I remember when there was a time that the thought of a tattooed christian was on par with the thought of a christian drug dealer or christian sorcerer. It was simply unthinkable (those poor souls who got saved after ruining their lives, and skin, excepted). Then there was a time when I would hear believers ask, "Do you think it is a sin to get a tattoo?". Now it is not only common to see Christians with tattoos but even covered in them and no one seriously asks if it is a sin or not. How times have changed.
But just because everyone is doing it certainly shouldn't keep us from asking serious questions about what we ought or ought not be doing. This is especially true when it comes to cultural trends and how they effect the way we are looked at by the world and the Church. This is true about much more than tattoos but tats make a great place to start.
As odd as it may seem the Bible actually spoke to this subject over three thousand years ago:
You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.
(Leviticus 19:28 ESV)
Wow! Who would have thought? For many this verse will serve as confirmation that the Bible is simply a puritanical book who's sole purpose is to keep people from having fun. But if we who call ourselves Christian are serious about following the Jewish carpenter from Nazareth we'll want to take a serious look at what God's Word says and not simply dismiss what makes us ask hard questions about what we think is right and wrong.
The difficulty with the above passage (the only one about tattoos in the Bible) is that there are several other verses around it that both speak about things that are very relevant today and other things that aren't. The immediate verses tell us things such as:
- Not to eat flesh with blood in it
- Not to sell our daughters into prostitution
- Not to consult with witches and sorcerers
- Keep the Sabbaths and honor the sanctuary
- Respect the elderly
- Not to trim the sides of your beard (presumably speaking to men, but I don't wish to discriminate here)
- Don't wear clothes made of two different kinds of materials
- Don't breed different kinds of cattle
- Don't curse the deaf.
- Don't steal or lie, etc.
No Christian would seriously argue with the prohibition against selling daughters into prostitution or consorting with witches and sorcerers (although perhaps that is a bit of an presumption on my part considering the state of the Church today). But trimming the beard and eating blood seems to be more clearly directed at Israel in particular and few would give it a second thought if someone shaved their beard or ate rare meat. So what is the believer to do?
The fact is, this passage was, in its entirety, written to ancient Israel and really has nothing to do with Christians at all, at least as far as religious observances goes. In other words, we don't have to figure out what to obey or not obey in this case because it wasn't written to us. But before you run out and get those sleeves you've been sitting on the fence about note that I said that it wasn't written TO us. But they were certainly written FOR us. When Paul was writing to the church concerning some things that happened to the Israelites he wrote:
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 1 Corinthians 10:11
He also wrote to the young leader of the first century church the following in 2 Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
What these passages clearly tell us is that because all of Scripture is God's Word and breathed out by Him (Literally the Bible is the breath of God) even when certain things are not written directly to us they are still, in some way, for us. In other words, we aren't off the hook.
When Jesus in the New Testament tells a questioner what the greatest commandment is (Love God and love your neighbor) we have little difficulty knowing that we are expected to obey it, even though we don't always like it or practice it consistently. Yet Jesus is actually quoting the Old Testament!
When Jesus came, although he came first to Israel, he also came to bring salvation to every nation. So we understand that what he said he said for the benefit of everyone, even those who would come thousands of years later. So when we see Jesus or his apostles clearly telling us to obey a particular aspect of the Old Testament we do it. When Scripture is silent then we are not bound by what is commanded under the Old Covenant. The New Testament prohibits prostitution, fornication and commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Therefore selling people into prostitution is forbidden. But it says nothing about tattoos or beards so we are free to follow our conscience. Fairly simple, isn't it? So getting a tattoo is not a sin...per se.
Why do I say "per se". Because if we were to simply take a black and white approach to this question and run to the nearest ink parlor we would be missing two major points in this Levitical passage. The first is the reasons it was written in the first place. The very first verse of this chapter states:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
God was concerned that the Israelites would remain distinct and separate from the people of the lands around them. This was what it meant to be called out as God's people. In this respect there is little difference between the Israelites then and Christians today. This isn't to say that some of these prohibitions didn't have reason beyond this. Some of the things God prohibited he did so because they are contrary to his own nature. In other words, they were to be holy because God is holy. But some of these things were written because they were what God wanted his chosen people to do or not do in order to be demonstratively distinct from the heathen nations around them.
When we come across things in our lives that the world around us is doing and it doesn't appear from our study of Scripture that God directly forbids us as new Testament believers one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is: In doing this thing am I simply conforming to the culture around me? In our day of inclusiveness and tolerance we may get the impression that distinctiveness is itself a sin. It is not. In fact, when it comes to practicing our faith, it is, in many cases, a virtue.
The second major point that we tend to miss is that God actually did forbid it. Ok, so it was directed to the Israelites three thousand years ago under a different covenant. Yet while God did say it TO them we must remember that he also said it FOR us. That is, this passage tells us something about God's mind on remaining separate from the world. And although getting a tattoo is not a sin in and of itself this isn't the same thing as saying that God doesn't care. This should be a serious consideration for any believer thinking of getting himself or herself tattooed. God did care at one time and he hasn't said anything to the contrary since then.
There is another thing to consider here. Tattoos cost money. I remember working with someone who would frequently tell me of the difficulty she was having financially taking care of her children. Yet every few months she would model her latest tattoo. They were very high quality and rather large, so it was obvious they cost a fair amount of money. Taking care of our family is important, but as Christians we have other concerns as well. What about missions? What about the Church? Are we making wise choices with our finances? It is true that some people get tattoos for very specific reasons, such as remembering a loved one and I'm not in a position to judge everyone's motives, but it must be asked if many of the tattoos people spend good money for aren't the final result of hubris and vanity. We are going to have to answer for how we handled the money and resources God put us in charge of and a tattoo may be difficult to justify. But again, that will be someone else's problem. I have other things I'll have to give answer for.
I mentioned earlier that this subject was really only one of many when it comes to walking this walk. Whenever we do anything and we find ourselves trying very hard to justify what we are about to do or not do when it comes to conforming to our culture we should take that as a hint that perhaps something is not quite right. Culture should be conforming to us (assuming we are following the teachings of Scripture) and not the other way around. This is something every believer should keep in mind. In respect to our separateness to the culture around us we really aren't that different from the ancient Israelites:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
(1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV)