Culture / Discernment / Faith

Decorating or Desecrating the Temple?

I was recently at a social gathering with friends when their four year old daughter began pointing at my arms and exclaiming that she wanted stamps like mine. She had mistaken my tattoos for the ink stamps that her mother would occasionally place on her hands. I wish all of my interactions with people confused about tattooing were this innocent and humorous. People have varied reactions to my tattoos. Some are curious while some are repulsed, some are interested in what the markings mean while others are simply confused. On several occasions other Christians have attempted to evangelize me. Apparently the presence of ink underneath my skin clearly sets me apart as someone in need of salvation.

Tattooing and body modification, for good or ill, has been on the rise for the past several decades. It is a phenomenon which has in many ways become mainstream in Western culture in general and American culture in particular. If you don’t think this is true ponder for a moment the fact that there is now a reality television based around the daily happenings in a tattoo shop. Lamentably the Christian Church has had an inadequate response to this rise in tattooing. In one camp are the many Christians who have participated in a knee-jerk reactionary condemnation of all forms of body modification, and this condemnation all too often extends to those who participate in such practices as well. In the other camp is a large group of Christians who have uncritically accepted the various forms of body modification without giving proper thought to the practices themselves and whether or not they are legitimate endeavors for Christians to engage in.

What is it?
As we begin to explore the question of tattooing we must ask the most basic question: What is it? Jane Caplan has described tattooing as “one of many forms of irreversible body alteration, including scarification, cicatrization, piercing, and branding, and it is probably the oldest and most widespread of these.” [1] Caplan also gives a more detailed definition and description of tattooing:

Tattooing is the puncturing of the skin and the insertion of an indelible pigment into the dermis to a depth of between 0.25 and 0.5 cm, by means of a needle or other sharp instrument. The pigment is inserted either by dipping the instrument into it beforehand, or by rubbing it into the punctures. Instruments may be made of many substances, including bone, shell, wood or metal, and needles can be used singly or bound into bundles. This basic technique is found throughout the world, with local variations; modern innovations include more stable pigments, a greater variety of colours, and the electrical tattooing machine. [2]

Throughout its history people have engaged in tattooing for a variety of reasons including religious rites, superstitious and cultic purposes, memorializing the deceased, criminal branding, the marking of slaves, class and caste distinction, group solidarity (as in the case of soldiers), patriotism, anti-authoritarianism, submission, rites of passage, initiation into a sub-culture or group, rebellion, and also for pure adornment. Almost all of these can still be found as motivations for modern tattooing in Western cultures. Victoria Pitts writes that “Body practices [such as tattooing] show how the body figures prominently in our notions of self and community, in our cultural politics, and in social control and power relations.” [3]

While there have been several Christians who have winsomely engaged the topic of tattooing and body modification these interactions have tended to focus more on discussion and survey of the social and cultural trends within this field. While these individuals are to be praised for their willingness to broach this subject and begin conversation on the topic, they have largely only scratched the surface. As Christians we need to wrestle more deeply with this subject. The question of tattooing and body modification needs to be examined through the lens of biblical ethics. What, if anything, does Scripture have to say about such practices? This isn’t to say that proponents of the two camps mentioned earlier haven’t put forth biblical support for their rejection or acceptance of tattooing. Each camp tends to have its particular group of proof texts which it lays out as the unquestionable support for their position. I label these as proof texts not to be pejorative but due to the fact that the passages themselves are usually not thoughtfully engaged or exegeted nor is their immediate context or place within the broader context of the Bible as a whole taken into account.

My personal reasons for writing on this topic are obvious to anyone who has met me. I am a tattooed Christian and the majority of my tattoo work has been done since converting to Christianity. Due to the fact that several of my tattoos are visible to the casual observer I am frequently asked questions about my tattoos. When it comes to questions about tattoos asked by other Christians they tend to be either questions of curiosity or challenges in the guise of questions. I am frequently asked how I can have tattoos and be a Christian. To many people, Christian and non, these two things are mutually exclusive. I share this simply to admit that I am not an unbiased investigator of this subject. I have a vested interest in a particular conclusion. However, I don’t believe that this bias makes me unqualified to do the investigation. I have been very open to criticism of my tattoos and have invited discussion on whether or not it is a legitimate practice for me to engage in as a Christian. To date I have not heard any satisfactory reasons for “repenting” of my tattoos. However, as a person captive to the Word of God I am willing to have my previous views and conclusions changed if the biblical evidence demands that I do so.

