Question: Does the Bible say anything about tattoos and body piercing?

© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2007

Simple answer:

Yes, but not very much. It does however give us principles on the basis of which we can form our conclusions.

About tattoos:

There is one verse in the Bible that mentions tattoos: Leviticus 19:28. It would appear from the context that this tattooing and body cutting was in relation to pagan or occult practices and beliefs [note verses 26 and 32].

Application: Some contemporary tattooing and body piercing is done with pagan symbols and pagan intentions. If you do a web search for - tattoos + paganism - you will see ample verification of this. This does not mean that all contemporary tattoos have pagan meanings. What it does mean, at the very least, is that Christians should definitely not get tattoos that have pagan or occult meaning or associations. It also means that the Christian person should check out the significance of any tattoo design offered to them, except those whose meanings are obviously clean. Note that even some geometric patterns have pagan or occult meanings. Don’t assume something has no spiritual meaning just because it looks harmless.

Similarly, it is obviously wrong for a Christian to wear a tattoo that is obscene, immoral or sexually suggestive, or that promotes or displays anything that is detestable to God.

About body piercing:

The Bible mentions body piercing in:

  • Genesis 35:4 - where Jacob's household, when told to get rid of their foreign gods, got rid of the rings that were in their ears as well without being asked to do so. This is rather interesting; it would seem to indicate that their particular earrings had some association with the foreign gods which Jacob did not want his brother Esau to see.
  • Exodus 21:6 - where the ear of a bondslave is pierced to indicate that he belongs to his master for the rest of his life.
  • Exodus 32:2-3 - where Aaron used the gold earrings from both men and women to melt down into gold to make the golden calf idols.
  • Exodus 35:22 - golden earrings were donated for the tabernacle;
  • Numbers 31:50 - the spoils of the Midianites offered to the Lord included earrings;
  • Judges 8:24 - where Gideon asked his men to give him the golden earrings of those they had plundered. Gideon then made a ephod with the gold, which became a focus of idolatrous worship.
  • Isaiah 3:18-32 - where on the day of the Lord's judgment on Israel all their fine clothing and jewellery would be snatched away, including earrings and nose rings.
  • Ezekiel 16:12 - the Lord, using the image of a beautiful young girl to symbolize Israel, says that he put a ring on her nose and earrings in her ears;
  • Hosea 2:13 - where Israel is likened to an adulterous wife who put on rings and jewellery to go out to meet her lovers - the word translated 'rings' can mean either a nose ring or an earring.

Apart from ears and nose, no other body piercing is mentioned. The above verses do not allow us to say that ear and nose piercing is wrong in itself. What is wrong is [1] any association with false worship that is signified by the piercing or the rings; and [2] the ear and/or nose rings being part of a luxurious lifestyle in which social justice and spiritual integrity was absent.

In the Genesis reference above, in some traditional tribal communities, and for some people today, body piercing had or has a spiritual significance. This is a point of serious caution for any Christian considering piercing.

The Bible does not mention piercing of any body parts usually covered by clothing. The piercing of these parts raises questions regarding immorality, immodesty and nudity. This involves areas in which the prohibitive biblical standards are clear.

Medical/sociological articles suggest links between body piercing and sadomasochism, homosexual practices, substance abuse, multiple sexual partners, sexual risk-taking, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, and violent behaviour. This does not mean that the body piercing causes these behaviours, but that piercing can be an indicator of the presence of relational, social, emotional or psychological problems. Linking this with the biblical perspective, it is one more indicator of that deep lostness from which the message of the Bible has the power to save us.

Is there anything in the Bible to guide us in our personal decisions?

Yes. There are a number of principles that can help us:

[1] The principle of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

This principle outlaws any tattooing or piercing that has any pagan or occult association or significance, If a Christian person plans to get a tattoo they should first check out what the symbol or drawing means. Pagan sites have images of symbols and descriptions of their significance. Some of these look like harmless geometric patterns, but they have pagan symbolism. One must be very careful here. Similarly, body piercing with a spiritual significance is outlawed.
This principle, and the next, outlaws any piercing and any tattoo that encourages or depicts immorality, obscenity or perverse or deviant sexual behaviours.

