Firstly, before we get into the meat of this subject, and before it gets under our skin, allow me to sketch a light-hearted yet honest picture from a personal perspective, on a subject which seems to be very weighty and of great legalistic importance to some. (Please excuse the puns, …yes, I know).
Ever so often a question regarding the tattoo and the Christian crosses our path, and with equal regularity disagreements over the issue are likely to follow. With even greater regularity, people from all walks of life sporting tattoos of a myriad of shapes, colours and sizes cross our path. Tattoos have become a societal norm, but do they present a problem to the believer? For some, it has become a controversial phenomenon which, as is almost always the case in matters of this nature, Satan has been able to use to cause disunity and division among believers.
Personally, I have never had a tattoo done, although I often wonder why I never did, considering my personality type, the fact that I have always been involved in music and my lifelong attraction toward, and affection for, most art forms and artistic people. Would I have a tattoo done in future? Honestly, I doubt whether I would. Not because of any conviction that it would be an unbiblical thing to do, which it would not be – certainly not in a legal sense. As with all things, when one is in two minds about any particular decision, or any decision which pertains to the life of the believer for that matter, the Word should be the first and final consideration.l
No matter how distasteful one might personally regard the practice of tattoo to be, one cannot make Scripture speak out against it, simply because one wishes it would. I, for one, am not looking to Scripture to speak out against men who wear obviously fashionable suits and ties, particularly on occasions which certainly do not call for such attire. As a matter of fact I have doubts as to whether such occasions exist beyond Hollywood, a court of law or Wall Street, and therefore, that form of dress, worn “out of context” as it so often is, certainly does not portray a sense of humility. I sometimes find that to be equally distasteful, ultimately boastful and a pitiful expression of one who is filled with pride. I do not find it to be respectful, quite to the contrary, I regard it as decidedly disrespectful. But, of course, that is simply a personal matter, just as tattoos are. There are many who hold to the understanding that it is not that simple, and that the books of Leviticus, Revelation and others have far more relevance for the Christian on the subject.
Nevertheless, my decision not to have a tattoo done, would be simply because I don’t quite get the point of having to assume an embarrassing pose and produce weird facial expressions of pain or pleasure, for the time it takes to get the tattoo done. The permanent nature of the tattoo in a richly changing life, unforeseen circumstances and the possibility of aging disgracefully are other considerations. Neither would I be overly anxious to have some cephalically pierced, steroidal klutz with a limited vocabulary, deficient dermatological knowledge and worldly approach to my pain, directing a pulsating electric needle repeatedly into my skin.
Furthermore, I have difficulty in understanding how one could always avoid the pitfalls of personal pride over, or boasting with, the finished tattoo. The only way one could avoid it becoming an article of pride or boasting would be to keep it permanently hidden, in which case having it done seems pointless in the first place. I have also heard that tattoos can be useful as “icebreakers” when witnessing to like-minded people. While I cannot speak from personal experience, it does beg the question as to whether such an insignificant drawing in simple ink could add to the power of the living Word of God, in such circumstances. Surely it is the inner light, the Holy Spirit which shines and provides witness in the Christian through the Word and the Gospel, not the outer appearance, the tattoo, the clothing, the colour of the skin or the loss of a limb.
Having said this, I believe the following also to be true: “Yet I believe that tattoos do have the ability to communicate the character and truths of God to an external world, as well as remind the bearer of the truth which the tattoo symbolizes. This seems to be how the Bible describes the meaning of tattoos. Throughout the OT and NT period, tattooing symbolized ownership and devotion to the god which they portrayed. It also provides a reminder to the tattooed person as to whom they belong. Christians throughout history have been tattooed with Christian symbols as a sign of ownership and devotion to Christ.
If the tattoo will not violate your conscience or others, if it will not cause permanent harm or disease, if it will not harm relationships which you have and if it is symbolic of a Biblical truth which will benefit your relationship with Christ – then I believe that Christians do not desecrate the image of God (we were made in His likeness) and are free to get tattoos.” Excerpt from The Christian Research Journal (Vol. 28/ No. 06/ 2005) available at http://www.equip.org. by Lorne Zelyck.
I am thankful to the authors of the following two articles, both conservative pastors, which I found to be helpful in placing a biblical perspective on the issues surrounding the tattoo. For some, this is an important topic and these articles deal with it in that light.
From the articles, the following two statements:
1. “…we should not divide over this [issue]. If personal opinions override scriptural teaching concerning our freedom in Christ, and division and anger are the result, then those who are dividing over this are the ones in sin.”