My goal
My goal in this article is to explore the biblical and ethical ramifications of tattooing. The field of body modification includes but is not limited to tattooing, piercing, branding, scarification, sub-dermal implants, cyberpunk body-alteration, and alterations such as tongue splitting and flesh hanging. In addition to this, although it is much more accepted within Western society, most forms of plastic surgery should probably be placed in the category of body modification. The breadth of this discussion forces me to limit the scope of this article to tattooing. As we discuss what the Bible has to say about tattooing there are three main questions for us to explore:
Is tattooing forbidden in Scripture?
Is tattooing permitted in Scripture?
What are some ethical guidelines for tattooing?

Is tattooing forbidden in Scripture?
The question of whether or not tattooing is forbidden for God’s people is not a matter of a simple yes or no. It involves a detailed discussion of individual passages and of the cumulative teaching of Scripture as a whole. For those Christians who oppose tattooing their argument is usually based on three lines of argument from three different passages of Scripture. I will attempt to deal with two of these in detail in a moment. As for the third passage, some people condemn tattooing on the grounds that it is a violation of the second commandment which is a command not to make a carved image of anything (Ex. 20:4-5). I mention this passage simply to make note of it. I will not treat it as a significant argument due to the fact that it would entail a lengthy discussion of Christianity and visual representations of various kinds and art in general. The person who employs this passage against tattooing is in reality taking a stand against all forms of representational art. Though this subject is worthy of study and discussion it is far from the purpose of this article. [4] For these reasons I won’t dedicate anymore space to further refutation of this argument especially since there are more significant passages that do need to be discussed.

A passage that is much more frequently employed to refute the practice of tattooing is Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.” [5] While some opponents see this as an airtight condemnation of tattooing by God himself the issue is not as clear as that. For starters this passage is part of a larger group of Levitical laws including many that most Christians believe to be abrogated by Christ’s fulfillment of the Law and initiation of the New Covenant.

The issue of which Old Testament laws are still binding for Christians is a difficult one which involves much discussion and debate between well-meaning people. The Old Testament laws are commonly broken down into three categories. The first category is the moral law which reflects the unchanging nature of God and is binding at all times and in all places. The moral law would include instructions not to murder, lie, steal or commit adultery. Moral law would also include the injunction to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might and to love our neighbors as ourselves. [6] The second category is ceremonial law. The ceremonial law contains various instructions on how to worship God and deals with issues such as ritual purity, dietary laws, and the sacrificial system. [7] While some of the ceremonial laws are still in effect for the Christian [8] this category is largely seen by Christians throughout the history of the church as having been abrogated by the New Testament writers. [9] The third category is that of judicial or theocratic law. These laws were given to the nation of Israel as a way of governing themselves as the people and nation of God. This category includes instructions for how the king is supposed to rule among the people, legislative duties, and laws regarding property boundaries, proper court testimony, and warfare. [10]

With this in mind the question we must ask is: To which category does the command not to tattoo belong? This question is not easily answered due to the fact that the three categories mentioned above are not always obviously distinct when it comes to the Old Testament and ancient Israel. For example, “Do not murder” is a moral law but also has ramifications for the state. As a matter of fact most of the Levitical laws don’t fall neatly into one category. The question with Leviticus 19:28 seems to be whether it is a moral or ceremonial law. If it’s a moral law then it is a binding prohibition for modern Christians. If it is purely ceremonial then the realm of tattooing is acceptable for modern people. If it is a mixture of the two then further discussion is necessary.

The immediate context of Leviticus 19:28 seems to indicate that this is a ceremonial injunction. Verse 26 forbids the eating of meat with blood in it and also forbids a person to interpret omens and tell fortunes. Verse 27 gives prohibition to particular customs of trimming the hair on a person’s temples and beard during mourning rituals. The paragraph preceding the one in question contains agricultural instructions for the land that is about to be conquered and how the Israelites are to make even their farming sacred to the Lord. The paragraph immediately following this one forbids a man to make his daughter a prostitute lest the land fall into depravity; the prostitution mentioned here probably has the specific issue of shrine prostitution in mind given its relation to v. 30’s command to keep the Sabbaths of the Lord and reverence his sanctuary. For these reasons it is likely that the reference to tattooing is largely ceremonial.

Commentators, however, are divided on this issue. Some see this whole section as a collection of prohibitions against “unnatural, idolatrous, and heathenish conduct” [11] and thus broaden the practices mentioned from a ceremonial realm into the moral. They further comment that the cutting and tattooing which are mentioned are two completely separate practices. They state that what we have here are, “Two prohibitions of an unnatural disfigurement of the body. The first refers to passionate outbursts of mourning… [the second] of tattooing… had no reference to the idolatrous usages, but was intended to inculcate upon the Israelites a proper reverence for God’s creation.” [12] Another scholar follows this line of reasoning when he states that, “This law conforms to other holiness rules which seek to uphold the natural order of creation and preserve it from corruption (cf. v. 19; 18:22-23; 21:17ff)… Man is not to disfigure the divine likeness implanted in him by scarring his body.” [13] However, others see the prohibition here as limited purely to tattooing as it relates to pagan mourning rituals. [14] An article in the New Bible Dictionary takes this position stating that the “prohibition probably points to [the tattoos] having pagan and magical associations.” [15]

