In one of the breakout sessions I attended during a seminary training seminar this weekend, we briefly discussed 1 Corinthians 6:19:
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?
While the discussion evolved into another topic, I sat there pondering this passage. The verse is often used to justify the cultural prohibition against tattoos and the pseudo-hypocritical prohibition on body piercings. While I was pondering the verse though, I began to realize how superficial this interpretation is.
Consider the following verse:
For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.
Now, that same superficial interpretation would tell us that the position to ban body modification is further strengthened because our bodies aren’t ours, but God’s. In other words, we need to treat them with the same respect we show to the physical temple we attend to perform ordinances.
If we take a look at other verses, I think a different context emerges.
Look at 1 Peter 1:18–19:
Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:
And Mosiah 5:7:
And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.
It seems to me that when 1 Corinthians speaks of our body not being ours, it is because it has become God’s (or Jesus’s depending on how you interpret the verses) not through the loss of our ownership but because we become followers of Christ. It’s not that our bodies become his property, but that we become instruments to spread his way of life and teachings.
1 Corinthians 6:20 specifically shows that it is not just our body—but our spirit as well—that is God’s. It also counsels us to use both to glorify God.
So when Paul counselled the Corinthians that their body was a temple, I don’t think he was telling them to not get tattoos. I think he was telling them to remember that they covenanted to become followers of Christ and that they have a responsibility to use their body and the spirt (of which the body is a temple) to further God’s purposes.
UPDATE (17 august 2016): See “Of Bodies and Temples” by Jason K. for some additional insight on this topic.