What Does God Think About Tattoos?

Interesting question. We have to deal with this question on two levels: what does the Bible say about tattoos, and how does this translate into our culture today? The only passage in Scripture that deals directly with marking the body is Lev 19:28. The literalist reading of Lev 19:28 (the only verse in Scripture that has ever been addressed anything translated to “tattoo”) would likely lead most readers to say that God is anti-tatty. The idea driving it, however, speaks to some other practices that carry over to our culture today. First, the context of 19:26-28, which is found within the larger Holiness Codes of Leviticus, deals with how the body is to be used (or not used) in relationship to occult practices, with the goal being to be set apart among the nations as YHWH’s people: 
 

Verse 26– don’t eat meat with the blood still in it (a sacrificial practice of neighboring cultures who would soak the meat in blood before sacrificing to other deities), and don’t interpret omens or tell fortunes (again, a huge practice in neighboring cultures). 

Verse 27– Do not round off your hair or mar the edges of your beard (hair and beard cuts often showed religious or political office or affiliation).

Verse 28– Do not cut your body for the dead or mark yourself. Again, the context here is highly occultic. Cutting and marking the body (here, it is ambiguous as to whether this means tattooing or painting or staining the body. This is the only use of this word in the OT) were regular practices specifically in the Baal cults, and were often done to remember, mourn, or even ward off or commune with the dead. 

In this context then, the aim of these charges is two-fold: be God’s holy people through what you do with your body, and do not participate in the occultic patterns we see in neighboring cultures. 

Yet one could argue that tattoos today have little to do with occultic practices, and that depending on what you have tattooed, they could actually set you apart as one of God’s holy people. So what now? What do I do with my unicorn-jumping-a-rainbow lower back tat? Or my cool in-Hebrew-Scripture-armband tattoo? (neither do I have personally- I am speaking for the reader…ah, you probably got that). Is it really a sin if it has nothing to do with occultic materials? Leviticus also says not to eat shrimp and for women who are experiencing their time of the month to stay outside the camp for days until they are pure again. How do we handle Leviticus (and other OT regulations) as New Testament people?

I’m so glad you asked. 

In the NT, there are three great indicators that help us discern what to do with OT law in today’s time:

First, we must ask what did Jesus say about it? If you read through the gospels, you’ll see Jesus does one of three things with OT Law: He reiterates it (e.g. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength and love your neighbor as your self), He intensifies it (Matt 5- adultery is more than physical; it is about what we intend in our hearts), or He reinterprets it (e.g. the Sabbath). If Jesus talks about it, we’re going to go with Jesus’ take on it. 

Second, what did the early church in Scripture do with it? First, they followed Jesus’ lead. Second, they saw the law through the reconciling work of Jesus. For instance, they recognized the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish people, and some of the covenantal and Levitical laws were reinterpreted through that lens (e.g. circumcision not required for Gentiles in Gal 2 or issues of animals being clean and unclean in Acts 10). 

In some cases, like tattoos, we’ll find that Jesus didn’t really say anything about them, and that the early church didn’t either. What then? 

Third, we must take the whole counsel of Scripture into account. Remember, our actions  stem from our heart, our situations, and our choices, and Scripture has a lot to say about all those things. With tattoos, I’d ask these questions of myself:

  1. What does the witness of the Holy Spirit tell you about this choice? (John 14:26)
  2. What does it mean to honor God with my body? Or that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? (Col 3:17, 1 Cor 6:19-20)
  3. This tattoo may be permissible Scripturally. Is it beneficial? To my heart? To my witness? To my relationships? To my ministry?  (1 Cor 6:12)
  4. What is driving my desire to have a tattoo? Is there any rebellion, anger, or any other negative emotion that fuels this desire? If so, how do I deal with this biblically?
  5. Does getting a tattoo dishonor or cause issues between myself and anyone in my life? Especially your parents and/or spouse/future spouse?
  6. Am I passing judgement on someone else based on how I use my freedom in Christ? Either by choosing or not choosing to get a tattoo?
  7. Is my decision based on faith? Will it lead to the glory of God? 

With that, may God give you wisdom in your choice. And remember, if you have a tattoo already, not to let this discussion drag you down or cause you guilt or shame. This is a non-essential issue to the faith, and we should strive to be gracious to everyone on this, no matter where your convictions lie. 

 

(Answer Provided By Drew Causey)

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