The Mailbag: Christians, the Bible, and Tattoos

Do you have any resources on tattoos? We’re having a very HOT discussion in our ladies group and it’s causing conflict.

Ya know, I thought for sure I had written something about that by now, but I guess not. So, here goes…

To me, tattoos are ugly as sin. I don’t care how beautiful the artwork is, or if it’s a Bible verse, or a tribute to someone you love. It reminds me of graffiti spray-painted on an overpass. I don’t understand why anyone would permanently mar her body that way, not to mention the fact that those things aren’t going to look so great when you’re in your 80’s and wrinkly. And, if you change your mind about your tattoo(s) later, it’s my understanding that they’re painful and expensive to remove. If anyone ever comes to me to ask my opinion about getting a tattoo, my answer will be an across the board, no matter what: don’t do it.

And you know what? None of that matters to this question, because it’s just my personal, subjective opinion and preference. So what? We want to know what the Bible says, because the Bible is our authority in life, not Michelle’s disdain of the aesthetics of tattoos. (Nor, for that matter, your opinion that tattoos are cool and groovy and pulchritudinous.)

What does the Bible say about getting a tattoo?

So what does the Bible say about getting a tattoo?

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

“But what about Leviticus 19:28? ‘You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.'”

I sure hope you don’t have pierced ears or that you’ve ever undergone surgery if you’re trying to make that verse say that the Bible prohibits tattoos as we know them today. Because if you have, according to your own hermeneutic, you’re just as guilty as the tatted teen down the pew from you.

Compare Leviticus 19:28 in several different trustworthy translations. Read the cross references. Read the whole chapter.

Look at the macro-context of this verse. It’s in the Old Testament. Right off the bat, our knee-jerk reaction should be, “This might not apply directly to New Testament Christians. I’d better look at it super carefully.”.

And indeed, we should. Because, not only is it in the Old Testament, it’s in the Old Testament law. And while we know that God’s moral law is transcendent (for all time), we also know that Jesus fulfilled the law, which is why the ceremonial (Old Testament worship) and civil (the government of the Old Testament nation of Israel) laws largely no longer apply directly to the everyday lives of Christians. I mean, look just one verse earlier, at Leviticus 19:27: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.”. The menfolk in your family keeping that one? OK, then.

At the time God breathed out this law, the rituals in Leviticus 19:28 (and also in verse 27) were pagan practices – likely originating or proliferating in Egypt or Canaan – associated with mourning the dead. Gashing one’s body was practiced by most pagan nations and was intended both to show respect for the dead and to intercede with the gods on behalf of the dead. Tattoos were associated with the names of particular pagan gods and were an indication that the tattooed person had permanently dedicated himself to the worship of that god.

So, look also at the micro-context of the phrases within verse 28. “You shall not make any cuts on your body” and “tattoo yourselves” are both connected to the phrase “for the dead”. That’s a modifier. This verse doesn’t mean “don’t pierce your ears or have a C-section” or “don’t tattoo a Bible verse on your arm”. It means don’t cut your body in this particular context: for the dead, because that’s paganism. Likewise, don’t tattoo yourself because that’s paganism, just like cutting yourself for the dead is. You’re God’s people, not pagans. Act like it.

So, does this verse apply to Christians, and, if so, how?

If you’re cutting or marring your body in order to mourn the dead, to plead with false gods on behalf of the dead, or to worship or dedicate yourself to false gods, you’re in sin. (Also, you’re almost certainly not saved.)

But that’s not typically why even lost people get tattoos these days.

The Christians I know who have gotten tattoos have usually done so because they thought the tattoo was aesthetically pleasing and/or because it was meaningful to them in some way (their favorite Bible verse, the names of their children or spouse, etc.).

Does the Bible prohibit artistic tattoos for such reasons? No. As much as you or I might not like them personally, the Bible doesn’t teach “Thou shalt not get a tattoo.”. And if you teach that it does, you’re lying about God’s Word. It’s OK to express your personal opinion that you don’t like tattoos. It’s not OK to tell someone else she’s sinning if she gets a tattoo or that Scripture says she can’t.

As much as you or I might not like them personally, the Bible doesn’t teach “Thou shalt not get a tattoo.”. And if you teach that it does, you’re lying about God’s Word.

There are, however, some Scriptures that might be related to getting a tattoo that you’ll want to consider and obey if you’re thinking about getting one:

  • If you’re a minor child who’s still under the authority of your parents, and they forbid you from getting a tattoo, you have to obey them.
  • If your husband doesn’t want you to get a tattoo, you need to submit to him.
  • Examine your heart. Why do you want to get a tattoo? Are your reasons worldly, or God-glorifying?
  • Is paying for a tattoo honoring God with your finances?
  • Is there any way in which getting a tattoo could harm your witness for Christ or be a stumbling block to someone?

Tattoos aren’t my personal cup of tea. And you know what? That’s just as OK as if tattoos are your personal cup of tea. I still love you just as much, and I don’t look down on you or pass judgment on you. (In fact with my nearly non-existent powers of observation, I probably won’t even notice you have one.) The Bible doesn’t allow for that. Assuming you’re obeying all of the Scriptures above, tattoos are an issue of Christian liberty.

Additional Resources

Can a Christian Get a Tattoo? by Todd Friel

If you have a question about: a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.