2. “In this and many areas of the Christian life there are many truly excellent believers who have varying degrees of agreement and disagreement about Christians with tattoos. In whatever you believe about this issue I hope that you will leave gracious space for others who might feel differently. May ALL things bring Glory to our great God and Sovereign Lord, Jesus the Christ.”
1. Is it okay for a Christian to get a tattoo?
Tattoos are making a comeback in present day culture. From teenagers to housewives, they are appearing everywhere, even among Christians. So then, is it okay for Christians to get tattoos? To answer this, we need to see what the Bible says about it, if anything.
First of all, making marks on the skin is mentioned in several verses. The first is in Leviticus and the rest are in the book of Revelation which deal with the Mark of the Beast.
- Lev. 19:28, “‘You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”
- Rev. 13:16-17, “And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead. 17 and he provides that no one should be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name.” See also: Rev. 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4.
Any Christian would have no problem denouncing the Mark of the Beast and saying it is sinful. Whether or not it is a physical mark has been debated, but it goes without saying that we are not to receive that mark. It is the Leviticus passage that we must now examine. To do that, we need to quote its context.
Lev. 19:26-30, “You shall not eat anything with the blood, nor practice divination or soothsaying. 27 You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads, nor harm the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord. 29 ‘Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, so that the land may not fall to harlotry, and the land become full of lewdness.30 You shall keep My sabbaths and revere My sanctuary; I am the Lord.”
As you can see, tattooing is mentioned in the context of ancient pagan practices. But does this mean that tattooing is in itself a bad thing to do because unbelievers did it? We have to be careful not to make a logical error known as the genetic fallacy. This error says that something is false because of its origin. For example, it would be a fallacy that because the Nazi regime developed the Volkswagen Beetle, that the VW Beetle is a bad car. Likewise, just because unbelievers get tattoos does not mean Christians should not.
The Leviticus context also tells the Israelites to not round off the hair on the side of their heads nor shave the edges of their beards. Apparently, this is what the Egyptians did and God’s people were called to be separate from them. But, why such detail about hair? Perhaps Moses was concerned about the superstitious beliefs of the Egyptians to which shaving the head and beard had a religious significance. If this were the case, then God’s people were certainly called to be separate from the false nations and their superstitions.
But, such religious practices that require tattooing, cutting one’s own skin, and/or shaving the head and beard are not around in present-day Western culture. So, the admonition against tattooing, based upon the cultural norm, can’t apply for today.
If we must conclude that tattooing is automatically bad in and of itself, then we must also conclude that shaving off the hair on the side of the head and shaving edges of men’s beards is also equally bad. But, since cutting hair and shaving beards is not sinful in itself, how could we conclude that tattooing is also automatically sinful? We can’t.
Freedom in Christ
Something we must examine is whether or not we Christians are required to keep Old Testament Law. No we are not. Now, this does not mean it’s okay to lie, to cheat, and to steal. It means that we are not required to keep Old Testament Law in order to get or maintain our salvation. This is because we have died to the law and because of that, all things are lawful to us.
- Rom. 7:1,4, “Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? …4 Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God.”
- 1 Cor. 6:12, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.”
If a person wants to maintain that a Christian should keep the Old Testament Law concerning tattoos, then do they also keep the Old Testament law concerning not shaving the beard? Also, what would they do with the Scriptures that say we have died to the law and that all things are lawful? Would they require legalism?
First, we must retain the truth that we are not to violate any moral law of God. It is always wrong to lie, cheat, and to steal. Such commands are clearly reiterated in the New Testament and are based on the character of God. So, the Old Testament law dealing with morality, is definitely to be upheld. All of the Ten Commandments (except Sabbath-keeping) are referenced in the New Testament as still being valid (Mt. 19:17-19; 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9; Rev. 13:6).
Second, we see no New Testament commands that tell us to keep the sacrificial system, forbid work on the Sabbath, forbid the shaving of beards, or forbid tattoos, etc. Since we have died to the law and all things are lawful (excluding, of course, sin), then the Christian is not under obligation to keep the Old Testament command not to get tattooed. Remember, if tattooing is a sin, then so is shaving the beard — if we were to retain its command and the ones with it.
Third, let me ask a question. Is it okay to eat meat that has been deliberately sacrificed to idols? Would it be a sin to buy such meat in the marketplace and consume it as a Christian? The answer is, it’s not a sin.
