TATTOO OR NOT TATTOO: THAT IS THE QUESTION
By Dave Hart
(from the old Sanctuary San Diego Site)
It seems like parents are always arguing with their kids about the latest fashion. How long should they wear their hair? Or their skirts? How much is too much make-up? Why are their jeans so tight? So low? So baggy? The latest fashion craze to drive parents crazy is the art of tattoos and body piercing. Why did you pick that design? How many earrings do you need in one ear? You want to pierce WHAT?!?!?
Although this trend is usually associated with the Lollapalooza crowd, I’ve been noticing that more Christians are getting into this youth culture craze. Is it alright for a Christian to get a tattoo? What kind? Is it okay for a guy to wear an earring? Should a Christian pierce his nose or belly button? Is it okay in some cases, but not in others? How do Christians make this decision?
It’s important that Christians think about what God wants for their lives and base their decisions on spiritual principles, rather than impulses and feelings. It’s important to think things through before you make a decision that may be with you for the rest of your life. Let’s look at this issue from both sides. First we need to ask, “Why in ‘the world’ do people want to get pierced or tattooed?” And can a Christian do this for the same reasons? And second, what does God think about this trend? Does the Bible have anything to say about the latest fashions?
What the World Says:
I hang out a lot in the rock and roll underground: concerts, clubs, and festivals. That’s my ministry. I hear kids talking about tattoos and body piercing a lot. It’s my observation that there are basically three reasons why they get a tattoo or body jewelry: 1) identification with today’s culture; 2) sexual enhancements; 3) the need for pain. 1. Most people in the first category say they are doing this for themselves, for the art, fashion, or decorative beauty. “I think it looks nice” or “It’s just me, right now” or even “I don’t know why — I just did it.” The truth is that when you adopt the current fashion, you are identifying with the current culture. Tattoos and body jewelry communicate a certain message. It may be specific, like a tattoo of a certain band. It may be more general — piercing your navel is a trend of Generation X, not some other generation or group. While they may not be aware of a specific reason (much of this is done on impulse), it often communicates a specific message.
Are these good enough reasons for a Christian? Not really. Christians don’t do whatever the world does just because “everybody’s doing it.” We are not trying to identify with this world, but identify with Christ. But what if the jewelry is Christian or the tattoo has a Christian message? Would that be okay? Perhaps we could justify a pierced ear with a cross earring. But what about a pierced nose, nose ring, pierced lips or tongues? At what point does this identify with a lifestyle other than Christianity?
2. The second reason the Lolloapalooza crowd is into piercing has to do with their sexual inclinations. This is the territory of the S&M (sado-masochism) and B&D (bondage and domination) crowds – pierced tongues, lips, septums, nipples and genitals are not just a fashion statement. It’s often a functional attempt to enhance sexual arousal through pain, humiliation, etc. Gross, huh? It’s hard to see Christians using this as legitimate reason for piercing.
3. A third reason for piercing is that some people identify so thoroughly with the hopeless nihilism of this generation, they have decided to embrace their pain. Some not only tattoo and pierce, but regularly mutilate and cut themselves, in order to feel the pain. For some it’s a rite of passage, for some it’s a rush, for some it’s a genuine need to punish themselves for a guilt they can’t get rid of. Personally, I think a lot of this behavior is demonically driven and I’ve counseled enough “cutters” to know that this is true. It’s difficult to see how a Christian could use this as a rationale for piercing. (By the way, could the use of needles for drug ingestion also be a form of piercing?)
In this quick overview, it should be obvious to most of us that “the world” out there uses a lot of reasons to tattoo and pierce that just don’t work for Christians. Are there any reasons that do work for Christians? What about tattoos that say “Jesus Loves Me” or some Scripture? What about body jewelry with a cross or a dove? Would that be okay? Maybe. What does God have to say about this?
What God Says:
Piercing and tattooing is such a new trend, an old book like the Bible doesn’t seem relevant. And if God is silent on a subject, aren’t we basically left to our own decisions about such things? Ah, but God is not silent about this topic. For example, did you know that there is a biblical precedent for men wearing earrings? Let’s explore what God says about such things a little more closely.
