Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. [1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NLT)]
While the New Testament does not specifically address tattooing, my friend’s question about tattoos got me wondering whether it’s addressed in general terms. Because tattoos apparently originated in things like pagan symbolism, superstition, and idolatry, some maintain they’re prohibited in Scripture. Indeed, the Israelites were prohibited from worshipping the pagans’ gods, following their customs, and participating in “detestable acts” like child sacrifice and the New Testament warns of sorcery and idolatry, but applying those words to tattoos seems a long stretch. The dates of holidays like Christmas (Saturnalia), All Saints’ Day (Samhain), and Valentine’s Day (Lupercalia) have pagan beginnings as do customs like placing flowers on graves, embalming, and celebrating birthdays. Must we abandon those (along with the heart symbol) because of their pagan origins? In that case, we’ll need to ditch our calendars since both the days of the week and the names of the months are founded in astrology and pagan gods (i.e., Saturday/Saturn, Thursday/Thor, March/Mars, and June/Juno)! Where do we draw the line?
Just because pagans did something doesn’t necessarily mean it is sinful. Before condemning every pagan custom, we should remember that even the pagans ate, harvested crops, worshipped, and prayed! In fact, much of the early church’s success was because it adapted to (but didn’t adopt) the pagan culture of its time without compromising the gospel message. “Like the apostle Paul,” said pastor and theologian Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, “they sought to be all things to all people, that Christianity might become the religion of as many as possible.”
The Apostle Paul refers to a Christian’s body as God’s temple and some condemn tattoos with this verse. Likening tattoos to graffiti in the sanctuary of a church, they consider them nothing short of vandalism or defilement. Citing Paul, they maintain that altering our bodies in any way is a sin. Again, where do we draw the line—at make-up, plucking eyebrows, shaving, piercings, coloring hair, Lasix and cataract surgery, corrective and reconstructive plastic surgeries, Botox, or even Spanx? All alter our bodies in one way or another. Since the Apostle was specifically addressing sexual immorality among believers, that’s not what Paul had in mind with his words.
Perhaps the best Scripture to guide us regarding any body embellishment is found in 1 Peter 3. Rather than prohibiting adornments altogether, Peter was emphasizing a proper sense of values. Materialism, boastfulness, conceit, attention seeking, and obsession with sex existed in the 1st century just as they do today. Whether it’s a body entirely covered with tattoos, one enhanced with every sort of plastic surgery, a see-though gown with plunging neckline, heavy gold chains around the neck and gold rings on every finger, or tee shirts with rude or hateful messages on them, none seem to display the Spirit of God or represent the way our humble, gentle, and holy Lord would have appeared.
How we adorn our bodies is one of those grey areas that, to some extent, is a matter of taste and judgment. Remembering that we are created in God’s image and hold His Holy Spirit within us, we must be led by the Spirit, the Word, and common sense. Clearly, any practice that is vulgar, ostentatious, insensitive, or a distraction to one’s Christian influence should be avoided yet, even those guidelines are open to interpretation. When in doubt, I find it best to err on the side of caution and ask, “What would Jesus do?”
Our lifestyle, language, attitudes, and manner of dress reflect on His name. He leads us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Unless you are honestly convinced that the thing in question will bring glory to God, then don’t do it. [Curtis Hutson]