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From the archives: "Is Getting a Tattoo a Sin?"

Our most recent DeBunked video, "Tattoos Are Sinful ... DeBunked!" has caused quite a stir in the Christian community, so we thought it prudent to give some background about WHY we chose this topic for a DeBunked. Today's blog is actually archived from a blog posted by Carl on June 29, 2015, addressing this topic. Please take the time to read the entire blog and watch this DeBunked video (link included below) before jumping to any conclusions or making any judgments. 

"Is it a sin to get a tattoo?"

When working with high school or middle school students, I’ll typically ask them to write down any questions they may have and then attempt to find a biblical answer and incorporate it into my presentations.
This approach goes back to the time when I led small group studies in my home in Salt Lake City. We’d take a news article or item that was in the news at that time and show how the Scripture dealt with it. Then we would then go into whatever book we were studying.
It was my belief that if we could show that the Bible dealt with current topics, then the folks would be more likely to trust whatever we were studying at the time. We had very good success with that approach so we still use it years later.
One such question I received was, "Do you think it's a sin to get a tattoo?" Talk about a question that will get you in trouble either way that you go! But hey! Running from tough issues isn’t what Christians should do, so here’s what I believe the Bible teaches on the topic. Feel free to share your take on it as well.
While I was doing research on this topic, one verse kept coming up in support of not getting a tattoo.

Leviticus 19:28 KJV

Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am Jehovah.

The New American Standard Version makes it even clearer where it’s translated:
“nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves.” That was easy enough, so let’s move on to the next question, please! Right? Sorry, not so fast.
Whenever we are studying the Scriptures, we need to read the passages in their proper context. God makes this very clear in His Word in 2 Timothy 2:15: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (ESV).
In order to interpret the Scripture accurately and contextually, we have to do some digging and find out what is being spoken of in Leviticus 19:28. In other words, we have to read the surrounding verses to see what is actually being taught and to whom it is directed. When we do that, here’s what we see:
  • Instruction is given on correctly handling “peace” offerings (vv. 5-8).
  • Don’t let your cattle “gender with a diverse kind” (v. 19)
  • Do we really want to talk about this? (v. 20)
  • Instructions on “trespass” offerings (vv. 21–22).
  • Don’t eat fruit from your trees for the first three years (vv. 23–25).
  • Don’t eat anything with blood, “nor observe time” (v. 26).
  • Don’t “round the corners of your heads” or “mar the corners” of your beard (v. 27).
My question is, "If we’re going to use verse 28 so adamantly to prohibit tattoos, are we also  enforcing the 'peace' and 'trespass' offering?" Are we avoiding eating fruit off of trees for three years, having a rare steak, or letting our cattle “breed with a different kind”? And what’s up with the whole “round the corners of your heads” or “mar the corners of your beard” thing? I don’t see Christians up in arms on those issues.
A major difficulty we have here is that the word used for “tattoo” or “marks” is only used in the Scripture one time, and it’s in this verse in Leviticus. When looking at Leviticus 19 in its entirety, we should ask the following questions:
  1. Who is being addressed? The Israelites (v. 2)
  2. What was prohibited? The cutting or making marks on their body (v. 28)
  3. Why? To keep them from being involved or affiliated with cultism and religious practices of the day

Ceremonial and Civil Laws

Regardless of how you interpret “tattoo” or “marks,” the word is used in context to warn the Israelites from getting involved with false religions. That is still a valid warning to those of us living today, but why is it that we are only focusing on verse 28? It’s true that tattoos were forbidden under Levitical law, but we must remember that these laws were originally given to the nation of Israel, not the Body of Christ.  As Christians, not all the laws given to Israel apply to us.  In the Old Testament, God gave moral, civil, and ceremonial laws.
For Christians, the moral Law (The Ten Commandments) remains in effect to direct our moral judgment and to command us to obey God. While the Law has no power to save us, it certainly has the power to direct our lives by guiding us to make godly choices to avoid sin and to live in a way that honors God. The Ten Commandments reflect the very nature of God—His perfection and His righteousness.  We can never attain the perfection God’s Law commands, but we can live our lives moving in that direction.  Jesus magnified the Ten Commandments, the moral Law, during His earthly ministry, and Paul confirmed this Law for the Church.  God does not change (Malachi 3:6), nor does His moral Law change.  Therefore, we are called to obey the Ten Commandments.
The ceremonial and civil laws were given to the nation of Israel.  As a whole, these laws are not binding for Christians, although many of them are good for our instruction and for our sanctification.  We find many repeated in the New Testament as directives for Christian living (e.g., restitution for wrongdoing).  The ceremonial and civil laws were given to Israel to instruct them how to live in a relationship with God and to keep them separate from the nations and holy unto God.  Many of these laws have no relevance to Christian living (e.g. the prohibition of mixed fibers and shellfish).

