Tattoos have been around since the earliest days of civilization. Though not found among the Jews, body modification was common to numerous other people groups. Among Christians, however, there has not been much of a history of tattooing. When it became a part of western culture in the 18th century, it was largely considered by Christians to be unacceptable and taboo. Today it is an issue that is still debated. As both a Christian and one who has tattoos I hope to show that there is nothing irreconcilable about the two, and in fact tattoos can be an intriguing way to proclaim the gospel.
The common criticism against tattoo artwork for Christians is to quote two particular scriptural passages as proof that God does not want His children to get tattoos. The first verse I’ll point to is the Pauline passage stating that “your body is a temple” (1 Corinthians 6:19). The insinuation that some Christians make concerning this passage and its relationship to tattoos is as follows: If your body is a temple of the “Holy Spirit within you,” then you should not mark that temple, but keep it pure and healthy. This same passage is used for discouraging Christians from drinking and smoking.
The assumption, however, is that tattooing your body would somehow disgrace, mar, or stain the temple. I am not sure where this comes from or what compels people to make that assumption. If we consider carefully the appearance of the temples in ancient cultures we would quickly note that most, if not all, were marked with paintings, stylized architectural elements, and more. They were marked up to emphasize their grandness and beauty. In that case, it would seem that tattooing your body could be commended. But if that is too much of a stretch for some then I think I can at least say there is nothing inherent within 1 Corinthians 6:19 which prohibits tattoos for Christians.
The second passage most people quote is a bit more technical and difficult to deal with. It is found in Leviticus 19:28. The text reads, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead, or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” Now how can I read this text and justify that tattoo running down my arm? The text seems clear: don’t tattoo yourselves, says the Lord.
It’s important, however, to pay careful attention to the nature of the text. This particular command has two important features that we must consider. The first has to do with context. In the context of this passage God is commanding Israel not to associate themselves with the practices of pagan nations who do such things as “mark their bodies for the dead” and tattoo themselves as part of their pagan religion. God is warning Israel not to associate themselves with pagan religious practices but to remain pure and true to the only living God. Now if tattooing was commonly done today as a symbol of devotion to pagan religions then this argument could stand. And while certainly there are still many who do associate tattooing with pagan religions, the connection is no longer pure.
The second feature of this passage that we must consider is that the command falls under what Old Testament theologians identify as Israelite civil law. There is a major difference between Israelite civil law and moral law. The civil law was given to Israel specifically as a theocracy to keep them pure and to govern their life. The moral law was given to Israel and to all Christians as a means of governing their lives and spiritual health. The moral laws are such things as the Ten Commandments, which Jesus reiterates in the New Testament. The civil law includes such things as food laws. It is among the latter that this command falls. We can see that if we look at the surrounding verses as well. Verse 27 states that men should not trim their sideburns or beards. Why is it that my critics are quick to cite verse 28, but do not themselves see a problem with breaking verse 27? We can both trim our facial hair and tattoo our bodies because these commands are part of Jewish civil law and therefore do not apply to Christians.
That there is nothing wrong with getting at tattoo is well and good, but one might also wonder what is the benefit of getting a tattoo. Just because something is allowable does not necessarily make it a great idea. You can sprint across the freeway during rush hour, but why would you want to (and don’t say, “To get to the other side)?
I do think, however, that there are some helpful things that tattoos can do for Christians. In my own life my tattoos have already opened up several opportunities to share the gospel, not the least of which was with my tattoo artist. Particular tattoos create curious questions and comments each of which can open the door to gospel conversations. There is no doubt that there are other ways to start and initiate these conversations, but there were some very natural conversations that developed from my tattoos.
There is a great deal that each individual needs to consider before he or she gets a tattoo. Important questions like: who will this affect? Will this dishonor or disobey my parents? Will this make my employment more difficult? And other such questions. But in the end there is nothing unbiblical about tattoos, and one might be able to argue for some gospel potential from them. So tattoo your body with caution, and for the sake of the gospel!