People have often asked me, “Is it a sin for a Christian to get tattooed and pierced?”
Followers of Jesus have mixed opinions. Many conservatives believe tattoos are of the devil, while other people honor God as the Creator of their bodies by covering them with artwork. I’ve gotten mixed reactions from Christians when they have seen my ink. Some want to know if I can recommend an artist (I can—my daughter Emily in Charlottesville, VA). Others want to know how I can justify it biblically.
Before discussing whether it’s sin, let’s look at the tradition of tattoo.
History of Tattoo
Many cultures around the world have a rich tradition of tattoo. According to Cate Lineberry of Smithsonian Magazine, tattooing was popular among ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Scythians. Thracians, Greeks, and Romans also marked their bodies. Pre-Columbian cultures in South America enjoyed tattoos, along with Indigenous peoples of North America. The Māori of New Zealand are known for their intricate tattoos. Japanese tattoo has a distinct style and a rich history. Lineberry reports:
The elaborate tattoos of the Polynesian cultures are thought to have developed over millennia, featuring highly elaborate geometric designs, which in many cases can cover the whole body. Following James Cook’s British expedition to Tahiti in 1769, the islanders’ term “tatatau” or “tattau,” meaning to hit or strike, gave the west our modern term “tattoo.” The marks then became fashionable among Europeans, particularly so in the case of men such as sailors and coal-miners, with both professions which carried serious risks and presumably explaining the almost amulet-like use of anchors or miner’s lamp tattoos on the men’s forearms.
History of Piercing
On Bustle, JR Thorpe writes about “The Surprising History of Piercings.” She discusses body piercing among the people of prehistory. India, Africa, and Mesoamerica also had vibrant piercing traditions. Ancient Greeks and Romans practiced it as well. Thorpe writes:
By the time the medieval period had rolled around, Italian culture in particular was suspicious of earrings and wanted to use them as a denotation of class. But they were not indicators of the upper crust, as they had been in ancient Rome; rather, they were used to connote that you were a member of an “other” group.
Mary Magdalene was depicted in paintings as removing her earrings to “return” to the Christian world, and the group of people expected to wear earrings were those who were frowned upon by society in general: slaves of both [sic] genders were supposed to have one earring, as were Jewish people and sex workers.
Generations ago in the US, tattooed or pierced men were likely sailors, or even pirates. Seafarers pierced their ears so if they died at sea there would be enough gold in their ear to pay for their burial. Some may say it’s due to cultural appropriation that tattoos and piercings have become a distinct part of North American culture. So many cultures around the world have these traditions that you might say it’s a world heritage, not belonging to any one society.
North Americans don’t just have a history of getting tattoos and piercings—we also have a rich tradition of judging people who have them—often with the imposition of arbitrary rules. Today, almost nobody considers the morality behind a woman getting her ears pierced. But if a man gets his ear pierced, some conservatives still look askance. Some believe it’s okay to pierce your ears, but no other body part. Some claim that tattoos indicate low social class, while others boast the beauty of the artwork.
So…Is It a Sin?
In a moment, we’ll ask the question, “As Christians, are we supposed to take our cue from history and social convention, or from the Bible?” But first, let’s see what the Bible has to say about tattoos and piercings.
Piercings in the Bible
Genesis 24 tells the story of Abraham’s servant Eliezer seeking a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac. When Eliezer tells Rebecca’s father about how he met the young woman, he says that the Lord brought them together. “So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the LORD (Verses 47-48).”
In Ezekiel 16, God speaks to Israel as if the country were his bride. He says, “I adorned you with ornaments: I put bracelets on your arms, a chain on your neck, a ring on your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head (Verses 11-12).” If God uses such language, how can we condemn it?
In fact, Moses’ law commanded body piercing in Exodus 21:5-6. If a slave loved his master so much that he wanted to become part of the family, the Scripture says, “His master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.” So it appears here that nobody who condemns ear or body piercing can use Scripture to back it up. That is a matter of personal taste and style.
Some who oppose body piercing quote Leviticus 19:28. Here, I will quote the first part. Later I will quote the second part. It says, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead.” During the time the Israelites were entering the land of Canaan, the people who lived there had a practice of cutting themselves in mourning. They would also cut themselves as part of the fervent worship of their gods (See 1 Kings 18:28).
This verse doesn’t refer to decorative piercings–it refers to something else. The DSM-5 recognizes self-harm as Nonsuicidal Self-Injury Disorder. This may involve cutting, burning, or other forms of self-harm. Some cutters say they cut themselves to make life seem more real, while for others it is a form of self-punishment. Self-harm has nothing to do with body decoration. The verse quoted above is not about body decoration and modification—it is about self-injury stemming from depression and grief. As such, this verse cannot be employed to condemn body piercing.
Tattoos and the Bible
When Israelites entered Canaan, they encountered an Indigenous population that engaged in tattooing as a form of worship. As a result, the Mosaic Law forbade the practice. Leviticus 19:26-28 says, “You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice augury or witchcraft. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”
It’s clear what the Scripture passage says, but we need to ask—what does it mean? The Law forbade Israelites from engaging in practices that would cause them to forget their own heritage and adopt local behavior. The idea was to maintain their Hebrew identity and keep them from assimilating. Since drinking blood was associated with Canaanite worship, the Law prohibited rare steak. Because manscaping was associated with Canaanite religion, the Law mandated that men refrain from trimming their beards. Clearly these verses are meant to be taken in social context. Remember, these rules were meant for the Hebrews as they were moving into Canaan. If you live in a culture where trimming your beard is a sign of idolatry, don’t trim your beard. If you live in a culture where trimming your beard is more acceptable, then go for it! The same is true for tattoos.
Some will use 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 to claim that tattoos are sinful. These verses say, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” First, we must realize that the temple here is the Church. Again, we must look at context. Paul is writing specifically to the Corinthian church about divisions threatening to destroy the body of Christ—the church. It is not referring to the human body at all. Second, in no way does a tattoo or piercing destroy a person’s body. In fact, many would argue that it enhances it.
So, what is the Christian attitude regarding tattoos and body piercings? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, which says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” Now, in this Scripture (unlike the last one), Paul is talking about the human body! Whatever we do with it should honor God (or at least not dishonor God).
Well, Is It a Sin, Or Isn’t It?
What does this mean for you? If you’re looking for a yes or no answer, I’m going to disappoint you…
First, because it’s apparent that every scripture about tattoos and piercings is rooted in the culture from which it came. Nowhere does the Bible make a firm statement on this subject, laying down fixed rules for all people and all time. Whether or not to get a tattoo or piercing is like a decision whether to eat meat, or drink alcohol—it’s a matter of conscience, not regulation.
Second, because I’m not going to make myself the gatekeeper for another person’s decisions about their faith and body. And if someone in your life is trying to be your gatekeeper, you should be more concerned about that than you are about body decoration. God gave you a heart to feel with, a brain to think with, and a Holy Spirit to help you discern what’s right for you. Trust that for making your decision.
Finally, if you want Bible verses to justify your decision to go ahead and get inked or pierced…
- God was the first tattoo artist – Genesis 4:15 – “And the LORD put a mark on Cain.”
- Paul said, “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body (Galatians 6:17).”
- God says in Isaiah 49:16 – “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”