What Does the Bible Say?

Tattoos and piercing of the body are a debated subject. What if you were to see a young man pumping gas at a service station, his bare arms covered with tattooed designs in blue or purple ink? Or what if you were to see a young woman working at a chain store check-out with studs piercing her eyebrows, nose, and lower lip, and a row of earrings piercing one ear? What would your first reaction be–even if it were not expressed aloud? Would it be, "Wow! Way to go! I wish I had those!" Or would it be, "Dear me! What have you done to yourself? That's so ugly!"

Further than that, if you are a Christian, what conclusion would you tend to draw as to the spiritual condition of these individuals? Would you also come to a certain opinion with regard to their level of maturity? (And are such reactions born of mere prejudice? Or are there good reasons to come to those conclusions?)

With the rapid increase in practices such as tattooing and body piercing, these are becoming more important questions all the time. On average, another new establishment offering the services is opening in North America every single day. Some think that is fine. Others find it dismaying. (One teen referred to tattoos as "skin graffiti," saying they make a person look like a dirty wall!) Even in the Christian community there is a wide range of views on the matter.

Because of these differences, it is wise not to leap too quickly to one position or another. The issue is worthy of careful thought and study. And we need to be gracious in our response to those who differ with us.

In our culture, many means are used to modify or enhance one's appearance. Some are temporary and easily changed. Others are permanent. Examples: fashions in clothing and jewelry, makeup, cutting, curling and dyeing hair, tanning, body building, and plastic surgery. Billions of dollars are spent on such things annually. This is big business. So, are tattooing and body piercing merely other practices similar to the ones mentioned. Or are they to be viewed differently, perhaps as a sign of something more disturbing?

To get right down to it: What do you think of the practices of body piercing and tattooing? Without doubt, among those reading this article, there will be a mixture of answers and reactions to the questions I have posed. But Christians have a responsibility to see past current fashions and opinions and ask: What does the Bible say that is relevant to these things?

A Bit of History
First, let us consider some history. Body piercing and tattooing are not new. There are Egyptian mummies, the remains of people who lived thousands of years ago, that give evidence that these procedures were known back then. In Old Testament times, body piercing and tattoos were often associated with heathen idol worship and demonism. For that reason, God commanded the people of Israel to refrain from such things.

Leviticus 19:28 says, "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any markings on you: I am the Lord." The phrase "for the dead" relates to the heathen practice of slashing the flesh in a time of mourning. This was done either as an offering to appease the gods, or done because of the superstitious notion that it would provide blood needed by the spirit of the dead person.

In the context in Leviticus 19 (vs. 26-31), the general point being made is that the people of God should stay away from practices common in the heathen nations around them, practices often associated with various forms of wickedness. In fact, many of the examples of piercing or bodily mutilation, and tattooing, mentioned in Scripture, have to do directly with idolatry and with demonic oppression (cf. Gen. 35:2, 4; 32:1-4; I Kgs. 18:26-28; Hos. 2:13; Mk. 5:2-5).

Unfortunately, the people of Israel did not always maintain the holy standard God commanded. Other Scriptures suggest that they engaged in these forbidden practices at various times (cf. Deut. 14:1-2; Isa. 3:16-23; Jer. 16:6, 12; 41:5).

But what about the Lord Jesus? What did He think of such things?–which goes back to the original question. Would Jesus get His body tattooed? Or get earrings, or studs inserted in various places?

Since He is God the Son, and the Bible is the Word of God, we can say that anything taught anywhere in the Bible (including Leviticus 19:28) is in accordance with what Christ desired and taught. And there is another way of looking at it. Since Christ, in His human nature, was born a Jew (Matt. 1:1), and since He, as Man, was subject to the Law of Israel (Matt. 5:17; Gal. 4:4), He would have fully supported the teaching of Leviticus 19:28. For these reasons, He would have been against tattooing.

Is There a Connection?
But is the tattooing of today similar in intent to what the Law of Israel spoke about? Is it connected to the occult, and to idol worship? Many would say no. It will be argued that many people get tattoos in modern times who have none of these things in mind. That seems to be so. Yet is it not significant that so many of the images portrayed have to do with death and darkness? We see skulls, skeletons, witches, weapons, bloody corpses, dragons, demons, gargoyles, zombies, snakes, bats, and spiders.

