Tattoo or not tattoo?
With permission to share, below is a question about tattoos from some college students, followed by my reply.
Hey Brother Bob! I wanted to get your opinion. We were discussing whether or not it is a sin to get a tattoo. One of the verses brought up was about keeping your body holy and the thought process was that any permanent markings (piercing of any kind, tattoos, etc) was making the temple unholy. Another thought process put on the table was that tattoos were ok except memorial tattoos because that is specifically what Leviticus said the pagans did to mourn their dead and we shouldn’t do that. Another thought was even Christian tattoos (i.e. crosses, Jesus fishes, etc) weren’t cool because its too much like trying to be like the world. The other thought was that as long as it was easily coverable (so as not to offend and turn off the lost), you didn’t do it because everyone else was or it became an obsession and it was something you really thought about and talked to God about, it was ok. Lastly, the thought that it was just like picking out clothes, not that big of a deal and no need to even consult Scripture… I just wanted to ask you how Scripture spoke to this issue…
On the subject of tattoos, I would basically agree with the second view, that “memorial tattoos” violate Leviticus 19:28: “‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”
We have to be careful about projecting our cultural viewpoint on this issue, and make sure that we are following scripture, not tradition. The views that permanent markings make the temple of your body unholy, or that it is too much like trying to be like the world, are viewpoints that make an assumption that all tattoos are unholy and worldly. What evidence is there that all tattoos are unholy and worldly, other than tradition and personal preference? Similarly, some would point to Leviticus 19:28 and say the Bible says not to put tattoo marks on yourselves, but if you read the context, it is referring to tattoo markings as a memorial to the dead in pagan practice, just as you mentioned in your email. If someone insisted on a blanket ban on all tattoos based on Leviticus 19:28, to be consistent he would also have to ban all haircuts based on the previous verse, which says “do not cut off the hair at the sides of your head…” Without looking at the background, one might assume this forbids haircuts, but from Leviticus 21:5, 1 Kings 18:28 we can determine that this was a pagan practice, and the concern was to avoid a pagan practice.
Most people would agree that haircuts are permitted, but if there was a haircut commonly done to worship some false god, then we should avoid that. For example, Christians in Thailand would want to avoid getting haircuts that look like Buddhist monks.
If you apply this same logic to Leviticus 19:28, then you would have to say that the Bible is not necesssarily banning all tattoos, but it is warning against pagan tattoos. Deuteronomy 14:1-2 and Jeremiah 48:37 also refer to cutting of the body as common in pagan religion, so it would appear that this was the problem with tattoos in Leviticus 19:28. So basically, I would agree with the second viewpoint in your email.
Two other points to consider about tattoos:
1) Tattoos should be done by a professional, to avoid health risks. (Remember, the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.)
2) Tattoos should not be placed on private body parts (breast, buttocks, etc.) by a person of the opposite sex, as this is immodest and sexually provocative contact between the sexes.
3) Remember that scripture teaches us not to do something which would cause your brother or sister in Christ to stumble (see Romans 14, especially verse 21.) That’s why, in my personal opinion, tattoos that can be covered by normal clothing are preferable. In a follow-up email with the student, I discovered that this subject came up because of a desire to put a tattoo on the foot with the words “Send Me” as a reminder to go where God would send, based on Romans 10:15. Certainly a tattoo like this that reminds a person of his or her calling and is covered and does not call attention to oneself cannot be said to be unholy. In fact, its very holy, indeed!