This principle, and the next, also outlaws any tattooing or body piercing that is done to get attention or personal glory. We are not supposed to be the centre of attention, God is.
It also outlaws any tattooing or piercing that is done to gain personal significance among one's peers. We are supposed to derive our significance from God, and to point others to him as the One of central significance.

If tattooing and piercing are done out of a negative self-image or personal despair or lostness, the person involved needs to learn of his/her God-given identity in Christ.

[2] The principle of glorifying God [1 Corinthians 10:31; Isaiah 43:7b]

We are to seek his glory, not ours. He created us to image and glorify him, not to create our own glory by the flamboyance of our appearance [1 Tim 2:9,10].

 On the other hand, it is possible to use Christian symbols or words as tattoos as a means by which they can glorify God, when people ask them the meaning of the symbol or why they are wearing that particular tattoo.

Even here, though, we need to remember that what we feel okay with at one stage of our life, say, when we are twenty, we may not feel so okay with when we are thirty-five. We may find ourselves wishing we did not have that permanent tattoo as a reminder of our youthful enthusiasms. It is painful and costly to have tattoos removed. It is sometimes embarrassing in later life to find not only that one no longer really wants them, but also that because of a changed body shape they are no longer good to look at.

[3] The principle of loving our neighbour as ourselves.
This principle takes into account the fact that tattoos and piercing other than simple ear piercing are highly offensive to some people. Included in this perspective is the biblical standard that the only offence we should give is the offensiveness of the message about Christ and his cross.

We should strive not to offend people by our actions, or cause them to sin by our actions [Acts 24:26 - where the Greek text speaks of 'offence'; Romans 14:20; 1 Corinthians 10:32 - Greek text has 'give none offence'; 2 Corinthians 6:3 - Greek - 'offence']. With this mentality we will live with the well-being of each other in mind, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:21 'submitting to one another' - denying our own so called rights for the sake of our brother's well being.

In relation to this principle read also Romans 14:1-15:7; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 10:23-11:1; Galatians 5:13-14; Philippians 2;1-5.

[4] The fact that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit

Christian, individually and corporately, are the holy dwelling place of God [Ephesians 2:22]. We do not belong to ourselves, to do what we like with; we belong to God, purchased with the precious blood of Jesus Christ [1 Corinthians 6:19], and the temple of his Spirit [1 Corinthians 3:16,17; 6:19]. What we do with our bodies is therefore important to God.


Other points of caution:

Medical dangers – body piercing:

        • Infection of the site [up to half of body piercings result in infection]
        • Swelling of the tongue – can impede breathing, swallowing
        • Infection and tearing/scaring to nipples, which will impede breast feeding
        • Systemic infection
        • Tearing, splitting of skin, scar tissue
        • Allergic reactions to metal
        • Impacts of gold and silver in the body [long known to acupuncturists]
        • Jewellery in genital area can damage you, partner and condoms [thereby increasing risk of unwanted pregnancy and transmission of STDs]; can also impede sexual function
        • Risk of infectious diseases through use of non-sterile equipment
        • Transmission of infections etc by sharing body jewellery
        • Body piercing at acupressure points has impact on health [long known to alternative practitioners]

Medical dangers – tattoos:

        • Most of the dyes used are industrial pigments; their safety for use on human skin has not been assessed. One report asked the question: ‘would you inject car paint into your skin?’
        • Lack of sterility of dyes.
        • Allergic reactions to dyes
        • Toxic shock
        • Infections [viral – AIDS, Hepatitis, bacterial and fungal] from needles used
        • Potential skin and tissue damage from MRI procedures

Attitudes to avoid:

Whether the decision is made to get a tattoo or a body piercing or not, there are some attitudes that should be avoided:

        • a legalistic attitude which condemns Christians with tattoos or body piercing
        • exclusion or ostracism of a person because of tattoos or piercing
        • an antinomian attitude which boldly affirms ‘I can do whatever I want’ with no willingness to even consider biblical perspectives and principles
        • on-going guilt over tattoos or body piercing we already have
        • exerting peer pressure on other Christians to get tattoos or piercing
        • hiding or denying one’s real self behind multiple tattoos or body piercings