Does God Hate Your Tattoos? [The Publisher's Ring]

Does God Hate Your Tattoos?

“For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.”

- Ephesians 5:29


BME recently had the opportunity to have a virtual talk with Jay (iam:TautooJay), who is heavily tattooed and is in training to become a youth pastor. We were also joined by Faith (iam:serpensfeminin), a former Mormon raised in the Church of Latter-day Saints, Tiffany (iam:MissTiffany1), a Christian piercer from California, Karen (iam:Mighty_Mouse), a young Christian from Virginia currently sailing in Bermuda, and “Puck”, who asked us to keep him anonymous. Monty Vogel of the QOD staff (iam:MONTE) and owner of Body Mods in Nebraska also joined us, along with Mark, an old friend from San Francisco.

BME: How do you feel God sees your body modifications?

Jay: Honestly, I think God has more pressing matters than me getting tattooed. The Catholic Church took a stance on tattoos hundreds of years ago at the Council of Northcumberland that they were fine as long as they were not defamatory of the faith in any way. I’m not a Catholic, but Christian tattooing has been going on since right after Christ died — there are Roman reports of people with crosses or “Yeshua” (Jesus’s name in Hebrew) dating as far back as the first century, and seventeenth century wooden tablets of tattoo designs have been found in Israel.

Faith: The church’s teachings are clear that bodies are our “temples”. They are the portals through which our spirits pass, and they must be cared for. The way I’ve interpreted this is that we are here to learn, to grow, and to gain experience, and to do that we have to love ourselves. Before modification I didn’t even recognize the face and body I saw in the mirror — so how could I love it? Modification has helped me grow and understand myself, and I believe it’s helped my spirit grow. It’s been an essential part of being alive.

Tiffany: I don’t think God minds unless it’s a Satanic tattoo. People get tattoos of the things that are important to them — Christians have been getting tattoos since Christ ascended to heaven.

BME: How do you express your spirituality through your body?

Faith: I don’t feel the need to be spiritually demonstrative — I have a huge respect for people that use their body to worship, but it’s not what I do.

Jay: I have Jesus on my back with “Saved by Grace” written underneath. I have Psalm 23 on an anchor, praying hands, an eagle, Yeshua, a cross of three nails and a crown of thorns, an angel and a devil, a sacred heart, and “Jesus Saves” across my collarbone. I’m a walking billboard!

Tiffany: In Exodus 21:5-6 it says, “If the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children: I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or the door post, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.” — I am a servant of the Lord and I will serve him forever! So in a way, my piercings are done for him, to show that I am his servant.

Karen: I have a dove with an olive branch in its mouth on my left calf. God regularly uses doves has His messenger or helper — when the dove returned to the ark after the flood, he carried an olive branch in his beak to tell Noah there was dry land where he could build a new world for the glory of the Lord. I want to get a cross tattoo soon.

BME: What makes you think it’s “OK” as a Christian to get these mods?

Jay: Who says “it’s OK”? Society? Society is messed up. As Christians, we are called to separate ourselves from society. Although body modification is on the rise, it’s not the cultural norm — it’s not looked on as being completely acceptable. Christians don’t have to be acceptable to society — they are called on to be acceptable to Christ alone. I answer only to Christ.

Tiffany: Follow that voice in your heart.

Jay: I prayed for months before getting my first tattoo and signs just pointed me closer to getting one. If someone wants to know if it’s right for them, the answer is in prayer. What God may want for me may not be what He wants for someone else who He’s planned to go into business and win souls for Him — whereas I’m hoping to work with inner city youth and the less fortunate as well as kids… and they like the tattoos!

Karen: As long as I pray and I know my heart is right with God, and I feel his spirit with me, then I know I’m on the right track. Before I started into mods I didn’t really know who I was, what my body was. The Bible says my body is a temple, but without knowing it, how could I honor it? Now I do that by making it more beautiful.

Monty: I had a minister come in today and get his ear pierced. He had been asking the head pastor of his church if he could get it done for over four years — it was just recently that the pastor was gone on a trip and called to say that God had told him three times that day to allow the minister to get his ear pierced. The reason the minister wanted the piercing was that six years ago, while in Florida, he opened his Bible and his attention was called to Proverbs 25:12 — “As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear” — He knew then that he wanted to get his ear pierced, and today he finally got it done.

