Tattoos

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on November 9, 2007 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A visitor to our website writes:

Question: Is it biblical for a Christian to get a tattoo?

Dear friend,

The Bible does have something to say about tattoos. But what it says about them directly is in the context of practices associated with paganism. Leviticus 19:26-28 includes it in a list of paganistic practices that were forbidden to the Israelites when it says, “‘You shall not eat anything with the blood, nor shall you practice divination or soothsaying. You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.’” A similar prohibition was given to the priests, primarily with regard to how they engaged in mourning; “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: “None shall defile himself for the dead among his people, except for his relatives who are nearest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also his virgin sister who is near to him, who has had no husband, for her he may defile himself. Otherwise he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself. They shall not make any bald place on their heads, nor shall they shave the edges of their beards nor make any cuttings in their flesh. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy”‘” (Leviticus 21:1-6; see also Deuteronomy 14:1).

There were certain practices–common to the paganistic peoples of the land of Caanan–that the people of Israel were to¬†abstain from; and tattooing and making marks and cuts on the body were among them. That does leave us with some questions about tattooing as it is understood in our modern culture; because they aren’t really a part of a paganistic religious ritual (at least, not very often). In fact, I’ve noticed that views about tattooing have changed in our culture quite a bit from what they were twenty or thirty years ago. It has become much more common; and is a far more accepted aspect of culture. (I understand, for example, that each cast member of the Lord of The Rings trio of films got a LOR tattoo when the filming was over, as a way of commemorating their involvement.)

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When it comes to tattoos as they are understood in our culture today, I don’t think that it can be argued biblically that it is a sin in and of itself to have one. But it still may not be a good and wise thing to do. “All things are lawful for me,” Paul writes; “but all things are not helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12). A few things come to mind in considering whether or not it is right for a Christian to get a tattoo.

First, we should remember that we are to have a certain kind of regard for–and even reverence toward–our bodies as believers. We are reminded in the Bible that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit; and that we are not our own any longer (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our bodies are the instruments through which we are to glorify God (v. 20). A tattoo that contains images or words that contradict the principle of the sacredness of our bodies as the dwelling place of Jesus Christ, or that in some way celebrates sin, would most certainly be wrong to wear. That would be like spray-painting obscene graffiti on God’s sacred temple.

There may also be, for some, a ‘vanity’ issue in all of this. A tattoo may be an expression of an inordinate emphasis on the body–not as a temple of God by which we bring Him glory; but rather in an effort to advertise our bodies and call undue and improper attention to them–using our bodies to bring glory to ourselves. Paul warned, for example, that women were to adorn themselves in a modest manner; “not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for womem professing godliness, with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9-10). Please understand; I don’t take that to mean that it is wrong for women to wear jewelry or have their hair done. Rather, I think that the principle is what’s important–that is, to express a godly modesty with our bodies. A tattoo, for either men or for women, may violate the spirit of that principle–particularly if it is worn in order to draw attention to the body; and especially to draw attention to parts of the body that it’s not very modest to draw attention to.

And along with this is just the practical problem of the permanency of a tattoo. I have heard of lots of people later in life regretting that they have a tattoo; but I don’t ever remember hearing anyone laying on their death-bed bemoaning the fact that they NEVER got one.

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Now; all of that being said, I have a couple of believing friends–very strong and vocal Christians–who have tattoos. One has a portrait of Christ on one arm with a Bible verse that testifies of his faith in Jesus; and on the other arm is a crown of thorns to remind him that he is crucified with Christ. Another friend has the traditional symbol for the Trinity tattooed on the back of his neck as an expression of his faith. I find it hard to argue with tattoos like that. (But I also know a man who’s in ministry; and he has a tattoo on his forearm that he got before he became a Christian. It has a picture of the devil with the words, “Raise Some Hell!” I’m sure that he wishes that he ever got it . . . although it’s quite a conversation-starter in some witnessing situations!)

Here’s a good guiding principle to follow: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). A tattoo can be like what Jesus said about words–they come out of from what’s in the heart (Matthew 15:18-20). On that principle, we should make sure that (1) what’s in the heart is right, and that (2) what’s on the body is an expression of what’s in the heart, and that (3) that expression is to the glory of God.

Blessings,
Pastor Greg

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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