In my first article on the subject, I looked at tattoos and the reasons to get (or not to get) them in a general sense. In this article I would like to drill down and talk specifically about Christians and tattoos.
It seems to me that there are two kinds of tattoos, broadly speaking, that a Christian might get. These would be, simply, those that are religious in nature, that a Christian might feel pertains to their faith, or those that fall outside this category. For those that would fall outside the religious category, please refer to my first article which speaks on the subject of getting tattoos in general. Then come back to find out about some ways Christians can think “Christianly” about the subject.
Historically speaking, religious tattoos have represented an outward and visible sign of a spiritual relationship with the object of worship. Many times the tattoos are meant as symbols of protection, to ward off evil spirits and the like, or to curry favor with a particular spirit or diety.
Of course, as Christians we understand that these things are not necessary. “The Lord knoweth them that are His” and we are “preserved in Jesus Christ” regardless of our possession of or lack of tattoos, religious in nature or not.
What do we say to the Christian who wants to get a religious tattoo? Since the Bible is our authority (as God’s word) that should be our first stop for information. What does the Bible have to say about tattoos? Relatively little, it turns out. Leviticus 19:28 says “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” There are other similar passages. Of course we know that this is a part of the Jewish Law, the Mosaic Covenant handed down by God to the people of Isreal. We understand that under the New Covenant we are not subject to that code of laws, in the sense that they were civilly enforced laws with legal ramifications if broken.
After all, today we eat shellfish and pork, which were both forbidden in the Mosaic Covenant. Does this give Christians the “green light” to get tattoos? Or should we try to look at the underlying principles behind the laws? In the same chapter, verse 14 tells us “Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind, but shall fear thy God: I am the Lord.” Is it okay to make fun of deaf people when they can’t hear you, or to trip blind people for fun? (I hope to go into this in more depth in a future article, but for now I will leave these questions open-ended.)
Does the Bible ever advocate altering your body as a sign of your fidelity to God? In fact it does. Abraham, and later the Jewish nation, was commanded to be circumcised as a symbol of their covenant with God. However, we see specifically in the New Testament what this signified exactly, and why we are no longer required to participate in the act of physical circumcision as religious commandment. By comparison, the nature of circumcision (unlike tattoos, in general) should ensure that only the parents, the individual, and the individual’s wife would ever know the individual was circumcised under normal circumstances.
It seems that if God were going to allow tattoos, an excellent opportunity to do so would have been in Deutoronomy chapter six: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)” However He does not. He tells us to post His commandments in prominent places, but he does not tell us to write them in our flesh.
In the New Testament, Christianity is taught as a change to the heart of an inward man, and not to the appearance. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus clearly teaches against making your offerings, prayer and fasting public events. We are also taught that we do not own our own bodies. “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1Co 6:19-20)” This also would seem to argue against Christians getting “religious” tattoos.
This principle was taught in the Old Testament as well. The whole purpose of the Mosaic Covenant was to separate Isreal as a peculiar people from the rest of the world, not by the way they looked, but by the way they acted. Some of the Biblical prophets were asked to behave in what might seem bizarre manners by God, but they weren’t asked to permanently alter their appearance. For instance, John the Baptist wore camel hair and ate insects. Ezekiel had to cook his food over dung. Elijah ate only food carried by ravens—nasty carrion birds. God has set us aside as a peculiar people: “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.” (Deu 14:2) and “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” (1Pe 2:9-10) Our peculiarity isn’t of ourselves, but is because we are chosen in God. It shouldn’t be manifest in our outward appearance, but in the way we follow God and his commandments.
If your purpose in getting a tattoo that is religious in nature is to draw the attention of others, what are you really communicating? In essence you are inviting others to look closely at your body in order to discern whatever message it is you are trying to convey. Is this how the Biblical saints carried out their faith? What is the Biblical precedent for this type of behavior? Are we, as Christians, supposed to call attention to ourselves, or are we supposed to point others to Christ? In addition, as we discussed in the previous article, whether right or wrong people judge others based on appearance. Is it possible to damage your Christian witness by getting tattoos? Even if there do not seem to be hard and fast answers to these questions, is it worth the risk to get tattoos?
Finally, how is it that you want to be perceived by your peers inside and outside the church? Do you want to be considered “cool” by them, or serious, thoughtful and virtuous? How will a tattoo help you to be perceived the way you want to be perceived?
To close, a note to those who may disagree with my tone, those who already have tattoos, and/or those who think I am displaying a “holier than thou” attitude. I am only trying to introduce ways of thinking about the matter, and especially trying to get straight in my own mind what I think about this particular subject, since it seems to be becoming more and more prevalent. My advice to any Christian seeking to get a tattoo is to search out these things in God’s word for yourself, and to seek counsel from those in the church whom you respect.
I have made many mistakes myself, and admittedly some more serious than getting a tattoo that I might regret getting later. The tattoo represents a physical mark on your skin that can be erased with personal monetary expense, but some of my mistakes have hurt others who I care about deeply, and imprinted my soul with indelible blots that I must continually remind myself can only be washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ.
I’d love to discuss these things with you. Any questions and comments that are in line with this page’s Commenting Policy will be published and responded to (to the best of my ability).
For more information on how I keep my worldview informed please go to Cross Roads Church.
This is a follow up post to Tattoos: Why? (Part One)
(09–7-14 edit) For further reading – Is Getting a Tattoo a Sin?