitis C
- Hepatitis B
In continuing to list the risks of tattoos, the Mayo Clinic also mentions “skin disorders, skin infections, allergic reactions, and on rare occasions they can even cause problems when a person needs to get an MRI.” According to Apache Crying Bear, there are hundreds of infection possibilities involved in getting a tattoo. Apache says he personally knew of cases where 2,500 people fell victim to Hepatitis C after getting a tattoo. Some of the dangers involved in getting a tattoo are the same for body piercings. Somebody might say, “I go to a clean, upscale tattoo parlor.” In all actuality, tattooists are not doctors, and each place is going to claim it is a clean, upscale establishment in order to win more customers. And all this does not consider the pain associated with getting a tattoo.
In addition, there are long-term effects such as disfigurement.
Over time tattoos stretch, fade, and began to look very bad. Then, too, there is the regret factor. For various reasons, many people who get tattoos look back years later, or maybe even soon afterward, and regret their body marking that will be there the rest of their life. What is cool to a teenager does not have the same vibe to a 40-year-old. Stewardship of our bodies is only one issue to consider. The second is the stewardship of our money. Someone may argue, “It’s my money and I can buy whatever I want with it.” But that isn’t really true. Our money belongs to God, and we’re just stewards of what He gives us. Someone else might say, “Well, it’s not wrong to purchase things we enjoy. Maybe you spend money for movie tickets or an iPod, but I choose to spend mine on a tattoo.” We agree that it is not wrong to spend money on recreation and pleasurable activities, but when we do that we must always consider the stewardship principles.
Depending on one’s personal financial situation, bills and the amount of money one should be giving to the Lord, it may be that buying that iPod is not appropriate at the time. It may mean that buying a new car right now might be poor stewardship. So the stewardship principle is one that everyone needs to consider carefully. We must weigh it and draw appropriate conclusions. Tattoos can be very expensive. A person needs to ask himself, “Is this a wise use of my money?” “Will the Lord be pleased if I spend my money this way?” According to Bill Johnson, the executive office director of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, most tattoo artists charge an hourly rate that varies from about 75 to 150 dollars. The process will take from one to several hours, depending on the size and complexity of the tattoo. In addition, some tattoo artists charge 10 to 25 percent extra if the tattoo is on a more difficult part of the body. When a person comes to regret his tattoo, having it removed is even more expensive than getting it. Removal requires from 5 to 20 sessions at a cost of 200 to 500 dollars per session. If you calculate that, someone getting a tattoo removed could be looking at ten thousand dollars, along with the pain associated with it.
Laser tattoo removal has been compared to being splattered with hot grease, so some choose to have a local anesthetic, which only increases the cost. Someone might ask, “What if I only want to get one tattoo, and it’s something innocent, like a butterfly or something?” There are several factors that would influence the effects of having a tattoo: where on one’s body the tattoo is located; how many tattoos one has; what the tattoo design is. All of these things are going to affect how people look at you. For example, a tattoo of a butterfly is not going to be viewed the same way as a tattoo of a skull and crossbones or a black widow spider. Regardless, there are certain negative connotations associated with tattoos, and 1 Timothy 5:14 speaks about “not giving occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” A person is still going to have to go into a tattoo parlor to get one. One still runs the risk of infections and diseases from bad needles. One still has to deal with the principles of modesty and good judgment in 1 Timothy 2. Another question someone may put forth is, “What about getting a religious tattoo, perhaps a cross or something to profess my faith?”
Remember there are many very ungodly people who have tattoos. Having a tattoo of a cross is not necessarily going to set you apart. In fact, having a tattoo is going to make you more like them. What does it say about you as a Christian when you have a tattoo? Here’s a third question: “What if I already have tattoos?” For someone who already has a tattoo, our discussion might make them feel very self-conscious. We are not trying to embarrass anyone. We want people to examine Christian principles and then make decisions that are the most in line with the Bible. If you have excessive body piercings, you can change that. If you have a ring in your nose, you can take it out. But if you already have a tattoo, there is not much you can do about it short of spending a great deal of money to have it removed. One Christian put it this way: “When I became a Christian, baptism washed away my sins but it didn’t wash away my tattoo.” That is true, but it doesn’t mean someone with a tattoo cannot be called a faithful Christian.
Tattoos and excessive body piercings can hurt and perhaps even destroy a person’s influence. They can violate principles of modesty. They can pose grave risks to one’s health, and they may result in poor stewardship. But if you already have them, it is not too late. They cannot stop you from serving the Lord and being a faithful Christian. Each of us should have the attitude of the apostle Paul: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). Why? Because Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” We are to live for the Lord, and as 1 Timothy 5:14 says, we don’t want to give any occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.
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