Stigmas regarding tattoos have seemingly diminished over the past decade or so, with body art becomming more prevalent throughout all facets of American culture. Correspondingly, sociological studies reveal that nearly half of the eligible US population has at least one tattoo.1 While tattoos were historically associated with high-risk activities and undesirable characteristics (including criminal affiliation, substance abuse, rebellion, and pagan rituals),2 it is no longer uncommon to see Christian leaders openly sporting tattoos. Notwithstanding widespread cultural acceptance, the Christian community remains divided about the acceptability of the practice, leaving many believers confused about tattoo trends and appropriate responses. Accordingly, this article will examine the biblical directives regarding contemporary tattoo culture, contending that although Christians are permitted to engage in the practice, choosing to get a tattoo may not be prudent.3 Additionally, the article will outline practical points of consideration for those contemplating a tattoo.
Consulting the Scriptures
Before making a significant, life-changing (or body-altering) decision, it’s wise for Christians to consult the Scriptures, engage in personal reflection, and seek guidance from trusted, God-fearing individuals (e.g., a pastor, mentor, or parent). Unfortunately, the Bible does not explicitly address every topic or circumstance the Christian will experience, thus requiring us to assimilate underlying principles into our decision-making process. Accordingly, to properly discern the scriptural stance on tattoos, we must first analyze any explicit dogmas relating to tattooing before considering any implicit teachings pertinent to the discussion.
Unambiguously, Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.”4 Discovering a direct reference to tattooing,5 we must begin the exegetical process by identifying the context of the passage, the intended audience, and its applicability to contemporary conversations before attempting to derive practical application principles.6 Leviticus documents the stipulations given to Israel from God in a covenant/treaty formulation, which they received during the first month of the second year after the Israelites exited from slavery in Egypt (cf. Exodus 40:17; Numbers 1:1).7 The book outlines specific duties of the Levites while simultaneously providing communal instructions regarding “sacrifices, moral regulations, guidelines for observing holidays, tithes and offerings, and in general, the call for obedience to God’s covenant.”8 Israel’s covenant responsibilities involved abandoning pagan worldview perspectives and religious practices they absorbed while enslaved in Egypt whilst learning to resist the cultic observances of the societies they would soon encounter in Canaan.9 Accordingly, it appears Leviticus 19:27-28 intends to disassociate Israel with pagan nations, particularly regarding mourning rituals and spiritual rites.10 Elucidating the context of the passage, biblical scholar James E. Smith remarks,
Leviticus 19:25-31 contains a series of laws that prohibit pagan worship customs. These were: (1) eating blood; (2) attempting to unveil the future by divination or sorcery; (3) clipping the sides of the head or beard; (4) self-inflicted bodily lacerations for the dead; (5) tattoos; (6) cult prostitution; (7) profaning sacred times or places by pagan impurity; and (8) consulting spirit mediums. (Item number 3 above may have something to do with the pagan custom of making hair offerings to various deities.)11
Considering the passage in proper context reveals God’s prohibition against tattoos was given to a specific people group (Israel) at a particular time in history (between circa the 16th and 13th centuries BCE) for a specific purpose (to differentiate Israel from pagan nations) within the context of a covenant agreement between God and Israel. Since adherence to the Levitical/Mosaic Law is no longer obligatory for contemporary Christians,12 there is no prima facie justification for forbidding a Christian from getting a tattoo or objecting them to societal condemnation as a result.13
Nevertheless, appealing to Leviticus 19:28 without contextual consideration or meaningful rationalization, Pastor Kevin Swanson unequivocally identifies those with tattoos as apostates.14 Mercifully, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus nullifies such requirements for contemporary Christians, thereby precluding any coherent reason for the church to adhere to the tattoo proscription of v.28 any more than the grooming standards of v.27 or the sacrificial requirements found elsewhere in Leviticus. Moreover, contemporary tattoo culture in America is not inherently associated with pagan religious rituals or mourning rites, rendering the practice entirely dissimilar to God’s prohibition in Leviticus. Although we can certainly admire Swanson’s apparent quest to maintain a virtuous lifestyle, such dogmatic legalism incontrovertibly undermines the Christian message, senselessly wounds believers with tattoos, and causes unnecessary division among members of the Christian community. Accordingly, must recognize the detriment of zeal without knowledge (cf. Proverbs 19:2).
Considering Underlying Principles
Carefully considering the biblical data, it seems there are no explicit doctrines regarding the permissibility of tattoos for Christians. However, implicit doctrines and underlying principles provide additional points of consideration that remain relevant to the discussion. For example, the Scriptures identify our bodies are sacred (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), instructing us to honor God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), using them as a living sacrifice to Him (Romans 12:1-2), and glorifying God in all of our actions (1 Corinthians 10:31). If we are earnestly striving to love God and obey His instruction, we must actively contemplate our actions and motivations in light of such passages. Accordingly, someone considering a tattoo might ask, “Is a tattoo in any way denigrating my body?” If the answer is “No,” then she can progress to subsequent questions (e.g., “Will my tattoo honor and glorify God?”).
