A Case Study in Thinking Through Controversial Gray Areas: Tattoos

by Cliff McManis

What does the Bible say about tattoos? Fifty years ago, tattoos were not a frequent topic of discussion in the American church and rarely were they seen. Tattoos were not even prominent in the secular world. They were reserved for the tough-guy sailor or bartender, and even those occurrences were the exception. And they typically had only one tattoo, branded on their shoulder, hidden under the shirt—a tattoo of a heart or a phrase like “mom.” The 1930’s popular cartoon, Popeye the sailor-man, mainstreamed the idea to our culture in a subtle and acceptable way, as Popeye sported two small, simple images of anchors on his burly forearms. And Popeye was a good guy, keeping us always safe from Brutus, the bully, who did not sport tattoos. In the 1980’s tattoos were then thrown in the face of the culture, as the highly popular rock group, KISS, had tattoos on the face.

Times have changed. Tattoos are now everywhere. On a recent summer trip to the heart of Oregon, I noticed the majority of folks in the supermarket and walking around town had tattoos. In the NBA, you stand out like a dinosaur if you don’t shine with the sheen of many colors on your epidermis. NBA all-stars like Klay Thompson and (now retired) Tony Parker are members of an elite, shrinking club of “no-inkers.” In the church there are now plenty of high profile pastors at high profile churches who wield the Bible in hand, upheld by an arm with a tattoo sleeve extending from wrist to pit. Christian schools and organizations that once outright banned tattoos now allow them. Times have changed.

Does the Bible address tattoos? Not explicitly—at least not in the New Testament. In the Old Testament there is one verse that is used frequently by those opposed to tattoos—“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:28, KJV). The interpretation and application of this verse is highly challenging. The main issue to determine is, what did Moses mean when he wrote this as God revealed it to him in 1400 BC? And what did this verse originally mean in the context of Leviticus chapter 19, the whole book of Leviticus and the whole Mosaic Law? Was Moses saying in this verse that believers could not have a small tattoo of Tweety Bird on the insole of their left foot?

Context comes first in determining meaning in the Bible. The context of Leviticus 19 is God’s call for His people to not be idol worshippers like the pagans around them (Lev 19:1-4). There are about forty commands in chapter 19, some prescriptive and some proscriptive. About fifteen times in this chapter God reminds His people with the refrain, “I am the LORD.” This refrain is the foundation and motive for obeying the forty commands—we obey because God deserves our obedience; how we live for Him is an act of worship. He is the main audience of how we live. What He thinks about what we do is priority number one. We belong to Him; we are accountable to Him; we will be judged by Him; we live for Him. We are to be different and live different than unbelievers around us. With these forty commands God is establishing a clear demarcation between holy people and unholy people; separated people and unseparated; called out people and those not called; sanctified versus those not sanctified. That’s the point of chapter 19. 

Context comes first in determining meaning in the Bible.

As for the translation of the relevant phrase in 19:28, the King James says to not, “print any marks,” while the NASB says not to “make any tattoo marks.” The Hebrew phrase, “print any marks” is found only in this verse in the Old Testament, adding to the difficulty in coming up with an exacting translation and interpretation. One Hebrew scholar is justified when he comments on this phrase: “The wording translated tattoo marks (ketōvet qa‘aqa‘), used only here, is problematic. It may refer to painting oneself or making inscriptions on one’s body. Painting the body was a pagan practice” [Leviticus, Robert Vasholz, Christian Focus Publ.: Great Britain, 2007; p. 233]. Despite the difficulty in translation, it is clear what God was saying: “Don’t mark your body with images” like the pagans do—your body belongs to God. Verse 19:28 ends with the phrase, “I am YHWH.”

