The Ancient Faith
Question: Is it a sin for a Christian to get a tattoo?
Answer: In Leviticus 19:28 we read ‘Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” Again in Chapter 2 15-6 “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh. They shall be holy unto their God and not profane the name of their God: for the offerings of the Lord made by fire, and the bread of their God they do offer: therefore they shall be holy.”
Deut. 14:1 is a repeat of the same prohibition. In these passages the writer deals with the behavior of the priest and the people when mourning for the dead. It was the custom of some (especially in the East) to make cuts and incisions in their bodies while in a state of mourning.
Ellicott comments regarding the making of marks on the body:
“This, according to the ancient authorities, was effected by making punctures in the skin to impress certain figures or words, and then filling the cut places with stibium, ink, or some other color. The practice of tattooing prevailed among all nations of antiquity, both among savages and civilized nations.”
Such a practice, however, was forbidden among the Israelites because their body was created by God, and it was believed that because of this nothing should be done to disfigure that which bore the image of God (Ellicott).
One thing is certain, God wanted them to be holy and different. He did not want them participating in the practices of pagan and unbelieving peoples in this regard. Clarke points out that “it was a very ancient and very general custom to carry marks on the body in honor of the object of their worship.” He continues: “Most of the barbarous nations lately discovered have their faces, arms, breasts, etc. curiously carved or tattooed, probably for superstitious purposes.”
The Pulpit Commentary adds: “to print any marks upon you, that is, tattoo themselves in memory of the dead. All these customs were unbecoming the dignity of God’s people, and had been connected with idolatrous practices.”
To summarize: God did not want his people indulging in the practice of pagans. Some of the practices included cutting, shaving, and tattooing themselves. The reasons for the prohibition included (1) they were the people of God, they were holy, (2) they were not to disfigure the body, which was created by God, and (3) they were to be different from the nations about them.
The New Testament does not directly address the subject of our discussion. There is no scripture that says “thou shalt not get a tattoo,” or, “thou shalt tattoo thy body” [. . .] That does not mean, however, that such a practice is good, warranted, or always right. The question is much broader than that and must be considered in the light of sound judgment guided and regulated by principles revealed in the Bible. To this end, we offer the following considerations:
(1) Our body was created and given us by God. For this reason we need to be careful how we treat it and use it. To place upon it marks or messages that are unbecoming a child of God would be wrong.
(2) Tattooing is the “in” thing to do today. The movie stars, sports figures etc. who participate in this practice often do so by tattooing unmentionable parts of their bodies, and then invariably mention them by displaying their marks for all to see. For a Christian to be influenced by such a practice is unfortunate to say the least. Some of the messages and figures I see tattooed on bodies today are shameful and no child of the King would ever wear or display such marks.
(3) Every Christian should continually be aware of what and who is influencing them. Young people should ask themselves: “Am I following the world, or Christ, am I being influenced by principles of right or by the popular worldly people of this generation?”
(4) I am a Christian. I am different. Just as the Israelites were the “holy people of God” so are we today, His “holy nation”, “peculiar people”, “chosen generation”, if we look like, dress like, and behave like everyone in the world, where is the difference?
(5) Another consideration for young and old alike is that once you get a tattoo, it is likely to be there for life. Success in removing one is not very good. Do you want to make a mark on your body that you cannot remove? Are you willing to go through life, bearing that particular word or picture? Something to think about.
(6) Finally, parents should teach their children that as God’s people we are not of this world (James 4:4; 1 Jno.2: 15-17; Rom. 12: 1-2) hence, we should do nothing that would prostitute our holy calling for some symbol of a sinful and changing world.
[This is an from The Querist Column, June 1996 issue of the OPA]
TATTOOS ARE NOT SIMPLY A FORM OF BODY ART
As was noted in Bro. Wade’s article above, in ancient times tattooing was linked to pagan religious rituals (Leviticus 19:28). Men and women would tattoo their body with the signs of their false deities.
Although in today’s popular ideology the association with idolatry has faded, this practice of pagan roots still carries impious connotations. It is not simply a permanent form of body art. As one worldly writer declares, “Tattoos are blatant statements of someone’s soul and state of mind” (Gigi Engle). For Engle, the tattooed man conveys the image of the rebellious “bad boy” who, even if he has reformed, is still a bit subversive.