Appreciating the subjective nature of such questions, it becomes evident that your responses may differ significantly from those of another Bible-believing Christian. Since the Scriptures do not explicitly condemn or condone tattoos, nor is the subject a salvific issue or an essential Christian doctrine,15 the topic becomes a matter of individual conscience and conviction, thereby requiring the Christian to make a personal determination, without expressing judgment or condemnation against the brother/sister who maintains a different perspective (cf. Romans 14:1-23; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:23).
Personal Reflection and Additional Considerations
Although it seems tattoos are permissible in the contemporary Christian context, those considering a tattoo should ponder some extrabiblical factors, beginning with the stigma. While tattoos are becoming more mainstream in American culture, lasting stigmas surrounding body art still loom and are often intensified in certain American sub-cultures.16 Moreover, recent sociological studies suggest that people often associate a tattoo with untrustworthiness and a potential threat of personal harm.17 Such assumptions will potentially damage or degrade social interaction, employability, and ministry engagement.18
Next, reflect upon your motivation. Why do you want a tattoo (in general), and why this tattoo specifically? Are you seeking acceptance or eminence among a particular social group, solidifying a tribal affiliation, reimagining your identity, rebelling against an authority figure, or emulating a cultic religious ritual? Is your tattoo a reminder of God’s redemptive work or a testament to pagan practices? Will your tattoo cause you to worship God, or is it a manifestation of self-loathing/grief? After, consider the tattoo’s modesty and messaging. What message does the tattoo communicate to those around you? Is it modest, or does it accentuate a particular body part for self-promotion? Is the tattoo placement directly related to the use/misuse of my sexuality? Does the tattoo’s statement reflect your core values, something that will remain consistent throughout your lifetime (due to the permeance of the tattoo)?19 Finally, acknowledge the opinions of those closest to you. What will the people closest to you think about your tattoo? Is it something that will serve as a stumbling block for them or produce unnecessary contention in your relationship?
Considering such factors, it becomes apparent that while it is permissible for Christians to participate in tattoo culture, engaging in such practices is not always prudent. Rather than adhering to a legalistic mindset, we must actively consider the ramifications of such decisions, seeking to exhibit a virtuous lifestyle with a clear conscience. Additionally, we must recognize the inherent responsibility of freedom, understanding that we maintain obligations to love those around us, which often entails voluntarily relinquishing certain freedoms/privileges for their benefit. Conversely, the Christian community must remain sluggish in labeling someone an apostate, recognizing that Christianity allows vast diversity within the confines of orthodoxy while refusing to accept needless division resulting from inconsequential disagreements regarding legalistic orthopraxy.
- Lisa Jacob, “Who Has the Most Tattoos?” Dalia Research GmbH, May 22, 2018, https://daliaresearch.com/blog/who-has-the-most-tattoos/; “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” PewResearch Center, February 2010, https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2010/10/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf; Layne Stracener, “Are Tattoos Becoming More Common in Professional Fields as Stigma Lessens? Professionals Weigh In,” The Standard, Missouri State University, August 18, 2019, http://www.the-standard.org/are-tattoos-becoming-more-common-in-professional-fields-as-stigma-lessens-professionals-weigh-in/article_d47227e2-33b8-11e9-95f4-afefa90ffb1b.html.
- Anne E. Laumann, and Amy J. Derick, “Tattoos and Body Piercings in the United States: A National Data Set,” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 55, no. 3 (2006): 413-421, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2006.03.026; Kristin A. Broussard, and Helen C. Harton, “Tattoo or Taboo? Tattoo Stigma and Negative Attitudes toward Tattooed Individuals,” The Journal of Social Psychology 158, no. 5 (2018): 521-540, https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2017.1373622.
- In other words, there is a difference between the question, “Can a Christian get a tattoo?” and “Should a Christian get a tattoo?”
- All scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise annotated.
- It’s important to note, scholars debate the proper translation of the word כְּתֹ֫בֶת because it only appears in Leviticus 19:28 and remains scantly represented in extrabiblical literature. Accordingly, the word branding may be a more appropriate translation, potentially associated with ancient slavery practices, thereby invalidating the verse’s applicability to discussions regarding tattoos. Nevertheless, pagan cultures (e.g., Hinduism) undeniably incorporate tattoos in worship practices, and without scholarly consensus regarding an alternate translation, we will consider the passage as rendered by contemporary translations. Cf. Gilad J. Gevaryahu, “Ketovet Ka'aka (Leviticus 19:28): Tattooing or Branding?” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38, no. 1 (2010): 13-20; Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 242.
