Tattoos are more popular than ever. Currently one in five Canadian adults has at least one tattoo. Entertainers, professional athletes, and even a 2009 version of Barbie, have multiple, and very visible, tattoos.
Traditionally, In the North American culture, tattoos were the domain of sailors, bikers, and entertainers. Today, many others sport tattoos… including professionals, business leaders and even many pastors. With such prevalence and interest, the question rightfully asked is, “What dos the Bible say about tattoos?”
The short answer is… nothing. At least nothing conclusive. In fact, the New Testament is completely silent about whether or not a believer should get a tattoo (at least directly). The only verse that identifies ‘tattoos’ is found in the Old Testament law which commanded the Israelites, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD” – Leviticus 19:28
Some immediately condemn all tattooing as immoral because of this passage in Leviticus, arguing that this issue is pretty straightforward based on the direct mention of ‘tattoo’. Others, however, say that this passage no longer applies to us because it’s Old Testament law.
So, how do we handle such a ‘current’ issue? Though believers today are not under the Old Testament law, the fact that there was a command in any form against tattoos at all should raise some questions at the very least.
At first glance the Levitical passage seems to indicate that tattoos are forbidden for Christians. But to comprehend Scripture correctly, we must always examine the whole of Scripture and look at the particular context of any given passage. In connection with the surrounding verses, and in context with the historical setting at the time of its writing, Leviticus 19:28 is part of a larger passage of scripture.
“You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material. You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord. Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:19, 26–31
In this passage God is speaking to his covenant people Israel. He is specifically telling them to stay away from the religious practices of the surrounding people groups. The prohibited religious practices in these verses include eating bloody meat, fortune telling, certain haircuts related to the priests of false cults, cutting or marking the body for dead relatives, cultic prostitution and consulting psychics. When read in context, we can see that this passage is not one of body décor but one of marking oneself in connection with cultic religious worship.
Still some may argue that tattoos are wrong because it modifies the body which somehow defiles God’s creation. However, if this was the case then we’d need to condemn ear piercing, cutting hair, hair colouring, clipping nails, getting a tan, weight loss, makeup, plastic surgery or possibly orthodontia among other things. Each of the previously mentioned practices modifies the way we were originally created, some permanently.
Having said that, in 1 Peter we do have this command. “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” – 1 Peter 3:3-4
Granted, this passage is directed at women, but there is a principle here that may be apropos: namely, a person’s external appearance should not be the focus of our attention. Much effort goes into “elaborate hairstyles” and “fine clothes” and jewelry, but that’s not where a woman’s true beauty lies. In the same way, tattoos and body piercings are “outward adornment,” and we should be careful to give more effort to the development of the “inner self”.
Even still, the law is the law, isn’t it?
A lot of confusion comes from the misunderstanding between moral law and ceremonial law. The moral law encompasses regulations on justice, respect, and sexual conduct. Much of the moral law was carried forward and affirmed in the New Testament church. That is why we would still commit to things such as sexual purity or value life because we see them adhered to in the New Testament.
Ceremonial law on the other hand includes instructions on regaining right standing with God through sacrifices and other ceremonies regarding “uncleanness”, remembrances of God’s work in Israel such as feasts and festivals, specific regulations meant to distinguish Israelites from their pagan neighbours such as dietary, adornment (tattoos and ear piercings) and clothing restrictions, and certain signs that point to the coming Messiah like the Sabbath, circumcision, Passover, and the redemption of the firstborn.
Christians are not bound by ceremonial law. Since the church is not the nation of Israel, circumcision is not required. As well, memorial festivals, such as the Feast of Weeks and Passover, or adornment restrictions such as tattoos do not apply.
The Apostle Paul goes on to remind us that the Old Testament Law was designed by God to lead people to Jesus. Now that Jesus has come and set us free, we are now not under the law in order to be in 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.
“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” – Galatians 3:24–25
If we were to obey the laws of the Old Testament today, we would be bound by rules that would restrict shellfish, pork eating and hipster hairstyles. We’d also be hard pressed to find anyone who would wear clothing mixed of two different materials, or unconcerned if the Angus beef they’d been eating had been bred with a Devon cow. Simply put, declaring that tattoos are out of bounds for a believer are putting themselves back under slavery to the law.
Further to that, getting inked today isn’t something the average wearer gets to link themselves to cultic worship practices, tattoos today are mainly for ornamentation. The 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. It is seen as a way of giving glory to God in that ‘Christian’ themed tattoos attract questions about faith to those who aren’t convinced yet. Certainly, having a tattoo saying “Jesus saves” could indeed be a conversation starter with some people who would never approach a preacher wearing a suit and tie.
In 1 Corinthians we read, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” – 1 Corinthians 9:22-23
If having a tattoo genuinely opens doors for evangelism that would otherwise be closed, getting a ‘Christian’ tattoo would likely “qualify” under Paul’s “becoming all things” qualification.
However, while artistic self-expression can be OK, our primary motive for anything we do should be to glorify God. This means seeking to honour and draw attention to him, not ourselves. Getting a tattoo for purposes of witness may be acceptable, but remember, this is not the primary or most effective way to evangelize. It is in no way a substitute for verbally communicating the gospel. You are not fulfilling the Great Commission simply because you have a tattoo of a Bible verse.
With this said, while there may be no clear passage in the Bible addressing getting or not getting inked, this is hardly a license for unrestrained tattooing. You still need to think before you ink, especially if you’re a Christian. The following are guiding questions to help you think through your decision.
- 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? If it is in rebellion to parents, it is clearly not acceptable, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honour your father and mother” – which is the first commandment with a promise – so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” – Ephesians 6:1-3
- 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?
- Will employers want to hire you? Numerous companies don’t want your tattoo to be visible, and it can actually prevent you from being hired. Many employers will restrict your tattoos, requiring you to cover them up because they are not socially acceptable from a business standpoint.
- 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.”
- What is it about yourself that you want to communicate to the world? Tattoos are powerful messages, automatically conveying what you value. They are nearly permanent and will likely be with you for life. A growing experience with tattoos is what has officially been termed, “tattoo regret.” As you mature, you may, like increasing numbers of people, regret your tattoos because you have outgrown their messages and changed your values.
- Would this image bring God glory?
- Do I feel fully convinced that tattoos are allowable for Christians?
- Is it a wise use of money? “In America, you can expect a basic price of $80 to $100 an hour…very few shops will ever touch you for less than $40” (tattooinfo.net). We are responsible to God for how we use our money. It’s also important to keep in mind that the removal technologies being developed are even more expensive than the cost of getting a tattoo in the first place.
- Medical concerns. There are real health risks with tattoos. The Mayo Clinic warns, “don’t take tattooing lightly”. They’ve resulted in severe allergic reactions, infections, unsightly scars, and blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis B and C. Tattooing deliberately opens skin and exposes your blood to unknown bacteria. Tattoo parlors are not medical clinics, although they are puncturing skin and exposing blood.
Please, don’t make this decision hastily or rashly. Getting a 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.