The Hebrew word in question in this verse [16] is translated somewhat anachronistically since the word tattoo didn’t enter western language until the late 1800’s. A more literal translation of the word might be incision, or imprintment. However, the practice mentioned here is almost certainly the same procedure as what we call tattooing. Malcolm Horsnell notes that the prohibition here is “against following the pagan practice of mourning for the dead.” [17] He goes on to point out that the prohibition of tattooing appears to by synonymous with the cutting prohibited in 28a. [18] Horsnell then connects the ceremonial and moral categories by stating both that, “The Israelites were forbidden to engage in this practice because it was a pagan religious ritual” and that, “The prohibition was based on the Hebrew understanding of the sacredness of life and the human body.” [19]

In analyzing the above material there are several things to be said. First, I must agree with the position which says that this prohibition is not merely against pagan mourning rituals. However, finding two distinct and separate prohibitions in this passage seems unwarranted. [20] The cutting mentioned in 19:28 is specifically cutting for the dead; therefore, if a connection does exist between these words then it seems to imply that the tattooing in question here is related to idolatrous and pagan practices. Any attempt to say otherwise seems to me to decontextualize the “what” from the “why” in this verse. In regard to the contention that this law is in conformity to other holiness rules intended to uphold the natural order of creation I would have to disagree on the basis that the statement seems based on assumption rather than clear evidence. The passages typically cited in support of this position simply don’t prove it. They either deal with issues that are vastly and obviously different than tattooing (homosexuality and bestiality) or they deal with laws the majority of Christians would view as having been abrogated (sowing fields with two types of seed; wearing garments made from two different materials; ritual and ceremonial purity of Aaronic priests).

Having said all this, how are we to answer the original question, “Is tattooing forbidden in Scripture?” In regards to Leviticus 19:28 the major issue seems to be motivation and cultural context for tattooing not the practice in and of itself. Therefore, in relation to modern day tattooing we must say that while not all tattooing is forbidden some is. Tattooing for superstitious and occultic (and cultic) purposes is directly prohibited just as witchcraft and sorcery are prohibited for the Christian. Especially tattooing which involves an attempted interaction with the dead. Also, any attempts to control, or otherwise affect supernatural forces through tattooing is condemned. On the surface these may seem like antiquated prohibitions, however there are still people who engage in tattooing for these reasons. It would also seem that tattooing as a memorial for the deceased is also prohibited. However, there may be some gray area here. (This issue will be dealt with later.)

A second passage that is consistently used by those who insist that tattooing is forbidden by Scripture is 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.” This objection to tattooing is actually much easier to respond to than Leviticus 19:28. This is due to the fact that the fuller context of 1 Corinthians 6 makes it unmistakably clear what sort of practices Paul is condemning in this passage. 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is an argument against a Christian’s participation in sexual immortality, particularly sexual relations with a prostitute. Jeremy Huggins, though he is writing on the subject of smoking instead of tattooing, explains the issue involved in this passage with great clarity:

Paul isn’t addressing physical harm to the body. 1 Cor. 6:15-20 describes the believer’s body as a figurative temple, the union-house of Christ (6:15) and the vessel of the Holy Spirit (6:19). In this passage, Paul speaks exclusively of sexual immorality. Because of the believer’s union with Christ and, thus, his union with other believers, sexual sin, the only sin against the body (6:18), and thus, against this union, affects, mysteriously and differently than other sins, everyone who is united to Christ: the Church. Thus, the unique peril of sexual immorality is Paul’s contention with Corinth. [21]

This is not to say that there aren’t broader principles or implications to be drawn from Paul’s imagery of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. However, Jeremy is right to highlight Paul’s insistence that the category of sinning against the body is especially reserved for sexual immorality. It would be na V ve to think that Paul, the former Pharisee, was unfamiliar with the command regarding tattooing in Leviticus, and yet being familiar with the practice and Levitical prohibition of tattooing, he still condemns sexual immorality as the only sin against the body, and therefore against the temple of the Holy Spirit. Leon Morris notes, “Other sins may have effects on the body, but this sin, and this sin only, means that a man takes a body that is ‘a member of Christ’ and puts it into a union which ‘blasts his own body’ (Way).” [22] Calvin puts it this way, “this sin alone, of all sins, puts a brand of disgrace upon the body” and also, “defilement does not attach itself to our body from other vices in the same way as it does from fornication.” [23] When taken in context we can clearly see that 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 does not forbid tattooing. However, this passage will have some bearing on the discussion below regarding the importance and place of the human body and how we ought to view it as Christians, and thus the nature of the type of tattooing a Christian might participate in.