In biblical times, slavery was not always a permanent condition. Slaves were often allowed to buy their freedom, or were simply given their freedom after a period of obligation had passed (in Israel, this was usually seven years). But some slaves developed such a loyal attachment (or bond) to their masters, they chose to stay in their service for the rest of their lives. To symbolize this choice, they would put their ear to a door and have their earlobe pierced with an awl. Then they wore an earring (usually gold) there, to proclaim that they were a bond-servant by their own personal choice, rather than by circumstances beyond their control.
Paul says we’re all very much like those slaves. We are all born into the slavery of Sin (Rom. 3:23), but Christ bought our freedom from that slavery (Rom. 6:23). Paul was so grateful for his freedom, he chose to bond himself to his new Master for the rest of his life. This is why he refers to himself as a bond-slave or bond-servant of Christ (Rom. 1:1). Perhaps you feel the same way. So this could be a biblical precedent for a Christian to pierce his ear. But before you run out saying, “It’s okay to pierce and tattoo whatever I want,” let’s look at a couple of other biblical conditions, first.
While you are free (John 8:36), you are not free to do anything you want to. Being a bond-slave of Christ comes with the obligation to serve Him by considering what He wants, not just what you want. Galatians 5 and Romans 6 have a lot to say about the use and abuse of our freedom in Christ.
Besides, He’s the one who paid for your freedom. Your life is His now. In fact, you don’t even own your body. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, Who you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20, NAS). And there is also Peter’s advise to consider: “Let not your adornment be merely external – braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the site of God” (1 Peter 3:3-4, NAS).
So what does this mean? Am I free to get a tattoo or not? Certainly. You are free to decide, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best decision. “Everything is permissible – but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible – but not everything is constructive” (1 Cor. 10:23). You are free to decide, but with that freedom comes obligation: an obligation to glorify God, to be honest with yourself, and to be a testimony before the world. The truth is that there are some hard questions you should ask yourself, before you start poking holes in your body.
What’s your real motivation for getting a tattoo or a nose ring? Is it because it will make you look good? Because it’s fashionably cool? Or just because everyone else is doing it? Can you have (do you want) more than one piercing or tattoo? Does this identify you with Christ or with Generation X (or both)? If Christ was pierced on the Cross for our sins, is any other kind of piercing necessary for a Christian?
Lots of kids are getting tattoos of their favorite bands. Is that something you’re willing to live with for the rest of your life? (For instance, how many fans are still proudly displaying their “New Kids On The Block, Forever” tattoos?) Is it okay as long as it’s a Christian band? What if the band breaks up? What if they mess up? (Everybody sing: “What if I stumble? What if I fall?”) Does your tattoo say you value temporary things or eternal things?
Does a nose stud or lip ring decorate the temple or desecrate it? How will it glorify God? Your body is His residence now. How’s the house look? Have you mowed the lawn lately? Taken out the trash? Does the outside look better than the inside? Does the outside reflect what’s really on the inside?
What are you trying to say to those around you? Is this an act of defiance toward your parents or your church? Is it strictly for shock value? Is it simply an attention-getting devise? Do you have a legitimate ministry to those in the Lollapalooza nose-ring crowd? How will people’s idea of Christ be affected by your choice?
There are no hard and fast rules here. Each Christian has to decide for himself what’s right before God. But just doing it because you feel like it isn’t really an option. It’s important to think these things through, “…taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5b). Christ sees things from the inside out. He knows your heart and your motives, even when you don’t. However, the world sees things from the outside in. What you do on the outside may help or hinder them in entering the Kingdom of God. This decision is about more than just looking cool. It could have consequences that last beyond the life of even the most permanent tattoo.
Dave Hart is the Managing Editor of Media Update, the bi-monthly publication of Al Menconi Ministries. He also pastors The Sanctuary Church – a ministry to kids lost in the music underground in San Diego, where he currently resides with his wife, the Lovely Velva. As the author of “It’s All Rock-n-Roll To Me,” he speaks to youth across the country on the subject of rock music and Christianity. If you have comments for Dave or would like to have him speak in your area, please leave your comments below.