1 Cor. 10:25-29, “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone should say to you, ‘This is meat sacrificed to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience‘ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?”
Paul is telling us that a Christian does not need to worry about a “pagan connection” because he is free in Christ. In this case, the Christian is free to eat meat sacrificed to idols. But, Paul makes it clear that we are not free to stumble anyone else such as a weaker Christian. We need to be wise in the application of our freedom and not cause anyone to stumble.
The point is that we are free and because of our sanctification in Christ what we touch becomes sanctified. The meat sacrificed to idols does not hurt the Christian when the Christian consumes it. If it were a sin to buy and consume such meat, Paul would have said so. Likewise, if tattooing is to be considered a sinful act because of its connection with the pagans of the Old Testament, and thereby we are not have anything to do with it, why did not Paul carry over the same logic to the issue of meat openly sacrificed to idols?
So, should a Christian get a tattoo? Well, personally, I would never do so. I would never mark my body permanently and I don’t think it’s a wise thing to do as a Christian since it is something that might be misinterpreted as being “ungodly.” But, this is my opinion. Other Christians have other opinions and each Christian is free to choose what he or she should do in this matter. The Christian should seriously consider the ramifications of a permanent marking upon the skin — which often includes a social stigma. The Christian should ask whether or not it is a good witness and this is something only that individual Christian should decide.
Should we divide over this?
No, we should not divide over this. If personal opinions override scriptural teaching concerning our freedom in Christ, and division and anger are the result, then those who are dividing over this are the ones in sin.
2. Tattoo And The Bible
Christians with tattoos, Christian tattoos and Christian tattooists, what does the Bible teach about the current style of body décor? If the Scriptures tell us that tattooing is a behavior that God says is wrong in any way, then it’s certainly off limits for God’s followers. But does the Bible teach that God forbids tattoos and other cosmetic body modifications?
The main scripture that concerns many people with regards to tattooing is this verse from the remarkable Old Testament book of Leviticus
“You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.”Leviticus 19:28 — New American Standard
At first glance this passage seems to indicate that tattoo is forbidden for Christians. To comprehend the Scripture correctly, we must always examine the whole of Scripture and look at the particular context of a given passage. If we neglect deep study we will never truly understand the intent of the author. We need to look at the word(s) of the above passage in full connection with the surrounding verses, and in context with the historic setting at the time of its writing. When we study below the surface of this text, we then will see more clearly what God says about tattoo. The verse quoted above is part of a larger passage of scripture seen here.
26 ‘You shall not eat anything with the blood, nor practice divination or soothsaying. 27 You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard. 28 ‘You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD. 29 ‘Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, so that the land will not fall to harlotry and the land become full of lewdness. 30 ‘You shall keep My sabbaths and revere My sanctuary; I am the LORD. 31 ‘Do not turn to mediums or spiritists; do not seek them out to be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.Leviticus 19:26–31 — New American Standard
In this passage God is speaking to his covenant people Israel. He is specifically telling them to stay far from the religious practices of the surrounding people groups. The prohibited religious practices in these verses include eating bloody meat, fortune telling, certain hair cuts related to the priests of false cults, cutting or marking the body for dead relatives, cultic prostitution and consulting psychics. All these practices would lead God’s beloved people away from Him and toward false gods that were not Gods at all. In the midst of this context we find the word translated “tattoo marks” in verse 28. It is important to note here that the context of this passage is not one of body décor but one of marking one’s self in connection with cultic religious worship. Bible commentaries tell us much about the eastern religious practices that God was warning His people to shun.
These prohibitions seem to relate to pagan religious customs which should be avoided, including pagan mourning rites (vv. 27-28)Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983–c1985). The Bible knowledge commentary: An exposition of the scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
The practice of making deep gashes on the face and arms and legs, in time of bereavement, was universal among the heathen, and it was deemed a becoming mark of respect for the dead, as well as a sort of propitiatory offering to the deities who presided over death and the grave. The Jews learned this custom in Egypt, and though weaned from it, relapsed in a later and degenerate age into this old superstition (Is 15:2; Je 16:6; 41:5). “nor print any marks upon you” (v:28 )—by tattooing, imprinting figures of flowers, leaves, stars, and other fanciful devices on various parts of their person. The impression was made sometimes by means of a hot iron, sometimes by ink or paint, as is done by the Arab females of the present day and the different castes of the Hindus. It it probable that a strong propensity to adopt such marks in honor of some idol gave occasion to the prohibition in this verse; and they were wisely forbidden.Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. On spine: Critical and explanatory commentary. (Le 19:28). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
“Make any cuttings in your flesh” (v:28): the reference here is to the practice of making deep gashes in the skin while mourning the death of a relative. This was done to provide life blood for the spirit of the dead person rather than to express sorrow. On account of the dead: as indicated above, this describes the purpose of all the actions in verse 27 as well as verse 28.Péter-Contesse, R., & Ellington. (1992). A handbook on Leviticus. UBS handbooks; Helps for translating (Page 296). New York: United Bible Societies.
