Tattoos and Body Piercing: What's a Christian to do?
On a recent broadcast at DesiringGod.org, John Piper briefly addressed the issue of tattoos and body piercing among Christians. I especially appreciated the spirit in which John took up this subject. He did not come down in a heavy-handed or judgmental fashion, insisting in some legalistic way that such actions are altogether and always a sin. He mentioned the prohibition on tattoos in Leviticus 19:28 and suggested that although there were probably unique historical and religious circumstances in the ancient near east that evoked this prohibition, we should still seek to learn from it. Whereas not everything in the Levitical code is binding on the believer today, we still must ask if there is some underlying principle in the OT prohibition that might find application to us in the present day.
But Piper mentioned two additional factors to take into consideration, to which I would like to add a third. First, he asked the all-important question that every Christian contemplating getting a tattoo or body piercing should ask: “Will this exalt the Lord Jesus Christ? Is this going to draw attention to him or to me? Will his beauty and splendor and all-sufficiency be highlighted in this action? Will the gospel itself be adorned or obscured in what I’m doing?”
Second, John also said that we should carefully monitor our motives for getting a tattoo or body piercing. In particular, he suggested that often times (not always!) people get tattoos in an effort to establish for themselves an identity that they have failed to find in Christ alone. In other words, each person needs to ask: “To what extent does this tattoo or body piercing reflect my failure to find full satisfaction in Christ alone? To what extent is this an attempt to ‘be’ or ‘become’ something that until know I’ve failed to find in who I am in Christ and because of what he has accomplished in grace on my behalf?”
It may well be that the person contemplating getting a tattoo feels fully established in Christ and is keenly aware of who they are in him, and thus the issue of identity simply does not factor into one’s motivation. But it is an important matter to keep in mind.
To these excellent observations, I’d like to add a third. I think a Christian needs to ask himself/herself whether or not the tattoo or body piercing expresses respect for the human body as the temple of the living God. Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He abides in us, not in buildings or tabernacles or anything else as the unique expression of his saving and sanctifying presence. The apostle Paul makes this clear on a number of occasions (see especially 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 6:16-18; Eph. 2:21-22). I think particularly of 1 Cor. 6:19-20 where Christians are exhorted to “glorify God in your body” (v. 20). I’m not saying that people with tattoos and body piercings can’t glorify God in their bodies. I’m not the judge of that. I’m simply asking Christians to think and pray about it before they engage in this activity.
Needless to say (or perhaps it does need to be said), this text in 1 Corinthians 6 would apply to a number of issues other than tattoos and body piercing. I suspect that many reading this article are guilty of gluttony and have become excessively obese. This is only one example of what undoubtedly are any number of activities in which we may fail to glorify God in our bodies. We must be careful, therefore, lest we single out tattoos and body piercing and ignore the many ways in which we might potentially fail to glorify the Lord in how we treat our physical frame.
The fact is, the Bible is not as explicit and unyielding on this issue as some might like. If there were a specific and undeniable commandment in the NT that addressed the point, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. So I encourage everyone to be gracious and gentle at the same time we give full consideration to the principles set forth in God’s Word. For those who’ve already been tattooed, perhaps the question should now be to what extent and in what ways, if any, can I turn this for the good of the gospel and the glory of God. I’m certainly not prepared (or qualified) to answer that question, but it is one that needs to be addressed.
May God grant us wisdom and patience with one another as we seek to understand how best to glorify God in our bodies.