TO INK OR NOT TO INK?
Written by Doug Ponder on January 4, 2013
To ink or not to ink, that is the question. At least, that’s the question for the millions of Americans each year who debate whether or not to get tattoos. Polls have shown that nearly 1 in 4 Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 have at least one tattoo, and the ratio is 1 and 3 for people between the ages of 18 and 35. Clearly tattoos are on the rise.
But what should Christians think about tattoos?
(Full disclosure: I don’t have any tattoos, so I’m not writing out of selfish interest to defend a decision I’ve already made. But I do live in the third most tattooed city in the country, so all that could easily change…)
A Very Brief History of Tattoos
Tattoos (and other forms of body modification) have been around as long as recorded human history, and debates about whether or not they are an acceptable practice are just as old. Christians especially have an interesting love/hate relationship with tattoos. Some early Christians would tattoo themselves with symbols or signs of the names of God, believing that the Bible actually required Christians to have them! To argue their point they cited verses like Revelation 7:3, 9:4, 13:16, 14:1, 20:4, and 22:4.
As Christian missionaries ventured into foreign lands, many of the people they encountered had tattoos of pagan religious symbols. Because of that, tattoos became so closely associated with paganism that the church didn’t know what to think of them. So a special council was called to debate tattoos. (Who’d have guessed it?) The official position of the council, decided more than 1300 years ago, was this: tattoos that were not blasphemous or obscene were acceptable, while tattoos symbolizing the Christian faith were considered praiseworthy. Following the decision of the council, Christian knights in the middle ages would tattoo themselves with the sign of their holy order. Still today, some Christians living in the Middle East tattoo themselves with crosses (usually on their wrists) as a public sign of their faith.
But standing against all of these traditions, there are many Christians who maintain that tattoos are sinful to obtain because, they say, God has prohibited them in the Scriptures.
So who is right? Are tattoos sinful, or are they acceptable? To find the answer we must look at two of the most common arguments some Christians have advanced for seeing tattoos as sinful.
Claim # 1 – God says in Lev. 19:28 that tattoos are prohibited.
Many people believe that Leviticus 19:28 makes an “open and shut” case against tattoos. It reads, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” Straightforward, right? Not so fast. This verse is found in a section of laws that God said were specifically for Israel to keep so that they did not look like Egypt or Canaan (Lev. 18:1-5). Why would God be concerned about whether the Israelites looked like the Egyptians or the Canaanites? Because they were his special people, set apart as a light to the nations. God required them to obey an awful lot of rules that might seem silly to us, but one of the chief reasons for these laws, as God told them over and over again, was so that Israel would be preserved as the people who had been rescued by his grace (see Deut. 6:20-26).
But we’re not part of the ancient nation of Israel, are we? Furthermore, the book of Leviticus is full of other laws that Christians completely ignore—like God’s prohibitions against eating pork or wearing clothes of blended cloths. Should we say goodbye to bacon and cotton-polyester blends? Happily, no. Instead we must understand that the law was like a ferry that brought the people of God to the point in history when the Messiah would be born. Once you reach the other side of a river, you don’t turn around and say, “That ferry was useless!” But neither do you say, “Let’s bring the ferry with us!” That’s equally dumb, since the ferry has already served its purpose. Like a ferry that’s taken you across a river, the law has done what it was supposed to do (Gal. 3:23-24). And since the Messiah has already come (Gal. 4:4) the purpose of the law has been fulfilled, just as Jesus himself has said (Matt. 5:17). It is utter nonsense, therefore, for Christians to appeal to the Levitical laws—while ignoring others—in an attempt to prove that tattoos are evil.
Claim # 2 – Tattoos are like graffiti on your temple-bodies.
Other Christians, well aware of the problems of the pick-and-choose approach to the Old Testament law, turn to 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19 to make their case against tattoos. The first reads, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). The second reads, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Cor. 6:19). The argument is that if our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then it would be dishonoring to God to put “graffiti” on his temple.
The trouble is that all the you’s and the your’s in those verses are plural, as in, referring to more than one person. (The Greek words from which our English is translated are quite clear on this point.) Paul does not say, “Your bodies are temples.” He says instead, “Your (pl.) body (s.) is a temple (s.).” In other words, your collective body—the body you share together in Christ as the church—is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean that the Spirit does not indwell individual believers; he does (Eph. 1:14). It just means that Paul’s emphasis here is on the plural nature of the church as the body of Christ, which is a temple of the Holy Spirit, just as Paul explains elsewhere (see Eph. 2:19-22).
And even if we are wrong about this interpretation—which clear grammar strongly suggests is not the case—these passages don’t say anything directly about tattoos. Additionally, it is ironic that those who read them as prohibitions against “body modification” don’t often wonder whether or not it is acceptable to pierce their ears (the holes of which become permanent after a while), or to eat too many potato chips (their gut might pick up permanent stretch marks).
In the end, people who continue to argue that tattoos are sinful must ask themselves why Jesus would have a tattoo if such were the case. (It says in Revelation 19:16 that Jesus’ name is “written on his thigh.”) Similarly, God told the Israelites in the book of Isaiah that he will one day write the words “Belonging to the Lord” on their hands (44:5). I think we’re safe in concluding that neither of these acts of writing will be done with a Sharpie®.
If God had wanted to rule out tattoos, he could have easily done so. (The New Testament is chock full of other commands, so it is telling that prohibitions against tattoos are totally missing.) But just because something is not prohibited in the Scriptures doesn’t automatically make it acceptable in every case. The historical church council is certainly right that blasphemous and obscene tattoos should be ruled out on obvious grounds. Meanwhile, the sheer permanency of even “good” tattoos should give us pause. After all, this is the only body we’ll ever have. In other words, what we are saying is that Christians should take the permanency of tattoos very seriously. The fact that our bodies will one day be raised and glorified shows that God cares about them, perhaps a great deal more than we are prone to think. When we mistreat our bodies in various ways—overeating, under-eating, lack of exercise, cutting, or foolish tattoos—we are essentially telling others that our bodies don’t really matter. They do, and we should treat them that way.
Finally, even if Christians do have the freedom to get tattooed, we should realize that the purpose and goal of Christian freedom is building each other up in love. Such a realization might even lead some Christians to joyfully decline getting tattooed out of love for their weaker brothers and sisters in Christ (Rom. 14:1ff).
In view of the permanency of tattoos, the importance of the human body, and our calling to love one another, it seems that Christians should approach tattoos in the same way the Book of Common Prayer exhorts us to approach marriage: “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of God.”
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.