So You’re Christian and Considering Getting a Tattoo

by Nick Lotter on October 18, 2013

Christian TattooTalk about a controversial topic! My blog has to date had it’s fair share of controversy. Nothing media-worthy, mind you, just some local apple carts turned over. You can see my Strange Fire article for a taste of that.

So the question: should a Christian get a tattoo? Is it Biblically acceptable for a Christian to get a tattoo, or is it outlawed in the Bible? Many Christians have asked this question and it has been debated on a local Christian radio station here recently. Since it is a burning question for many young Christians particularly, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and share my views.

I personally have a tattoo. Although, I did get mine while I was still lost. I still regret getting it done. It was the logo of a Brazilian heavy metal band – not something a Christian wants displayed on his body! I am now stuck with the choice of either getting it removed with laser treatment (scarily expensive and painful), living with it, or getting a bigger tattoo done over it so that I’ve at least got something that represents my faith in Christ. I haven’t decided yet what I’ll do.

(Update: on 16 January 2016 I went ahead and had it covered with a tattoo of my own design, featured in the photo seen above. I felt that, since I already have a tattoo, I would rather have something which spoke of my faith in Jesus and could be used as an opportunity to share my faith as well. The text in the outer ring is the 5 solas of the Protestant Reformation, and the XP in the inner circle is the “Chi Rho” – a symbol used by early Christians to denote “Christ”. The first 2 letters of the Greek word for “Christ” are X and P, hence their use in the symbol. The “P” is in the shape of a shepherd’s staff, symbolizing Jesus as the true Shepherd – John 10)

Now I confess that my own views on whether Christians should get tattoos or not has changed a few times in recent years, but I’m confident that I am now settled on this view: I personally will not get another tattoo. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s always wrong to get tattoos. I know some very godly men in Christ who are covered in Christian tattoos and would get more if they wanted to.

The purpose of this article is not to make a definite case for or against tattoos. If you are thinking of getting a tattoo – and I’m talking about a Christian-themed tattoo here – then all I want to do is to challenge you to think more carefully about your motives before you go ahead and get one.

Tattoos in Scripture

 

Well, a good place to start is to open up the Scriptures. Now I am not going to give an in-depth exegesis on each of these Scriptures, but I am going to present you with some of the Scriptures that have been used in the debate and then I am just going to leave you with some things to ponder as you decide whether or not to go through with it. Now I should clarify that I am not quoting these Scriptures in order that I should use them to convince you that tattoos are wrong; I simply want to quote those Scriptures that have been used in the debate for reference purposes. May the Spirit use the Word to impress on your heart whether it is God’s will.

Leviticus 19:28  You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. 

Deuteronomy 14:1 You are the sons of the LORD your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead. 

1 Corinthians 3:16-17  Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. 

1 Corinthians 6:19-20  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 

1 Timothy 2:8-10  I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 

Tattoos: Open to Interpretation?

 

No doubt if you have been researching this issue for a while, you would have come across these verses before and would have read very good arguments from both sides of the debate.

Unfortunately, the Bible does not specifically say “Thou shalt not get a tattoo”. If it did, we probably wouldn’t be having these conversations. Though I am aware that some translations do use the word “tattoo” in Leviticus 19:28, it is argued that the word “tattoo” is not in the original Hebrew text and was therefore put there by later translators into the English language. It’s very hard to debate this point, as I doubt that the word “tattoo” existed when Moses wrote the book of Leviticus, so we don’t really know if tattoos were in Moses’ thinking when he wrote it. More probably, taking in the context, Moses was referring only to the pagan practice of making cuttings and markings  on your body in respect to dead people. Hence, the debate is hinged on our interpretation and application of texts such as those quoted above.

All of the above Scriptures have been debated thousands of times, and yet still no consensus has been reached on the issue of whether or not getting a tattoo is in fact against God’s will. There are so many factors that are taken into account. What is the context? Does it refer only specifically to cutting your body with marks for the dead (ancestral symbols / markings on the body in honor of the dead), or are we to include every type of cutting the body (including needles and injections)? Was it a blanket statement for all generations and covenants, or did it only apply to Israel? Is it still a relevant instruction for us today, or are Scriptures such as Leviticus 19:28 part of the ceremonial law that we are no longer bound to under the New Covenant? These are all questions that have been asked in this debate.

Confusing, isn’t it? Because there are so many different views, people considering a tattoo (or wanting to stop somebody from getting a tattoo) will usually just go to their favorite teacher, see what they believe or teach on the issue, and then rely on that. Actually, scratch that. Most times, we look for a Bible teacher who agrees with our presupposition and go with that as our confirmation! And it seems almost everyone has a slightly different view, which I suppose is why this topic is still debated today!

No wonder so many people are confused!

Examine Your Motives

 

That being said then, I am not going to join in with my own attempt at interpreting these verses. In fact, I don’t even want to pick sides. What I do want to do, is challenge you to ask yourself a few questions and to examine your own motives for getting a tattoo. Then, you should be able to get a clearer view of whether a tattoo is the right thing for you. I am not going to give you the right or wrong answer. You need to be honest with yourself while considering the answers to these questions, because in the end it is on your conscience and between you and God.

Why Do You Want a Tattoo?

 

1. It is going to look so good!

Come on, be honest! Most times, if you really dig beneath the surface, when somebody wants to get a tattoo it is usually because they have seen somebody else with a tattoo and it looks cool. If your motive for getting a tattoo is to look good, or to fit in, it is most likely of the flesh and is vanity. It says, “I want to get more attention for myself”. Have you considered whether the real reason you want to get a tattoo is because you believe it will make you appear more attractive or impressive? Are you merely trying to impress your friends / colleagues / girlfriend / a boy? Do you want a tattoo because it will make you look more “hardcore”?

What if it is a Christian tattoo – like a cross – you might ask? Doesn’t that glorify God and give Him the attention? Well, it sure can give attention to God and allow for opportunities to share your faith with others, which certainly glorifies God; but have you asked yourself whether that is really your primary motive? Was that the first thought you had when deciding to get a tattoo, or is it the excuse you are using to get one? This requires honest soul-searching on your part.

Often, people who get a Christian tattoo, such as a Bible verse or a picture of a cross, do so for the wrong reasons. It is possible to do a good thing with bad motives – and if your motives are sinful, then the act is sinful. Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek, which in itself is a wonderful gesture of love, but he did so in order to betray Jesus. A good deed with sinful motives is a sinful deed. Often the real motive for getting a Christian tattoo is so that one can look good and get attention for self, and the Christian theme for the tattoo is just used as an excuse to get it done. It quietens the conscience.

What is at the root of this kind of thinking? Remember the following verses:

Proverbs 31:30  Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Psalms 119:37  Turn my eyes from looking at vanity; and give me life in your ways. 

Galatians 5:16-17  But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 

Before you go ahead, search your heart and ask yourself whether your motive for getting a Christian tattoo might be rooted in vanity.

2. I want to be radical and show that I am not ashamed of Jesus

Do you want to get a tattoo to show everybody that you are a radical Christian and proud of it?

It certainly is great to be unashamed of the gospel and to be prepared to show the world that you love Jesus, no matter what it might cost you. Paul himself says, in Romans 1:16, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation. There are many Christians who have decided to live “radical” lives unashamedly for Jesus who have made massive impacts for the sake of the gospel.

Maybe you feel that getting a tattoo is a good way for you to be a radical Christian and to show everyone that there is nobody more important to you than Jesus Christ. If so, I would encourage you to think through the following before you go ahead.

Remember that if you are a Christian, it should already be obvious to everyone who knows you that you love Jesus and He loves you. In other words, you shouldn’t need a tattoo for people to know you’re a Christian, but your faith in Jesus should be evident in your whole life and the way that you live and treat others. Every born again Christian bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5) in his / her life, so that it becomes very noticeable – in fact unmistakable – when somebody becomes a Christian. And this is not because of an outward change only, but an inward change that is reflected in an outward change. A change in your heart that affects your actions.

Here are a few more thoughts. Radical Christianity is not getting a massive cross tattooed on your back or wearing a Christian t-shirt. Radical Christianity is living with your eyes fixed on Jesus, trusting in His finished work on the cross, and living in obedience to God in response to the grace He has given you. Trust me: in this day and age, if you do nothing utterly radical other than just simply seeking to live in obedience to God, you will stand out like a neon light in a pitch black room, and everybody will know you are a Christian. Some will even hate you for it. If you want to show off your faith in Christ and show that you are not ashamed to be a Christian, there is no better way to show it than in your community with other Christians, your humility, your love of Jesus and people, and seeking to live in obedience to Jesus. The Christian life is not an outward change only but a total and radical conversion of the heart.

The most radical Christians I have read about and known are not necessarily those who have been the loudest, most outspoken, waved their hands the highest during worship, been on TV or radio, or even been preachers. They are humble disciples who have forsaken everything else to give their whole lives to Christ. Some have sold everything and gone off to distant lands to share the gospel with cannibals and lost their lives in the process. Some give sacrificially of their time, talents and treasure to share their lives, homes and meals with others in their communities and for the sake of the gospel. In every case, the most radical Christians I know are those who love Jesus more than anything else and are living not for this world, but for Christ – and that shows in their whole lives. Does that describe you? Are you as radical for Jesus as you hope to be?

