Here’s an issue which seemingly divides opinions in church circles! Ask older Christians and the consensus would likely be ‘no’. Ask younger ones and the answer might vary. To some, tattoos are marks of idolatry and a desecration of a person’s body. To others, it is a form of self-expression and art which can be used to glorify God.
There is one verse in the bible that explicitly speaks to this issue – Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”
So on one hand, the bible is clear – game over. Thus, saith the Lord: No tattoos.
But on the other hand, it is rightly argued that this verse comes in a context – the Israelites leaving captivity in Egypt, where the cutting of dead bodies and tattoo marks were rituals of a pagan culture. God gave this law as a declaration to the Israelites that they were no longer to identify themselves with the Egyptians. So, the argument goes, the context here is specific: the bonding force of this law no longer applies to us in the way it did to the ancient Israelites in the Sinai Desert. Consider other laws given in Leviticus 19: “Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material … Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” None of those commands are seemingly obeyed by us either. So for some, tattoos simply become a neutral issue (alongside polyester shirts and hipster beards).
I have a problem with the basis of both these arguments by themselves: Either a whole-hearted application of the Old Testament Law directly to us; or a total neglect of the Law as a historical artifact which, while interesting, doesn’t really apply for us today. I’ll come back to the issue of tattoos in a second. But the more important issue here is how we read, understand and apply the bible to us in 2015. The Law was given to the saved people of God. They were not given as commands to get right with God, but as commands so that God’s (already saved) people would know how to live out their special relationship with God. The point about context above is well made, but God’s context is far more reaching. The Law was never God’s final word to his people – it’s purpose was to point to Jesus: “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4). The salvation of God comes through faith in Jesus, and because of him, we are no longer under the Law.
What does this mean for how we read the OT Law? Two things: (a) The condemning power of the Old Testament Law has been conquered by Jesus (Rom 8:1); BUT (b) The Law is still holy, righteous and good for us (Rom 7:12), a point which is confirmed in the fact that in the same passage as all the above, Leviticus 19:18 tells us to “love your neighbour as yourself”.
So back to tattoos.
Point (a) means that tattoos (in a vacuum) are not a matter of sin, requiring repentance. Point (b) tells us that God didn’t want his people placing marks on their skin for identity and association. For Christians, we find our identity in Christ – we don’t need anything superficial as a confirmation of this.
Here’s my “in 99% of cases” advice on tattoos: Don’t get one, you don’t need it. If my life is God’s, then surely everything in it, including my body, is His too. It’s how I use my whole self, not what I paint on my body which brings Him glory. There might be a 1% case where it is a good idea – you’ll know it because it involves you loving your neighbour.