Tats, Tattoos, getting inked and the Bible

I’ll just go ahead and ask, “Is it okay for Christians to get tattoos?” I can almost hear the verbal responses to this question as people talk at their monitors. There are plenty of yes and no answers being given, some are very passionate in their answers (maybe yelling at the monitor) and some are scurrying for their Bible or quoting verses. Some want the answer to be yes, but have this uneasy feeling about the whole discussion, because they have received those glares from church groups, sermons and bear the overall stigma of having a scarlet letter T of shame stamped upon them. Well I hope I can help clear some of this up.

If I was ever taught anything in all my years of seminary and reading it was to keep the main things, the main things. I’ll address the topic more in a moment, but first, I want it to be clear that salvation in Christ does not depend upon being or not being inked. Salvation in Christ is by God’s glorious grace, and you cling to that by faith. By faith I mean that you believe in the person and work of Christ as fact, that you trust these facts apply to you, and that you’re resting in Christ alone for why God will allow you into heaven. Standing before God as if by a gate and seeking to enter heaven the criteria will not involve tattoos, but whether you claim the life, death and resurrection of Christ to be the only reason you should be allowed in. He suffered in your place of guilt for sin, that you might stand in His righteousness, being found guiltless.

The main verse(s) hurled at those attempting to justify having/getting tats are:

Leviticus 19:28, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” (KJV used throughout)

And

1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

Ah Ha! See! It’s as clear as day (so it seems) that we have it in black and white, we are not to get tattoos because we are the God’s property and as His holy temple we are not to graffiti on it (as the sermon or accusation usually goes).

But what is the context and timeless truth that these passages are really trying to get across? Is there something more important than marking of the body going on here? It is easy to take any verse that just happens to say what we’re looking to prove and just use it any way we like. That being said we need to review the context of the verses and get to the bottom of this.

The Leviticus passage is within the context of God commanding to tell the children of Israel these things with the reason being that they should be holy just as God is holy (vs. 2). Well, that just sounds like the 1 Corinthians passage huh? But what did it mean for Israel at its founding to be holy? Another translation or meaning of the word used for holy is to be different or separate. Who was Israel to be separate and different from, in comparison? They were being separated as a people who God would have bring the Messiah through and be a testimony to the nations of God’s work, deeds, and His story of bringing redemption to fulfillment through a determined linage. So then what markings described here? They are part of a religious ritual performed for dead and other ceremonies. God’s people were forbidden to participate in such things. So this was an issue of nationalistic and religious identification. In our age there is no such issue of tattoos being a form of national or religious identification (in most cases, I know this is a generalization). Tattoos are simply a mode of art, expression and a way of showing what someone is sentimental about, passionate about or highly dedicated to.

Furthermore the context of the verse is also related to any cutting of the body. I think this would include piercing ears. That is a cutting, stabbing or breaking of our flesh. So ears are okay in our day (in violation of this verse) but not tattoos? I guess we would have to be consistent in our convictions about such things. Yet again if we see this in relation to the pagan practices of their time (like the worship of Cybele and the practice of Galli) we see that this does not conflict with Israel’s direct command for males to be circumcised. Otherwise how would they have reconciled these two things in their own culture? They are faced with one command from God to cut, and another to not cut anything at all. Now we are not commanded to have pierced ears, but again, we do not have a nationalistic or religious implication in the wearing of earrings. They are just fashion and for show (I know again that some might make their earrings their religious statement).

Having now related this to circumcision, what do we know about this outward sign in relation to the New Testament age? Paul says it best when he declares that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything” (Gal. 5:6 and 6:15). There is nothing in an outward sign or markings that convey holiness before God. All along the full Old Testament Law was a school master to convey what the heart should be before God in purity and holiness. The outward representations are nothing if the inside does not match (Matthew 15:1-20). If the outward mark of circumcision is not holiness before God, why are we passing judgment on one another concerning tats? Let each have their own conviction about the matter and keeping our eyes on the main things (Romans 14).

Also we can compare a parallel found in Deuteronomy 14:1-2, “You are the children of the LORD your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave the front of your head for the dead. 2 For you are a holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” Again the context is clearly that of religious practice. And why are they to abstain from these cuttings, because God Has separated them from the culture to be different, and as such they will also outwardly appear different. They will have a cutting, but one that will is prescribed by God. Just as in the New Testament believers have a cutting of the heart in a spiritual sense, which is what circumcision was to depict in the OT outward expression (Romans 2:28-29).

