Question: Is it sinful to get a tattoo(s)?
Answer: Yes and No
Throughout my entire life, I have always been intrigued by tattoos. To this day the desire has never left; it has been growing steadily over the years. Before I was a Christian there were no issues to work though with getting one except to get the “okay” from my parents. Now, that I’m a Christian, and married, there are many more things I should think through. What does God think about this desire in me? Is it sin for me to get a tattoo? Can I be a Christian and have a tattoo? What message would I be sending out to others if I got one? Here are my thoughts.
First, I must think through Leviticus 19:28, which says, “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.” You can see why this could be a problem can’t you. But like any verse we must see the context around it to get the meaning. The context for verse 28 is verses 26-30. In this section Moses forbids certain things for Israel. These things are all pagan practices that were intermingled with Egyptian idolatry, therefore they were to be avoided for Israel. In times of grief these pagans would make deep gnashes and cuts on their body, as a mark of respect for dead and as an offering to the gods who presided over death. These tattoos were permanent signs of apostasy. So can I conclude from this that tattoos are sinful and a permanent sign of apostasy for me? If I were a Jew I would stop right here and confidently say, “YES!” But I am not a Jew, so there is more to this. Because I am a Christian, I believe that the Law (the OT) has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Because Jesus has fulfilled the law I am no longer under it, I am under grace (Rom. 6:14). Because of Jesus, this verse no longer has sway over Christians. With Christ came freedom; Christian liberty to do as we please, except of course those things that are forbidden in the New Testament.
Now we get into the cloudier matters of Christian liberty in the New Testament. Although I am free to do anything that is not forbidden, I have some guidelines I need to stick to. Romans 14 speaks of the weaker brother, and that I am not to make my weaker brother stumble by what I do or say. Paul says, for the Christian “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.” (1 Cor. 10:23) I am not to seek my own good, but that of my neighbor, so they may be saved (1 Cor. 10:24, 33). I must do all things to the glory of God, not my own glory (1 Cor. 10:31). Paul also says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20) The members of my body are to be instruments of righteousness, not instruments of wickedness (Rom. 6:13). These guidelines take my desire for a tattoo outside the personal realm into the realm of everyone else. I am free to get a tattoo, to pierce my ears, to cut my hair a certain way, to dye my hair a certain color, to wear a certain type of clothes, to drink beer or wine, to shave my mustache or let it grow. But in all these things I must ask, is it profitable for me to do these things? Will I by doing any of these things, cause a younger or weaker brother in the faith to stumble? Is it worth it to do these things if they have a chance of causing someone to stumble? Our cultures current consensus regarding tattoos has drastically changed in the past 15 years or so, but there are still people out there who see tattoos and automatically label those who have them as young, foolish, arrogant, and out of control. There are also many people out there who do the same when they see pierced ears, or people drinking alcohol, smoking, wearing certain clothes, etc. What does all this mean for me and my desire for a tattoo? Many things….
First, I am a married man. This means that I have a wife who cares for me and one day, Lord willing, I’ll have kids who look up to me. As for my wife, Biblically, 1 Cor. 7:4 makes clear (as Ephesians 5:22-33 implies it) that my body belongs to her, and her body belongs to me. If she does anything to her body that I do not like, it is sin for her to do so. In the same way, if I do anything to my body that she does not like, it is sin for me to do so. So, before I could even think of getting a tattoo I must ask the one to whom my body belongs, my wife. Holly (my wife) and I have talked about this many times since we have been together. She likes tattoos and would not mind if I had one. As for my kids (Lord willing), they will grow up loving a father who has a tattoo? Is that good? Is that bad? It would not be bad for them to see a tattoo on me. The real question is, would I be bothered if they got tattoos? I surely cannot have one if I would not allow them to have one. On the one hand, I would not be bothered if they got tattoos that were God-centered and Christ-exalting. On the other hand, I would be bothered if they got tattoos that were self-exalting. In teaching them about these things, one thing is for sure, from my tattoo (the one I want) they would see and hear the gospel many times. Because of that, I would do it.
Second, I’m in pastoral ministry. Does that automatically disqualify me from doing this? Pastors are held to a higher standard (James 3:1) than others. As a pastor I would be leading, not only by preaching and teaching the gospel, but by living a God-centered, Christ-exalting, gospel saturated life before them. As a pastor, I am either be a good example, or a bad example. As a pastor, my life and the life of my family is be as if we lived in a fish bowl, open for all to see. As a pastor I minister to all kinds of people, young and old, who carry all sorts of sin, morality, judgmentalism, ideas about how things/people should be, etc. Because of these things, is it wise and would it profit me to have a tattoo as a pastor? Will I cause one member, many members, or my entire congregation to stumble because I have one? Will I hinder my ability to minister to some of my people? One the one hand, the answer is maybe. But one the other hand, will I, because of my tattoo, have an opportunity to teach and live in such a way as to show my people how to let go of preconceived, un-Biblical notions about appearance, and legalism that says you must look this way if you’re a Christian? Yes. Do you see how deep this decision is and how thought through it must be? After reflecting on these things, and praying through these things, I would still get it. Yes, it would be a risk, but I would have the chance to move people closer to what the Bible says and farther away from what the some of the world says. What is life anyway without risk? Nothing.
Third, I am a Christian; therefore I am an evangelist/missionary wherever I go. The fact that there are people in my life and people who will be in life who do not know Jesus makes me want to get this tattoo. It would not be to show them that I am super-spiritual, but to open another door for a conversation about the gospel. People always ask “What is your tattoo of? What does it mean?” Instantly, the gospel would be going out. Because of this fact, it moves me to say yes.
Ultimately, the one question that I should ask in thinking through this tattoo (and all of my choices in life) is: what would it mean for the glory of God? Would God be honored in me getting a tattoo? Would God be made much of, or more glorified because of it? Would God be more treasured by more people if I had it? Yes and no. God would not be glorified in my tattoo if I got it for vanity, to make much of myself. John 3:30, “He must increase, I must decrease.” God would not be glorified in my tattoo if I got it to somehow find an identity outside of Himself, as if my identity in Him was not enough. God would be glorified in my tattoo if it made much of Him, and directed more people to Him. Just as the Tabernacle and the Temple were adorned with all sorts of beautiful paintings, veils, instruments, and decorations, so too my body is a temple of God and a tattoo that spoke of Him would be the same thing!