Tattoos are making a comeback in present day culture. From teenagers to housewives, they are appearing everywhere, even among Christians. So then, is it okay for Christians to get tattoos? To answer this, we need to see what the Bible says about it, if anything.
First of all, making marks on the skin is mentioned in several verses. The first is in Leviticus and the rest are in the book of Revelation which deal with the Mark of the Beast.
- Lev. 19:28, "‘You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord."
- Rev. 13:16-17, "And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead. 17 and he provides that no one should be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name." See also: Rev. 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4.
Any Christian would have no problem denouncing the Mark of the Beast and saying it is sinful. Whether or not it is a physical mark has been debated, but it goes without saying that we are not to receive that mark. It is the Leviticus passage that we must now examine. To do that, we need to quote its context.
Lev. 19:26-30, "You shall not eat anything with the blood, nor practice divination or soothsaying. 27 You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads, nor harm the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord. 29 ‘Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, so that the land may not fall to harlotry, and the land become full of lewdness. 30 You shall keep My sabbaths and revere My sanctuary; I am the Lord."
As you can see, tattooing is mentioned in the context of ancient pagan practices. But does this mean that tattooing is in itself a bad thing to do because unbelievers did it? We have to be careful not to make a logical error known as the genetic fallacy. This error says that something is false because of its origin. For example, it would be a fallacy that because the Nazi regime developed the Volkswagen Beetle, that the VW Beetle is a bad car. Likewise, just because unbelievers get tattoos does not mean Christians should not.
The Leviticus context also tells the Israelites to not round off the hair on the side of their heads nor shave the edges of their beards. Apparently, this is what the Egyptians did and God's people were called to be separate from them. But, why such detail about hair? Perhaps Moses was concerned about the superstitious beliefs of the Egyptians to which shaving the head and beard had a religious significance. If this were the case, then God's people were certainly called to be separate from the false nations and their superstitions.
But, such religious practices that require tattooing, cutting one's own skin, and/or shaving the head and beard are not around in present-day Western culture. So, the admonition against tattooing, based upon the cultural norm, can't apply for today.
If we must conclude that tattooing is automatically bad in and of itself, then we must also conclude that shaving off the hair on the side of the head and shaving edges of men's beards is also equally bad. But, since cutting hair and shaving beards is not sinful in itself, how could we conclude that tattooing is also automatically sinful? We can't.
Freedom in Christ
Something we must examine is whether or not we Christians are required to keep Old Testament Law. No we are not. Now, this does not mean it's okay to lie, to cheat, and to steal. It means that we are not required to keep Old Testament Law in order to get or maintain our salvation. This is because we have died to the law and because of that, all things are lawful to us.
- Rom. 7:1,4, "Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? ...4 Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God."
- 1 Cor. 6:12, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything."
If a person wants to maintain that a Christian should keep the Old Testament Law concerning tattoos, then do they also keep the Old Testament law concerning not shaving the beard? Also, what would they do with the Scriptures that say we have died to the law and that all things are lawful? Would they require legalism?
First, we must retain the truth that we are not to violate any moral law of God. It is always wrong to lie, cheat, and to steal. Such commands are clearly reiterated in the New Testament and are based on the character of God. So, the Old Testament law dealing with morality, is definitely to be upheld. All of the Ten Commandments (except Sabbath-keeping) are referenced in the New Testament as still being valid (Mt. 19:17-19; 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9; Rev. 13:6).
Second, we see no New Testament commands that tell us to keep the sacrificial system, forbid work on the Sabbath, forbid the shaving of beards, or forbid tattoos, etc. Since we have died to the law and all things are lawful (excluding, of course, sin), then the Christian is not under obligation to keep the Old Testament command not to get tattooed. Remember, if tattooing is a sin, then so is shaving the beard -- if we were to retain its command and the ones with it.
Third, let me ask a question. Is it okay to eat meat that has been deliberately sacrificed to idols? Would it be a sin to buy such meat in the marketplace and consume it as a Christian? The answer is, it's not a sin.
1 Cor. 10:25-29, "Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone should say to you, 'This is meat sacrificed to idols,' do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience‘ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?"
Paul is telling us that a Christian does not need to worry about a "pagan connection" because he is free in Christ. In this case, the Christian is free to eat meat sacrificed to idols. But, Paul makes it clear that we are not free to stumble anyone else such as a weaker Christian. We need to be wise in the application of our freedom and not cause anyone to stumble.
The point is that we are free and because of our sanctification in Christ what we touch becomes sanctified. The meat sacrificed to idols does not hurt the Christian when the Christian consumes it. If it were a sin to buy and consume such meat, Paul would have said so. Likewise, if tattooing is to be considered a sinful act because of its connection with the pagans of the Old Testament, and thereby we are not have anything to do with it, why did not Paul carry over the same logic to the issue of meat openly sacrificed to idols?
So, should a Christian get a tattoo? Well, personally, I would never do so. I would never mark my body permanently and I don't think it's a wise thing to do as a Christian since it is something that might be misinterpreted as being "ungodly." But, this is my opinion. Other Christians have other opinions and each Christian is free to choose what he or she should do in this matter. The Christian should seriously consider the ramifications of a permanent marking upon the skin -- which often includes a social stigma. The Christian should ask whether or not it is a good witness and this is something only that individual Christian should decide.
Should we divide over this?
No, we should not divide over this. If personal opinions override scriptural teaching concerning our freedom in Christ, and division and anger are the result, then those who are dividing over this are the ones in sin.