The “tattoo” marks described in Leviticus 19:28 were clearly related to false religious practices. The word translated tattoo in our English Bibles is the Hebrew word “qa aqa”, this word appears only one time in the Bible, here in this passage Leviticus. The word “qa aqa” means literally “to cut” but taken with the surrounding words indicates a cutting that left a mark imprinted in the skin. This could have been a form of branding, scarring, cutting or a process where ink was inlaid into the skin; there is not enough data to fully define exactly what this word meant. However we translate the word “qa aqa” though, in this passage, it is certainly used in the context of cultic religious worship. The prohibition against “qa aqa”, (translated tattoo) was to keep the Israelites from being involved or affiliated with cultic worship practices.
The tattoo of today is much different than it was for those who originally received the Pentateuch. Today tattoo is a decorative means of self expression and personal decoration. In our current culture people modify their appearance for beauty in many ways such as clothing choice, makeup, plastic surgery, haircutting and coloring, weight loss, body-building, and ear piercing. Some of these practices have a history in ancient ritual and false religion, but in our cultural context they do not denote a connection with evil or false faith. In the same way tattoos today do not link the wearer to cultic worship practices and is not generally practiced for ancient religious purposes, tattoos today are for ornamentation.
A further reason to believe Christians are free to tattoo their bodies is that New Testament believers are not bound by the Old Testament laws to gain or regain right relationship with God. If we were to obey the laws of the Old Testament we would also be bound by rules that would restrict shellfish and pork eating, hairstyles, wearing of clothes made from two different fabrics, even eating cheese on hamburgers (yes, it is true). Some also feel that modifying the body somehow defiles God’s creation, but if this was true would it be right to pierce ears, correct a club foot, cut hair, clip nails, get a tan or use orthodontia? Each of the previously mentioned practices modifies the way we were originally created, some permanently. Getting a tattoo is a deeply personal choice that falls in the category of personal appearance and is vitally connected to the freedom of the believer. The Apostle Paul reminds us that the Old Testament Law was designed by God was to lead people toward Jesus. Now that Jesus has come and set us free, we are not under the law for our good standing with God. Our right standing before God comes from placing our trust in Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for our debts, not on following the Old Testament regulations.
24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. Galatians 3:24–25 — New American Standard
As New Testament followers of Jesus we are not under restriction in the area of personal décor.
Tattoo of today can describe images that merely please the wearer, or have deeper meaning to the owner. Many Christians today are tattooing themselves not in tribute to a false idol or anti-Christian deity, but with love for the one true God and Creator. Many today utilize this permanent marking a way of giving glory to God. Some find that Christian tattoos attract questions about faith and provide opportunities to give God glory by allowing the story-telling of His Love to those who aren’t convinced yet.
A parting thought about tattoo and younger people
Tattoo is a significant life-choice and should be only entered into with a great deal of forethought. Some questions to ask yourself if you are young and considering a tattoo are:
- Am I legally of an age to get a tattoo?
- If I live with my parents, would my parents support my decision?
- Would I be defying the authority God gave my parents over me at my current age?
- Would I still want this particular image when I get older?
- What if my future mate wouldn’t like having to see this image for a lifetime?
- Would this tattoo be in an area of my body that would be plainly visible? – Many people do unfairly judge people with tattoos as being “second-class.”
- Would this image bring God glory?
- Do I feel fully convinced that tattoos are allowable for Christians?
For a more in depth review of tattoo and the Bible, check out (Im)Morality of Tattoos.
Tattoo is not for everyone, and is certainly not for a Christian who feels unconvinced that getting a tattoo is completely Biblical. In this and many areas of the Christian life there are many truly excellent believers who have varying degrees of agreement and disagreement about Christians with tattoos. In whatever you believe about this issue I hope that you will leave gracious space for others who might feel differently. May ALL things bring Glory to our great God and Sovereign Lord, Jesus the Christ.
The article and paper entitled (Im)Morality of Tattoos will be published as a separate post on this blog.
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