So one of the things that’s never foremost in my mind, but never far from it is the issue of tattooing. Tattoos and the Bible is a funny issue to deal with. People take a variety of hermeneutical routes and end up in opposing stances. So what’s the Christian to do about it? How should we understand tattoos? Is it ok for Christians to get tattoos?
Well, first, here’s the sum total of the Biblical content regarding tattoos, Leviticus 19.28 (NASB):
You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.
That’s it. That’s all we have to go on. At first glance though, it seems straightforward. It says don’t do it. Many simply accept that. For instance, check out this from the Dial-the-truth ministries (these guys a bit laughable at times in their fundamentalism, and I use them as an example of the literalistic reading in the extreme).
So there’s two things that need to be questioned; Is this an Old Covenant command that doesn’t relate to the New Covenant and what is the context and fullness of the command. As with much of the bible we have have walk in a careful and disciplined methodology of interpreting. It’s easy to miss the point sometimes when we read without really understanding.
First, I have to admit I struggle with the tension of Old vs New. We all should. Jesus says he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill. So what does it mean if the law is fulfilled? It isn’t gone, clearly. But Paul tells us we live by grace, not law. So we are in a sticky wicket as they say in some parts. We have to tread lightly when we make an absolute either way. The law is still there. But we live in the freedom of God’s grace.
With so many biblical commands, we have to get at context and proper application. We seldom apply all commands equally. The same folks who proclaim that the tattoo command still applies properly violate other commands unquestioningly. Can the Christian wear poly-cotton blends (see Deut. 22:11)? Eat shellfish (Lev. 11:9-10)? Etc. We get bent out of shape regarding some commands, while others fall by the wayside. That’s the funny thing about legalists; they are often inconsistent in their application. Can we pick and choose?
Well, the bigger issue for me is context. If we isolate this statement it looks clear cut. But it is part of a broader context, a specific set of commands. I would suggest 26-28 should all be read together, as practices which are lumped together for a reason.
26 ‘You shall not eat anything with the blood, nor practice divination or soothsaying. 27 You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.
So what’s happening here? These practices which make up this paragraph include forbidding: eating blood, divination & soothsaying, shaving rounded off portions of the head, trimming edges of the beard, cutting for the dead, and tattoos. Martin Noth lumps these practices together as “all kinds of idolatrous and superstitious practices, loosely strung together in a series of separate ordinances” (Leviticus [OTL]. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965, 143). In other words, this group of practices are all connected to pagan worship. Keil and Delitzsch outline some of the historical references to these practices, connected to various pagan tribes, largely coming from Arabian tribes (Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. II, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968, 423-426).
In other words, what God is forbidding is the mimicking of pagan rituals. The problem isn’t in the act itself, but in the worldview which birthed it. Our world is very different from that of Ancient Israel. We are not surrounded by ancient Canaanite and Pagan Semitic tribes who practice human sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and various other weird and destructive behaviours. We have our own set of weird and destructive behaviours in our society. We have to understand that just as God was calling Israel to look different from the unholy other, so too should we. We can’t simply say, “God said it, and so we follow”. God gave the commands for a reason, not just an arbitrary selection of right and wrong behaviours with no basis on which to forbid it. God does’t say “thou shalt not…” just because.
So where does this leave tattooing specifically? Well, we preach that Christ is redeemer. Can he redeem things formerly outside of his design for holiness? I would argue yes. Not because he is contradicting a law he once spoke, but because his command was a response to the world as it was when he said it. It is possible, that tattooing would fall in there. However, before we all run off accusing Pastor Graham of saying anything goes, I need to say that Paul has instructed us that:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. (1 Cor.10:23)
If we claim freedom to do whatever we want we are abusing grace. We are restrained by the character God is attempting to form in us. We are to be formed by Christ’s character and priorities. We are called to reject things which do not line up with the Kingdom. We are to reject practices of a corrupted world. Tattooing in North America is partially stripped of its connections to Pagan rituals (many would see tattoos as spiritually neutral, but in some circles the practice is very much loaded with spiritual significance). And in some cultures outside our own, the practice of tattooing is very much a spiritual thing (take for example the tribalism of some Polynesian peoples, or the Far Eastern tattooing cultures). So we have to be so careful. Tattoos are permanent, and your context may change, making that tattoo and offense to the people around you.
Paul’s advice to watch one another and ensure that our exercise of freedom does not cause others to stumble is vital here. I have no tattoos. If I did, in some contexts it would be very controversial (Pastors are held to a different standard in many cases). I love art though. I must confess I enjoy checking out tattoos on others and have even considered getting “inked” (Shocking confession in a Baptist circle, I know). I know many godly men and women (some of whom are even clergy!) who have awesome looking tattoos (often made up of a biblical word or image). Once upon a time I had piercings. I removed them when I was heading to Brasil, because in Brasilian churches, men with piercings was a problem. By the time I got back, reinserting the earrings would have been a problem. So, I left it alone. We could say, “Oh, if they’re offended by my tattoo/piercing, that’s their problem” But it isn’t. That response is a sign of western individualism. Our actions make an impact on others. Paul tells us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). If my choices will cause problems in the fellowship than I should be conscientious enough to watch for those problem areas.
So, can Christians get tattoos? What if we stick to the ICTHUS or crosses or other Christian symbols? Well, I won’t come down in a definitive way. I won’t say Christians should never do it. But I won’t say go ahead. Think long and hard about it. As with all big decisions (a permanent mark on your body is a big decision) the worst thing to do is over simplify. Wrestle with decisions. It’s good to have tension- tension means you’re actually processing different facets. It means you’re thoroughly engaged and paying attention and committed to doing what’s best. Going through life without struggling often means you’re taking the easy route. The big question is, what does this say about my body? Are you presenting it as a canvass to be used for God’s beauty? Will those around you see it the same way? Remember that you were bought for a price. Your body is not really yours anyway. Your life is meant to point back to Jesus.