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)
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).