To be the temple of the Holy Spirit is such that we are to act in a morally conscious way. The context is that a Christian’s confession should match their outward lifestyle. It would be improper to apply this to piercings and tattoos unless within the context of them being performed in conjunction with some form of religious blasphemy or pagan ritual.

Some observations I have. A Christian bumper sticker does not make my car a Christian no more than anyone having a tattoo negates their being a Christian. Christians can get tattoos for the wrong reasons that could make it wrong for that person to get. Thinking something about the tattoo makes you stronger or tougher is wrong, when your strength should come from God alone. Or, if you believe your tattoo makes you a Christian to the watching world’s eyes, you’re wrong. It’s a testimony of Christ and a life well lived by faith that is a testimony of humble obedience that should “mark” the Christian. It can be more of a burden, being the world values appearance so much. Such that having tats, just as wearing Christian t-shirts or having that Christian bumper sticker on your car and then doing something stupid does say something to the world. I recall my days in retail catching a shoplifter wearing the WWJD bracelet. I didn’t believe this person represented me, the church or what Jesus would really do, but to someone else, they would have reason to add another charge of hypocrisy against Christ’s people. Lastly, your tattoo is something outward that should reflect something of the nature inside you and yet one does not necessarily equal the other.

The short answer or conclusion is there is nothing inherently wrong in a Christian getting or having a tattoo. The Bible is basically silent on the issue, unless within the context of doing so as a form of religious identification, ownership or practice especially those of a pagan nature. The context of the passages, usually offered against tattoos, only offer themselves to such an interpretation as given above and nothing more. If we are to outlaw tats (and to be consistent piercings…) as acceptable within Christian circles then I fear for how we are to witness to such a person. I would like to think that churches would not treat persons created in the image of God according to their outward appearances but I know better. The Bible also gives us warnings about our nature to pass such judgments (James 2:1-13). For those who have tats of a Christian nature, remember that you have marked yourself as a servant to God and as such are seeking to be humble and meek before the world (a servant of others), and it is not something giving you the perception of elevating yourself above others. This is not anything the church should be back biting each other over or placing restrictions upon thus confounding Christian liberty (Galatians 5).

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14 Comments

Filed under New Testament

14 responses to “Tats, Tattoos, getting inked and the Bible

  1. Awesome blog, and great post!

    Your remarks that tattoos and other forms of external Christian “marks” like bumper stickers, WWJD bracelets, and t-shirts are a “burden” due to the fact that the world judges by appearances reminds me of the story R.C. Sproul once told about a time he attended some ministers conference at the Crystal Cathedral. For whatever reason, he wore a ministerial collar. He commented how wearing it made him feel extra conscientious to drive carefully on his way to the conference, lest others notice his collar and think ill of Christ because of his aggressive driving. He made some other remarks applying this to the other ways professing (and “possessing”) Christians “mark” themselves, encouraging Christians to be aware of the same fact you’re pointing out. If you advertize your Christianity on your body, car or other belongings, and don’t live in a Christ-like manner, you’re going to draw the criticism of “hypocrite” quicker than otherwise.

    The same goes for those (of us) who talk a lot of religion, and then don’t live gracious and loving lives as disciples of Christ.

    • Thanks John C.! I really appreciate and value your input!

      Yes, I find it very interesting how fast a t-shirt of confession; can become a t-shirt of conviction. I felt like Romans 2:24 was speaking to me most of the time.
      I agree also that religious “talk” is also an identifyer that once we have a “slip of the tongue,” we are again accused.
      I just wory that many times Christians are ready to convict/judge the world (lets call down fire on …).
      I can do lot of things that ID myself as a Christian (that convicts others, and maybe puffs me up in the process) but without conversation, there is no “good news” of pardon.

      • Amen on Rom. 2:24. On the other hand, it is my experience that often unbelievers are very quick with the “hypocrite” accusation for the tiniest flaws. This tells me it may many times be no more than his own self-defense mechanism against conviction of their own sin. But this isn’t an excuse to explain away all charges of hypocrisy. We earn it often enough.

  2. BTW, added you to my blogroll. I don’t know how much traffic it will send you, but it will definitely keep me coming back.

    • Thanks for the blogroll add.

      I agree 100% about the defense mechanism. I think they also just have that Pelagian mindset by default that works are everything. There are just not enough Christian teachers who will clarify that we do not base our salvation on our own works but the work of Christ alone as substitute. The simultaneously saint and sinner will always have a hypocritical life, to a certain degree, to the outward watching world. It is all the more reason to keep it clear that we are not the gospel by example, that it is something objectively outside of us residing in Jesus that we partake of by faith.

