Should I Get a Tattoo?
Should Christians get Tattoos? There is only one clear reference to tattoos in Scripture: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:28). Obviously, this is a strict prohibition. It is also an Old Testament precept, and many Christians argue that it is no longer applicable today. This claim deserves some careful consideration.
The Christian and OT Laws
As Christians, we do not believe that the ceremonial and civil laws given to the people of Israel are directly applicable to Christians in exhaustive detail (Colossians 2:14-17; Ephesians 2:15-16; Hebrews 9:10; Acts 10:9-16, 11:2-10). Nevertheless, we do believe that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is therefore profitable to equip the Christian for good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The profitability of many Old Covenant laws is found in their “general equity” or basic moral principles which are always to be observed (e.g., compare Deuteronomy 25:4 with 1 Corinthians 9:8-10). It is therefore the duty of every Christian to find the “kernel” of abiding truth in each of God’s commandments by carefully stripping away the “husk” of ceremonialism. An attentive consideration of the context is oftentimes key.
The Context of Leviticus 19
This chapter was written to prepare God’s people for entering the land of Canaan. Living amongst pagans was not an entirely new concept for them—they had just spent four hundred years as slaves in Egypt—but they were about to be exposed to a level of paganism, occultism, idolatry, and immorality that was unprecedented in the ancient world. God therefore gave them some very specific laws to follow so they would know how to remain separate from that reprobate people.
This call to “remain separate” was not abrogated under the New Covenant. It is, in fact, reiterated, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (2 Corinthians 6:17).
The Complexity of Leviticus 19
Leviticus 19 is not the simplest chapter to interpret and apply. It contains some laws that are obviously ceremonial and civil in nature (e.g., the sacrifice of peace, gleaning laws, livestock and seed mixing, the trespass offering). At the same time, there are also some basic moral principles stated which are universally applicable (e.g., respecting parents, avoiding idols, not stealing or cheating, being kind to the handicapped).
Further, it should also be noted that the Lord Jesus quoted directly from this chapter when upholding the second-most-important moral principle of all: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27). Therefore, we cannot simply dismiss the content of Leviticus 19 as quickly and as flippantly as so many do today, saying, “We’re not under law… we’re under grace!”
The Principles of Leviticus 19
Without even touching upon the ceremonial or civil aspects of Leviticus 19, it is easy to recognize at least seven moral principles which all Christians should be able to affirm. It is never enough, however, only to affirm moral principles; they must also be applied. Mere hearers of the word deceive themselves (James 1:22). Therefore, we should draw from these principles some applicatory questions to help us think through our original question: "Should I get a tattoo?"
Fear God: Throughout this chapter, God reinforces the authority of his law by repeating the phrases, “I am the LORD” and “keep my statutes.” Do I belong to God? Have I been bought with a price? Is my body the temple of the Holy Spirit? Do I acknowledge Christ’s absolute lordship over my body? If so, will putting a tattoo on my body bring glory to him?
Be Separate: Leviticus 19 begins with the charge, “Ye shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (vs. 2). Holiness, by very definition, means separating yourself from that which is sinful and remaining separate. Am I committed to staying at a “safe distance” from the sinful world in which we live? Will getting a tattoo make me appear closer to it, or further from it?
Worship Aright: Maintaining pure worship in Canaan would be difficult. That is why God reiterated his Sabbath Law, the prohibition of idolatry, and the regulations for sacrificial offerings (vv. 3-5). It is a good reminder that God does not accept religious service that he himself has not specifically required (especially when it involves the use of images). Has God asked me to serve him by getting a tattoo?
Honor Superiors: The importance of the Fifth Commandment, “Honour thy father and thy mother” is reaffirmed in Leviticus 19 (vv. 3, 32). It is also reiterated in the New Testament (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:1-3). Have I sought the advice and approval of my superiors in the Lord (e.g., parents, employers, church elders)?
Love Neighbors: No one can claim to love God if they do not also love their neighbor. Several examples of neighborly love are therefore mentioned in Leviticus 19 (vv. 9-18, 33-34). Have I considered how a tattoo might affect my witness to Christ? Have I considered whether it might be a stumbling block to my weaker brothers and sisters?
Remain Pure: The Canaanites were perverted deviants and God’s people were about to find themselves living in an extremely sex-saturated culture. Therefore, God reminded them to keep themselves, and one other, pure (vv. 20, 29). Will the graphic content and physical location of my desired tattoo be modest? Will it serve to guard the sexual purity of myself and others?
Avoid Paganism: The Canaanites ate what they ate, wore what they wore, and did what they did because they were pagans. That is why God commanded his people to avoid all their customs (vv. 26-28). Their tattoos, as Scripture explains, reflected pagan beliefs about death. This has led some to conclude that the act of tattooing is lawful so long as the pagan intent is not shared. Here, however, is a simpler consideration: By getting a tattoo, will I be avoiding the pagans or appearing as one of them?
Making the Big Decision
After you read Leviticus 19 a few times and prayerfully reflect upon these principles, the decision will still need to be made. That decision, obviously, is only yours to make and it is undoubtedly a “big” decision because tattoos are permanent.
I got many tattoos when I was a teenager and, obviously, I still have them today. Some of them are simply embarrassing, as they reflect the asinine worldview of an angst-driven adolescent. Some are inconsequential and others are irreverent. All of them, however, I now regard as a sinful desecration of my flesh.
Some have asked why I have not then chosen to have them surgically removed. One reason is that I have too many of them and have much better uses for my money. The other reason is this: Scars and battle wounds can be useful object lessons when trying to talk young people out of making bad decisions. That is the intent of this article and I hope it helps you to fear the Lord, be separate, worship God aright, honor superiors, love neighbors, remain pure, and avoid every appearance paganism.
Christian McShaffrey is Pastor of Five Solas Church (OPC) in Reedsburg, WI and stated clerk of the Presbytery of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
"The Old Testament's Message to Our Culture" by David Murray
"Take Care of Your Body" by Brian Najapfour
"Contra Cremation" by Peter Van Doodewaard
An Introduction to Theological Anthropology by Joshua Farris
This World is Not My Home by Mark Johnston
P/C Kadyn Pierce on Unsplash