Someone in my Sunday School class asked me about Christians being tattooed. I did some research on the matter. I didn't know that there is at least one verse that uses the word, "tattoos." It turns out that the answers given below are related to the Sunday School lesson for June 22, 2008, in our church.
Here are my thoughts on the subject, for whatever they may be worth.
[The following section was revised, on July 9, 2017]
Let's look at Leviticus 19 (quoting from the World English Bible, public domain.)
18 “ ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh.
We can divide the commandments in the Old Testament (OT) into three types:
Cultural and Civic -- commandments for the OT Israelite culture, like commands on how to divide the land among the tribes.
Ceremonial -- commandments concerning the worship of the Israelites, like commands about feasts. Most of the OT commands are of this type.
Moral -- commandments for all cultures, at all times, like the commandment that husbands stay with their wives (Genesis 2:24, repeated by Jesus in Matthew 19:5). Moral commandments, though they may be stated first in the OT, are also found in the New Testament.
I would argue that Leviticus 19 is a mixture of laws that were affirmed by the New Testament, and those that weren't.
I agree that pimping one's daughter (or anyone else's) remains sinful. Jesus reinforced the commandment against adultery in Matthew 5.
But I've never heard a sermon against wearing mixed fabrics, based on verse 19b. And verses 23-25 seem clearly to have applied only during the time of the first occupation under Joshua. So Christians aren't bound by these, unless possibly by personal conviction. But verse 18b is reinforced by the New Testament, so still applies.
We can't always tell which type of command was meant. They are not identified as such in the Bible. The church generally does not hold that the first two types of commandments are binding on Christians. At the Jerusalem conference, the leaders wrote as follows, when Jews felt that gentile Christians must obey the ceremonial law: Acts 15:28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29a that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Even some of the prohibitions in Acts 15:28-9 are not taken as binding by most Christians anymore. 1 Corinthians 8:8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. The Acts 15 statement was about the ceremonial law. It does not undo God's moral laws.
Note that verse 27 implies that having a beard was an expectation, among Jewish law. That verse is used, by some current Jewish groups, to prohibit having hair immediately in front of a man's ears cut, but to require that it be allowed to grow freely. (You may have seen Jewish men who follow this practice.)
So singling out tattoos, and saying that the Bible says they are wrong, but not growing a beard, cutting your hair, and using fabrics which are from a combination of sources, seems inconsistent. But these are not moral laws.
[The revision ends at this point.]
So what about tattoos? The context seems to indicate clearly that Leviticus 19:28 is ceremonial or cultural, not a moral command. Not only is not a moral commandment, but it is probably speaking particularly of a situation involving death of a loved one, and, likely, refers to practices of the heathen neighbors of the Israelites. So why do some Christians speak out against tattoos, saying that the Bible is categorically against them? One reason may be that they don't distinguish between the three types of commandments in the OT. But, if that's true, I bet they don't preach against clipping off the edges of a beard. It is easy to confuse our own prejudices with what God commands. I can remember when that happened with not wearing wedding rings, not wearing a tie, not having your hair cut or wearing pants if you are a woman, not having a beard, or not having long hair if you are a man. Opposition to these ways of presenting oneself is and was cultural, not moral. In our own congregation, attitudes on these matters have changed, which is just as well, because they aren't based on moral commandments.
No one ever went to hell just for wearing a tattoo. People go to hell because they don't believe in Christ as Savior and honor Him as Lord. Nonetheless, there are some principles that would seem to apply about tattoos, and to other choices about how we present our bodies.
1) Why are you doing this? If a tattoo is meant as a statement of rebellion against God, or our parents, or is a display of personal pride, then we shouldn't get it.
2) What is it showing? "Four-letter words," insults, anti-God statements or pictures are some of the things that should be avoided, of course.
3) How much does it cost? We need to use the money that God has given us wisely. This does not mean that we can never spend money on fixing ourselves up, or on things that we enjoy, but we should be careful, and have the right priorities.
4) Is it immodest? Is the purpose to arouse lust in others, or is it likely to do so?
5) Does it put your health at risk? There are some risks involved in getting a tattoo. See Consumer Reports for more information.
6) How will it affect other people? We can't live solely for other people, but we need to be careful that we
don't drive others away from Christ, or weaken other Christians. Some groups (motorcyclers, some African-Americans, some military personnel) might be drawn to Christ by some tattoos, whereas other groups might not.
7) Has God given you a personal conviction against this (or for it)? If so, you'd better abide by that conviction. (1 Corinthians 8 speaks about some of these things.) However, we should be careful not to expect others to live according to our personal convictions.
8) Have I promised not to do this? There are certain vows that go with joining our church -- which has no prohibition on being tattoed -- or other bodies, and promises should be kept, unless there is a more important moral principle in play that wasn't anticipated when you made the promise.
9) What's my attitude? (In this case, toward those who disagree with my opinion about something external, or who may be affected by what I might do.) My attitude must be one of love. Here's part of Mark 12, on the most important commandments: 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34a And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
I have no plans to get a tattoo myself, but being tattooed isn't necessarily wrong for Christians. Some day, I may have a pastor, or a descendant, with a tattoo. I may have one or both of these already!
Thanks for reading. If anyone can use this, they are welcome to do so. This is my post for June 22, but I am posting it early.
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Added August 6, 2011: E Stephen Burnett has a fine post on another subject, but which covers much of the same ground, that is, what about practices that may offend some Christians, and what about practices that aren't explicitly Christian?
Thanks for reading!