Having given consideration to the two main passages used as scriptural support by those who oppose tattooing on biblical grounds, and having seen that these passages do not forbid all tattooing, and having no other passages seriously put forth as ones which prohibit tattooing, we must conclude that Scripture does not forbid all tattooing for the Christian.

Is tattooing permitted in Scripture?
Just because Scripture does not explicitly forbid the practice of tattooing we shouldn’t automatically assume that tattooing is permitted. Just because something is not specifically condemned in the Bible does not mean that there aren’t overarching principles set forth which would implicitly forbid the practice. For instance, the Bible does not explicitly prohibit polygamy, however the models and principles about godly marital relationships set forth in Scripture implicitly show that polygamy is not permitted as an acceptable practice for the faithful believer. Likewise, with tattooing we must ask if there are models or principles set forth throughout the Bible which permit or disallow Christians to tattoo.

What is the human body?
It seems that one of the first questions to ask is what the Bible’s view of the human body is. How does the Bible perceive the human body and its proper use? Unfortunately, much of the theology in the Western Christian tradition has failed to pay much heed to the nature of the body. I was confronted with this fact while doing research for this article. Throughout my study and preparation I was confounded at the virtual lack of material on the body. Despite a few sources that dealt with the issue, most of the authors I read had only a paragraph or two on the subject, if that. This might be a clue in part as to why the Church has failed to wrestle with the issue of body modification with any depth.

To begin answering this question of the body we must go to the book of beginnings. Genesis 1:26-31 gives a brief description of the creation of man and woman while Genesis 2:5-25 gives a fuller picture on the nature of our creation. Numerous books could and have been written in discussion on these passages. For our purposes it is only necessary to highlight several things. First, humans are made in the image and likeness of God. This fact is repeated three times in 1:26, 27. Since God himself is spirit (Jn. 4:24) we know that our physical bodies are not replicas of God. However, we must not think that there is therefore nothing reflective of God in our physical constitution. God himself has made us and has declared that he made us in his image and it is quite obvious that our physical constitution is different than that of the animals around us. Much more important for us is the fact that God has declared our physical bodies to be very good (1:31). This means that since human beings are a body-soul unity (2:7) both the spiritual and the physical are very good. Author Lauren Winner has some helpful insights on this point:

The Christian view of bodies – that is, God’s view of bodies – cannot be abstracted from the biblical account of creation. God created people with bodies, and God declared that they were good. It is sometimes hard for us modern-day Christians to grasp this central fact. Bodies are not simply pieces of furniture to decorate or display; they are trappings about which we have conflicted feelings (“body images” that we need to revamp and retool); they are not objects to be dieted away, made to conform to popular standard, or made to perform unthinkable athletic feats with the help of drugs; they are neither tools for scoring points nor burdens to be overcome. They are simply good. [24]

Our bodies should be respected, nourished and honored because they are very good and have been made according to God’s plan in his image and likeness. Many might say that this is the reason that tattooing is forbidden. Tattooing (as the argument goes) is an obvious defilement, profaning, and disregard for the image of God and for the body. However, this is an assumption which doesn’t prove whether tattooing is an inherently defiling act. Such an assertion fails to account for various forms of adornment throughout the world. If this practice has not been specifically condemned by the Lord [25] then a person should be very slow to draw any conclusions that the practice automatically defiles the body. It could be argued that if a person making such an assertion spent a significant period of time talking with a tattooed person about the time, thought and money invested in their body art it would become difficult to maintain a position which automatically views tattooing as a degradation of the body. In many ways, the tattooed have visible proof that they regard the body very highly in that they seek to beautify it. Many tattooed people are very comfortable inhabiting their bodies and have thought through the implications of what it means to be a bodily person. [26] Also, contrary to popular opinion tattooing does not cause any lasting harm to the physical body. Therefore, tattooing in and of itself should not be considered self-mutilation (though there are some who tattoo for this purpose) but rather as an attempt to aesthetically adorn the body, or as some have said, to paint the temple walls. (I will say more on this later.)

Whose possession is your body?
Having answered to some degree what the body is we must now ask whose it is. This question takes us back to 1 Corinthians 6. We are told explicitly in this passage who the body belongs to, “You are not your own, for you were bought at a price” (v. 19b-20a.). This is a statement that smacks against Western individualism. If our culture teaches us anything it teaches us that we have the ultimate say over what takes place with our bodies, that we are our own. Scripture teaches us the complete opposite. Instead of saying that our body is ours a more biblical statement might be that our body is us, and we are the Lord’s. Human existence is wrapped up in flesh and will be for eternity; therefore our personhood can not rightly be separated from our physical self. Scripture speaks everywhere of the people of God as his possessions, or better, as his possession. [27] Since this is true, then even if Scripture allows tattooing it would mean that any tattooing engaged in by a Christian must be in accord with the nature, character, and will of his possessor.

