Saturday, May 12, 2018

Are Tattoos Sinful?


   One day at Bible College, we were in Chicago passing out literature for a new church being planted in the area. As we were putting up posters, handing out flyers, and engaging people in conversation, a man started walking toward us. His hair was dyed a deep red, he had a few ear piercings, and his arms were thoroughly decorated with a sleeve of tattoos. As I was speaking to someone else I saw this man walk by and I exclaimed, "Hey! How are you doing?" and I gave him a flyer, told him what was happening and invited him to church. After my current conversation ended. I regrouped with the other students with me, and two of the girls were looking at me as if they had seen a ghost. 

Me: What's wrong? 

Girl: I can't believe you spoke to that guy...
Me: Why not? We're promoting a church, right? 
Girl: Yeah, but look at him. He looked disgusting and had all those tattoos...
Me: Yeah? Well, tattoos don't make you immune to Jesus. He needs the gospel like everyone else.
Girl: People with tattoos have a reputation, and I doubt Jesus is part of that.
Me: That's a bold statement. There are plenty of Christians with tattoos. Some from their current life, some from a previous one, that doesn't dictate whether Jesus is in their life or not. With your logic, I shouldn't be here either, since I have a tattoo as well. (now I have two)
Girl: You have a tattoo!? (her mouth agape in disbelief)
Me: Sure do. Maybe you should think before making such a blanket statement. 

     That was an interesting day, to say the least. However, such conversations are pretty common in the church today. I believe the problem with the conversation mentioned here is obvious, but such extreme statements can obviously cause some problems within a church. However, this conversation stems from a simple question: Are tattoos sinful? Can a Christian get a tattoo without sinning? Should every Christian with a tattoo hide it in shame of their sin? Should Christians get their tattoos removed if they already have them? These tend to be the questions that surround this topic. 

What Does the Bible Say?

     The first thing Christians need to do is consider Scripture in all things. What does the Bible say regarding tattoos? The truth is; not much. This can be infuriating to some believers and liberating to others. There is only one verse in the entire Bible that mentions anything regarding this topic. 

Leviticus 19:28 You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. (ESV)

     At first glance, this seems pretty straightforward. Open and shut case. This is a common mistake when reading scripture. Often times people pull one verse out of the Bible, giving no regards to the surrounding context, the clarification within the verse, or why this was written in the first place. This is especially important when reading any part of the Old Testament Law. Notice what book this was written in: Leviticus. This is a book written to the tribe of Levi. The Levitical Law was to this particular tribe at a particular time. This tribe was the priestly tribe. They were the ones in charge of the Tabernacle, sacrifices, and other holy duties.  They were charged with different regulations than the rest of Israel, and Israel was given different rules than New Testament Christians. Context is important. 

     What I find strange is that when this verse is brought up regarding tattoos, many people don't take into account the other things in the book of Leviticus. Here are just a few examples of verses just before this verse: 

Leviticus 19:19 You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material. 
(Most of our clothes are made of multiple materials.)
Leviticus 19:23 When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. 
(We no longer wait three years to check if it's safe due to modern advancements.) 
Leviticus 19:26 You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.
(No more medium rare steaks.)

          You will find a lot of odd things like this in the Old Testament Laws and that's because God was giving them wisdom.  Since back then they had more diseases, no modern medicine, etc., God instructed His people in a way to more guarantee His people's safety and health. Due to this instruction, ancient Israel was one of the healthiest nations ever recorded in history. That's also why they took sexual immorality and rebellious children so seriously. God wisely instructed them to protect them from disease and tearing themselves apart from the inside when they were constantly surrounded by enemies. 

     What's even more interesting is that many who object to tattoos coincidentally have their ears pierced. Which is "cutting your body" to a degree, isn't it? Or what about verses like this?

1 Timothy 2:9 Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire...
(Many women braid their hair, wear gold, pearls, and nice clothes every day.)

    Many people already know that this wasn't a commanded blanket rule. Within context, he's emphasizing that women should be striving for a modesty of the heart, and not looking for outward affirmation or attention. He wasn't expressly forbidding hair braids. Just the emphasis. Again, context is important. 

So What's the Context? 

     Since we've already emphasized that context is important, and can entirely change the meaning of a verse when ripped out of context, we should clarify the context entirely. At this point we've already addressed that this was part of the Levitical Law for a certain people, during a certain time, and now we must talk about the context within the verse itself. 

