Tattoo or Not to Tattoo?
Tattoos are making a comeback in today’s culture, even among the traditionally conservative Christian community. The trend is that more and more Christians seem to be picking up tattooing as a cool, fun thing to do, regarding it simply as “body art” or a way to express individuality, much like with hairstyles, clothes or fashion accessories. Hence, this subject has become a very controversial and disputed issue that many Christians battle with.
Can a Christian get a tattoo? Is there anything in the Bible that explicitly restricts or permits a Christian to have a tattoo? Is it a sin to have a tattoo according to biblical principles? What about a Christian symbol like a cross, or a bible verse for a tattoo, surely that would be acceptable, wouldn’t it?
Honestly, there are many gray areas and disputable matters in a Christian’s life; search any concordance and you will not find explicit restrictions on smoking, on gambling, or even on getting tattoos. However, an attentive and diligence study through the full counsel of God’s Word can certainly give us discernment and wisdom into the Father Heart of God in these issues and thus help us to make the right decision that will glorify Him in our lives.
Scripture on Tattooing
The Bible in Lev.19:28 seems to makes a very crystal clear statement: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord”. However, a full understanding of the context of this verse is imperative before we come to a conclusion too hastily.
Most Bible scholars would agree that this verse is referring to pagan rituals that were performed over the burial of their dead during the time of Moses. God is thus prohibiting the Israelites to engage and participate in the worldly, pagan rituals that the nations outside of Israel had as a tradition. God is warning the Jewish people about a pagan practice at funerals, where they would mutilate or mark themselves to appease their false gods. The pagans hoped that by cutting themselves and marking symbols of idols on their bodies, that they would obtain favour in the afterlife from their false gods, both for themselves and for those who just died. And God is warning Israel not to associate themselves with these religious practices but to remain pure and true to the only living God.
Hence, the focus here is on prohibiting worldly, heathen worship and witchcraft and emphasizing God’s desire to set his people apart from other cultures. God forbids his holy people to engage in idolatrous, pagan worship and sorcery which imitate the heathens.
Historically, tattoos are associated with paganism, demonism, Baal worship, shamanism, mysticism, heathenism, cannibalism and many other pagan beliefs. The tattooing procedure involves cutting the flesh with a sharp needle or instrument in order to carve out or make designs.
The result is something called “blood-letting” which has its roots in beliefs and practices that are demonic and pagan. Blood-letting has both occult and demonic origins as it is considered a power source that is supernaturally unleashed. Many books sources indicate that tattooing is a magical rite and the tattooist is often respected as a priest or shaman while the practice of tattooing is connected to religious ceremonies and performed by priests or priestesses; it is intended to put the human soul in harmony with supernatural forces. In other words, it is connected with the spirit world—a tattoo is really much more than a simple body decoration.
The second feature of this passage that we must consider is that the command falls under what Old Testament theologians identify as Israelite civil law. There is a major difference between Israelite civil law and moral law. The civil law was given to Israel specifically as a theocracy to keep them pure and to govern their life. The moral law was given to Israel and to all Christians as a means of governing their lives and spiritual health. The moral laws are such things as the Ten Commandments, which Jesus reiterates in the New Testament. As Christian we are not under the civil law of the Israelites nor are we under the sacrificial law of the Old Testament as Jesus has already come to fulfilled it. However, we are still subject to the moral law.
Having said that, I personally believe that when our Father God gave the Israelites many of the Old Testament commands, in His heart of heart, He also wanted to establish an eternal spiritual truths and principles that is beneficial for us as modern day believers. For the Bible clearly says that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…” (2Tim.3:16). Thus, all Scripture in the Bible has an element of eternal truth and principals that transcend time and culture to profit and guides our lives today.
For example, in Levitcus19:19, the Israelites are commanded, “You shall not let your livestock breed with another kind. You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you”.