So how does this verse apply to believers today? That is difficult to determine. There are many variables to consider. As such, it is justified to put the matter of tattoos in the “gray area” category for Christians, especially in light of the following considerations:

  • Leviticus 19:28 is subject to debate regarding its translation and interpretation of the Hebrew text.
  • If this one obscure phrase in Leviticus 19:28 did not exist, then there is no other verse in the Bible directly addressing the topic of tattoos.
  • Several of the commands and prohibitions in Leviticus 19 are not binding on Christians today (i.e., 19:19).
  • Most of the condemned practices in Leviticus 19 are associated with false religious worship of the pagans around Israel.
  • Jesus, the Apostles and the New Testament never talk about tattoos directly.

Nevertheless, even though the above five points are true, there are plenty of clear biblical principles that intersect with the relevance of tattoos that can give guidance and wisdom for the believer on this matter. Consider some of the following principles.

First, for the anti-tattoo Christians out there:

  • Be consistent—Many who want to use 19:28 to categorically condemn all tattoos today are not willing to live by all of God’s commands in Leviticus 19. In the same chapter is this prohibition: “you shall not…wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together” (19:19). Many anti-tattooers no doubt own plenty of T-shirts that are a mix of cotton and wool, or polyester. This is a problem. You can’t pick and choose which Bible verses you want to accentuate and enforce others to live by. Or how about the verse right before the tattoo prohibition that says, “You shall not round off the side growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard” (19:27). Christians are not held to that prohibition. Do you eat pork today? Do you like bacon? Christians are allowed to eat pork (Acts 10), but eating pork was prohibited under the same Mosaic Law that delineated the prohibition of Leviticus 19:28 (cf. Deut 14:8).
  • Be careful not to overemphasize externals—This is what the Pharisees did. Jesus condemned them for being hypocrites, for they were more concerned with outward appearance than what was going on in the heart: “Woe to you, scribes, and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt 23:27-28).
  • Don’t judge based on outward appearance only—We should judge sin, but we can’t judge motives and we have to be cautious about premature judgments when it comes to gray areas. We need to get all the facts before rendering a verdict. Being one-dimensional, making judgments based on external appearance only is hasty and dangerous. God said in 1 Samuel 16:7, “Do not look at his appearance…for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” Also, James is clear about the danger of being overly critical of other believers: “He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the Law and judges the Law….who are you who judge your neighbor?” (4:11-12).
  • Remember the inner man is the priority—The Bible says the outer man is dying daily; but the inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). The Holy Spirit allows us to spiritually mature “in the inner man” (Eph 3:16). As a pastor, my priority is focusing on the spiritual development of the inner man—the soul, the heart, the mind, the conscience, the thinking, beliefs and worldviews of believers—not on the details of the externals. Hebrews 13:17 reminds believers that church leaders, or pastors, “watch over your souls,” and have to give account for that. Pastors are not the fashion police, being preoccupied with micro-managing the length of a man’s hairline in back, a woman’s dress-line in front, or the ink line on someone’s arm.

Now, second, some biblical food for thought for tattoo advocates:

  • Consider your motives—Others can’t judge your motives, but you can evaluate them. Scripture exhorts believers to “examine yourselves!” (2 Cor 13:5). A basic Christian discipline is self-examination. One of the most difficult things for anyone to do honestly and objectively is self-examination. Ask yourself the following questions:

Why do you have a tattoo?

What is the biblical basis for getting one?

Who influenced you to get a tattoo?

How is your tattoo advancing your personal spiritual development of the inner man?

What is the impact of your tattoos on other believers around you?

Is paying for tattoos the best use of your money?

  • Be careful not to overemphasize externals—This is what the pagans did. Notice the parallel of this point with point 2 above for the Pharisee. The question here is, do you get tattoos to draw attention to yourself? Or, do tattoos somehow give you identity through self-expression? If so, they shouldn’t. Exhibitionism, flaunting your fashion, and being ostentatious in outward appearance is clearly condemned by God as being self-centered, distracting and having the wrong focus. It is illegitimately putting too much focus on your outward appearance. Being showy is a lack of humility and a lack of modesty—two of the highest Christian values. Consider 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.” And Proverbs 31 extols the virtue of pursuing quiet, inner beauty over external beautification and adornment: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD, shall be praised” (vs. 30).
  • Remember your true identity—This is closely related to the preceding point.