In regard to tattooed women, the psychologist Wendy Patrick, who cites various scientific investigations, concludes tattoos on the female body generally leaves the impression that she is more open to having sex.
This differs from the image that God wishes His sons and daughters to possess. God desires us to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:28). Who could imagine Christ with a tattoo that says “mother”?
What virtuous woman would want to mark her body in such a way that she would attract a worldly man who simply wants to conquer her? (Titus 2:5; 1 P. 3:1,2). What man of God would seek to leave the impression of being rebellious? None, since God wants all his children to exude the spirit of meekness (1 Timothy 6:11).
Tattoos convey a message, and it is not a “Christian” one. Hence the New Testament is not silent on this subject. In 1 Thessalonians 5:22, we are commanded to hold ourselves aloof from every sort, form, fashion and shape of evil. Rebellion takes many shapes and forms, and any act that dims our light or causes others to see us as rebellious or sexually open should be shunned (Matthew 5:16).
As Philippians 2:15 commands “that ye be blameless”, which by definition means “that you give no occasion to others to accuse you of wrongdoing” (Albert Barnes). Alford in His Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary defines it as “unblamed and unblameable”. By living “free from censure” (Robertson’s New Testament Pictures), we “shine as lights” in the “midst of a crooked and perverse nation” (Phil.2:15). Even many outsiders recognize tattoos as a mark of a defiance and rebellion and thus a contradiction of the submissive and holy spirit we profess. Frequently sinners who have converted to Christ seek to have their tattoo removed because they grow weary of explaining that it is a remnant of the “old man” that once lived in insubordination to God. Do tattoos radiate the internal beauty of holiness and meekness? Far from being outward adornments which convey submissiveness and respect for God, “tattoos still have a lingering connotation of rebellion and marginalization” (Dalrymple).1
WHAT ABOUT “RELIGIOUS” TATTOOS?
Even certain phrases from the Bible branded on the body serve not to bring glory to God, but actually focus the attention upon the person with the tattoo (1 Co.10:31). The branding of a “Christian” slogan, a Bible phrase or a religious image such as a cross on the body hearken back to the pagan practice of marking one’s body with the tattoo of his/her god. Today these “religious tattoos” often lead the bearers of them to falsely imagine that they are “honoring God” or carrying Him with them as some sort of spiritual identification or protective charm.
Others have claimed that tattoos serve as an evangelistic tool, and that they are trying to reach tattooed gang members and other worldly people with a spiritual message (1 Cor.9:22,23). However, changing our appearance to be more like the world is not a scriptural or successful way of reaching the world. “Christianized heathenism” will never produce faithful children of God. If such were an effective device in evangelism, would not Jesus and the apostles, and faithful preachers though out the centuries have inked themselves?
Lastly, even if tattoos were “permissible”, no mature Christian with a spiritual mindset could ever answer the question “Would they be beneficial and constructive?” in the affirmative (1 Cor.10:23). The believer who anxiously desires a tattoo displays a carnal frame of mind which relishes the things of the flesh. Romans 8:5 states, “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.”
I encourage you to also read the study entitled “Spiritual Discernment” which lists several general New Testament principles which the mature Christian takes into consideration and governs himself/herself by in order to be pleasing to the Lord.
- In this article, Dalrymple speaks of the stigma which tattoos carry with them. “The association in our societies between crime and tattoos has been long recognized: doctor, anthropologist, and criminologist, Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909) wrote about it. . . .A tattoo allows you to rebel and conform at the same time, eat your cake and have it too. The names of tattoo parlors – Evil in the Needle, for example, or Revolution Ink – often reveal a kind of antinomianism which does not quite have the courage of its lack of convictions.”
Alford, Henry. “Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:22”. Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary (1863-1878).
Barnes, Albert. “Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:22”. Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible (1870).
Dalrymple, Theodore, M.D. “Tattoos: Rebellion or Conformity?” Psychology Today. May 16, 2015.
Engle, Gigi. “24 Completely Logical Reasons Why You Should Date A Man With Tattoos.” Elite Dailey, Jan. 21, 2015.
Patrick, Wendy L. JD, Ph.D., “What People Really Think About Women With Tattoos.” Psychology Today, April 8, 2018.
Robertson, A.T. “Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:22”. Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament. Broadman Press 1932,33.