Something of a sub-point here is the issue of a wife’s say over what takes place with her husband’s body, and vice versa. This understanding comes from 1 Corinthians 7:4. While this passage is primarily concerned with the issue of depriving one’s spouse of sexual relations there does seem to be an overlapping principle here. Interestingly, the passage does not say that a husband’s body belongs to the wife, only that she has authority [28] over it, she has a say over it. This fits exactly with the message of chapter 6. While the body belongs to God he allows other people have some say in how it is used. Therefore, we do have some authority about what takes place with our body, but that authority is always subordinate to God’s authority as the owner of the body. It seems here that at least for married people their authority over their body is subordinate in some ways to the authority of their spouse. A husband or wife should seek out the will of their spouse when making decisions about their bodies.

What’s the deal with Galatians 6:17?
While talking about whether or not Scripture permits the practice of tattooing for Christians it is necessary that we examine Galatians 6:17, “From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Many advocates of tattooing appeal to this verse as biblical endorsement for tattooing. [29] This is because the Greek word that Paul uses which is translated “marks” is the word stigmata. [30] This is the same word used elsewhere in Greek writings to refer to tattoos. [31] In the ancient Roman Empire religious tattooing was very prevalent. Another form of tattooing that had a prominent place in the culture was the tattooing of slaves by their master. There is some debate over which of these two types of tattooing Paul has in mind. Many commentators believe that Paul is referring to the tattooing of slaves as he often refers to himself, as well as other Christians as the slaves of Christ. [32] However, there is some doubt as to whether this is what Paul had in mind since the most prominent form of slave tattooing was the marking of captured runaways and would have been a badge of disgrace. For this reason some commentators prefer an interpretation which has Paul referring to tattooing as a form of religious devotion. Timothy George prefers to accept the possibility that Paul is evoking both of these situations. [33] Since we can have no absolute certainty on this matter George’s approach is probably the best.

Whether Paul is referring to slave or religious tattooing it is most certain that he was speaking metaphorically and not about actual tattoos that he possessed. He was most likely referring to the many scars and marks he possessed on his body from the violent persecution he faced as an apostle of Christ. Despite the hopes of some tattoo enthusiasts this passage is not an explicit endorsement for tattooing. Paul is not saying, “Devoted Christians should go and be stigmatized for Christ.” However, Paul’s acceptance of the imagery of being tattooed should cause people opposed to tattooing on supposed biblical grounds to realize that Paul did not seem to be as adamantly opposed to tattooing as many modern Christians are. This passage also allowed other early Christians who were tattooed as a form of persecution to wear their tattoos as badges of honor. This in turn seems to have led to the adoption of tattooing by several ancient Christian communities. Mark Gustafson makes the following comments in his article on the tattoo in the Roman Empire:

Those Christians who died under the sentence of the Roman government, some of whom had surely been tattooed on their foreheads, were witnesses to the power of faith and shining examples to those left behind. And those who had been so marked and then were able to return to their own communities were often treated as heroes, courageous models in the flesh. (The wish to emulate them may have led to some voluntary tattooing.) And thus, what had been a mark of crime and punishment, or ignominy and disgrace, of degradation and subjection to earthly power, was intentionally (or sometimes not so intentionally) transformed into a sign of glory and honour, of integrity, of holiness, of the victory of God’s power and of brazen testimony to what may, in some cases, still have been a hazardous choice. Such marks were reminders of vows taken and blessings received, and, among those who shared them, signs of solidarity and of protection under God and Jesus Christ. [34]

Paul’s usage of tattoo imagery, while not explicit permission, certainly opens up and broadens the realm of discussion on the subject of tattooing.

Does tattooing fall in the range of Christian freedom and liberty?
Since we have seen that Scripture neither forbids all tattooing nor explicitly commands or commends it; we may be safe at this point to place some forms of tattooing in the realm of Christian liberty or adiaphora (indifferent things). This is a category where a particular activity may be permitted in varying circumstances but not necessarily in every circumstance. The eating of food sacrificed to idols is the prime example of Christian liberty in the New Testament. The classic passages dealing with the issue of Christian liberty are Romans 14:1-23; 1 Corinthians 8, and 10:23-33. To summarize these passages in light of our present discussion, Paul gives permission to engage in practices that are neither forbidden nor commanded in Scripture so long as they are done in faith and with a clear conscience and as long as the action in question does not cause a weaker brother to stumble.