In this scripture, God is telling Israel that a garment made of a singular material is a reminder for them that there is one God, not many; and not to take the pure, singular faith given to them by God and mix it together with the pagan religions rampant around them. He is saying to them, one breed, one seed, one fabric, one unpolluted faith, one true God.
Today, we in the Church may not wear garments of a single fabric or cross breed our dogs for instance, but we are still commanded by God not to incorporate the beliefs and practices of other religions into Christianity. In fact, we are admonished to keep the “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father…and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27) and warned that “whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). So while the physical reminder given to Israel may not apply to us today, the spiritual principle behind it certainly does.
Now, on to tattoos—why do we see the prohibition on tattoos in Leviticus?
One of the physical characteristics of the pagan communities around Israel was that they marked themselves with tattoos and engaged in physical, religiously-motivated superstitious practices that included the disfigurement of their bodies. In forbidding tattoos, God was telling Israel He did not want them to possess any physical marks or characteristics that externally resembled the pagan nations. Such a thing would link them visibly to the false religious practices and immoral behaviours of those nations, which ran contrary to God’s standards.
What’s the spiritual principle that carries forward to us today? In short, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2) in any way. One way Christians adhere to this mandate is to not externally identify themselves with any visible ‘marks’ that would associate them to the world, its false religions, and immoral behaviour. In Eph.5:3, we again admonished “fornication and all uncleanness…let it not be named among you…”
The question then is: As a beloved child of God, does getting a tattoo today violate this spiritual principle and pain the Father Heart of God?
Let’s look at another application of this command. Today, no Christian would say it’s wrong for women to wear pantyhose. However, the history of the pantyhose can be traced back to prostitutes in Italy hundreds of years ago. It was one of their externally identifying ‘marks’ that told others who they were and what they practiced.
Now, if I am an Italian pastor back then, I would have caution and advise the ladies of my congregation not to wear pantyhose, for the simple reasons of urging them not to externally identified with prostitution and thus mistakenly link them and the Church to a segment of society that practiced gross immorality. In other words, those in the Church should not reflect the world system that opposes God.
The fact is, God calls His people to be separated from the world as a witness to His holiness, and this includes how we live, conduct and project ourselves to the outside world. Simple deduction for this is that what’s on the outside can oftentimes represent what’s on the inside.
So the spiritual principle which reflects the Father Heart God found in Leviticus 19 stills applies to us today. We as Christians are to be in the world, but not of the world. This includes various identifying ‘marks’ of the world which we as a child of God should be mindful of.
Some will try to argue that a Christian’s tattoo can serve as a witnessing tool or help bridge some kind of gap between them and non-Christians. Such thinking may seem admirable, but is actually the promotion of the philosophy of pragmatism, which says if something seems to “work”, then it must be right and moral, or that the end justifies the means. I don’t think we are ever called to “be like the world” to win “the world”.
It is interesting that Chapter 19 in Leviticus starts off by saying in verse 2: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” “Holy” means being separate, set apart, and refers in Scripture to a separation from sin and the world. This includes giving ourselves to God in every way, including what we do with our bodies: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
When it comes to tattoos, Christians need to ask themselves if tattoos still represent some subcultures whose beliefs and moral practices run contrary to God’s Word. If the end of that examination suggests that such a link exists, then the prudent stance from a Christian perspective would be to avoid them and therefore continue to practice the spiritual principle laid down by God for His people in His Word.
At the same time, we also need to consider some of the more serious and important questions that apply to each individual:
What are my motives & motivation for wanting a tattoo?
Am I seeking to glorify God or draw attention to myself?
Will my tattoo be a source of contention for my loved ones?
Will getting a tattoo cause me to disobey my parents?
Will my tattoo cause someone who is weak in the faith to stumble?
