Thursday, September 11, 2014

Are Tattoos Ok? Why?

To tat or not to tat that is the question.  

Some say, "Of Course," while others say, "No Way!"  Several people very close to me have tattoos. Others question whether it is ok or not.  So instead of leaving this all up to popular opinion let us ask:

What does the Bible say?  

While some try to twist some passages into applying to this issue, such as the mark of the beast in Revelation, there is really only one verse that specifically speaks on the subject at hand.
"You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourself: I am the Lord." (Lev. 19:28) 
So, on face value it appears that the Bible forbids getting tattoos.  However, when you read the context of the surrounding verses it also seems to forbid:
  • Eating flesh with blood in it. (No rare steaks!)
  • Trimming your beard. (Duck Dynasty here we come!) 
  • Leaving part of your field unharvested. (Wait... I don't have a field.) 
So do we just ignore these passages that seem very weird to us?  I hope not, because Paul told his protege Timothy, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17)  So, since these verses in Leviticus are a part of Scripture, we need to see what we can learn from them.

Jesus and the Old Testament

Before we dig further into Leviticus, we need to understand Jesus' role in understanding the Old Testament (including Leviticus) in light of the New Testament covenant (how Christians are saved today.)  Near the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matt. 5:17) So we need to understand that we should not think of anything in the Old Testament as abolished, but rather we should think about certain aspects of the old law as having been fulfilled by Christ.

One of the easiest examples of this is seen in the sacrificial system.  The old covenant pointed to the fact that sin required death for atonement. The new covenant shows that Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice.  Therefore, we no longer need to follow all of the old sacrificial practices because we have the ultimate sacrifice in Christ's atoning death on the cross.  So, those passages are not abolished, but instead fulfilled.  So, when we read about all the different kinds of sacrifices that God required of the Israelites, we can appreciate what Christ did even more.  So does this mean that everything in the Old Testament has been fulfilled and is no longer binding for us to follow anymore?  No.

Kinds of Law

Theologians have categorized the law in the Old Testament into three different kinds of law:
  • Moral Law: the laws that teach right and wrong and how to live in relation to one another. 
  • Ceremonial Law: the laws concerning the Israelites worship, sacrifices, diet, and priestly duties. 
  • Civil Law: the laws relating to how the Israelites should govern themselves as a theocracy (state run by God). 
Now, we can see many of the Moral laws repeated in the New Testament and thus we know that we need to still follow them as we follow Christ.  However, the ceremonial and civil laws fall under the category of things that Jesus has fulfilled, and we no longer practice them.  We see examples of this in the fact that Jesus is now our high priest fulfilling the old system of priests (Heb 4:14-16).  So that is an example of the change in how we view the ceremonial law.

It is pretty obvious why we do not continue to follow the civil law:  we no longer live in a theocratic state here on earth.  Jesus and Paul both showed and taught submission to earthly kings.  They were not trying to set up a new earthly state that ruled based on the civil law. (examples: Mark 12:17, Rom. 13:1-7)

I am not saying that these parts of scripture are irrelevant, but that they are fulfilled in Christ.  The tricky part lies in figuring out where specific laws fall in these three categories, because they are not easily delineated in Leviticus and some have overlap.

How to understand and apply the Old Testament Law

I give you four questions to ask to help decipher such passages, and then we will return to the question at hand about tattoos.
  1. What was the purpose of this passage for those who first received it? (Do your homework and find out what was going on in that culture and that day, that would relate to the passage.)
  2. What is the theological principle behind the passage? 
  3. What does the New Testament Say about this principle? 
  4. How can I apply this principle to my life? 
So let's ask these questions of Leviticus 19:28.
  1. It appears that the cutting of the body and tattooing for the dead was a practice of the surrounding pagan culture.  This was a symbol of the agony that they had in losing loved ones and their lack of hope for those who had passed.  It was also likely a part of the worship of their gods.  It appears that this is a ceremonial law relating to the old way of worship.
  2. From knowing the context, it appears that this passage is supporting these theological principles:
    • Do not worship false gods. 
    • God's people are called to be set apart and different. 
    • God's people have their identity in Him alone.  
    • God's people have hope for life after death. 
  3.  While the New Testament does not directly speak on the issue of tattooing, it does speak a lot on these four principles that apply to the Leviticus passage.  The New Testament also teaches us a lot about the freedom we have in Christ (Gal 5:1, 2 Cor 3:17), while giving us ample warnings about abusing that freedom or using that freedom at the expense of others (Rom 14:13-21, 1 Cor 8:13). 
  4.  So, are tattoos ok?  Yes, just like trimming your beard.  Is it wise to be cautious about what kind of tat we get and where we get them? Yes.  There are those among the Christian faith who struggle on this topic. Let us not abuse our freedom at their expense.  In dealing with a similar issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul said, "Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.  Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats." (Rom 14:20) So, let me say, "Do not, for the sake of a tattoo, destroy the work of God." 


Practical Advice for considering tattoos

A couple of things to consider if you decide to get a tattoo:
  1. Can you afford it? Is this a wise use of your money?  
  2. What does your tattoo mean?  
  3. What does it convey to others without you explaining it? 
  4.  If you live at home with your parents, are your parents supportive of this decision? 
  5. Where are you going to put the tattoo?  Why? 
  6. Is your tattoo in a place where it can be covered so as to not offend others?  (This may affect some job opportunities down the road.) 
  7. How does this tattoo reflect on Christ? 
  8. Armpits and wrists hurt the most. (So I'm told.)


  1. This is good. When I am approached about this, I typically respond with Rom 14, Col 2 and 1 Cor 8. I then turn the question around. Since all things are lawful, but not all things edify, you must change your question. Don't ask why can I NOT get a tattoo, but ask how doing so will Glorify God--what, in Christ, COMPELS you to desire this thing. Also, please convince me also why I should consider a tattoo for myself and my family. You are free to do this thing, but please brother, reveal your heart to me. WHY do you desire it? Do you desire to Glorify God? Do you desire to look like the pagans around you? Answer honestly. You are free and will be loved regardless.

  2. Thanks Wayne! I thought you handled that issue really well

    1. Thanks Pamela, (Sorry I just saw your comment!)