There are also piercings and tattoos that express blatantly vulgar and even immoral sexuality. To this can be added a variety of profane words and expressions (some too corrupt to mention here). I saw a young man with the word "Psycho" tattooed in large letters on his forehead. Another person was adorned with the word "Devilish."

The Lord Jesus declared that it is what is within a person that shows itself in outward behaviour (Mk. 7:20-23; cf. Jas. 1:14-15). Surely what people do to their bodies bears witness to what is in their hearts. Then it would seem "the look on their countenance witnesses against them, and they declare their sin as Sodom, they do not hide it" (Isa. 3:9). Many brazenly broadcast things of which they should be embarrassed ("whose glory is in their shame," Phil. 3:19).

But are there not more benign and pleasant images used for many tattoos? Yes, flowers, butterflies, hearts, and so on. But there is a reason why the grosser designs continue to be popular. It has to do with the sinful, rebellious heart of man, and with the original purposes strongly associated with these practices.

For primitive tribes without the gospel of grace, bodily marking and mutilation is a long-held tradition. Often such tattoos and purposeful scarrings signify the individual's coming of age and full acceptance as a member of the tribe. It is possible that in our own culture tattooing and piercing is often a western version of tribalism. (There are even tattoos available known as "tribals.") Consider the parallels. There is a painful initiation rite (getting a tattoo) that brings the individual an elevated sense of power, and pride in the new "look," as well as identification with a particular sub-culture, a new sense of being "in" with a certain group. The question is, are these things Christian?

It is important to note that among the primitive tribes of earth, when the gospel is preached and an individual becomes a Christian, he or she abandons the practice of tattooing, the cutting of the flesh, and other forms of bodily mutilation. Of course, some of the marks previously received cannot be removed, but if they can be they are. And believers do not continue these practices with their children. Yet in Western culture, some professing Christians want to go back to them! Some are rushing headlong to do what converts to Christ in other cultures are abandoning as part of their pagan past.

But again, are these connections always there today? No, perhaps not. In fact, some insist that such changes in their physical appearance are simply decorative, and a means of self expression. Some professing Christians have themselves tattooed with religious images, believing that to be a means of witnessing to their faith. They see this as a valid way to communicate the gospel. But how many who display tattooed crosses, and so on, do so out of sincere faith in Christ? And for how many is it merely a nod to religion in the superstitious belief that the symbol may bring good luck?

Something seems wrong with this picture. Serious questions remain. In the opinion of the present author, there are powerful associations with pagan superstitions that continue to taint the practices in question.

Getting Personal
It is vital to move on from speaking in generalities to what is best for the individual. It is one thing to ask whether these practices are permissible according to the Bible. It is a little different to ask whether they are right for me personally. Sometimes, what is okay for others is not something the Lord wants me to engage in. We are not all the same in terms of what will tempt us or hinder our spiritual growth. A good question to ask is: Why do I want to get a tattoo or submit to body piercing? What is the motivation behind it for me?

For one thing, will this glorify God? Or glorify me? God's Word says, "He who glories, let him glory in the Lord" (I Cor. 1:31). And "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Cor. 10:31). Yet those that tell about getting various piercings and tattoos confess to a lot of mirror-gazing, as they admire what has been done. They also describe a desire to show off their markings to anyone who is interested.

Even apart from this, multiple ear piercings and earrings, or body piercings with studs, or tattoos, of themselves draw extra attention to the body. This is wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, while our physical health is worthy of our attention, the Bible puts a far greater emphasis on our spiritual welfare. "For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (I Sam. 16:7). "Do not let your adornment be merely outward...rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God" (I Pet. 3:3-4). "Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (I Tim. 4:8).

Second, this focus on external appearance seems contrary to the principles of modesty and humility that the Bible teaches should motivate the children of God (cf. Prov. 16:19; Mic. 6:8; Matt. 18:1-4; Jas. 4:6).

