Question: What does the Bible say about a Christian getting tattoos? I have searched the internet for sound biblical advice and it seems that no one (not even reformed pastors) are willing to give a straight answer.
Answer: Because the only direct scriptural references to tattooing occur in the Old Testament, your question will take some time to answer (and my answer may admittedly not be as “straight” as you wish).
Our Approach to 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 (Col. 2:14-17; Dan. 9:27; Eph. 2:15-16; Heb. 9:10; Acts 10:9-16, 11:2-10).
Nevertheless, we do believe that all scripture was given by inspiration of God and is therefore profitable to Christians (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The profitability of Old Covenant laws is found in their “general equity” or basic moral principles which are always to be observed (Exodus 21:1-23:19; 1 Cor. 9:8-10; and c.f., Genesis 49:10 with 1 Peter 2:13-14).
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”.
The biblical law which prohibits tattooing is found right in the middle of a chapter which proves the importance of this interpretive approach.
The Complexity of Leviticus 19
Leviticus 19 contains some laws that are clearly ceremonial and civil in nature (e.g., the sacrifice of peace, gleaning laws, livestock and seed mixing, the trespass offering, etc.).
Basic moral principles are also stated in this same chapter (e.g., respecting parents, avoiding idols, not stealing or cheating, being kind to the handicapped, etc.).
In fact, the Lord Jesus himself quoted directly from this chapter in reminding us of the second-most-important moral principle of all: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27).
Therefore, we cannot simply dismiss the content of Leviticus 19 as quickly as so many modern advocates of tattooing do, saying, “We’re not under that law… we’re under grace!”
The Context of Leviticus 19
Leviticus 19 was given to the people of God as part of their preparation for entering the land of Canaan.
Living among pagans was not a new concept to the people of God (for they had just spent four hundred years living as slaves in pagan Egypt).
Nevertheless, they were about to be exposed to a depth of paganism, occultism, idolatry, and immorality that was unprecedented in the ancient world: Canaan.
God therefore gave them very specific laws so that they would know how to remain separate from that sinful people.
This call to “remain separate” as the people of God was not abrogated under the New Covenant. In fact, it was reiterated, “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you” (2 Cor. 6:17).
The Specifics of Leviticus 19
Without even touching the ceremonial or civil specifics of Leviticus 19, it is easy to recognize at least seven moral principles being taught:
1. Fearing God – Throughout the chapter, God reinforces the authority of these laws by repeating the phrases, “I am the Lord” and “keep my statutes”.
2. Remaining Separate – The chapter begins with this charge: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (vs. 2). Holiness — by very definition — means separating from that which is sinful and remaining separate.
3. Worshiping Rightly – Maintaining pure worship would be difficult in Canaan. Therefore God reiterated his Sabbath Law, the prohibition of idolatry, and the regulations for sacrificial offerings.
4. Honoring Superiors – No one can claim to be fearing God when they are disregarding or disrespecting the earthly authorities God has appointed. Therefore the people are reminded to honor their superiors (vv. 3, 32).
5. Neighborly Kindness – No one can claim to love God if they do not also love their neighbor. Several examples of neighborly love are also therefore mentioned (vv. 9-18, 33-34).
6. Sexual Purity – The Canaanites were sick sexual deviants and God’s people were about to find themselves living in an extremely sex-saturated culture. Therefore God reminds them to keep themselves and each other pure (vv. 20, 29).
7. Avoiding Paganism – The Canaanites ate things, drank things, wore things, and got haircuts which outwardly demonstrated their pagan beliefs. God therefore instructed his people to avoid these customs (vv. 26-28).
Conclusion & Application
Trusting that no Christian will dispute these seven moral principles, I will conclude this article by posing these questions of application to those who are wanting a tattoo:
Fearing God – Do you acknowledge God’s absolute ownership of and lordship over your body? Will putting a tattoo on the temple of Holy Spirit bring glory to him?
Remaining Separate – Are you committed to keeping “a safe distance” from the sinful culture in which we live? Will getting a tattoo make you more or less separate?
Worshiping Rightly – God does not accept worship that he has not specifically required of us (especially when it involves the use of images). Has God asked you to serve him by getting a tattoo?
Honoring Superiors – Have you sought the advice and approval of your superiors in the Lord (i.e., parents for minors, husbands for wives, bosses for employees, and elders for church members)?
Neighborly Kindness – Have you thought about how your tattoo will effect your witness to Christ? Have you considered how it might injure your weaker brothers and sisters?
Sexual Purity – Will the graphic content and physical location of your tattoo be modest? That is, will it serve to guard the sexual purity of yourself and others?
Avoiding Paganism – Whether you agree with the pagan view of tattooing is not the only question here. An equally important question is this: By getting a tattoo, will you be avoiding the pagans or appearing as a pagan?
Answered by Christian McShaffrey
Pastor of Grace Reformed Church