Applying this to the topic of tattooing we might say that a Christian is allowed to practice tattooing so far as it doesn’t violate clear prohibitions in Scripture (i.e. pagan religious tattooing), and so far as it is done with a clear conscience, and so far as it does not cause a fellow Christian to sin against their conscience by following your behavior even though they think it sinful. [35] If tattooing falls into this realm of Christian freedom (which I believe it does) then we are forced not to ask whether tattooing as a whole is forbidden or permitted, but rather to evaluate tattooing on a case by case basis. [36]

What about not letting even a hint of evil to be found among us?
Some people may accept that tattooing does indeed fall in the realm of Christian freedom and yet will still oppose the practice on the conviction that Scripture calls us to not even let a hint of evil be found among the Christian community. In response to this I would agree with the conviction and sentiment of such people although I would insist that in this situation it is misdirected.

This conviction stems from Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5:3, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” [37] The person referring to this passage would most likely place tattooing under the heading of impurity. In response I think that the burden of proof lies with the opponents of tattooing to show how it would fit under the heading of impurity. [38]

In regards to the question of whether or not a tattooing allows for a “hint of evil” in the Christian community based on some of the associations people make with tattoos; it seems that this is largely a case of guilt by association. Almost any practice, including Christian practices, could be condemned if we were to judge them only by those who practice them. Besides, throughout the history of tattooing it was not always associated with impurity such as gangs, crime, and deviance. Indeed, there was a time in Christianity’s history when tattooing was viewed as something praiseworthy. Some mention of this has been made above but there is more evidence of this fact. An example is a quote highlighted by Charles MacQuarrie from the Report of the Papal Legates to Pope Hadrian in AD 786:

For God made man fair in beauty and outward appearance, but the pagans by devilish prompting have superimposed most hideous cicatrices, as Prudentius says, ‘He coloured the innocent earth with dirty spots.’ For he clearly does injury to the Lord who defiles and disfigures his creature. Certainly, if anyone were to undergo this injury of staining for the sake of God, he would receive great reward for it. But if anyone does it from the superstitions of the pagans, it will not contribute to his salvation any more than does circumcision of the body to the Jews without belief of heart. [39]

While we might not agree with the view of works-righteousness put forth here it is obvious that tattooing was not always reviled by Christians the way it sometimes is today. We see that as early as AD 786 tattooing was being evaluated on a case by case basis with the motivation for tattooing being a predominant factor in the evaluation.

The fluctuating reputation of tattooing throughout history is fascinating. The practice seems to move back and forth between being considered a practice of the lower classes or the deviant parts of society, and being considered a mark of prestige and nobility. [40] It seems that we are presently seeing a rise in the popularity of the tattoo and its acceptance in broader culture. For example, recently while I was having dinner with my wife at a local restaurant I observed over two dozen people with visible tattoos during the course of the meal. Far from being a hint of evil, tattoos tend to elicit curiosity and questions in our culture. [41]

What are some ethical guidelines for tattooing?
It is tempting to simply make the assertion that tattooing is a matter of Christian liberty and leave each person to decide what that means. This is tempting because any attempt I make to come to some conclusions regarding guidelines for tattooing is sure to offend someone. Some people will feel that the guidelines I suggest are too loose and somewhat vague at points. To them I can only say that this is as far as I can go in good conscience. It is not my job to bind each person’s conscience with a list of rules regarding tattooing. Other people will see these guidelines as too restrictive and may take offense since one or more of their tattoos may fall outside of the proposed guidelines. To them I say that I include myself as a person for whom these guidelines apply. Some of my past tattoos were outside of the boundaries I set forth.

I am not claiming infallibility here and the term “guideline” is purposefully chosen over against “rule.” If one of the following guidelines seems purposeless or without wisdom feel free to challenge or disregard it. However, if one of them rings true then it is best to heed it lest we sin against conscience. In addition, let me say that some of these guidelines are better founded in Scriptural insight than others. These are the ones that I would try to convince people of; the others are open for discussion. It should also be noted that these guidelines are recommended for Christians only. While some of them may have relevance to the non-Christian due to their being founded in common sense, the guidelines founded on biblical principles have been formulated with Christians in mind. While I am hesitant to lay down these guidelines I am convinced that not saying anything on this matter would be cowardly and irresponsible. So without further ado here are some of my suggestions in no particular order:

In light of Leviticus 19:28 a Christian should never engage in tattooing for superstitious and occultic (and cultic) purposes. This is directly prohibited for the Christian. This includes any attempts to control, or otherwise affect supernatural forces through tattooing. I would also include any tattooing of an image in an attempt to gain luck or earn favor with God. It would seem also that tattooing pictures of saints and possibly even of Jesus may be idolatrous and forbidden for Christians.

