We are currently living in the age of the tattoo. A Harris 2015 online survey poll of 2,225 American adults found that 29% have tattoos. That was up from 21% just four years earlier. And of those who have a tattoo, 69% have two or more. I guess once you take the plunge and get one, you have no qualms about getting another one.
According to the poll, the demographics of tattooed people break down as follows: (I’ll provide a definition for each age group, but please understand that there isn’t always total agreement on when an age group begins and ends.)
- Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000): 47% have at least one tattoo, and 37% have at least two.
- Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1980): 36% have at least one tattoo, and 24% have at least two.
- Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964): 13% have at least one tattoo, and 6% have at least two.
- Matures, famously known as “The Greatest Generation,” (born between 1927 and 1945): 10% have at least one tattoo, and 2% have at least two.
Tattoos are no longer reserved for military men, sailors, bikers, convicts, rock stars, scandalous women, and drug addicts, and people now get them for a variety of reasons. A tattoo can be a rite of passage. It can be a mark of freedom. It can be an expression of individuality. It can be a sign of rebellion. It can serve as a symbolic beginning. It can serve as a symbolic ending. Basically, whatever it is you want to say, there’s a tattoo that can say it for you.
One big change that has helped fuel the recent uptick in tattoos is the fact that more and more Christians are getting them. Here’s a list of the ten most requested “Christian” tattoos. (I got these from a website called tattoodo.com.):
- The Cross
- Jesus Christ
- A Dove
- The Sacred heart
- The Virgin Mary
- The Rosary
- Praying Hands
- Adam & Eve
- The Devil
I was surprised to find that no Bible verse made that list. One that I’ve seen a lot is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (N.K.J.V.) Proverbs 31:25a is another one that seems to be popular among women: “She is clothed with strength and dignity” (N.I.V.) But these are just two examples of a sizable array of options. The fact is, the Bible is filled with verses that can be turned into tattoos.
One verse that nobody uses is Leviticus 19:28, where God instructs Moses to say to the people of Israel:
“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord” (N.K.J.V.).
Obviously, that verse seems pretty definitive that God doesn’t like tattoos. It’s no wonder that for centuries it played a huge part in keeping Christians from getting tattoos. But does the verse really outlaw today’s tattoos? Well, let’s talk about that.
First, the verse begins with a prohibition against making cuttings in your flesh for the dead. Such cuttings, along with shaving the head and shaving the edges of one’s beard, are frequently mentioned in the Old Testament as being expressions of mourning among the heathen people (Leviticus 19:27; 21:1-5; Deuteronomy 14:1; 1 Kings 18:25-28; Jeremiah 16:6). God didn’t mind for the people of Israel to mourn their dead. Mourning was proper and right. What He minded was them mimicking how the heathen mourned. Any ritual that involved the disfiguring of the body was viewed as an affront to God, the Creator of the human body.
Second, still on the subject of heathen practices that defiled the human body, God lists tattooing as another one and, as such, forbids it. As for just how common tattooing was in ancient times, Charles R. Erdman has provided us with some help. He served as Professor of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary for over 30 years. In his commentary on the book of Leviticus, he writes:
The custom of tattooing was forbidden, while among the nations of antiquity it was common; a slave carried the initials of his master, a soldier those of his general, the worshiper bore the image of his god.”
It should be noted, however, that the tattoos of the Old Testament weren’t the same kind that we know today. Since the word “tattoo” didn’t enter the English language until the late 1700s, the 1611 King James translation didn’t use it. The King James translation of Leviticus 19:28 reads:
Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.
The Hebrew word that is translated as “print” (or “tattoo” in later translations) is natan. It’s a common verb that is used well over 1,000 times in the Old Testament. It’s primary meaning is “to deliver over” or “give over into the possession of another.”
The Hebrew word that is translated as “marks” is an uncommon one. Actually, this is the only time it is used in the entire Old Testament. It’s the word qaaqa, and it means “an incision” or “a gash.”
Putting both definitions together, we learn that the “tattooing” being described is one person delivering over an incision or a gash to another person. This seems to indicate that the Old Testament tattoos were engravings or inscriptions made directly into the skin as opposed to the ink-style tattoos of today. This interpretation is backed up by the fact that the first part of the verse speaks of making cuttings in the flesh.
So, now we know the background and interpretation of Leviticus 19:28. But the question we have before us goes like this: If we aren’t Jews living under the Old Testament law, and if our motives for getting tattoos having nothing to do with mourning for the dead, and if the text’s forbidden tattoos aren’t even the same kind we have today, does Leviticus 19:28 even apply to us at all? Good question.
Even if we assume that it does, the plain truth is that Christians have co-opted plenty of other heathen/pagan practices and “baptized” them into Christianity. Most of this “baptizing” can be attributed to the Roman emperor Constantine’s professed conversion to Christianity. When he went Christian and set a course to take his empire down the same path, he minimized the effect the change would have upon his pagan citizens by keeping pagan celebrations and rituals in place but putting a Christian spin on each one. This is how a pagan Winter Solstice celebration became our Christmas and how a pagan Spring celebration became our Easter. While it’s true that it took decades for these changes to gain a firm foothold, the job eventually got done.
Entire books have been written about how Constantine and his Bishops blended paganism and authentic Christianity to create the Catholic church and all its rituals, but I won’t cover all that territory here. All I’m trying to do right now is explain that if Christians do take the heathen practice of tattooing — any version of it — and “baptize” it for use in Christian service, it certainly won’t be the first time something like that has happened. (Did you know that even the wedding band has its roots in paganism rather than Christianity?) Still, though, none of this explicitly answers the question of the rightness or wrongness of Christians getting tattoos.