If you are going to get a tattoo to show how radical you are for Jesus, be sure that it is not the only thing about you that displays your faith, and that you aren’t using a tattoo to cover up for the fact that perhaps you aren’t as radical for Jesus is you might think. If your heart is not captivated with the love of Jesus and for people (especially the lost), and you are not prepared to live with a servant heart for your King and for people, then it is probably best that you don’t put out a false advert.

Matthew 5 :13-16  “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

3. Having a tattoo will make me relevant and help me to share the gospel with certain groups

Some people use their tattoos as an ice-breaker to open a door to share the Gospel with other people who have tattoos. There is a school of thought that says it is easier to share the gospel with a gang of metalhead bikers covered in tattoos, if you also have a bike and are covered in tattoos. It allows you to relate to them, and them to you.

There is some substance to that idea. People are generally more open to conversation with other people who share similar interests. Having something in common whereby you are able to relate to another person does open doors for conversation and makes it easier to establish trust.

There is still need for caution and clear thinking, though. For starters, the need to relate to people does and should have boundaries. I don’t mean to be facetious, but how would you begin to share the gospel with prostitutes in your area, if you think you have to become like someone before you can share the gospel with them?

Of course it is easier to establish a relationship with someone if you have some common interest, but that doesn’t mean it is a necessity. It could make evangelism quite a high maintenance lifestyle if we are constantly getting tattoos, removing tattoos, growing our hair, cutting our hair, buying new clothes, etc, in order to have something in common with the people we want to disciple. You don’t need that. More important than having some outward thing in common, like a tattoo, is that we are able to converse with that person within his / her context, in language that that person understands. Contextualization is about more than simply slapping something on your body.

Having a tattoo might get you a foot in the door to start a conversation with the tattooed biker at the bar counter, but unless you can speak his language and understand and speak to his worldview, your conversation is going nowhere.

For example, I am not going to explain the gospel to a group of 7 year old children using a long-winded, scholarly exegesis of Romans 3:23-27 using big words like “propitiation“. Rather, I am going to meet them where they are, using words that are in their vocabulary and illustrations that they can associate with and understand, to explain to them who Jesus is, and what He has done for them.

The other day, I shared the gospel with a homeless man. He was telling me his background and showed me some poetry that he had written about his mother who had just passed away. I pointed to something he had written, about having tried so hard but never being good enough, and I used that to bring in the gospel and point to Christ. That man had a moment of clarity right there, and later told me it was the first time he had understood the gospel though people had tried to share it with him many times. It’s not that I knew the gospel better, but that I was able to explain it to him using language and illustrations which made sense within his context.

This is what Jesus did. He met people where they were. When he met the woman at the well in John 4, he used her thirst for water to show her that He would give her living water and she would never be thirsty again. This is how we contextualize and relate to people. We don’t change the gospel message or water it down, nor do we ever remove it’s offense to an unbelieving world. We simply explain it in an appropriate language so that they can understand it.

Do you need a tattoo to share the gospel? I have a friend who has two tattoos which are both strategically and deliberately placed on his arms to attract attention, and he uses them to start gospel conversations to good effect. However, he was sharing the gospel before he got those tattoos, and I am certain he would still be if he didn’t have them. If you aren’t sharing the gospel now before you have a tattoo, how sure are you that you will start sharing it after? If your motivation really is to create opportunities to share, what other things are you doing now to intentionally create opportunities to share the gospel? If you aren’t doing anything else, have you considered that maybe you just want a tattoo, and this just seems like a good excuse to get one?

Closing Thoughts

 

I haven’t given you an exposition and interpretation of Scripture which either opposes or defends getting a tattoo. That is because I don’t believe that Scripture actually gives a definite yes or no answer to the question. I also didn’t set out to write this article so that I could give you a definite answer either way. I simply want to help you understand whether your motives are pure.

Maybe you have read all the Scriptures relating to this topic, considered all of the points in this article, and most importantly, you have prayed and asked God for wisdom, and you are still convinced that your motives are pure and you sincerely see an opportunity to use your tattoo for God’s glory. This was certainly the case with mine.

However, maybe you have prayed and read these Scriptures and questions, and if you’re honest, you can now see that the real motive behind your desire to get inked is based more on self-image and selfish desires than God’s glory. Everybody’s getting inked, and you want don’t want to be left out because you have the FOMO. Or, you just think a tattoo is going to boost your image and make you look cooler. My friend, these are not good reasons to get a tattoo. That doesn’t glorify God, it glorifies self. It is idolatry.

Before you go ahead, seek the Lord’s counsel in prayer. Ask Him for wisdom and read the Scriptures again and again until you have clarity. Be honest with yourself about your motives.

Besides, laser tattoo removal hurts!

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