John the Baptist showed humility in pointing people to Christ (Jn. 1:27; 3:10). Jesus Himself showed infinite humility in coming to this earth and being willing to die for our sins (Phil. 2:8). As Christians, we are to be humble and self-effacing (Rom. 12:3; II Cor. 3:5). The Bible says, for example, "Women [should] adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works" (I Tim. 2:9-10).

With regard to personal motivation, here are some questions to ask:

1) Deep down in my heart, am uncomfortable about this, and unsure about doing it? Do I try to argue that "everybody's doing it," when I know that: A) That is not actually so; and B) That it is not a valid argument anyway!

2) Am I doing this to gain acceptance with a particular group of people? (And are they ones with a worldly standard, ones who do not honour the Lord Jesus Christ?) Consider: "Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (Jas. 4:4; cf. I Jn. 2:15-17). And "evil company corrupts good habits" (I Cor. 15:33).

3) What is the meaning of the tattoo I have in mind? Would the Lord be honoured by it?

4) What will be the reaction of my church, and my pastor? Will this draw me closer to other dedicated Christians? Or alienate me from them?

5) Will this necessitate disobeying my parents (or others in authority over me)? Will it upset family members and friends who are concerned about me?

6) Will this cause someone who is weaker in the faith to stumble into sin–because he will tend to copy me, doing something more dangerous for him (Cf. Rom. 15:1; I Cor. 10:24)?

Some Health Concerns
Various serious infections and health problems are a possibility with tattooing and body piercing. Hepatitis, AIDS, skin cancer and other diseases can result. (One survey suggests that tattooing accounts for 41% of those infected with hepatitis C.) Some people are allergic to the dyes that are used. Some of these contain cadmium or mercury, which are poisons. Even the newer methods of non-permanent tattooing can cause allergic reactions that last for months.

Some individuals also develop a form of psychological addiction to piercings and tattooing. They become obsessed with getting another, and another, and another. (The parts of the body involved may also become more bizarre with time. A recent craze is the tattooing of the eyeballs!)

A question that needs to be asked is: Am I going to be at peace with not having this done? In another context David cried to the Lord, "My wounds are foul and festering because of my foolishness" (Ps. 38:5). Is the tattooing or piercing I want worth the risk?

A Matter of Permanence
There is another question that deserves careful thought. Am I prepared to have this tattoo permanently? One of the problems with tattoos is that they are virtually permanent. It is possible for laser treatments to remove some of the dyes used, but others are far more difficult to erase. Typically, removing a tattoo will take several sessions. The process is painful, and expensive (costing hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the tattoo). Sometimes removal is not complete, and ugly marks remain.

What if I get a tattoo and regret it years from now? Good question! You may feel a bit like those described by Jeremiah who said, "Surely, after my turning, I repented; and after I was instructed, I struck myself on the thigh; I was ashamed, yes, even humiliated, because I bore the reproach of my youth" (Jer. 31:19).

Here are a few questions to think about relating to the problem of permanence:

1) What if my tattoo represents a relationship with another person (boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.), or particular ideas I have, that could change a month or a year from now?

2) What will happen when I apply for a job? (This varies, depending on the position sought. But when a survey was done of various employers 70% said if they had a choice between hiring someone with a visible tattoo and someone without, they would choose the person without.)

3) What will happen when I look for someone to marry? Will my prospective partner approve of my tattoo?

4) What will happen to my service for the Lord Jesus Christ? With some Christian agencies and in some areas of ministry, tattoos and piercings would be totally unacceptable.

5) Fashions change over time. What if wearing tattoos goes out of style and I have one?

6) What will this look like if I live to become a senior citizen? When old age brings wrinkles and sagging skin, the result may not be such a pretty picture! Am I prepared for that?

All of this suggests the decision to get either of these procedures done should be weighed carefully. It is not something that should be done on a whim, or just because others are pressuring me to do it. Think. Will I still want this a year from now? Or ten years from now? A survey was done of people over 25 who got tattoos. A quarter of them now wish they did not have one.

