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Christians and Tattoos

A question I have received on multiple occasions as a pastor is whether it is okay for Christians to get tattoos. A verse that comes up in this discussion is Leviticus 19:28. This verse reads: "You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (ESV). At first glance, this verse might seem to give a simple answer to the question, prohibiting all tattoos. However, a key principle to remember whenever we read the Bible is that we need to read a verse in light of its historical, literary, and canonical context to make sure that we understand what it means and how it applies to our lives. What I mean by that statement is that you have to think about the culture in which it was originally written (historical context), the rest of the book in which the verse appears (literary context), and where a verse is placed in terms of the Bible and God’s unfolding revelation of salvation that culminates in Jesus Christ (canonical context).

Contextual Considerations of Leviticus 19:28

When one examines the context, a number of key observations emerge. First, this is a command that was given to the people of Israel when they were coming out of Egypt and is part of the Law given to Moses to show that God’s people were different from the other nations. The forbidden tattoos were part of the religious customs of these other nations, which would also include things such as cutting to mourn for the dead (which is also mentioned in Leviticus 19:28). The previous verse also points to ancient customs that were tied to religious practices of other cultures: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27). No one has ever asked me about those practices! At the heart of these commands is that the people of Israel were not to worship God the same way as the other people. Tattoos today do not seem to have the same sort of connotation or connection to worship of other gods that they did back in the time of Israel, and there is even some question about how contemporary tattoos compare with these ancient practices (it might be prohibiting something a little different than what we are talking about).

In noting that this is an Old Testament law, a question that then emerges is if this law would be binding on Christians as well. Christians are likely aware that they do not keep all the Old Testament laws - for example, Christians do not refrain from eating pork or other foods prohibited in the Old Testament Law, and Christians do not keep laws about washing and purity or about sacrifices. However, there are laws that Christians do keep, such as the 10 Commandments, laws speaking about treating people with love and respect, and laws that prohibit worshipping other gods or not worshipping other gods. This is because the Old Testament law was to point people to Jesus and prepare for his coming while also giving guidance for life. Ceremonial laws about purity and sacrifice pointed to him and thus are no longer needed to be kept (in fact, making sacrifices now would say that Jesus’s sacrifice was not sufficient, as discussed in the New Testament Book of Hebrews). The apostles also pointed out that some laws were binding on the people of Israel but did not apply to Gentiles who were becoming Christians and following the God of Israel. This was made clear in the book of Acts, especially Acts 10-11 (in which the food laws are abolished) and Acts 15, as the apostles said that Gentiles only had to keep certain laws - that list did not include the regulation of Leviticus 19:28. In Matthew 19, Jesus points out that the laws about divorce that are in the Old Testament law were concessions for that time and place and points them back to God’s design in Genesis 1-2, once again showing the laws temporary as God is at work in bringing people to himself through the nation of Israel. 

Therefore, it would not seem that one can use Leviticus 19:28 to say Christians should not get tattoos.

Another Verse to Consider: 1 Corinthians 6:19

Are there other verses that speak to this topic? Another common verse used to prohibit tattoos is 1 Corinthians 6:19, which speaks about our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit. The context of 1 Corinthians 6:19, however, is about sexual immorality and not tattoos, so one cannot definitely say that it speaks to the issue; it might by implication since we should treat our bodies with respect and use them glorify God (as people also use this passage to talk about diet and exercise), but that then prompts a question about whether the tattoo might be a way to honor God or glorify him. There are certain tattoos that depict or glorify sin that I think anyone would have a tough time explaining how they could glorify God, but there are others that point to God, His Word, or his ways (such as the covenant of marriage) that one could say is a way to bring God glory.

The Issue of Christian Wisdom

Is what’s the answer? Since there is no direct prohibition on Christians, It would seem that tattoos is a wisdom issue; some Christians might deem it acceptable while other might refrain (Full disclosure - I do not have a tattoo nor do I plan on getting one, so this discussion is in no way trying to justify something I have done but has been seeking to look at the biblical evidence). If considering getting one, I think one should do so thoughtfully and asking questions such as, “Why do I want this?” and “How does this honor God and show that I belong, body and soul, to him?” To be honest, those are questions that would seem wise to ask before making any decision and are to be done so with prayer and consultation with other people.  

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