What Does the Bible Really Say About Christians Getting Tattoos?
The Air Force recently announced a change in their tattoo policy for service members. This new policy which takes effect February 1, 2017 will now allow both arm and leg sleeves. In addition, the Air Force is doing away with the “25 percent rule.” This rule stated that no more than 25% of a visible body part, say an arm or leg, could be tattooed. However, what hasn’t changed is having tattoos with inappropriate messages, whether wording or images and including racist or sexist tattoos. The regulation continues to forbid tattoos on head, neck, face, tongue, lips or scalp, according to LT. Gen. Gina Grosso, deputy Chief of Staff for the Air Force Manpower, Personnel and Services.1
For Christian service members, is it sinful to get a tattoo? What does the Bible tell us about tattoos and whether or not it is wrong? The most popular Scripture verse that addresses this concern is Leviticus 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.”
Get the Whole Picture
If we take Leviticus 19:28 literally without taking into consideration the rest of this passage, without understanding the culture of that time, we would say that tattoos for Christian service members is not allowed. But is this what Leviticus 19:28 really teaches? First, here is the complete passage that includes the references to tattoos.
26“You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. 27You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. 28You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. 29Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. 30You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.’”
In the above passage, God is addressing the people of Israel. These practices mentioned were habits of the Canaanites. Since the Israelites were God’s beloved people this command was specifically directed to the Israelites to protect them from being corrupted by the habits or customs of the Canaanites. God knew it would lead them towards the false gods of the Canaanites and ultimately draw them into sin. As you can see, tattooing is included in this pagan religion.
When taken as a whole, this passage is referring to the practices of heathen people groups. The word ‘heathen’ refers to those people who didn’t acknowledge the one true God. The above practices referring to hair and beards go back to what the ancient Egyptians did. The Israelites while in Egypt were exposed to these cultural norms. God required His people to be separate from them, or to be set apart.
Verse 28 referring to making cuts on their body for the dead or getting tattoos is another pagan custom. The marking of bodies with tattoos or cuts was a custom done in respect for the dead, however, again, this was a custom the Israelites witnessed during their time in Egypt. So, with that basic understanding, what does this passage say about Christ-followers today? Do we conclude, like the Israelites did, that getting tattoos is sinful? Not so fast…
Christ Freed Us from Old Testament Law
New Testament Christians are not bound to Old Testament laws in order to have salvation in Christ. If we were then we’d also have to be bound to other laws of the Old Testament such as how we wear our hair, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, etc. This, however, doesn’t give us the license to now disregard the Ten Commandments because there are verses in the New Testament that speak to them.
“And he [Jesus] said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”’ Matthew 19:17
Additionally, we are still held accountable for moral laws such as lying, stealing, adultery, and cheating. Sabbath-keeping is the only commandment of the Ten Commandments that is not referenced in the New Testament.
According to Matt Slick, President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, “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 (except sin, of course), then the Christian is not under obligation to keep the Old Testament command not to get tattooed.” Remember, if tattooing is sin, then so are the other elements of this passage. (shaving of beards, working on the Sabbath, etc.),
Freedom in Christ Comes With A Warning
Because Christians are ‘free from the OT Law in Christ’ we don’t have to be unnecessarily worried about any ‘pagan association.’ However, Paul does give us one warning that we do have to observe. We shouldn’t exercise our freedom at the cost of hurting a Christian brother or sister. We must be sensitive to others spiritual and physical needs. Nothing we do should cause another believer to stumble. Simply, what we practice in this life must be for promoting His glory.
So, is it ok then for a Christian to get a tattoo? Yes and No. It boils down to the believer’s motives and opinions. Since tattooing is a permanent marking AND it comes with a particular social stigma, he or she needs to really consider if this is a right thing to do. The Christian needs to determine whether or not getting a tattoo will glorify God and be a good witness to non-Christians. Does the tattoo represent who you are in Christ or does the selection of tattoos merely represent self- expression or body art? Tattoos that glorify our Lord and Savior can be a powerful witness, prompting faith questions or sharing their life testimony, thus giving God the glory. For example, if a Christian is a retired military Chaplain and works with youth in his local church, his tattoos could be a starting point for powerful faith conversations.
One Final Thought…
And finally, those Christians that tattoo their bodies (or pierce their bodies or any other body modification) do not fall from a right standing before God. Since we are no longer under the law– we are in good standing with God. This is because we placed our trust in Jesus and accepted His death on the cross to pay for our sins.
“Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Galatians 3:24-25 (New Revised Standard Version)
If you’re considering getting a tattoo, come back and read part 2 of this article. A great deal of thought should go into the decision before getting a tattoo. Remember that there are Christians who feel strongly one way or the other about tattoos. Leave room in your heart for grace.
1 Oriana Pawlyk, “Air Force Relaxes Tattoo Policy, Allows Sleeves.” http://www.military.com/daily-news/2017/01/10/air-force-relaxes-tattoo-policy-allows-sleeves.html, (accessed 1/10/17).
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