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What does the Bible teach us about body piercing and tattooing?
Bible study on body piercing and tattooing.

This is a very important question. I often receive questions from young people, wanting to know if it is okay to tattoo and pierce their bodies, something that has recently gained in popularity.

The purpose of this article is not to exhaustively deal with every type of piercing and every tattoo. But, to set forth the principles by which we can determine whether body piercing and tattooing are authorized in God's word.

Old Testament
In Old Testament days (as a matter of historical background), we know that the children of God had nose rings and earrings (Gen. 24:47; Ex. 32:2; 35:22; Deut. 15:16-17). We also know that tattooing their body was prohibited (Lev. 19:28).

Today, we do not live under the Old Testament (e.g., Mosaic Law) (Heb. 7:12-14), we live under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Therefore, we must go to the New Testament (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and investigate the doctrine and law of Christ (2 Jn. 1:9), to see whether it is lawful for us to pierce and tattoo our bodies.

Bible Principles
There are four principles we can apply, when determining whether body piercing and tattooing are lawful.

  • We are to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
    • We must exalt Christ in our bodies (Phil. 1:20).
    • Our outward appearance is to profess godliness (2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Tim. 2:2, 10; 4:7-8; 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:12; 2 Pet. 3:11; cf. 1 Cor. 11:1ff).
  • We are to only do things that are honorable and respectable in the sight of all men (Rom. 12:17; Phil. 4:8), obeying God in everything we do (Acts 4:19; 5:29).
  • We shouldn't engage in lustful and licentious (sensual) behaviors (Rom. 6:12; 1 Jn. 2:16; 2 Cor. 12:20-21; Jude 1:4).
    • "Lust" is a strong desire to sin.
    • "Licentious" is unbridled lust -- excess, absence of restraint, indecency, and wantonness. The Greek is often translated sensual in the NASB.
  • We shouldn't engage in questionable behaviors (Rom. 14:23; 1 Th. 5:21-22).
    • We must be absolutely positive that body piercing and tattooing are lawful, before engaging in these behaviors.

Body Piercing and Tattooing
Now, let's apply these four principles to determine whether God authorizes us to pierce and tattoo our bodies.

  • Discrete Body Piercings:
    • Discrete body piercing, such as tasteful female ear piercing, is considered in society to be a godly adornment. The piercing itself is not associated with evil. As long as the earrings do not represent or communicate something sinful, pierced ears, and discrete nose piercings in some cultures, profess godliness and do not bring reproach upon God. Therefore, tastefully pierced ears are authorized in God's word.
  • Wanton Body Piercings:
    • On the other hand, a broad section of society believes that body piercings (other than discrete ear and nose piercings) reflects a licentious and riotous lifestyle. These piercings were popularized in the later part of the 20th century by people in pop culture known for sinful lifestyles. Because of the sinful connotations associated with these piercings, this behavior is questionable at best (Rom. 14:23; 1 Th. 5:21-22). Therefore, God's children should abstain from these piercings since:
      • They do not glorify God (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
      • They do not exalt Christ (Phil. 1:20).
      • They do not profess godliness (1 Tim. 2:2, 10; 4:7-8; 6:11).
      • They are not honorable and respectable in the sight of men (Rom. 12:17; Phil. 4:8).
      • Many are licentious, symbolic of a riotous lifestyle (2 Cor. 12:20-21).
  • Tattooing:
    • Tattoos were popular in the early part of the 20th century among military personnel, and others, commonly reflecting a carousing lifestyle. Later, gang members, rappers, and other celebrities began embracing tattooing as a sign of a licentious lifestyle.
    • Some folks argue that there are discrete tattoos today, just like we have discrete piercings; but in my estimation, Christians should still abstain from this behavior. And, of course, the most provocative tattoos are blatantly sinful because of their lustful and licentious nature (Rom. 6:12; 1 Jn. 2:16; 2 Cor. 12:20-21; Jude 1:4).
  • Cross Tattoos and Scripture Tattoos:
    • Many young people have written me, believing that cross tattoos are okay because they are emblematic of Christ and His cross.
    • The cross tattoo has its roots in paganism, before the time of Christ. It reflects the enemies of Christ, rather than Christ Himself.
    • Today, many cross tattoos are representative of pagan religions, while others have been created to represent Christ and His cross. The meaning behind the cross tattoo is often skewed, unknown to anyone but the wearer.
    • It's my estimation that wearing all tattoos should be avoided, even those which are clearly representative of the cross of Christ and of Scripture.
  • What if my tattoo is somewhere people can't see?
    • The tattoo was seen by the person who put it there, and probably by others. Most of all, it's seen by the person who wears it on their body. No matter where it is on the body and who sees it, the message is the same.
    • The issue shouldn't be whether the tattoo is hidden or not, because it's not hidden from everyone.

Fake (Pretend) Piercings and Tattoos
Fake piercings and tattoos, often associated with children, are another issue. Near the end of the 20th century, these toys were included in candy or bought very inexpensively. They often reflect carton characters.

Temporary tattoos have grown in popularity and sophistication, now being worn by adults. Whether a temporary tattoo is lawful or unlawful, is determined by applying the principles discussed above. For example, a temporary tattoo of a high school team's mascot worn at a game on Friday evening and removed before assembling with the saints on Sunday, professes godliness. On the other hand, a temporary tattoo of a woman in a bikini or a muscleman, does not profess godliness and dishonors God because of the licentious message expressed by the tattoo.