Christians who do not believe that a Christian should get a tattoo cite multiple passages to support their view. Here are five of the more commonly used ones: (all references from the N.K.J.V.):
- 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
- 2 Corinthians 6:16-18: And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, And you shall be My sons and daughters, Says the Lord Almighty.”
- Ephesians 5:11: And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22: Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
- Romans 12:1-2: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Okay, that covers those passages, but there are other Christians who say, “Those passages don’t truly apply to the question because tattoos come under the heading of Christian liberty.” While I understand the attempt to use the Bible to justify a tattoo, let me be crystal clear about something: The subject of Christian liberty is very tricky. It’s not nearly as straightforward as it usually gets made out to be. Take Paul for example. He was the world’s leading authority on Christian liberty, and he taught that the Christian must be careful not to let Christian liberty become a stumbling block for others who are looking to that Christian as a role model.
In Paul’s day, the big debate among Christians was whether or not it was acceptable to eat meat that had been offered to idols. Paul’s take was that it wasn’t a sin as long as the Christian could do the eating with a clear conscience, understanding that a lifeless idol didn’t have the ability to spiritually corrupt meat. But Paul didn’t stop there. He then went on to say that each Christian should be careful in eating such meat because the act might cause a fellow Christian (one who wasn’t spiritually mature enough yet to eat the meat without feeling guilty) to eat in sin. Consider Paul’s explanation as it is given in 1 Corinthians 8:8-13 of The New Living Translation:
It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t miss out on anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do. But you must be careful with this freedom of yours. Do not cause a brother or sister with a weaker conscience to stumble. You see, this is what can happen: Weak Christians who think it is wrong to eat this food will see you eating in the temple of the idol. You know there’s nothing wrong with it, but they will be encouraged to violate their conscience by eating food that has been dedicated to the idol. So because of your superior knowledge, a weak Christian, for whom Christ died, will be destroyed. And you are sinning against Christ when you sin against other Christians by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong. If what I eat is going to make another Christian sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live — for I don’t want to make another Christian stumble.
You see, Christian, even if we accept the idea that Leviticus 19:28 and those five other passages I listed don’t forbid you from getting a tattoo — and that is a SIZABLE acceptance — we’re still left with the undeniable fact that most people in this world (including many Christians) feel that getting a tattoo is wrong. Think about it, if that Harris poll concluded that 29% of adults have tattoos, that means that 71% don’t. And a sizable percentage of that 71% don’t have one because they believe that getting one is a sin.
So, if you are still determined to get a tattoo, here’s where you stand:
A: You are going to apply a liberal take to Leviticus 19:28 and other verses just to reach a place where tattoos can come under Christian liberty.
B: You are going to mark your body in a way that won’t sit well with the majority of the population if they see the mark. Naturally, that will hurt your Christian testimony even if you don’t think it should. And how effective a witness can your tattoo of John 3:16 be if more than half the people who see it are immediately turned off by it?
C. You are going to open yourself up to the possibility of causing fellow Christians to get tattoos their consciences aren’t ready for yet. That, in turn, will create sin not only in their lives but in yours because they have gone against their consciences and you have caused them to stumble.
Now you tell me, does your individuality really mean that much to you? Does it compel you to express it by way of a tattoo? If you answer both these questions with a yes, then here’s another one for you: Is the attitude you’ll take into that tattoo parlor one that is pleasing to God? Remember that the Bible sings the praises of modesty over showiness, humility over bravado, and holiness over sex appeal.
By the way, here are a few other results from that Harris poll. These are more practical than scriptural, but they too are things you need to consider before getting a tattoo:
- Of those polled who had tattoos, many indicated that they associated their tattoos with certain feelings. 33% said their tattoo made them feel more sexy (that’s an unworthy motivation for a Christian). 32% said it made them feel more attractive. 27% said it made them feel more rebellious (another unworthy motivation). 20% said it made them feel more spiritual. 13% said it made them feel more intelligent. Another 13% said it made them feel more respected (whatever happened to the greatest among you shall become a lowly servant?).
- Interestingly, though, of those polled who didn’t have tattoos, 45% said they believe those with tattoos are more rebellious. 47% viewed them as being less attractive. 44% viewed them as being less sexy. 34% viewed them as being less respectable. 29% viewed them as being less intelligent. 25% viewed them as being less spiritual.
- Finally, 23% of those who had a tattoo admitted regretting getting it. That was up from 14% in a similar poll from 2012. The regrets cited were: too young when the person got the tattoo; the person’s personality or lifestyle changed so that the tattoo no longer characterized them; the tattoo was the name of someone the person was no longer with; the tattoo was poorly done.
Now, as I begin to close, let me say that I have friends and family members who have tattoos. I’ve also had church members who’ve had them. And, trust me, not one of these people is going to die and go to hell for having a tattoo. Also, I’ve never broken fellowship with anyone over this issue or asked them to leave church. I’ve got enough problems in my life without me trying to be the tattoo police.
Furthermore, I realize that I won’t win any popularity contests with this post, especially with all the readers who already have tattoos. The truth is, though, that I genuinely felt burdened of the Lord to address this issue. So that’s what I’ve done. How God uses what I’ve written is up to Him. My prayer is that my words will be read in the spirit in which they’ve been written, and they will help us all reach a correct understanding of whether or not a Christian should get a tattoo. Needless to say, we’ll never get any further down the road of that understanding if we don’t put the issue under the microscope and talk about it.