The Bible’s Viewpoint
Body Decoration—The Need for Reasonableness
“VANITY is the quicksand of reason,” wrote a French novelist. Certainly, reason has had little to do with many of the things humans have done to themselves for vanity’s sake over the centuries. For example, in an effort to have the tiniest waist possible, 19th-century women painfully corseted their abdomens until they could hardly breathe. Some claimed to have waists as tiny as 13 inches [325 mm]. Some women were so constricted by their corsets that their ribs were actually pushed into their livers, causing death.
While that fashion fad has mercifully died out, the vanity that produced it is as much in evidence today as it was then. Men and women still undergo difficult, even dangerous, procedures in order to alter their natural appearance. For example, tattoo and piercing parlors, once the haunt of the less savory elements of society, are springing up in shopping malls and suburbs. In fact, in a recent year, tattooing was the sixth-fastest-growing retail business in the United States.
More radical forms of body decoration are also gaining ground, especially among young people. Extensive piercing of body parts—including nipples, noses, tongues, and even genitals—is increasingly popular. For a smaller group, such extensive piercing is already too tame. They are trying more radical practices such as branding, cutting,* and body sculpting, in which objects are inserted under the skin to produce extravagant holes and ridges.
An Ancient Practice
Decorating or modifying the body is not new. In certain parts of Africa, ritual scarification and tattooing have been used for centuries to identify specific family groups or tribes. Interestingly, in many of these lands, such practices are now viewed with disfavor and are on the decline.
Tattooing, piercing, and cutting existed in Bible times. They were most often practiced by pagan nations in connection with their religion. Understandably, Jehovah forbade his people, the Jews, to imitate those pagans. (Leviticus 19:28) As God’s own “special property,” the Jews were thus protected from degrading false religious practices.—Deuteronomy 14:2.
Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, although it sets out certain principles that were carried over to the Christian congregation. (Colossians 2:14) They can thus express themselves within the bounds of propriety when it comes to the type of adornment they choose to wear. (Galatians 5:1; 1 Timothy 2:9, 10) However, this freedom is not without limits.—1 Peter 2:16.
Paul wrote, at 1 Corinthians 6:12: “All things are lawful for me; but not all things are advantageous.” Paul understood that his freedom as a Christian did not give him license to do whatever he wanted without consideration for others. Love for others influenced his behavior. (Galatians 5:13) Keep “an eye, not in personal interest upon just your own matters,” he urged, “but also in personal interest upon those of the others.” (Philippians 2:4) His selfless viewpoint serves as an excellent example to any Christian contemplating some form of body decoration.
Bible Principles to Consider
One of the mandates for Christians is to preach and teach the good news. (Matthew 28:19, 20; Philippians 2:15) A Christian would not want to let anything, including his appearance, distract others from listening to that message.—2 Corinthians 4:2.
While such decorations as piercings or tattoos may be popular among some people, a Christian needs to ask himself or herself, ‘What kind of a reaction would such a decoration provoke in the area where I live? Would I be associated with certain fringe elements of society? Even if my conscience were to allow it, what effect would my piercing or tattoo have on others within the congregation? Would they view it as an evidence of “the spirit of the world”? Might it cast doubt on my “soundness of mind”?’—1 Corinthians 2:12; 10:29-32; Titus 2:12.
Certain types of body modifications carry serious medical risks. Tattooing with unsanitary needles has been associated with the spread of hepatitis and HIV. Skin disorders sometimes result from the dyes used. Piercings can take months to heal and can hurt for much of that time. They can also produce blood poisoning, hemorrhaging, blood clots, nerve damage, and serious infections. Additionally, some procedures are not easily reversed. For example, depending on the size and the color, a tattoo can take several expensive and painful laser sessions to remove. Piercings may leave lifelong scars.
Whether or not an individual decides to accept these risks is a personal decision. But one who seeks to please God recognizes that becoming a Christian involves the offering of oneself to God. Our bodies are living sacrifices presented to God for his use. (Romans 12:1) Hence, mature Christians do not view their bodies as their exclusive property to be damaged or defaced at will. Especially those who qualify to take the lead in the congregation are known for their moderate habits, soundness of mind, and reasonableness.—1 Timothy 3:2, 3.
Developing and exercising the Bible-trained power of reason will help Christians avoid the extreme, masochistic practices of this world, which is so hopelessly “alienated from the life that belongs to God.” (Ephesians 4:18) They can thus let their reasonableness shine before all men.—Philippians 4:5.
A clear distinction is made between cutting for medical or even aesthetic purposes and the compulsive cutting or mutilation many young people, especially teenage girls, practice. The latter is often a symptom of serious emotional stress or abuse, which may call for professional help.