Some argue regarding a piercing or tattoo, "It is whatever you make it." In other words, if you think it's okay, and even attractive, then it is. But that is not the only factor to consider. What we think of it ourselves is obviously important. But so is the interpretation others place on it. For example, maybe we see it as a big joke to yell "Fire!" in a crowded building, and watch people scatter in all directions. But I assure you the police with not think there is anything funny about it! Nor will those who are injured in the fearful stampede. The point is that the attitudes of others are significant and need to be taken into account.

The Apostle Paul says, "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (I Cor. 6:12). But something that leaves a person indelibly marked, something that may affect future applications for employment, or affect qualification for Christian ministry of some kind, or the choice of a life partner, may well fit the category of a thing that has brought me under its power!

Spiritual Concerns
If a person is truly a born again Christian, getting a tattoo or body piercing will not change that. Our salvation is not based on what we do, but on what Christ has already done for us on the cross. However, that being said, being a Christian does place certain responsibilities upon us. The Word of God says, "Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought with a price [the shed blood of Christ]; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's" (I Cor. 6:19-20).

Further, there is the priesthood of every believer to consider. The Levitical priests in Israel were not to make any cuttings on themselves (Lev. 21:5-6). On this side of the cross, every Christian is called a priest of God (I Pet. 2:5, 9). Should our standard not be higher as a result of this? "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Cor. 7:1).

A recent book title has become a slogan of the religious rock culture. It now appears on posters and t-shirts, and is incorporated into a variety of tattoos. The saying is, Body Piercing Saved My Life, a reference to the cross of Christ. But if some see this as a legitimizing of body piercing today, they are wrong. In truth, it may simply trivialize the glorious redemptive work of the Saviour.

The Lord Jesus Christ endured the terrible piercing (wounding) of His body for us (Ps. 22:16; Zech. 10:12). His head was pierced by a crown of thorns, His hands and feet were pierced with iron nails, His side and His very heart was pierced by a Roman spear. But these were no mere decorations! They were part of the agony He submitted to in the process of taking upon Himself the punishment for our sins.

If you have never done so before, you can place your faith in Christ's sacrifice on Calvary and have your sins forgiven, and receive God's gift of eternal life (Jn. 3:16; Acts 16:30-31; I Cor. 15:3-4; Eph. 1:7).

As Christians, that is our heritage. And it means that ours is a higher calling. The Apostle Paul declared, "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Gal. 6:17). He seems to have been speaking of the many scars he had from beatings and other abuse inflicted because of his stand for Christ (cf. II Cor. 11:23-28). How different these were from the decorative tattoos and piercings of today!

In reviewing the extensive literature on this subject I read a number of times of Christians confessing that they have a tattoo, but they got it back when they were spiritually backslidden and not walking close to the Lord. That ought to tell us something.

Whether or not the Bible specifically forbids these practices as they are done now is clearly open to some debate. But there are many Christians who seriously question whether they are right for a child of God, and that ought to raise a warning flag. On the other hand, the fact that tattooing and body piercing have become so popular in the non-Christian world should raise another warning flag.

We are called by the Word of God to be different. So often "what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God" (Lk. 16:15). Israel was called upon to be different from the heathen around her (Deut. 6:14; 18:9). And today we, as Christians, are called to be different from the unsaved, godless world. "Present your bodies a living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world [pressed into the world's mold], but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom. 12:1-2; cf. I Jn. 2:15-17).

A Final Word of Caution
I have tried to present what I believe is a biblical view of this subject. But I must note again that there are differences of opinion to be considered. Not all will agree with me.

If you are the parent of a young person wanting a tattoo or a piercing, consider whether this is an issue so important that you are willing to take a stand on it. You cannot "go to the wall" on every point of disagreement with your teens. That would make the home a continual war zone. The same goes for youth leaders. Not every concern you have with teen behaviour needs to become an immediate matter for rebuke and condemnation. Over time, these things will need to be addressed–sometimes with the individual in private. Meantime, seek to inform, graciously and humbly. And choose your battles carefully.

And something similar pertains if you are a teen. Consider what issues are important enough that you are willing to go against your parents, your pastor, and others on them. I encourage you to listen to what your elders have to say and think about it. They are concerned for your welfare, and have a perspective based on years of life experiences that will be useful to consider. Try to keep the lines of communication open and think carefully before you act on this issue.