Since tattooing is such a controversial issue today, I think it's important to examine our heart and motives before making the decision. Below are some points to consider before making a decision to tattoo:
How do my heart and my conscience convict me? Do I truthfully have freedom in Christ and a clear conscience before the Lord regarding the decision to get a tattoo? Since tattooing is still a very much debated issue by many biblical scholars, do I really want to take a chance on getting a tattoo that does not honor God? In Rom.14:23, we are admonished, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Though in this passage, Paul is dealing with the issue of food, but the spiritual principle are pretty clear, anything that is not done in faith and if it bothers our conscience is sin towards God.
As with some sin it is not the act but the intent that matters. If the act of getting tattoo is due to implosive anger and rebellion against parents, authority, etc. – then it is sin. For instance, if your parents do not approve and you do it to spite them, then tattoo is sinful, because God’s commandment calls us to “obey your parents in the Lord…honour your father and your mother” (Eph.6:1). Moreover, traditionally, tattoos are associated with a rebellious spirit. Recent studies on today’s tattooed young people indicate:
- They are nearly four times more likely to engage in sexual intercourse
- Over two times more likely to experience alcohol related problems
- Nearly two times more likely to use illegal drugs
- Over two times more likely to express violent behaviour
- Over two times more likely to drop out of high school.
The decision to get any permanent cosmetic procedure done should not be made lightly. As with plastic surgery, the results of these procedures will become a part of you. Tattoos become a permanent piece of our skin.
Before we let that ink mark us for life we better think very careful about the possible health, emotional and social consequences. Emotional risks include negative feelings like regret you might have as a result of getting a tattoo or piercing. Social risks are those that could damage your relationship with others, including friends, parents, teachers, employers or even or future spouse.
According to the statistics, more than fifty percent of people who have gotten tattooed regret it and admitted that they wished they had never been tattooed. In the married group, the figure rose to around seventy per cent.
Although removal is possible with modern technology, laser surgery in an attempt to remove the tattoos is expensive and extremely painful spread across several procedures. Most importantly, the skin will never look the same again—scar tissue will takes the place of the removed ink.
The question then is not necessarily: “Is getting a tattoo a sin?” The more pertinent thing to ask is: “Is getting a tattoo a good and necessary thing to do?”
1 Corinthians 10:23 declares, “Everything is permissible – but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible – but not everything is constructive.” Tattoos may be permissible, but are they beneficial and constructive for us and for His kingdom?
In dealing with food offered to idols, Paul taught that foods offered to idols are not consequentially subscribed to have come from them “For the earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness.”(1Cor.10:26). Some have the idea that idols are an unclean reality and therefore eating foods offered to them would constitute idolatry. However, Paul pointed out that “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” By this he means that knowledge in itself is not sufficient guide in these matters of controversy. Rather, forbearance and love should rule in such circumstances. That is, we should not liberalize ourselves to do something because it is lawful for us, but we also should consider the effects our actions will have on others.
Though Paul is reconciled within himself that all foods can be eaten, whether sacrificed to idols or not, for it is God who gives food to men. Nevertheless, he warned that every believer who still remains doubtful or uncertain in this matter should abstain from the consumption of foods sacrificed to idols, for actions done without faith defile a man's conscience. On this basis, it would be better for him to avoid those foods altogether rather than eat of it with a doubtful heart.
Having said that it is not wrong to eat foods offered to idols, a qualification must be made. Wherever the consumption of such foods is a likely association with the act of worship or fellowship with the people who sacrifice the foods, then the believer should abstain from eating those foods. For example, foods offered to idols during a religious ceremony that are later offered to everyone present; the believer should excuse himself from eating them because by doing otherwise, he would be considered as having partaken of the worship that was held earlier (1 Cor. 10 : 18-21).
In 1Cor.9:1-18, Paul reminded us that our love for one another should cause us to instinctively deny our rights in controversial circumstances such as that above. Paul asserted that though his service in the Lord's work entitled him to material support from the Corinthian Church for whom he labored tirelessly, he denied himself the right to receive it. Paul chose to become “weak to the weak and become all things to all men, that he might by all means save some.” (1Cor.9:22). He is encouraging us not to seek after our own pleasures but to put the interests of our brethren above ours that we might not hinder the process of God's redemption.