BME: What do you think of people who tell you God disapproves of your mods, or that the Bible forbids them?

Jay: We all make mistakes and we all fall short of the glory of God. They may judge me, but I know I have also judged others falsely. We’re in the same boat. Those who accuse me of going against the Bible, I talk to them as I would a friend. I point out the fallacy in the kindest way I can. You have to realize most of these people were born into this faith and their culture was intertwined with it and they don’t know any better. They never really looked up the context of the verses they are using against modified people.

Faith: Scripture isn’t law — they’re guidelines that make our lives more meaningful. God doesn’t want us to be an animal — he wants us to live with free will. I think it’s tragic that so many Mormons hang onto the Prophet’s every word, letting him make all their choices for them. He gives good advice for most things, but I just don’t see how an earring or two is going to make you betray your faith.

Tiffany: I work at a piercing and tattoo studio so I don’t usually meet people who say things like that, but it does give me a chance to talk about Jesus with those that may never get to hear about Him. Since I look the way I do and work where I do, I fit into “their type” — and they’re more willing to talk to me about it. If I didn’t have these piercings and tattoos, I might not be able to reach these people.

BME: Do you have any verses that you use to change their minds?

Jay: Usually I don’t resort to using Scripture on people who think tattoos are a sin. After I point out the error in the use of the Scriptures they quote, there’s really no need. Bible trivia wars are kind of stupid… and I’d win in the end!

Tiffany: The obvious one of course is Matthew 7:1-6 — “Judge not, that you not be judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

Karen: I like Galatians 6:17, “Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus”, and Isaiah 49:16, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

BME: What sorts of responses do you generally get from other Christians?

Jay: Some get wide-eyes and quote Leviticus 19:28 because that’s what they’re told growing up. I tell them it was written to Levitican priests and dealt with the issue of pagans mutilating their bodies to act as spirit mediums. Others like the artwork and are fine with it, but would never do it themselves. Still others — many others — love my work. Some want to get tattoos, others would never get touched by a needle, but they love my tattoos.

To all these people, I show the utmost respect and expect the same in return. It all boils down to the fact that we share the same faith and we’ve all experienced grace. The hard part is showing that grace to others, which is where a lot of modified and average Christians fail.

Tiffany: My Pastor likes my nostril piercing… My studio has tattooed and pierced members of the congregation. I’ve had negative run-ins, but it’s the positive ones that I focus on.

Mark: The Lutheran Church I attend is two thirds queer, but everyone seems to find my piercings entertaining. An older gay man asked me if I had any hidden piercings. When I told him that I also had my tongue and nipple pierced, he replied, “Oh, I’ve had the nipple for years. Got it done in 1968 — by a friend, with much ceremony, believe me!”

As far as the theological implications, I really don’t feel there are any. Surely God is more concerned with one’s relationship to Her and to one’s neighbor than with how one decorates oneself. I also dye my hair various colors, sometimes corresponding to the liturgical season — last winter it was blue for Advent, then I re-dyed it red just before the Christmas Eve service!

Karen: I don’t hide my tattoos and piercings either when I go to church. People into mods aren’t going to want to go to church if all they see is dressed up, uninked people. God loves people with mods, and so does the Church.

Puck: That’s not always true, Karen. I was asked to leave my youth group when I was thirteen years old for having a pierced navel and purple hair. They thought it wasn’t appropriate for me to be around the younger children while having such “outrageous style”. Many parents wouldn’t allow their children to come to youth group meetings because I would be there. I had to stop going to that church.

I also went to a Methodist church summer camp and wasn’t allowed in the church with the rest of the kids because of my hair and piercing. Eventually I turned away from God. I just felt like if the people praying with me in church wouldn’t accept me, then God wouldn’t either.

Faith: My stereotypically Mormon grandmother has a hard time accepting the fact that I have my tongue pierced because she can only imagine sins behind it. I guess she doesn’t understand that I’ve never given or received oral sex and I’m still a virgin — and no piece of metal in my tongue is going to make me change my values. All of my friends, most of whom are Mormons, see my ink and “plugs” as just a part of me — things that make me the quirky and amusing person that I am. I was even told by one of my closest friends that they never would have gotten to know me if they hadn’t wondered what was wrong with my ears!

