Is it a “sin” to get or have a tattoo? Let’s take a look and see what we can find out!
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 the 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.
So, over the next few weeks I’ll share with you the questions and give you a biblical answer. This week we’ll start with the first question that was asked!
“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! Well, 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 doing research on this topic one verse kept coming up in support of not getting a tattoo, Leviticus 19:28:
“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 makes it even clearer, there 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 studying the Scripture we need to read the passages in context. God makes this very clear by telling us to study to show ourselves approved unto God a workman that isn’t ashamed and can rightly divide the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
In order to accomplish this we have to do some digging and find out what is actually being spoken of here. This means we have to read the verses around it to see what is actually being taught and who it’s directed to. When we do that, here’s what we see:
- 5 – 8 Instruction is given on how to correctly handle “peace” offerings.
- 19 Don’t let your cattle “gender with a diverse kind.”
- 20 Do we really want to talk about this?
- 21 – 22 Instructions on “trespass” offerings.
- 23 – 25 Don’t eat fruit from your trees for the first 3 years.
- 26 Don’t eat anything with blood, “nor observe times.”
- 27 Don’t “round the corners of your heads” or “mar the corners” of your beard.
My question is, if we’re going to use vs. 28 so adamantly to prohibit tattoos, are we enforcing the “peace” and “trespass” offering? Are we not eating fruit off of trees for 3 years, a rare steak or letting our cattle “gender with a diverse 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 here 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 see:
- First, who is being spoken to? The Israelites! vs. 2
- What was prohibited? The cutting or making marks on their body. vs. 28
- Why? To keep them from being involved or affiliated with cultic religious practices of the day.
Regardless of how you interpret “tattoo” or “marks” the word is used in context warning 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 given to the Nation of Israel, not the Body of Christ. As Christians, not all of 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 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, 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 on 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 relationship with God and to keep them separate from the nations and holy unto God. Many of these laws have no relevance for Christian living (e.g. the prohibition of mixed fibers and shellfish).
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 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? 20 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 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.
In addition, God also teaches us in Romans 14:
13 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. 14 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. 15 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. 16 Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 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 from it, 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 what I would want to represent who I am to those who see it?
- Will this impact my ministry opportunities? Regardless of whether it is fair or not, tattoos still have a stigma with 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? ie. 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.)
- Tattoos are skin deep. How deep is your faith?
- The ultimate bottom line is that it is not necessarily a sin to get a tattoo!
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. The answer’s really not very simple at all. This is a question that requires personal discernment using biblical instruction. A Christian knows that they have liberty in Christ Jesus (Galatians 5:1), but with this liberty comes great responsibility. (I know, that sounds like a Spiderman comic. But it’s true!)
May I strongly encourage you to pray and ask God’s wisdom before you make the final decision? I pray that is what you would do with any other decision that impacts your body for the rest of your life here on earth as well!
Carl Kerby is an inspiring, motivating and highly respected Christian speaker. With more than 20 years of ministry experience, Carl shares his extensive knowledge and understanding of God’s creation in his presentations, outreach events, books and other resources as the President and founding board member of Reasons for Hope, Inc.