- For additional guidance and information on the exegetical/hermeneutical process, see “The Importance of Community: An Exegetical Examination of Ephesians 4:7-16,” “Legalism or Cheap Grace? An Exegetical Examination of Romans 7:7-25,” and “The Rebellious Prophet: An Exegetical Commentary on Jonah.”
- Roy E. Gene, “Leviticus,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, ed. John H. Walton (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 286; 289.
- Louis Goldberg, “Leviticus,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Vol. 1, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 64.
- William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 80.
- Jay Sklar, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth (Nottingham, England: IVP, 2013), 250; Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 88; Carl Friedrich Keil, and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 603; Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), Le 19:28; Richard S. Hess, “Leviticus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis–Leviticus (Revised Edition), Vol. 1, ed. Tremper Longman III, and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 754; David Brown, A. R. Fausset, and Robert Jamieson, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments: Genesis–Deuteronomy, Vol. 1 (London, England: William Collins, Sons, & Company, Limited, n.d.), 490; David W. Baker, “Leviticus,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, ed. Philip W. Comfort, Vol. 2 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1996), 140; Ronald L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 545.
- James E. Smith, The Pentateuch, 2nd ed. (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1993), 386.
- For additional discussion regarding this point, see “Emancipated from the Old Testament Law,” and “Legalism or Cheap Grace? An Exegetical Examination of Romans 7:7-25.”
- Interestingly, there are indications within the Jewish tradition that the Levitical injunction against tattoos only applied to circumstances where an individual deliberately obtained a tattoo as a means of idol worship. Although contemporary Rabbis discourage Jews from receiving tattoos, Jewish assemblies do not enact sanctions against violators or forbid them from participation in any religious rituals. Cf. Jacob Neusner, The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew with a New Introduction, Vol. 1 & 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 1212-1213; Philo, Laws 1.58; Rabbi Alan B. Lucas, “YD 130.1997: Tattooing and Body Piercing,” The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19912000/lucas_tattooing.pdf.
- Kevin Swanson, The Tattooed Jesus: What Would the Real Jesus Do with Pop Culture? (Parker, CO: Generations with Vision, 2015), 78-80.
- Essential Christian doctrines are outlined in “Cults in America: Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and “Cults in America: Mormonism.”
- Benjamin A. Martin, and Chris S. Dula, “More than Skin Deep: Perceptions of, and Stigma against, Tattoos,” College Student Journal 44, no. 1 (2010): 200-206; Kristin A. Broussard, and Helen C. Harton, “Tattoo or taboo? Tattoo stigma and negative attitudes toward tattooed individuals,” The Journal of Social Psychology 158, no. 5 (2018): 521-540, https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2017.1373622.
- Andrew R.Timming, and David Perrett, “Trust and mixed signals: A study of religion, tattoos and cognitive dissonance,” Personality and Individual Differences 97 (2016): 234-238, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.03.067; Andrew R.Timming, and David Perrett, “An experimental study of the effects of tattoo genre on perceived trustworthiness: Not all tattoos are created equal,” Journal of Trust Research 7, no. 2 (2017): 115-128, https://doi.org/10.1080/21515581.2017.1289847.
- Michael T. French, Johanna Catherine Maclean, Philip K. Robins, Bisma Sayed, and Leah Shiferaw, “Tattoos, Employment, and Labor Market Earnings: Is There a Link in the Ink?” Southern Economic Association 82, no. 4 (2016): 1212-1246, https://doi.org/10.1002/soej.12132; Michael J. Tews, Kathryn Stafford, and Ethan P. Kudler, “The Influence of Tattoo Content on Perceptions of Employment Suitability Across the Generational Divide,” Personnel Psychology 19, no. 1 (2020): 4-13, https://doi.org/10.1027/1866-5888/a000234; Sara A. Brallier, Karen A. Maguire, Daniel A. Smith, and Linda J. Palm, “Visible Tattoos and Employment in the Restaurant Service Industry,” International Journal of Business and Social Science 2, no. 6 (2011): 72-76, http://ijbssnet.com/view.php?u=http://ijbssnet.com/journals/Vol._2_No._6;_April_2011/8.pdf; “Tattoos and Jobs: Find Out How Tattoos/Piercings Can Limit Your Career,” Salary.com, Accessed May 09, 2021, https://www.salary.com/articles/tattoos-hurt-chances-getting-job/.
- While speculative, it remains possible that tattoos will be a permanent facet of our existence throughout eternity. Following the Resurrection, Jesus' glorified body maintained the scars from His crucifixion. While one cannot be certain this experience is normative, it is worth remembering the importance of our physical bodies and considering the possibility that certain physical modifications may enjoy eternal permanency.