How Deep Is Your Faith?

In full-disclosure, I don’t have any tattoos or piercings and don’t find them particularly attractive. So it’s not like I’m trying to justify my previous decisions. As a matter of fact, until recently my feelings were very strongly against tattoos. That is until I was challenged to look at the issue biblically.
After studying this I had to apologize to some dear friends because when I first met them I judged them because of their tattoos. After knowing them a few years I saw how wrong I was to focus on the exterior. (By the way, I think 1 Samuel 16:7 has something to say about this!) These young men know the Lord and are encouraging examples of Christ-likeness to me. Now, with that soul-baring out of the way, I do think there are some verses that are very important when considering the tattoo issue.

1 Corinthians 6: 19–20 
What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

Romans 14:23
But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

1 Corinthians 10:31
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God

These verses make it very clear that our body and our spirit are not our own, they belong to God. He made us, He owns us, and we will be held accountable for what we do with, and to, what He has loaned us! So, if we’re going to put permanent marks on the Lord’s property, our body, we’d better consider what the Lord would want.
By the way, if you’re going to stand so strongly on the “our body is the temple of God” and that marking it is a sin, then you need to consider some other things.
  • Are you overweight because of poor eating habits? (There are other factors in people being overweight, I’m talking about those who “abuse” their body because of gluttony!) That’s abusing God’s temple! 
  • Are you watching things on TV that are inappropriate? That’s abusing God’s temple! 
  • Are you saying things that shouldn’t be said? That’s abusing God’s temple!

My point is that it is much easier for me to pull the speck out of your eye than the plank in mine. There are still many things in my life that need to be worked on. What else does God's Word teach us in relation to our thinking on this topic?

Romans 14:13–18
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him, it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men"

If our actions cause someone to stumble, we should refrain, even if we have the freedom to do it. This is something to consider prior to submitting our bodies to being marked on.
Here are some very basic questions that we should ask before we get a tattoo or any other modification to our bodies. Some are practical questions; others are spiritual.
  • If you are a youth and still responsible to your parents, what do they think? If they are not supportive, you should honor your mother and father.
  • Twenty years from now, is this how I would want to represent myself to those who see it?
  • Will this impact my ministry opportunities? Regardless of whether it is fair, tattoos still have a stigma among certain people.
  • Is the image I’m putting on my body truly glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ?
  • What is my motivation for putting this on my body? i.e., Looks cool, friends are doing it, and I want to be a part of the group, etc.
  • Who (or what) owns you? (Branding/marking/tattooing of animals in the OT was a sign of ownership.)
So, cut to the chase: is it a sin to get or have a tattoo?   The simple answer is … it depends on the motivation behind the decision.  However, the answer is really not very simple at all.  This is a response that requires personal discernment using biblical instruction.  Christians know that they have liberty in Christ Jesus (Galatians 5:1), but with this liberty comes great responsibility. (I know, that sounds like a Spider-Man comic, but it’s true!)
We recently released our newest DeBunked video, Tattoos Are Sinful ... DeBunked, and invite you to watch (or rewatch) it now. We hope that with the backstory this blog provides, you will understand why we produced a DeBunked on this controversial topic. The blog title question is becoming a common one asked by the youth we minister to. Please pray with us that this video can be used as a ministry opportunity to teach the truths of God's Word and to help the younger generation of believers become bolder in their faith. Click below to watch D24. 
May I strongly encourage you to pray and ask for God’s wisdom before you make a final decision about getting a tattoo? I pray that you would take these steps with any other decision that impacts your body for the rest of your life here on earth as well!

To learn more about our Founder and President, Carl Kerby, or to book him as a speaker, please click HERE.
Read Carl’s testimony and his heart for ministry in his book, Reasons for Hope in the Mosaic of Your Life. Available HERE at our Reasons for Hope Store.

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