Dear Dr. Moore,
I want to get a tattoo. I’d like it on my stomach, with a cross, with the words, “Flee Immorality: You Were Bought with a Price.” I’d like this as a measure of accountability for myself as the years go by, in case the zeal I have for the gospel ever wanes and I’m ever in a place of temptation this will be an ever-present reminder of what I know to be true.
I am really convicted that this is what the Lord would have me to do. Here’s my problem.
I am 19 years old and a college student. I live at home with my parents. I work and pay for my own school, but I live with them. I love my parents and truly believe I honor them, but where does “honor your father and mother” end? I really believe this is an issue of obedience in doing what the Lord seems to be directing me to do.
You probably agree with my parents that I shouldn’t get the tattoo and I can respect that. I’ve thought it all through. My question isn’t whether I should get the tattoo; it’s whether I’d be sinning against God and my parents if I did it.
If I am under their authority right now, when does that end? When I’m 21? When I’m out of the house? Or does it ever end, when it comes to making decisions like this?
Bought with a Price
First of all, I hope my sons grow up to be like you, in all sorts of ways seen in this question. Your letter evidences a lot of commendable qualities: a desire to identify yourself radically with Christ, the recognition that you must protect yourself from your own potential future rebellion, concern for honoring your father and mother.
The command to honor father and mother never ends. It is part of the holy will of God, and is applicable to every person, regardless of age. When you’re ninety, you’ll still have an obligation to honor your parents, even if only in memory and in speech. The way one honors one’s parents changes, though, throughout the span of life. Jesus lived this life before you. His honoring of his father Joseph and his blessed mother Mary was of obedience in all things in childhood (Lk. 2:51), of listening to pleas for help in adulthood (Jn. 2:1-5), and of caring for weakness at the end of life (Jn. 19:26-27). All of this was an honoring of father and mother.
What you’re asking is less about Exodus 20 than about Ephesians 6. When does your obedience to parents end or, better put, when are you responsible for making your own decisions?
It isn’t at eighteen. The Bible never puts eighteen or twenty-one as some arbitrary mark between childhood and maturity. Instead, in Scripture, maturity is less a chronological or biological matter than an economic one. When are you able to establish a household, a household for which you are responsible? The creation pattern is that a man is equipped to provide for his household (Gen. 2:15). He then “leaves father and mother” as he cleaves to his wife and forms (within the larger tribe) a new household (Gen. 2:24).
Between childhood and maturity, your parents are working to prepare you for this responsibility, handing over more and more of it to you as you prepare to give yourself over for the provision and protection of a wife and family (Eph. 5) or for the sake of the mission (1 Cor. 7).
In Scripture, submission of any kind has limits. If your parents demanded you to sin against God, you couldn’t do it. But that’s not what they’ve done.
It seems to me, though, that this is less about obedience than about listening to wisdom. And I think your parents are right.
I’m not making an anti-tattoo statement here. Whether tattoos are permissible for followers of Jesus is debatable, but really extraneous to this discussion. Your parents understand, I’m sure, your zeal. They’re also though able to imagine a fuller arc of life than you can right now. They know there are a lot of things one can decide at eighteen that one would see differently at a later time.
A tattoo is (apart from expensive, extensive work) a permanent decision, a permanent decision made by a very young man that his older self, his wife, his children, and everyone in his life will, in some way, have to live with.
It may be that getting this tattoo is precisely what you ought to do. If so, then work toward being on your own, cultivating the maturity and the wisdom to hear outside counsel and to think this through with the mind of Christ. In the meantime, though, be a sign of the gospel by submitting to your parents even in something in which you think they’re short-sighted. Submission, after all, isn’t to things one readily sees as good ideas; that’s called “agreement.” Submission is often in matters in which one thinks one knows better. God will bless that.
One more thing: a tattoo won’t stop you from wrecking your life, no matter what it says. The rebellious heart gets what it wants, and will do what it takes to get there. An immoral man can easily scoff at the tattoo, or even blaspheme as a result of it in the throes of his rebellion. Instead of working to embed the gospel on your skin, embed it on your conscience. Cultivate repentance, confession, and seeking the life of Christ. The answer for you isn’t your own skin ink but Someone Else’s nail scars.