I respect other people’s choices, and I’d hope they’d offer the same in return. We’re all put here for the same reason, but we’re not supposed to lead the same lives.

Way back in 1995, about a year after starting BME, I received the following semi-literate email:

“I think you are doing is self mutilation and I for one am very disgusted. But there is hope for you! Read the BIBLE!”

It may come as a surprise that I actually have read the Bible, and it no more says “don’t get tattoos” than it says any number of other cultural concepts — not theological concepts — such as “spare the rod, spoil the child.” In fact, the Judeo-Christian family of faiths is full of tattooed and pierced characters, and parts of the Bible are very clear that extreme modifications — self-amputations even — are what God wants for some people. Under Christian theology, body modifications are like words — they’re tools. They can be used to bring glory to God and help live a good life, or they can do the opposite.

There are many parts of the Bible that mention piercing in passing since it was relatively normal in Biblical times, but the only passage that seems to even vaguely ban body modification — tattoos* in this case — is of course Leviticus 19:28, which reads,

“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”


* I should note that the original Hebrew text reads “k’thoveth qa’aqa”, or “writing that is stuck in”, usually used to refer to a form of modification closest to ink rubbing — a pagan funerary rite at the time, very different from modern tattooing.

Leviticus is a book of laws telling the Jews of the time how to lead their lives. As such, the laws break down into three general types — first, laws regarding morality (bans on prostitution, bestiality, and so on); second, laws regarding health (advice on subjects such as food preparation — kosher laws); and third, laws to differentiate the Jews from the pagans (bans on certain rituals, haircuts, and so on). In the New Testament Jesus does away with these laws. That doesn’t mean that bestiality is suddenly OK, but it does give a modern Christian much more personal freedom in terms of things like the way they trim their beard and the way they choose to decorate their bodies, because they are now judged by their faith, rather than adherence to a set of hard and specific rules.

“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”

- Romans 3:28

“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days.”

- Colossians 2:16

This is explained perhaps more clearly in Galatians 3:23-24, which tells how Jesus replaced the old covenant with a new one:

“But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.”

As well as the mention of tattooing or cutting in Leviticus, body piercing is also mentioned throughout the Bible. When the Israelites fought the Ishmaelites, Gideon told his warriors that they could take the golden earrings of the enemies they slew (Judges 8:24), and numerous passages mention the piercings of the Israelites as well (Exodus 32:3, Ezekiel 16:12, Isaiah 3:21, and so on). Other sections, in Deuteronomy 15 and Exodus 21 describe body piercing on servants (as a normal part of society), and nose piercing is described as beautifying and normal when Behuel and Nahor’s daughter is married in Genesis 24.

Sometimes Christians object to body modification on the basis of it defiling God’s creation — after all, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is fairly clear that the body is the temple,

“What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

Earlier, in 1 Corinthians 3:17, a dire warning is issued:

“If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”

The question is, what does “defile” mean?

I’ll spare telling you that the Catholic Church has already publicly proclaimed tattoos as acceptable, and that Crusaders were commonly covered in Christian tattoos in order to proclaim their faith and ensure a proper burial — A good way to understand what’s appropriate for a temple is to look at the range of Christian churches that history has produced. Until about the 10th century A.D., Christian architecture was largely reminiscent of earlier Roman buildings. In the Middle Ages huge Cathedrals dominated, covered in spires, sculptures, buttresses — anyone who’s been in these structures knows how overwhelmingly powerful they are psychologically.

The Gothic period produced churches with complex and intricate decoration and gorgeous glasswork. Centuries later in the Baroque era churches were less physically imposing, but were encrusted with wealth — golden opulence was used to manifest God. Other periods and areas have seen simple churches, small humble buildings relatively unadorned with the people themselves bringing the glory, and in modern times we’ve seen churches constructed in every conceivable style. We’ve even seen very successful temples built using nothing but television transmissions and a studio.

Marshall Mcluhan may be oft-quoted saying that the medium is the message, but in this sense, I think God might correct him and say, “No, Marshall, it doesn’t matter what the medium is — it’s the message that counts.”

I hope it’s clear that if we’re to speak in objective terms, that there’s no specific ban on body modification in the Bible, and that its value as something good in one’s a life versus its involvement in sin is very much determined by the way it’s being used — to put it another way, telling someone that their Christian tattoo is wrong would be no better than telling someone that praising God is wrong because someone else shouted blasphemies. Speech — and tattoos — are just a part of life. They can be right, or they can be wrong.

