ethics, group norms, & tattoos

ethics, group norms, & tattoos May 26, 2022

Toward the end, I will explore what I personally consider to be a lesser way of engaging in ethics, although it is my opinion. There are group norms, a way of ethical decision making (more like sociology) that is a little more messy, perhaps digressing into groupthink.

“The definition of religion is elusive to both scholars and lawmakers. But to the common man, religion ought to have a primary concern with moral conduct, with setting norms for behavior. If this common intuition is correct, then religion, though comprised of philosophy and ritual and other elements, ought to speak to the question of ethics.”[1]

Ethics is part of the business of religion. Anybody’s ethics are informed by one’s faith.

When the Christian faith is considered, are our ethics accepted only because they are grounded in Christianity?

We believe what we do because God said it, but why did He say it?

Furthermore, how do we know that our view of God is right?

a couple ways of looking at ethics

Ethics is usually thought of as a field or a discipline, often alongside philosophy. In this way ethics informs many types of disciplines where people are involved (including my specialties of Theology and counseling psychology).

There are mores (pronounced like Moray eels). These are somewhat nebulous undercurrents, perhaps innate beliefs, stemming from within mankind and society.

Then there are values, possibly mores that have boiled to the surface, and have been accepted, and even articulated by societal groups.

Finally, there is another way of looking at ethics as action. Ethics would be found at the outflow of mores and values, as guiding principles for society, businesses, etc. One example is policy, bordering on legal binding guidelines. Another strong example is canon law.

Toward the end, I will explore what I personally consider to be a lesser way of engaging in ethics, although it is my opinion. There are group norms, a way of ethical decision making (more like sociology) that is a little more messy, perhaps digressing into groupthink.

I’m going to use a basic example, one that has many opinions now, so I proceed with caution. I have been asked my opinion from one of my leader-contacts in Texas. I’ve also been asked by a couple people from Wycliffe Bible Translators.

what do you think about tattoos?

Believe it or not, it’s in the Bible.

You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord. – Leviticus xix.28

I’m really not as much of a stickler on tattoos as I used to be. I used to take a hardline. I may have even told people it’s like spraying graffiti on the Temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians vi.19). Yes, I’m very ashamed to admit that now, thinking of what damage my trite responses may have caused to true seekers.

Nonetheless, it’s in the Bible, associated with pagan lifestyles, but which one of us hasn’t been a former pagan, or a Christian with pagan-ish streaks?

My brother has a Christian fish symbol tattoo on his upper arm, out of sight when he is working. Another brother has an Alpha and Omega symbol on his shoulder, out of sight unless there’s a return to the muscle shirt trend (or half shirts) from the ‘80’s. At some workplaces like Starbucks, long sleeves are required to cover sleeves.

This is apparently not Starbucks, but I’m sure the coffee is great.

Tim Douglas | Couple of colleagues having conversation in aprons in terrace | 11.17.20 | pexels

The workplace standard (especially at a company that is bigger than some nations) more than likely reflects the development of a company ethical policy based on shared mores and values.

There are tattoos that really hold meaning, and that’s where I go if someone asks my opinion these days.

what does the tattoo mean to you?

I know, I know, there are gang-related and maybe even prison-related tattoos. These haunt people’s lives and hinder possibilities for professional development at times.

At times, those with tattoos (maybe even questionable tattoos) face discrimination from various systems as they try to reintegrate into a peaceful and sustainable role in society, unfortunately.

However, many tattoos simply hold a greater meaning, like those my brothers wear that are a constant reminder of The Way.

alternatives and 2nd opinions

Some tattoos are altered or added to in order to change their meaning into something better.

If you’re at an impasse and would like a second opinion on your tattoos, consider Clear Out, endorsed by Mike Bartel of FREE International. They’re also endorsed by the Metro of Las Vegas.

Is this enough for a Christian to make a decision about tattoos?

I don’t really know, but my views have changed with time, much to my shame.

I have offered a basic interpretation that is well-accepted, the association with pagan-ish lifestyles in the time of Moses. Of course a woman who wore braided hair and gold jewelry was considered a woman of the night in the time of Christ (1 Timothy ii.9; 1 Peter iii.3).

Culture changes.

first line of commentators

I usually approach the Word, looking to early commentators first, very early commentators.

Someone could spend exorbitant amounts of time diving into Biblical languages, developing a complex interpretation.

I often find that the very early church leaders, those closest to the time of the disciples, can interpret a passage with a quick answer, one that reflects the interpretation of the primitive church. That’s one reason I start with them as a first line of commentators, and there are many other reasons.

I say this at this particular point because I’m having a difficult time finding the church fathers speaking to the issue of tattoos. If they’re not speaking to the issue, perhaps times have changed since the time of Moses, which would have been at least 1,400 years earlier.

Culture changes.

ethics vs. group norms

With ethics, we have a couple different paths at least in social interactions. There are mores, values, and ethics as discussed above. Then there are ethics that are formed by something similar to small group politics. The group sets forth a set of “ethics” which are really more like group “norms.”

Are you in or out?

Keep to the code.

Unfortunately, when someone asks a true ethical question arising from the Bible, we often have a tendency to respond based on group norms.

like it or not, group norms affect Biblical interpretation

1) Do we stand above the Scripture or under it? In other words, do we allow the principles of modesty to speak to us from the above passages, even if someone has tattoos or has been wearing braids since childhood? This would be standing under Scripture.

2) Do we interpret the Scripture literally on every point? For instance, consider the mantra: Interpret the Bible literally unless it explicitly states something otherwise. Well, this definitely helps with certain categories of Scripture, like the interpretation of Eschatology. However, I’ve just offered two very difficult ethical and cultural questions (tattoos and the attire of women).

3) How does the Word inform us today, and how do we teach these truths? If we fall back on group norms, we often lose people based on groupthink. Instead of groupthink, we stand a better chance of keeping people based on strong scholarship.

“A sufficient answer will not simply be something like ‘the norm is right because God commands it.’  Instead, one must specify why God would command it, i.e., what is it about the act and about God that would lead him to command it?” [2]

In this postmodern era, these types of questions are being asked in society, and even in our congregations.

These types of questions are also asked of any ethical system.

Thank you for reading.

Ethics & Society


[1] Robertson McQuilkin, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989), p. 11.
[2] John S. and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), p. 42.

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