Tattooing as a form of mourning also seems to be forbidden in Leviticus 19:28. Tattooing the names or pictures of the deceased may be considered idolatrous in the sense that tattooing of this kind reveals an inordinate value placed on the temporal existence as opposed to the eternal. However, there may be some gray area here. For example, a tattoo acquired in memory of the dead may give glory to God by symbolizing the hope of seeing that person again at the resurrection and therefore would memorialize the work of Christ. It seems that there may be room for discussion at this point.
In general a Christian should bear in mind the value and dignity of their body. Remembering that their body is stamped with the image of God and is a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, a Christian ought to consider at great length whether or not the image they wish to have tattooed on them is worthy of the glory of the human body. Any frivolous tattooing should be rejected as demeaning to the body and the Lord of the body. This would also mean that the tattooing of anything profane or vulgar is prohibited.

Before acquiring a tattoo a Christian should spend time evaluating their motivations for doing so. Any tattooing for reasons of vanity should be rejected. We should always be on guard against turning ourselves into an idol of self-worship. Getting a tattoo simply because you think it will look cool is never a proper reason for a Christian. Since it is easy to become proud about pretty much anything, a person should consider before hand whether or not a particular tattoo is likely to lead them into vanity. When deciding on a new tattoo it is my personal policy that I must always choose something which points away from myself and points to my Creator and Redeemer. This way if and when someone asks me about one of my tattoos it is very hard for me to become vain in regards to my body art.

A person should always exercise caution when choosing a tattoo shop and artist. While most shops are regulated by state health departments there are still some that are neither sanitary nor professional environments. Make sure that the shop and artist you choose are both licensed by the state and practice universal precautions. You should also make sure that the person doing your tattoo is an actual artist and possesses skill. You can ask to see a portfolio of the person’s work or seek out particular artists who have been recommended by people you know and who have had work done by them which you like.
A Christian should also consider whether or not they are practicing proper stewardship of their money by getting a tattoo. Just as our bodies are not our own, neither are our finances and getting a good tattoo can be fairly expensive. This doesn’t mean that it is never appropriate to spend your money in this way, simply that it is an issue worth considering.
In light of my earlier comments on 1 Corinthians 7:4 I believe that it is never appropriate for someone who is married to obtain a tattoo against the express wishes of their spouse. If you desire to have a tattoo more than you desire to please your husband or wife you should seriously reevaluate your motivations for getting the tattoo.

As a person who interacts quite a bit with youth, my counsel to teens is always that they shouldn’t get a tattoo until they are old enough. By old enough I don’t simply mean age. Most state laws make it legal to get a tattoo without the permission of a parent or guardian at 18. However, I can honestly say that I regret all three of the tattoos that I got before I was 20. Since maturity is extremely hard to measure, young people should always consult their parents and/or other trusted mentors before getting a tattoo.

Although one would think it unnecessary to point out the permanent nature of tattoos, there are still a high number of people who get tattoos without taking this into consideration. It is expensive to cover a tattoo with more tattooing and even more expensive and painful to have them removed by laser. Also, laser surgery does not usually result in 100% removal. You should consider whether or not the tattoo you are considering is compatible both with the permanent nature of a tattoo and the permanent nature of the body. It is at least a possibility that tattoos will be present on our resurrection bodies.

Unintended consequences
In closing I think it would be appropriate for me to mention that I have experienced several positive and unintended effects from having tattoos. First, I have had numerous conversations with people that I would have never had if I didn’t have tattoos. Most people who ask about my tattoos are surprised to find out that most of them have some sort of religious or spiritual significance. This has in turn led to many conversations about faith, beliefs, and religious devotion. This is not to suggest that someone should get tattooed in order to have such conversations but merely that this has been a part of my experience.

Secondly, if I am honest I have to admit that there are days when I am ready to call it quits as a Christian. There are moments when I am ready to give up and walk away from the faith. In these moments my tattoos have taken on something of a sacramental nature. A sacrament is a sign and seal of the Christian faith. I am not suggesting we add tattooing as a Christian sacrament, but I mention the significance of my tattoos as a sign of my faith, and in the moments when I am tempted to walk away from Christ my tattoos have acted as something of a seal. During these times of doubt I see my tattoos and am reminded of grace, and that I am not my own but rather am a treasured possession of the King of the universe. When I am tempted to sin publicly I remember that I am marked, and that my tattoos publicly declare my affiliation with Jesus. I can only tell you that I have experienced this to be quite a deterrent in such moments. The sacramental function of my tattoos reminds me that there is no turning back, there is no pretending that the whole Christianity thing was just phase. In moments such as these the ink under my skin calls me back to sanity and back to faith.

Obviously this article is not the final word on the subject of tattooing. I consider my views to be a Christian approach to the subject not the Christian approach. It is my hope that these thoughts of mine clarify some of the issues, and also prompt more serious consideration of tattooing. As I said earlier, body art continues to gain popularity and acceptance in our culture, and all the signs are saying that this is more than a mere trend. Therefore, as Christians we need to thoughtfully consider how to respond to tattooing.