So a Christian certainly can’t go out and get a tattoo or other body modification if it leads to sin, or stands for sin, but modification — mutilation even — is acceptable if it helps the person lead a righteous life. Sex might be another good example. The Bible is full of things that could make a person believe that sex is a bad thing — prostitution, lusting after others’ wives, and forms of masturbation are all mortal sins. However, reading other parts of the Bible it’s clear that God intended sex to be something wonderful — but He wanted it to be used in the right context (a loving marriage under God).

   “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.
   Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.
   How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!
   Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.
   A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
   A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.
   Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
   Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.”

- The Song of Solomon

It’s all about context. That which might be a sin when used against God is a beautiful thing when used for Him — it’s why a Christian couple can have a fulfilling and guilt-free sex life that involves bondage, anal sex, oral sex, Cleveland steamers, or whatever else makes them happy — as long as it’s loving and sanctifies the marriage bed (so no Cleveland steamers with the neighbors when the wife’s out of town!).

To give a more extreme example, eunuchs (castrated or even penectomized men) were common throughout various cultures in Biblical times, and hence came to be included in the Bible and were even embraced by several sects. The Byzantine Church had numerous eunuchs in ruling positions, and the Christian Coptic Church embraced castration as a holy path. While relatively common between 300 A.D. and 1,100 A.D., it continued in eastern Europe until surprisingly recently. Matthew 18:8-9 warns,

“Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”

Matthew 19 continues, warning against adultry and other sins of the flesh, and in verse 12 says,

“There be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

Even extreme body modification is permissable — if it’s done to serve God or to protect the individual from falling prey to sin or to God’s enemies. Of course, modern Christians on the whole believe this passage is “metaphorical”… but there’s certainly nothing that says that clearly, and if it’s metaphorical, how can one decide what else is as well? Many early Christian scholars such as Origen, considered one of the fathers of the faith, castrated themselves. A small number of patristic writers such as Tertullian actually referred to Jesus as a eunuch.

So what we see in the Bible is that Christianity has at best one highly vague ban on a specialized form of cutting, and then goes on to describe body piercing at length as normal, and even goes so far as to encourage extreme body modification when done for the sake of God. The New Testament contains one clear and overwhelming message: Love. Under Christian theology the whole point of God’s appearance on Earth as Jesus was to get rid of blind arbitrary rules, and replace them with a more fluid code of goodness.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you.”

- John 15: 12-14

I won’t get into it in this article in any depth, but the Bible also draws similar conclusions about ritual. In 1 Kings 18 and Mark 5 we hear descriptions of pagan sorcerers and priests performing rituals involving cuttings and bloodletting, but at the same time, Christian penitents and monks have been performing self-flagellation and even crucifixion in the name of their faith (Matthew 16:24) since the beginning — not a single early Christian church didn’t embrace these rituals and they are still popular in many areas such as Brasil and the Philippines. Again, it’s all a matter of what you’re using the tool to achieve.

Some Christians will warn others against involving themselves in tattooing or piercing because they perceive it as being sordid, using scripture such as Romans 12:17 to justify it,

“Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.”

However, it should be clear from the “double standards” in the Bible that God doesn’t believe that one should censor oneself because someone else has used a tool for evil. You can wield a sword in God’s army, or you can wield in as knight in Satan’s service — your final resting place is not determined by the sword, but by the army you choose to serve in. When Paul says in Philippians 4:8,

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

he isn’t saying to think of things that appear to be true, or appear to be honest, or appear to be just, pure, or lovely — he’s giving clear message in clear terms: be a good person and put Jesus above all else.

If you want to be a good person with tattoos, God will still love you. The Christian who tells you otherwise isn’t hearing the message for some reason and may need your help far more than you need theirs.

Shannon Larratt

PS. I am not a Christian, but if you’d like to meet other Christians interested in body modification, you can click here to meet them in the new BME Personals (or place your own ad), and there are of course many more on IAM — a few are linked in the interview above.

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About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

One thought on “Does God Hate Your Tattoos? [The Publisher's Ring]

  1. Shannon, a very intelligant discourse on the relationship of piercing/tattooing and Christians. I’m a Christian and also modified! Thanks for getting this informatiion out there to the unimformed public. Antonio

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