I had a Christian brother once tell me, “People question why I have tattoos, but I tell them, ‘It’s a part of who I am.’” That kind of thinking is categorically unbiblical and short-sighted. Christians are not identified by their outward appearance. First Peter 3 said God is concerned with the “hidden person of the heart.” All Christians are “in Christ” (Eph 1:1). That is our true and only identity; we have no identity apart from or outside of Christ. Nothing external defines who we are as children of God who have been adopted into His family through the atonement of Christ. Our home is in heaven (Philipp 3:20), not here on earth (1 Pet 2:11). We will take nothing from this earth to heaven with us. You won’t have any tattoos from this world in heaven for eternity. The only man-made marks from this world that carry over into eternity are the wounds that sinners put on the hands and feet of Jesus the Savior (John 20:27; Rev 5:6; Zech 12:10).

  • Deny yourself—Jesus said a true disciple must “deny himself” (Luke 9:23). Many Christians who lobby for tattoos often invoke the “liberty” doctrine, saying, “Tattoos are not specifically forbidden so it’s my Christian liberty to have one.” That attitude needs to be balanced by the higher ethical call of being other-oriented…we live first for Christ and others and not ourselves. It’s not always about exercising our freedoms. Many times the higher road to holiness and witness is about denying self. Mature Christians are willing to deprive themselves of their liberties in deference to other believers (1 Cor 8:9).
  • All things in moderation—How many tattoos are enough? More and more proponents of “body art” are getting more and more tattoos without any end in sight of showing restraint. Arm sleeve; leg sleeve; neck sleeve; body sleeve; total face tattoos…where does it end? A basic Christian virtue is showing moderation and balance in all areas of life. Consider Paul debating the Christian who pushes his liberties to the limit: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor 6:12).  Paul goes on to say that “your body is not your own” (6:19-20), so “glorify God in your body.” Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit and a mark of spiritual maturity (Gal 5:22).
  • Be sober in your thinking—Because tattoos are permanent and openly visible, those who get tattoos need to be wise by considering several other considerations. Scripture tells Christians to be “sober” in thinking (1 Pet 5:8). What if you change your mind about a tattoo later on in life? What about long-term? Was getting a tattoo a rash decision done on the spur of the moment or was it carefully thought through, considering all the implications? I have several Christian friends, all men, who got tattoos earlier in life and as they got older they regretted it. Two of the men now try to hide their arm tattoos by wearing long sleeve shirts or big stick-on bandages. They say they are embarrassed by their tattoos now. One of them was a Christian when he got his tattoo and it’s a huge cross on his shoulder. Another brother has spent lots of money to date getting several of his tattoos removed from his legs and arms. He said it’s painful and expensive. He wished he had thought long-term before deciding to get the tattoos. Think long-term about your walk with God: “be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise” (Eph 5:15).

There are actually more biblical principles that could be mentioned in light of the gray area of tattoos. But the above ten points are the main ones that can guide the conversation and enable believers to think and act biblically. The preceding discussion illustrates how complex assessing gray areas can be. There are no canned, pat, superficial answers for gray area issues. On these complicated, and sometimes controversial matters of practical living, we need to take the time to examine all that the Bible has to say that is related to each topic. The above serves as an example of how one of these tough questions that believers grapple with can be thought through and discussed. In conclusion, it is also important to depend upon the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer, the wise counsel of others and the illuminating lamp of the Word of God in Scripture when studying gray areas. Left unto ourselves we are short-sighted, myopic, finite, fallen and prejudiced toward self. Thank God for His many resources to help us. “Whether, then, you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God”! (1 Cor 10:31).

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