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What Does the Bible Say about Tattoos?

An Article from Pastor Paul

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you; I am the LORD.”LEV 19:28 (NKJV)

Around 45 million people in America have one or more tattoos (including yours truly) and the tattoo industry grosses around $1.65 billion yearly. But among followers of Christ the question often arises, “What does the Bible Say About Tattoos?” The word “tattoo” only appears in the Bible one time, and it may not mean what you think it means.

A couple of years ago I was at the gym, and a well-meaning “Christian” noticed my tattoo of a dove (which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit) as well as a passage from Zechariah 4:6 that says, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.” In a rather judgmental tone he said, “I noticed your tattoo.” I then proceeded to tell him the story of why I got a tattoo. I said, “When my son turned 18 (he’s now 21), he talked to me about getting a tattoo and was debating about getting a “stick and poke” (a DIY tattoo). So, my wife and I told him that whatever he gets ‘it needs to honor God, be in a location that won’t cost him a job and be something he can live with forever because it’s permanent.” Then we went on to try to persuade him to get it professionally done to avoid infection. At that point Amy tells him, ‘If you get it professionally done, Dad will get one with you.’ I was like, ‘Wait, what?’” Now the truth is that I had been debating for a few years about getting a tattoo. The fellow gym goer I was talking with seemed un-impressed and replied, “Well, the BIBLE says not to get tattooed.” At that point I asked him if knew what that passage was really talking about? He admitted he didn’t really know, and so I went on to explain it to him.

As quoted above, Leviticus 19:28 forbids “cutting your flesh for the dead,” and “tattooing marks on you.” However, whenever we interpret the Scriptures, one of the things we MUST do in order to “rightly divide” or interpret the passage correctly, is to put ourselves in the “sandals” of the original listeners. In this case, Moses was talking to the people of Israel who had been living as slaves in Egypt for the past 400 years. During their 4 centuries of captivity, the Israelites picked up a lot of bad habits, including the worship of Egypt’s gods and goddess. Therefore, it’s important that we understand that this passage of Leviticus is NOT referring to “body art,” but rather is speaking against pagan worship.

Among the many gods of the Egyptians there were two fertility goddesses they worshipped “Hathor” and “Bes.” Women who worshipped of each of these fertility goddesses would “tattoo” images of these goddesses on their bodies believing their wombs would be more fruitful as a result. Additionally, when a loved one died, worshippers of Hathor would engrave spells and incantations upon their bodies on behalf of their departed loved one, believing they were ushering them into the afterlife. So, in the context of Leviticus 19 it would appear that some of the Israelites were indeed worshipping Hathor and Bes the fertility goddesses and were marking their bodies as an act of devotion. Therefore, the thing being condemned in this passage is NOT body art, but pagan worship and idolatry.

Should A Christian Get A Tattoo?

While there’s nothing in the Bible that says that tattoos are sinful, there are a few things a follower of Christ should consider before they get one. First, we should keep in mind that our bodies are now the “temple” of the Holy Spirit (1COR 6:19-20). Secondly, our motivation for getting a tattoo needs be right. 1 Corinthians 10:31 tells us that “whatever we do, it should be for the glory of God.” If our motivation for getting a tattoo is to “fit in,” or “stand out,” or even just to “express ourselves,” then while getting a tattoo may not be sinful, our motives for wanting one may in fact be sinful. One possible consideration in favor of getting a tattoo may be found in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 where the Apostle Paul says, “I have become all things to all men, so that by all means possible, I might save some. I do all for the sake of the gospel.” Incidentally this verse, is my “life verse” and happens to be my only other tattoo. It’s possible that getting a tattoo could open a door for evangelism that would have otherwise been closed. That has certainly been the case for me personally. I have been asked numerous times by “non-Christians” what my tattoos mean to me, which opens the door to share the gospel.

Ultimately, getting tattooed is not a sin, rather it’s a matter of “Christian freedom.” This is not a black or white issue it’s a “gray area.” 1 Corinthians 8 talks about these “gray areas” we call “Christian freedoms.” In that passage it’s clear that what one person might be “free” to do with a clean conscience another person might have a conviction from God that they personally cannot do the same thing themselves. Each person needs to honor God with their own conscience. The one who is “free” to get a tattoo should not judge the one who is not free to do so. Likewise, those who have personal convictions about tattoos should not impose their convictions on someone else. Lastly, it is my opinion that if a person chooses to get a tattoo, they should be convinced that God has led them to do so, because Romans 14:23 reminds us that “whatever is not done from faith is sin.”

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