Original Hebrew: Tattoo

 קַעֲקַע Qa`aqa` (kah·ak·ah'): Stigma, brand, incision, gash, mark. 

     Oddly enough, this verse is not referring to tattoos the way we think of them. It's not talking about ink trapped between layers of skin, but more talking about scarring and maiming yourself. The Bible does not speak once about tattoos as we know them. Not that any of that matters because the verse itself clarifies its own context. 

Leviticus 19:28 You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. (ESV)

     This is the most important part of this entire conversation. We could talk about Old Testament vs. New Testament, original word meanings, and other contextual commands, but this part is the crux of the matter. The verse specifically clarifies itself: do not get these for the dead, because I am the Lord. 

     In Biblical times there were so many pagan religions about and all of them had various customs within their worship. The Israelites definitely saw this during their time in Egypt since the Egyptians would tattoo their women thinking it gave them blessings of fertility from the gods. Other civilizations, like the Canaanites, would ink their bodies, commit extreme scarification, gash themselves, brand themselves, etc. They would especially do this for ritualistic purposes to try and gain their gods' blessing. This is why God forbade the Levites from doing such things. The Israelites were not to worship God or honor the dead the way the pagans would. 

     Today, when you see braided hair do you think of a prostitute? When you see piercings or tattoos do you think of mourning for the dead? Bodily scarring in false worship? Not likely. The context here was to set Israel aside as a peculiar people and make sure that their way of worshipping God did not mirror that of the pagans. Today, tattoos are not used in worship but of artistic expression, sentimental markings, or reminders. The worldview and context has changed drastically since biblical times. The context in this verse is: do not participate in false worship. 

Your Body is the Temple of God

     Undoubtedly, whenever this discussion is brought up someone is going to quote 1 Corinthians 6:19. Where the Bible talks about our bodies being God's temple.

1 Corinthians 6:19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own...

     This verse is used out of context all the time. This entire passage (vs. 12-20) is referring to sexual immorality. It is not referring to weight, piercings, tattoos, shaving, hair-dye, makeup etc. This verse is specifically talking about sexual immorality because sexual sin is a very unique sin. One that is internal, manifests itself physically, but can affect people on the inside for years to come. Paul was saying,  to not defame the temple that is within you through joining yourself with someone else sinfully. That's the entire morality here, to flee sexual immorality. Nothing more. Nothing less. 

All of our bodies are God's temple, but some of us just like to decorate it. 

     When we rip verses out of their original context we can land in a dangerous place. By applying commands that are not ours, by claiming promises that are not ours, and by demanding from others that which is not theirs. Not caring about context can land us in strange places. Notice how this could work in the reverse: 

Revelation 19:16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

     Out of context here I could really make a case that Jesus Himself has a tattoo. I mean, how else could it be written here? Now granted this could be solely figurative, but do you see how this sort of disregard to scriptural context can cause complications? Let me ask of you to always apply the context within scripture and you will find so much more satisfaction within the consistency of scripture and your Christian life. 



     Since we've discussed the context, and have seen that God's Word really mentions nothing of tattoos (as we know them) it is safe to say that this is a liberty issue. People are free within their Christian life to get a tattoo if they so wish, but they should do so wisely. What would you be getting? Where? Why? All these questions should be asked and executed in a fashion that is wise. Use wisdom and discretion when doing so. After-all, they don't just wash off so whatever you get, you're obviously stuck with. 

    Next time you see someone with a tattoo, don't jump to a judgmental conclusion, do not condemn them, but walk in understanding that we all have liberty in Christ and to live in His grace. If you choose to, that is your liberty. If you choose not to, that is your liberty. Just remember, if you choose to get a tattoo be sure it is not something that'll mar the testimony of Christ that is within you. 

James 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.


  1. Very good! Amen! We as Christians (the Church) need to stop chasing people away from Christ and start bringing those who are in need of Christ, into the knowledge of Him. Church isn't a museum for the saints but a hospital for sinners and no sin is worse than any other, including our own. God intended us to love each other unconditionally, that means we overlook the sin as Christ did. Not that we have a free ticket to sin, but we have grace that will cover it when we make a mistake. God is the only one who can judge a persons heart and what has happened in their life. We are sent out like fishermen only to catch them, God cleans them up. Yes, we are to help in directing them as a babe, but we don't need to tear a person apart and dissect their sin. This article is very excellent in bringing forth a strong truth of a scripture that was taken out of context for a long time.