  3. telson7

    Is the prohibition taking the tattoos valid in the New Covenant? I believe that it is valid and give you these verses.

    2 Pe 1:
    1 ¶ Simon Peter, a servant and legate of Jesus the Messiah,—to those who have obtained equally precious faith with us, through the righteousness of our lord and Redeemer, Jesus the Messiah;—
    2 may grace and peace abound to you through the recognition of our lord Jesus the Messiah,
    3 as the giver to us of all things that be of the power of god, unto life and the fear of god, through the recognition of him who hath called us unto his own glory and moral excellence:
    4 wherein he hath given you very great and precious promises; that by them ye might become partakers of the nature of god, while ye flee from the corruptions of the lusts that are in the world.

    The New Testament shows us that how we must serve and believe in God. God has given to us the Holy Spirit as the power and aid that we can understand what the Bible teaches.

    If we could believe in God by taking the tattoo, in which is Bible verses or reads the Lord Jesus and so on, so this kind of command should be in the Bible. Tattooing was very common in the world where apostles lived. If the will of God would have been to make “Biblical” tattoos, so God would have said that you must make those kinds of tattoos. However, in the New Testament is not a command to make tattoos. For this reason, I don’t believe that it is the will of God to take the tattoos.

    The Bible teaches us that serving of God is not the outward issue, but inward. Believer testimony and faith must be the inward issue by the Holy Spirit accordance with the word of God. God said by the prophet Jeremiah that in the New Covenant, God puts His law to inwards parts and writes His law to the hearts of His people. Biblical faith must be written to inner man to his heart and not outwardly to his skin.

    Ro 10:10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

    The Bible doesn’t teach serving God by the tattoos, so tattooing is against the will of God.

    The whole article is here: http://koti.phnet.fi/petripaavola/Bibleandtattoos.html

    • Thank you for your post, but I’m afraid I still disagree with your assumptions. First, there is no connection within the 2nd Peter passage that adds or takes away from the validity of tattoos. The absence of God commanding tattoos does not make it a one to one argument of opposites that we would conclude; therefore tattoos must be condemned and forbidden. If this is the case, then you must not allow women to wear pants, earrings, or get belly button piercings, or men to have long hair. Would you also conclude that according to this reasoning that we should forbid Christians from owning DVD players and Beatles albums? As the logic of your argument states; because they are not commanded to be purchased therefore they must be against the will of God?

      In short no one is arguing that tattoos are “commanded” for Christians. I am certainly not making that argument. I agree that a person’s faith and salvation are a very inward issue of the heart. Thus according to your citation of the Romans 10 passage, we are talking about their outward confession. A person with a tattoo can make a very valid profession of the new birth they have received in Christ. Also they may so choose to display or wear that confession outwardly by brandishing a cross necklace, an ichthys t-shirt (The Christian fish thingy), a car bumper sticker, or a tattoo. They are all just an outward profession that they, in some fashion, are identifying with the person and work of Christ (if not oblivious to this as some just view crosses as art). Once Biblical faith is written on the inward heart of a person, in Christian liberty, they may celebrate and display their faith in bold ways. They are not breaking any command of God.

  4. I抦 impressed, I have to say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that抯 both educative and entertaining, and let me inform you, you could have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is excellent; the issue is one thing that not enough people are talking intelligently about. I am very blissful that I stumbled across this in my seek for something regarding this.

  5. Jerome

    I was just wondering, because most of the research that I have done points to tattoos as being “PAGAN” no matter the culture it has been practice in. If true, why would Christians use a pagan practice to worship the true and living God? I understand that they are not necessarily a sin ( It may depend on the person who is getting one and their particular situation which I must admit I believe to be very rare and far between at best. Although the new testament does not specifically speak on it, many believers who accept it use ( Rom 14:23 ) as their main defense. Historically, tattoos have never been used by Christians for evangelism, even though Paul said he was all things to all people so that he could save some but also not to offend Jew, Greek or Church so I guess that means as much as you can without sinning? If we as Christians are suppose to be in the world, but not of the world, transformed but not conformed then how can you say to unbelievers that their tattoos are wrong because they don`t represent God? To me that would be the “epitome of hypocrisy!”

    • Hi Jerome,

      Good to hear from you and good questions too. Let me start at the end of your post and work backwards. It would be hypocrisy to say one thing to non-Christians (tattoos are bad, evil, pagan, …) and say the exact opposite to Christians (tattoos are okay, good, edifying,…). I’m not advocating that structure or point of view. The church is not to judge by appearance or outwardly who is and who is not worthy of receiving the good news. I would not tell a non-Christian their tattoos are evil or anything like that. It is a non-issue just as if they were wearing a three piece suit or filthy tattered clothing. So the message should never be tied to someone’s appearance.