In Paul's appeal to “become all things to all men”, we should be careful, however, that we do not take this to the extreme and allow ourselves to be deceived by Satan. We are called to be the salt and light of the world and to glorify God. We do not need to conform ourselves to our surroundings or try to identify with the unrighteousness of the world to reach out to the lost. We are to love the world with God's love, not harmonize with the world.
Romans 14:15 again gives us a parameter on things that we should or should not abstain from: “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.” Again Paul is taking about foods here, but in verse 20 he makes a very important point, “but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.” Hence, if we think that tattooing may cause some Christians and non-Christians to stumble in their belief in the purity of our faith, if they may see it as sin, then it would be wise that we abstain from it, since we are taught to abstain from even the appearance of evil (I Thess. 5:22). We need to be wise in the application of our freedom and not cause anyone to stumble. “Therefore let us…not put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Rom.14:12). Christians therefore have the responsibility to be a testimony of holiness to reflect the character of Christ to the losing world.
Given the increased popularity of tattoos in recent years, many people are under the impression that getting a tattoo is extremely safe, especially if they visit a well-respected tattoo artist in a sterile setting. However, there are a number of health issues that can arise from getting a tattoo.
A tattoo is a permanent mark or design made under your skin with pigments inserted through needle pricks into the skin's top layer. Typically, the tattoo artist uses a hand-held machine that acts much like a sewing machine, with one or more needles piercing the skin repeatedly. With every puncture, the needles insert tiny ink droplets. The process, which is done without anaesthetics, causes a small amount of bleeding and slight to potentially significant pain.
Tattoos breach the skin, which means that skin infections and other complications are possible. Despite tattoo artists taking every precaution and following good practices, inks can be shipped to them containing bacteria, mole and fungi and it is unlikely any contamination will be detected. Specific risks include:
• Allergic reactions. An allergy can manifest as a rash or inflammation and must be treated in a timely manner to guard against further complications.Tattoo dyes — especially red, green, and yellow and blue dyes — can cause allergic skin reactions, such as an itchy rash at the tattoo site. This can occur even years after getting the tattoo.
• Skin infections. A skin infection — which might cause redness, swelling, pain and a plus-like drainage — is possible after tattooing. Tattoo ink is a foreign substance to the body and in some circumstances the body will react to tattoos by creating granulomas, which feel like small knots or bumps, around and under the tattoo site. Tattooing can also lead to keloids — raised areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue.
• Blood borne diseases. If the equipment used to create the tattoo is contaminated with infected blood, it can contract various blood borne diseases — including tetanus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C and even AIDS
• Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM). A bacterial infection caused by contaminated tattoo ink that can cause lung disease, joint infection, eye problems and other organ infections. NTM infections are easy to misdiagnose, with symptoms that appear much like an allergic reaction (red papules, or solid, raised spots on the skin that often appear soon after a new tattoo). The infections are also difficult to treat, with some treatment plans lasting more than six months.
• Cancer. Studies and research has found evidence that toxic nanoparticles from inks used in tattoos can infiltrate the bloodstream and accumulate in regions of the body like the spleen and kidneys, harming the body's ability to filter impurities. This could potentially reduce function in those organs and could over time increase the risk of cancers. It was once believed that it took quite high concentrations of these chemicals to damage the body, but more recent research has found that even in small quantities, these chemicals can be dangerous.
Though getting a tattoo may not be a black and white issue, there is always a right and wrong choice for each individual. We encourage you to take some time to honestly ponder and evaluate the questions raised in this article conscientiously and trust that the spirit of the living God will reveals the Father Heart of God to guide you to make the right decision that will fully glorify His Son Jesus Christ in and through your lives.
“For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom.11:36)
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