Issues of Conscience:
Tattoos, Piercings, and Bible Study
I just had the pleasure of concluding an exposition of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes in Mark 7:1-23. This event, as recorded by Mark, played a strategic role in the continued separation of Jesus from religious leadership and His continued focus on the twelve disciples. In it, Jesus addressed three important issues: the reality of Jewish ritual, the religion of the Jews, and the need for regeneration. Through this conflict, the reader gains insight into the setting of the Old Covenant and the rising of the New Covenant. Some parts of the Old Covenant were misunderstood or misapplied, as in the case of the Laws of dedication and Jewish practice of Corban drawn from them, mentioned and refuted by Christ in 7:9-13. Some parts of the Old Covenant although misapplied, were legitimate concerns to be followed, as in the case of the clean/unclean laws, as Jesus affirmed in 7:14-20. However, whatever the case, the Old Covenant, and those realities connected to it, would not last, because it was meant to be overtaken by the New.
While a proper interpretation of this passage provided helpful guidance for the Christian’s understanding of how the law impacted the New Age, we also discovered that there were some other subsidiary benefits of its proper interpretation, not least of which was navigating issues of conscience within the church. I have been an active participant in church life for almost five decades, long enough to see the changes in how the church both described these issues and what they identified as issues. I have seen the label move from “gray areas” to “issues of conscience.” I have seen “movies, playing pool or cards, and make up” replaced with “tattoos, body piercings, and ripped jeans” as debated subjects that ought to receive such a label. So, some believe that tattoos are specifically prohibited by the Bible, while others believe that no specific admonition can be found regarding them.
Although it is easy to compose a list of forbidden actions for those who are truly spiritual or a list of actions that identify those who demonstrate true spirituality, the problem is that our human lists are often times comprised of a combination of items based on precepts, principles, and preferences. Unlike the lists found in the New Testament, such as in the text Berean just studied, Mark 7:21-22, or the myriad of lists found in the epistles (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Eph. 4:25-32; Col. 3:5-11; 1 Pet. 4:3) or even in the Old Testament (Mic. 6:8), our lists quite frankly are a mixed bag.
Because of this, we not only confuse ourselves and others, but we also damage the authority of the Bible itself. We do so when we formulate mixed lists, resulting in the implicit claim that the Bible speaks with the exact same level of specificity, for example, on tattoos that it does on Bible study. Of course, this cannot be proven from the Scriptures; but by making our hybrid lists, we make those claims anyway.
This tendency to elevate our human application of divine precepts and principles to the level of precepts stood behind the charge leveled at Jesus in Mark 7:1-5, that initiated this conflict. The Jews had taken legitimate legal issues, the clean/unclean laws, had worked up their application of it, and then had elevated their application to the level of divine precept. This pattern is not a Jewish problem, but a human one, begun in the garden of Eden itself by our first parents. Although God had specifically told Adam and by extension Eve, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they developed their own application of His precept that included them not touching it (cp. Gen. 2:16-17 with 3:2-3). This is a human problem and it is a problem that regularly makes its way even into the church.
In answering these issues, we saw Jesus incorporate a list of sins, a list of sins that identified the nature of man’s ultimate problem. The list, made by Jesus in 7:21-22, even though it was unique to the gospel of Mark, it yet teaches us that identifying lists of behaviors that contradict the will of God is not a bad thing in and of itself. This stands as a warning to us that it is not the list of sins that is bad. The problem is what a person includes in their list. When issues of conscience became part of the moral code of God for everyone, we run into problems between brothers. Jesus’ list of ways in which a person was defiled was a list of violations of God’s moral code, revealed consistently throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Such violations, whether they be actions or attitudes, cross the revealed will of God in a direct fashion. What does this mean for navigating these issues? It means taking situations as they come and applying the precept, principle, preference systems to our conduct within the world.
A believer must be able to differentiate between precepts, principles, and preferences. All of these impact our behavior but maintain different relationships to the authority of the Scriptures. So, for example, while demanding that Christians obey biblical precepts, such as rejoicing always, always being thankful, reading the Scriptures, attending church weekly, and so on are not even questionable, the same cannot be said of biblical principles. While the wisdom of not taking out a loan for any reason whatsoever is beyond doubt, one would be hard pressed to prove biblically that a house mortgage, car loan, or school loan was a transgression in and of itself.
You see, precepts maintain a direct connection to the authority of the Scriptures, principles a derived connection to the authority of the Scriptures, and preferences often have no connection to the authority of the Scriptures. God will judge me regarding reward based on my adherence to His precepts. Although Adam and Eve’s idea of not touching the tree of good and evil may have been a good safeguard for them (Gen. 3:2-3), God was not going to judge Adam and Eve on whether they touched the tree or not, which was their application of His precept, He was going to judge them on whether they ate from it or not, His direct command (2:16-17).
For further study, listen to these three sermons related to the post:
- The Gospel According To Mark – Part 39
- The Gospel According To Mark – Part 40
- The Gospel According To Mark – Part 41