      Next I do not see that appearance is, as you suggest, part of their “worship” of God. Rather tattoos today are described as art, and self expression. If someone went as far to describe their tattoos as worship, then that becomes a whole other conversation. See I would not chasten the Christian for having a tattoo in the same manner as I would not condemn a non-Christian for wearing a cross necklace (or even a cross tattoo). No one that I know, or have heard from, who has a tattoo, has ever told me the reason they got it was to partake of pagan or Christian ritual/worship. They all simply got one because they thought it was cool, and something they wanted to be identified with or something that identified them. It becomes a conversation very similar to that of eating meat offered to Idols. Christians are permitted to do so, although the understood origin of the meat was pagan god/goddess worship. The Christians could eat safely and without disturbance of their host because it was a non-issue. But if the host proclaimed that the meat being served in that meal as something of worship to a god/goddess then the Christian would be expected to refrain so as to prove allegiance to Christ (similar to your Romans 14 reference see 1 Cor. 10:23-33).

      Now I agree that some Christians see their tattoos as a method of evangelism. I do not agree that this is effective evangelism just as the fish on a car is not in and of itself presenting a message. Evangelism as a doctrine needs to be recovered by the church from the youthful catch-phrase like trivialness of it all. The evangel or gospel is a divine message about how man can possibly stand before a Holy God. It is not the simple passing out of flyers, wearing of bracelets, t-shirts, car emblems, and tattoos in the off chance it may strike up a conversation.

      In short, regarding the origin of the practice it is not a one to one correlation to its continued practice, just as when I take a bath; it is for my personal hygiene and not ritual cleansing or re-baptism. If an individual sees their tattoos (or t-shirt, or anything) as an act of religious worship, then that is a separate conversation about worship, and should not focus upon the expression (tattoos) but upon what drives the need for it/them and what service do they render. I hold that evangelism is the message of God’s redemptive work, and that it is presentable to all, regardless of appearance. I believe this is the basis of Paul’s teaching on becoming all things to all men, as you mentioned. It is not that he conform himself to the culture he is in, but rather he does not enter a culture passing righteous judgment them just because it is pagan or secular (see the letter to Titus, within the context of who the Crete’s were as a people, and yet Paul expected the gospel to produce a church and elders there.) I hope this helps. God bless.

      • Great teaching! I will share this with my Youth Group when the question arises!

      • neurotified

        I am a believer and have always loved, believed and worshipped Christ alone. I have always been depressive but managed to stay afloat with prayer and faith. I have a strong family history of major depressive disorders. At the age of 25, post childbirth and marriage..some events in my life sent me into major depression but I still tried and avoided the anti depressants provided. Whilst I clung to Christ, my situation got worse and I suffered hormonal imbalance due to the prolonged depression and had non stop menstrual bleeding 24/7 for 8 months..but with prayer alone I eventuly recovered.. When I healed..I decided to get a couple of tattoos to always serve as reminders of what I had been through and that even though I struggle wt depression even today, I shall always cling to and depend on the Lord. The tattoos are on the inner side my wrists.
        Exodus 14:14, Romans 8:4 and Corinthians 13:4-13. And yes unless I wear a full sleeve shirt they are all clearly visible. I never felt bad about it because I believed they weren’t pagan and that my motivations were neither peer pressure nor popularity nor self glorification. However, I would never recommend them to others for various reasons. Now 5 years after the tattoos..I feel like I’m judged a lot by people and I feel that I have sinned gravely and offended the LOrd and hurt Him and this is troubling me greatly and giving me sleepless nights and stress all over again. Please tell.me what you think of my actions as a Christian who.got herself tattooed. Also.how do.I tackle the judgement from.other Christians. Is GOd going to punish me? Shall I always walk in shame and keep hiding my tattoos? Some folk are telling me its the mark of the beast.

      • Hello, all I can say is that Jesus too was called a sinner due to those he outwardly hung out with. I wish more Christians had a more humble heart and could see past tats, but I guess there will always be these outward forms of judgment. As to tattoos in general, I see nothing wrong with them, as outlined in the OP and other comments. You will have to work out how to best deal with the judgments of others, but do so in Christ like compassion for them. We do get persecuted for Christ’s sake and in a way there is not release from this but we are called to have faith and draw on Christ for our strength and perseverance.

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