Every generation introduces changes to society that challenge and upset previous generations. Some changes turn out to be beneficial, and some are harmful. But many are morally ambiguous and generate debate even among Christians.
In the mid-20th century, tattoos were not accepted in polite society. At the time, they were seen as a practice left to military installations, street gangs, and prisons. However, in recent decades, tattoos have become more common, and more accepted. But as popular media, and even corporate dress codes become more relaxed, what position should Christians take on tattoos? Are tattoos off-limits for Christians, or are they permitted?
Christians are permitted to get tattoos. However, as with all matters of conscience and expression, we must understand how our choice to do so affects our witness and service to God.
Tattoos and the Bible
As with any consideration of what behaviors are acceptable or sinful for Christians, we begin by examining what the Bible says about the topic at hand. Tattoos are unique in this regard, as the practice is mentioned only one time throughout all of scripture. And so, we can examine the entirety of the Bible’s commentary on tattooing within the space of a single article.
The Lone Reference
Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord – Leviticus 19:28
This lone verse from Leviticus is the only instance where scripture speaks directly to tattooing. And as we read, it is a plain and unambiguous prohibition against the practice. But like all scripture, we must examine it in its proper context in order to ascertain the complete meaning.
Even the casual observer will note that this verse comes from Leviticus, which contains a mix of moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. While God’s moral law is absolute and immutable, because of God’s unchanging nature, the Levitical ceremonial laws were implemented for a set period of time. The purpose of the ceremonial law was to set Israel apart as God’s chosen people in order to point the way to the coming Messiah, Jesus, who by His sacrifice on the cross completed and fulfilled the law.
So which portion of the law contains the prohibition against tattoos?
Leviticus 19 opens with a restating of many of the Ten Commandments. Then, in the section that begins in verse 19, the passage goes on to enumerate various prohibitions against practices that were common to the pagan people of the surrounding nations. And is in this portion of the law that we find a prohibition against tattooing.
Tattoos in the Ancient World
However, unlike modern tattooing practices, ancient cultures did not use tattoos as a medium of artistic expression. Instead, tattoos were used in certain pagan religious rituals. Ancient Egyptians, for example, were known to tattoo their women to encourage fertility.
The text of Leviticus 19:28 itself suggests that tattoos were used specifically as an act of mourning the dead. One neighboring culture, the Amorites, were known to practice ritual cutting for the dead, a practice which is specifically prohibited elsewhere in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 14:1, Jeremiah 16:6).
Similarly, Jeremiah records men shaving their beards as a sign of mourning, in addition to cutting themselves (vs 41:5, 47:5). A prohibition against cutting the beard is also found in Leviticus 19:27, immediately preceding the prohibition against tattoos.
And finally, 1 Kings 18:28 provides some details about how ritual cutting was carried out, saying “So they [the prophets of Baal] shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” The purpose of such cutting was to induce blood flow, which is quite different from the purpose of modern tattooing.
Why Purpose Matters
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God –
1 Corinthians 10:31
As Christians, we understand that we are made in God’s image for the purpose of praising, worshiping, and glorifying Him. And so in everything we do, we are called to glorify God. The above verse from Paul’s first letter to Corinth is taken from a well-known passage about Christian freedom. Even the things that are permissible under the law may not be beneficial if they do not honor God, or if they cause another to stumble into sin.
In this regard, we give special consideration to tattoos for two reasons. Tattoos have a lasting and permanent effect on the human body, so we must examine how they affect us as God’s image-bearers, and as His living temples.
Tattoos and God’s Image
Genesis 1:26 reminds us that humans are unique among God’s creation, as we are the only creature formed specifically in the image and likeness of God. For some individuals, as a matter of conscience, our creation in God’s image alone is a barrier to tattoos. And Christian freedom allows for such conviction of conscience.
Yet, to be created in God’s image and likeness has more to do with our sentient and eternal nature than with our physical appearance. Among all of God’s creatures, only humans are made of body, soul, and spirit. But this does not mean we dismiss our physical bodies. God’s original creation was good and perfect. And even though sin entered the world and corrupted all of creation, including our bodies, we still bear the image of God, albeit imperfectly.
Part of the faith journey is the process of sanctification, being conformed to and perfected in God’s image. Paradoxically, this process happens as our bodies age, deteriorate, and eventually die. But at the same time, sanctification only happens because, as Christians, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and Jesus lives in us. This is why the New Testament describes our bodies as temples.
God’s Living Temples
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own, – 1 Corinthians 6:19
In the ancient world, as well as in many parts of the modern world, temples served as earthly dwelling places for gods. Even the ancient Israelites constructed a temple, in which the priests could enter into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. When Jesus was crucified, the temple veil, which separated the people from God’s presence, was torn top to bottom. And so, through Jesus, all Christians have direct access to God.
So even though our bodies are subject to death, they are still God’s dwelling place while we live on this earth. And so Paul reminds the Corinthians, and us, to honor God with our bodies.
Paul speaks these instructions in the context of condemning sexual immorality, because our sexuality and how we use it is inextricably associated with our physical bodies, and our sexual practices have significant and lasting effects on our bodies.
In this manner, all things that affect the body must be considered in terms of their lasting and permanent effects. This is true of sexuality, our food intake, drug use, and yes, tattooing. Obviously, if a tattoo would risk harm or injury to the recipient through a skin disease or allergic reaction, it is wise to avoid the tattoo. But for most, the tattoo will have no lasting physical effect apart from altering the appearance of the affected area.
God Honoring Expressions
You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies –
1 Corinthians 6:20
Even if a tattoo is medically harmless, one must consider whether or not a tattoo honors God. Like any artistic expression, such as painting or music, tattoos can be used to communicate ideas and sentiments that are good or evil. So a Christian should avoid choosing a tattoo that promotes anti-Christian imagery, sexual objectification, or gratuitous violence.
Similarly, Christians should be mindful of the placement of tattoos. Tattoos that are meant to draw attention to certain areas of the body for the purposes of invoking lust or arousal do not honor God’s purpose for our bodies or our sexuality.
We must also consider the financial implication of tattoos. Depending on the size and complexity of the piece, some of them carry a significant price tag. God instructs us to be good stewards of our resources, and His word tells us that how our money will follow our hearts. So we must weigh the cost of our tattoos in light of our living expenses, our giving to the church, and our other financial responsibilities.
Though the Bible has little to say directly about tattoos, we still find a rich trove of applicable wisdom and instruction within its pages. So we discern the character of God and our relationship to Him as scripture guides us in His truth. And although God does not prohibit us from getting tattoos, we must consider, as we should in all circumstances, how our choices honor and serve Him.