We live in an age where tattoos are more popular than they probably ever have been. Once reserved for sailors who got them to mark the ports where their ships docked, or to show the love of a girl left behind by a soldier off to war, perhaps to show loyalty to a gang one had been initiated into, the days of “inking” ones body are now so prevalent that in the city where this writer lives, with a population of roughly 93,000 people, we have at this writing, over twenty advertised tattoo shops.
Before I go any further in this discussion, I must disclose that in 1981, at the age of 19, I, too, got a tattoo on my left bicep. Interestingly, I got it there so that, in the event that I wanted it covered by a shirt sleeve, it would not show. This has been very convenient in my professional life. However, the question still remains, is there truly anything sinful about a Christian getting a tattoo. First, in exploring this question, I am assuming that the tattoo is not an image or wording that is obscene or offensive, or in any way brings disgrace to our Lord. I have seen many Christians, both men, and women, with tattoos, and I am not the first one in ministry positions with one. In fact, at least one Senior Pastor of a local church has multiple tats on both of his arms. Some people would argue that so-called “Tattoo Testimonies” are actually good. These would be tattoos depicting Scripture verses or Biblical scenes.
With all that said, what, if anything, does that Bible actually say about the subject? Do we have any record of tattooing even mentioned in Scripture? After all, we make decisions about what God would have us do regarding the use of technology such as computers, viewing of movies, use of various on-line entertainment options and such when there is obviously no direct Scriptural reference to them, so what do we use as a benchmark in cases like this? Quite simply, we must look to the living Word itself and realize that God spoke the commandments of the Law, the instructions to His people, and the words of the Scripture, both Old and New Testaments in ways that they would not only apply to the saints who lived during the 1500 years it took to write them, but for however many years it would be until the return of Jesus Christ for His people.
Let us now use this method of inspection of God’s Word to examine our question. First, the only mention in the Bible that can even remotely refer to tattoos that this author can find, or that I have ever heard of anyone else finding, is Leviticus 19:28, which reads, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you:I am the Lord.” Several things must be considered at this point, the least of which may be, as I mentioned, that this is the only mention of anything that may be tattooing made in the Bible. Furthermore, archeologist and other researchers note that the Israelites had been captive in Egypt at a time when it was not uncommon for slaves to sometimes be marked by their masters with cuts or marks to show ownership. These marks were sometimes more like hot iron brandings. In some cases, although it appears it was only with females, tattooing was also used. Cutting was also used by these and other pagans as a way of showing devotion and sacrifice to their gods. It is most likely because of this context that the apostle makes this statement. Another thing we must remember is a standard for studying the Bible that I not only learned at Salt Lake Bible College but have heard countless other times. That is to never form doctrine based on one verse of Scripture alone. Read the text before and after. Then, look for the first reference to the subject and the last, or at least an earlier and later. I prefer to do all of the above, and when possible, reference both Old and New Testament sources. This falls apart to some extent here because, as I already mentioned, tattooing is not mentioned elsewhere. However, when we look at other similar references about how to care for a person’s body and personal appearance, let’s see what we find. In I Timothy, Paul is writing Timothy, a man much younger than he, with instructions for general behavior and expectations in the churches now in his charge. Here we read, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; 10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.” I Timothy 2:9-10. Furthermore, Peter makes a similar statement in I Peter 3:3-4,”Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; 4 But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.” Some have taken this so literally as to believe that women are to wear no make-up, not braids or dress up their hair with any adornments, and dress plainly almost to the point of being boring. In fact, as is seen when we compare this to Paul’s writings to the church in Corinth, the warning was in order to keep people from putting so much emphasis on physical appearances that Sunday morning worship was more of a fashion show and “Keeping up with the Jones” than it was worshiping God. I point this out because it is the closest thing to an example of a Biblical statement or instruction not to do something which is not, in my opinion, as literal a commandment as some would take it without further examination.
So, what then, is my stance on Christians getting tattoos? To this point, I seem to have done everything but answer that question. In fact, I was asked that very question several years ago when I was teaching a Bible study class at another church. I got a call at home from a student, who had a tattoo himself and knew that I had one, but was concerned because his daughter wanted to get one, and wanted to know what the Bible said about it. Now, without further ado, I will tell you what I told him. One thing we must remember as Christian above anything else is that we are giving testimony in everything we do and say. We are giving it also in the way we look. This is part of what was being addressed in the text we read earlier about women dressing “modestly”. It can also include the places we frequent and what we do when we are there. Paul, realizing that eating meat sacrificed to idols was not sinful, was trying to teach this to the people in the new churches, but many new Christians who had once viewed this sacrificial meat as sacred and powerful had a hard time coming to grips with it. For this reason, he made this statement in I Corinthians 8:13, “13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” The same can be said about other activities we, as Christians may see nothing wrong with, (assuming that they truly are not sinful), but that make other Christians uncomfortable, or harm our testimony to the unsaved who may otherwise be won to Christ. If I think that getting a tattoo will weaken my testimony when I try to talk to others about Christ, particularly that family member who has been a skeptic, or perhaps that person who has been particularly critical of every Christian, is this going to help or hinder my testimony? One more question to ask is does this bring glory to God? After all, this should be the question in the forefront of our minds with everything we do. Paul reminds us of this quite clearly in I Corinthians 10:31, when he says, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”. If you can honestly say that the tattoo that has a Bible verse is bringing glory go God and not just getting you compliments, or that the picture of a rose, your wife’s name, or whatever you may feel that it is fine. However, may I suggest to you the same thing I would regarding any decision a Christian brother or sister asks about. Pray about it first. Ask God what His will is for you. Get Godly counsel from someone you trust, ( my counsel here should not be considered sufficient, and by no means, do not leave out praying).
Many decisions we make in life are not as cut and dry as we hope they would be. We don’t live in a black and white world, and even the Bible doesn’t give black and white answers to everything at first glance. This is in part because situations are different for each of us. The answer for everything from career choices, decisions to marry, how and where to spend the money God gives us, are all things that we must go to Him about in prayer. Don’t neglect something like this either, just because you don’t think it is important. You are important in God’s plan, and so are your decisions.
Serving Him Through Serving Others,
Reverend James M. Dakis, D. Min