A short while back, I got an email from a young woman at our church who was confused over whether or not it’s sinful to get/have a tattoo. Thinking it may not be appropriate for Christians to get tattoos, she referenced Leviticus 19:28, which says: “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.”
How would you have answered her? Is it wrong for Christians today to have tattoos?
What Matters Most
In tackling the question, it should first be understood that Scripture makes it clear what God cares most about: the ‘inside’ of a person rather than just what’s on the outside. Jesus said, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:20-23).
In another gospel episode, Jesus chastises the Pharisees, who were all about keeping a pristine outside public appearance, this way: “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you” (Luke 11:39–41).
The examples of this principle are legion in Scripture, so suffice it to say that God is clear in His Word: the priority is to get your heart right before Him and everything else will follow in good fashion.
But that said – does such a truth mean that the external characteristics of a Christian don’t matter to God? Let’s delve a little deeper into the Old Testament passage I was sent to see if there’s not more to it than meets the eye.
Making Heads or Tails of Old Testament Commands
To begin, the Leviticus passage containing the command about tattoos is, as a whole, addressing Israel’s behavior within the purview of the pagan nations around them. Note that the present day Church is also present within a pagan world that rejects the true God.
There are a number of seemingly odd verses in this passage, including verse 19 that says: “You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.”
Wait a minute… Does God really care about things like wool/polyester blends?
Not at all. Instead, many of the commands in this passage should be understood in this way: God is giving Israel physical reminders at that time about spiritual truths that still carry forward to us today as modern day believers.
For example, in verse 19, He’s telling Israel that a garment made of a singular material is a reminder for them that there is one God, not many, and not to take the pure, singular faith given to them by God and mix it together with the pagan religions that were around them. One fabric, one unpolluted faith, one true God.
Now, we in the Church may not wear garments of a single fabric, but are we commanded by God not to incorporate the beliefs and practices of other religions (a philosophy called Pluralism) into Christianity? You bet we are (cf. Rom. 4, Galatians, Jude, etc.) So while the physical reminder given to Israel may not carry forward to us today, the spiritual principle behind it certainly does.
Now – on to tattoos; why do we see the prohibition on tattoos in Leviticus?
One of the physical characteristics of the pagan communities around Israel was that they marked themselves with tattoos and engaged in physical, religiously-motivated superstitious practices that included the disfigurement of their bodies. For example, when Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, they “cut themselves according to their custom” when their false god didn’t respond to their requests (1 Kings 18:28).
In forbidding tattoos, God was telling Israel He did not want them to personally possess any physical marks or characteristics that externally resembled the pagan nations. Such a thing would link them visibly to the false religious practices and immoral behaviors of those nations, which ran contrary to God’s standards.
What’s the spiritual principle that carries forward to us today? In short, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2) in any way. One way Christians adhere to this mandate is to not externally identify themselves with any visible ‘marks’ that would link them to the world, its false religions, and immoral behavior.
The question is, does getting a tattoo today violate this spiritual principle?
Let’s look at another application of this command, which I think helps answer the question. Today, no Christian would say it’s wrong for women to wear pantyhose. However, the history of pantyhose usage can be traced back to prostitutes in Italy hundreds of years ago. It was one of their externally identifying ‘marks’ that told others who they were and what they practiced.
Now, if an Italian pastor back then asked the ladies of his congregation to not wear pantyhose, it would be because he didn’t want them externally identified with prostitution and thus mistakenly link them and the Church to a segment of society that practiced gross immorality. In other words, those in the Church should not reflect the world system that opposes God.
The fact is, God calls His people to be separate from the world, and this includes how we live and conduct ourselves from an external facing standpoint. One reason for this is that what’s on the outside can oftentimes represent what’s on the inside.
So the spiritual principles found in Leviticus 19 still applies to us today. We as Christians are to be in the world, but not of the world. Just as a boat is fine when it is in the water, but sinks when it becomes “of” the water, so a Christian is to live in the world but not become a part of the world. This includes various identifying ‘marks’ of the world that go beyond mere physical imprints on the body.
Some will try to argue that a Christian’s tattoo can serve as a witnessing tool or help bridge some kind of gap between them and non-Christians. Such thinking is admirable, but actually it is the promotion of the pragmatism philosophy, which says if something seems to “work”, then it must be right and moral. Using that philosophy, the adherents to the Children of God cult could argue that their “flirty fishing” is moral because their supposed aim is to make new Christians.
It is interesting that the chapter in Leviticus starts off by saying in verse 2: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” “Holy” means being separate, set apart, and refers in Scripture to a separation from sin and the world. This includes giving ourselves to God in every way, including what we do with our bodies: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
When it comes to tattoos, Christians need to ask themselves if – today – tattoos have become as benign as pantyhose or if they still represent some subculture(s) whose beliefs and moral practices run contrary to God’s Word. Because the matter is not cut-and-dried, the four overarching Biblical principles to consider are (1) to honor God with our bodies (see above verse); (2) avoid even the appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:22); (3) not participate in anything that weakens or causes other Christians to stumble (1 Cor. 10:23-33); (4) the freedom we have in Christ as described in Romans 14-15.
Also, a person should ask themselves the questions, "Why am I really doing this? With what am I trying to identify?"
If the end of prayerfully thinking through these things causes hesitation on the part of the Christian, the prudent stance from a Christian perspective would be to avoid tattoos. If, on the other hand, the thought process moves in the opposite direction, then we have freedom in Christ to participate in things that are not directly and explicitly condemned in Scripture.