Let the discussion begin.


1. What is your reaction to this piece? Why do you respond that way? To what extent has it changed your thinking on the topic?

2. To what extent do you find Travis’s study of the biblical texts surprising? Convincing? Incomplete? Where, and on what basis, would you disagree? Are there other texts that should also be included in the discussion?

3. How have you tended to react to tattooing (before reading this piece)? To people with tattoos? What in your background causes you to react this way?

4. “The sacramental function of my tattoos reminds me that there is no turning back, there is no pretending that the whole Christianity thing was just phase. In moments such as these the ink under my skin calls me back to sanity and back to faith.” Discuss.

5. How can believers who disagree on this topic function together in the same Christian community? To what extent should we be able to give one another freedom? Let’s say some Christian parents object to a youth group leader because he/she is tattooed, fearing that will influence their children to get tattooed. How should church leaders respond?

6. Discuss and evaluate each of the author’s ethical guidelines. Where do you agree? Disagree? Why? Would you add anything not included here?


Jane Caplan, ed. Written On the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), xi.
Jane Caplan, ed. Written On the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 255.
Victoria Pitts, In the Flesh (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 3.
For those interested in further study of this subject see Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible.
Biblical quotes are taken from the ESV unless otherwise noted.
Deut. 6:4; Lev. 19:9-18; Mt. 22:37-40.
See Lev. 1-5, 11-14 for examples of these types of laws.
Such as the command not to have any other gods before the Lord and to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy and to keep oneself from idolatry.
In particular see Acts 10:9-16; 1 Cor. 8:1-6; Gal. 3:15-29.
See Deut. 17:8-20, 19:14-20 for examples of these types of laws.
C.F. Keil, The Pentateuch: The Third Book of Moses, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, trans. James Martin. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 423.
Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 272.
Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 277.
I. Howard Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer and D.J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), s.v. “marks,” by J.G.S.S. Thomson.
William A. VanGemeren, ed. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), s.v. “ [q[q ,” by Malcolm Horsnell.
To do so seems to ignore the synonymous link between [q[q (tattoo) and tb,toK] (make cuts) as mentioned above.
Jeremy is one of Ransom’s regular contributors. You can find his article, “Did Jesus Smoke?” in Critique #1 (2003).
Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 99.
John Calvin, 1&2 Corinthians, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 219-220.
Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), 33-34.
Again, many people would insist that Leviticus 19:28 is a specific condemnation. See my thoughts regarding this above.
I am not suggesting that it is necessary to be tattooed to have seriously thought through these implications.
See also Dt. 7:6; 1 Cor. 7:23; 1 Pt. 2:9.
Other passages sometimes used for the same purpose are Isaiah 44:5 and Revelation 19:16. Discussion on each of these would be worthwhile. However, the Galatians passage is the one most frequently cited in this discussion and has the most direct relevance and therefore, due to space limitations is the only one dealt with here.
Walter A. Bauer, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), s.v.
Timothy George, Galatians, The New American Commentary (Broadman & Holman Publishers: 1994), 442.
Mark Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” in Written On the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 31.
A person is guilty of sinning against conscience in this situation when they think that a certain practice is sinful and yet still participates in it. The issue here is not whether the individual action is a sin in and of itself but rather, the individual’s willingness to do it even though they think it’s sinful. Thus it is the attitude of the heart that is in question.
Some guidelines for this type of case by case evaluation are given below.
However, it is recognized that some forms of tattooing would fall under this heading and that of sexual immorality.
David Wilkins, “Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae,” 150 (1737): quoted in Charles W. MacQuarrie, “Insular Celtic Tattooing,” in Written On the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 37.
An example from the last century is the fact that there is some historical evidence that both Winston Churchill and his mother were tattooed.
Though again, this is not to say that there aren’t forms of tattooing that would be considered repulsive and evil by a majority of people.

Further Reading
Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, Second Edition Revised and Augmented. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Brown, Francis. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Calvin, John. 1 & 2 Corinthians. Calvin’s Commentaries Volume 20. Translated by John Pringle, 1 vol. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993.
Caplan, Jane, ed. Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984.
George, Timothy. Galatians. The New American Commentary. Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.
Gestenberger, Erhard S. Leviticus: A Commentary. Translated by Douglas W. Stott. Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Haack, Margie. "Why Do You Tattoo? Old Rites Reloaded". St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2004. Cassette.
Huggins, Jeremy. “Did Jesus Smoke?” Critique 1 (2003): 4-7.
Keil, C.F. and Franz Delitzsch. The Pentateuch. Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes. Translated by James Martin. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981.
Marshall, I. Howard and A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, D.J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996.
Morris, Leon. 1 Corinthians. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
Pitts, Victoria. In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modifcation. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
VanGemeren, William A., gen ed. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997.
Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979.