Not too many years ago in our society, one would not have expected to publicly encounter many individuals with odd body piercings or an assortment of tattoos. The few tattoos that one saw were either related to military service or biker gang association. Such, however, is not the case today. Just about anywhere you go now, you will encounter someone with a plethora of tattoos and/or body piercings. It's quite faddish, in fact. The question naturally arises in the mind of the conscientious Christian as to what God's word says on the subject. Is it wrong? Is it bad judgment? Is it a good thing? What do the scriptures say?
Under the Old Covenant, there was at least one type of body piercing that God approved. This was in the case where a master and slave had such a good relationship that the slave desired to give his entire life and the life of his family to his master. Under the Old Law, slaves were supposed to be set free during the Year of Jubilee (See Leviticus 25). However, the slave who did not want to be set free was to have his ear pierced to signify his desire to remain with his master (Deuteronomy 15:17).
The Old Covenant wasn't so generous, however, when it came to tattoos. Leviticus 19:28 states, "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD." Most scholars believe that this prohibition was given as a mark of separation of the Israelites from the nations around them who practiced various forms of idolatry and which tattooing was related to their idolatrous practices. Israel was to be holy to the Lord (Leviticus 20:7) and maintain their separation from heathen practices (Exodus 33:16, Leviticus 20:24).
Needless to say, we are not under the same restrictions of the Old Covenant today (Acts 15:10, Galatians 5:1). Hence, our pattern for living comes from the example of Christ and also from the teachings of the apostles in the New Testament. While we have no direct prohibition for either piercings or tattoos within the New Testament, we have some principles that would regulate such conduct. Let's examine a few of those things.
First, there is the principle of modest behavior. In 1 Timothy 2:9 as well as 1 Peter 3:3 the apostles teach us that flamboyant or gaudy attire does not become the modest Christian woman. Multiple body piercings, elaborate tattoos, and any other such kind of showy personal expressions would fall under this category of immodesty. The Christian is not to call attention to self for the sole reason of promoting self. Often body piercings and tattoos are obtained just for this reason. The attitude of humility would preclude such in the life of the Christian (Philippians 2:3).
Second, there is the principle of separation. God's desire for the Israelites to be separate from the nations around them extends to Christians today as well. Paul tells the church at Corinth, "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you" (2 Corinthians 6:17). The Christian is not to engage in worldly activites as such is indicative of loving the world (1 John 2:15-17). James says that friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4). Inasmuch as tattoos and piercings represent worldliness we ought to have nothing to do with them.
Third, there is the principle of sound speech. Titus 2:8 says that the Christian's speech ought to be irreproachable. Tattoos and body piercings speak volumes. Many tattoos represent things that the Christian repudiates such as warmongering, fornication, addiction, and bondage. Piercings may also have sexual connotations and Like the improper use of the tongue, the Christian who employs tattoos and piercings may be sending mixed messages. James (3:11) says, "Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?" Hypocrisy, in any form, is sinful (James 3:17).
Finally, there is the principle of purpose. In everything we do as Christians, our purposes must be pure and holy; all must be done to God's glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). Those who obtain piercings and tattoos must ask themselves what their motives are for so desiring such. Does one desire to rebel against parents? Such is a sinful motive (Ephesians 6:1). Does one desire to show one's sexual promiscuity? Again, a sinful motive (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7). Does one desire to use their body art to support anarchy or rebellion? Let not be seen in the life of the Christian (Jude 1:8-10).
While there may not be anything inherently sinful in having one's body pierced or having a tattoo engraved upon one's skin, there are so many things that one need take into consideration to avoid evil, one would be better off not to obtain them. Moreover we certainly would not want to place a stumbling block before our brother (Romans 14:21) and as there are so many other ways that a Christian may honorably express himself, there seems nary a reason to be tattooed or pierced. On this subject then, "Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another" (Romans 14:19).