Culture and Society
Someone may say that culture and society have changed, arguing that body piercing and tattooing do not have the riotous and rebellious connotations they had a few years ago. They may argue that society's view toward body piercing and tattoos has changed, just as society's view of women wearing pants changed in the last century.

It is true that society changes and that styles (such as women wearing pants) change. At some point, the rebellious and licentious lifestyles associated with the people popularizing body piercing and tattoos may no longer be associated with these behaviors. But for now, it seems that it's best to refrain from tattooing and all piercings, except for discrete piercings.

Don't Do Something You'll Regret When You Grow Old
In this section, I want to give some practical advice (not from God's word) to young people thinking about piercing and tattooing their bodies.

  • Disease often results from tattoos and body piercing:
    • Deadly blood-born diseases can results from tattooing and body piercing (HIV that causes AIDS, hepatitis, tetanus, tuberculosis, etc.).
    • A study by Dr. Bob Haley and Dr. Paul Fischer found that commercially acquired tattoos accounted for more than twice as many hepatitis C infections as injection-drug use. And people who get tattooed in a commercial tattoo parlor were nine times more likely to get hepatitis C, than someone who is not tattooed.
    • Personally, I know a man who became a Christian later in life after he was tattooed. Now he is very sick with hepatitis. It's hard for him to enjoy life. He's miserable; it's even impossible to work some days.
  • Tattoos:
    • Talk to some elderly people who have had tattoos since they were young. Carefully look at the tattoo and notice that it is faded and does not look as good as a new tattoo. Try to imagine a tattoo on you, when you are old. How would it look when it's faded and your skin is stretched and worn.
    • Ask the elderly person, "If you were young again, and you were thinking about getting a tattoo, would you do it?" Many will tell you "No." Some will even tell you that they wish their tattoo could be taken off.
  • Body Piercings:
    • Body piercing is a rather new behavior in the developed world, so I doubt you can talk to elderly people who have had pierced body parts for fifty years. But, you can look at pictures of people in third world nations who have practiced body piercing for generations. In the pictures, look at the old people's stretched and worn skin and notice that the piercings are disfigured, as a result of their skin becoming old and saggy. Imagine what your pierced body would look like in your elderly years, when your skin is stretched and sagging from childbirth or loss of muscle tone. Ask yourself, "How will I look with loose and sagging body piercings when I'm eighty years old?"
  • Body Piercings and Tattoos are Permanent:
    • Before making a permanent change to your body, be sure it's something you want to live with forever.
    • Look at pictures of your parents and grandparents when they were your age. Their hair and clothes styles were much different when they were young. How would your parents feel if they had to wear the same styles today, which they wore twenty or thirty years ago? This is the way you may feel when body piercing and tattooing go out of style. Much of the time, tattoos and body piercings are permanent.
  • Doctors Say Tattoo Removal Is Becoming More Common:
    • On November 30, 2003, a story by Michael Hill was published by The Times-Enterprise in Thomasville, Georgia. The title of this article is, Doctors Say Tattoo Removal Is Becoming More Common. This article reveals that more and more people who have tattoos, are deciding to have them removed. Below are three quotes from the article, which everyone should read before getting a tattoo:
      • At 23, Alexandra Baker figures it's time to get rid of the spider on her ankle. The tattoo was inked on in college -- one of seven on her body. But Baker's outlook has changed somewhat. The spider is something to hide rather than exhibit. So it's coming off, along with two little fairies on her chest. "I can't stand having them anymore," said Baker, who lives in New York's Hudson Valley. "It's just not how I want to portray myself anymore." (Times-Enterprise, 11-20-2003, Albany, NY, Associated Press)
      • "There are a number of people who did this and have said 'Geez, this is not what I want.' What seems really great at age 17 or 20 may not seem so great at age 30," said Dr. Brian Kinney, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon and spokesman for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. (Times-Enterprise, 11-20-2003, Albany, NY, Associated Press)
      • Professionals -- from artists who create tattoos to doctors who remove them -- say the best strategy is not to get ill-considered tattoos in the first place. Their advice: Think. Will you enjoy having your fraternity letters on your backside in a decade? (Times-Enterprise, 11-20-2003, Albany, NY, Associated Press)
    • This article emphasizes that health care professions are trying to develop new methods of tattoo removal. But, we currently do not have a method that will totally remove a tattoo. And, common methods of tattoo removal are often painful and expensive.

Can I Be Saved, Even If I've Dishonored God in My Body
Lastly, we'll ask the question, "Can I be saved if I've already pierced and tattooed my body in ways that dishonor God?"

The answer is, "Yes." All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Everyone turning from sin to God, must repent and obey Jesus (Lk. 13:3, 5; Heb. 5:9). A person who has adorned his body with piercings or tattoos dishonoring God, will undo (as much as is reasonably possible) the piercings and tattoos which prevent him from glorifying God in his body, especially those that are visible to others. And they too, can be confident that they are saved from their sins.

It's important that we forget what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead, no matter the sins of our past (Phil. 3:12-14). We must look to the future and glorify God, with whatever days we have remaining upon the earth. Whether you've sinned by dishonoring God with a tattooed and pierced body, or something else. You can be saved by obeying Jesus (Heb. 5:9).