When Christians talk about the issue of tattoos, a common verse used to argue against getting them is Leviticus 19:28, which says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” At first glance, the answer seems clear — tattoos are an absolute no! However, it is important to understand a Bible verse in its cultural context before applying what it teaches to our time and place. In this case, the command is related to specific practices of other cultures that worshipped idols. For example, some cut their flesh as an appeal to their gods (1 Kgs 18:28), while others tattooed the names of Canaanite gods on their bodies. Also, this verse from Leviticus sits in a list of instructions about holy living and appropriate conduct in a specific time and place, some of which are no longer relevant in modern-day society, like the length of a man’s beard (Lev 19:27) or the permitted materials for one’s clothing (Lev 19:19). It would not occur to you that wearing T-shirts, which are often a blend of cotton and polyester, could be a sin! It is clear that the response to whether having tattoos is a sin cannot rely on Leviticus 19:28.
Does this then mean that tattoos are all right after all, and so we should have no qualms about getting one? While there are some instances where the answer would be an outright no (e.g. getting a tattoo with satanic imagery or the names of other gods), I can’t answer that question directly for you. However, here are a few questions that I have often found helpful when dealing with grey areas:
What is your motivation for doing so, and is this the only way to fulfil it?
For some, getting a tattoo is innocent fun and helps them to express their artistic side. For others, it can be a sign of rebellion, to assert their identity in a way that differs from what their parents or society may expect. Tattoos are often seen as a rite of passage for people who join a gang and a way to declare where their allegiance lies.
One young lady whose body was covered entirely in tattoos told me that she was addicted to getting them because she liked the numbing effect that helped her forget her emotional pain. She had one done right before a church camp, and she felt that the physical effects were causing her to not be able to focus on God. In this case, getting a tattoo was the equivalent of a drug for her to escape her pain, which is not a healthy motivation.
Some may say that tattoos are OK if they are “Christian” ones (e.g. Bible verses, a cross) to help them remember to honour God. Unfortunately, having such a tattoo did not stop some women I know from having pre-marital sex and straying from God. It is by His grace that they came back to Him. If your goal is to remember God’s Word or to mark a spiritual milestone, are there any other ways of doing so that could be more effective and include your community to hold you accountable?
SOME MAY SAY THAT “CHRISTIAN” TATTOOS ARE OK IF IT HELPS THEM REMEMBER TO HONOUR GOD.
As daughters of God, we must bring our motivations to God, surrender them to Him, and let Him speak to us if any of them are unhealthy and need to be thought through again.
Does this honour your parents?
If, after studying God’s Word, you find that certain tattoos are indeed not a sin, would you still go ahead with getting one if your parents or guardians disapproved, and you may disappoint or hurt them? How would this affect your long-term relationships with them or your grandparents, siblings, and extended family?
How will others view this?
Tattoos are viewed differently in every culture. I encourage you to have conversations with people from different generations, industries, and countries, and be proactive and rigorous in finding out how tattoos can be viewed in each context. While they are increasingly accepted in many nations, they can still be a stumbling block to many. As our world becomes more connected, one Christian’s tattoo can deeply trouble a Christian in another part of the world.
A missionary friend tattooed a Christian symbol on his shoulder so that it would not be visible when he worked in different countries. However, he once went swimming in Romania with a Christian family, and the grandmother was so shocked to see it that she actually asked her son if this missionary was truly a believer. While I know he is one, his innocent tattoo caused a misunderstanding that could have long-term implications for his credibility in the mission field.
While we do have freedom to make choices guided by our interpretation of God’s Word and our conscience, it is helpful to remember Paul’s exhortation to “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor 8:9).
Could this cause any long-term health issues?
It is possible to have skin infections and complications, as well as allergic reactions to tattoo ink, even years later. Some people have experienced skin inflammations, formed keloids, or even contracted blood-borne diseases such as Hepatitis B, C and the super bug called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Though many colourings have been approved for use in cosmetics, the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved them for use under the skin.
Will you regret this?
Unless you undergo painful removal treatments, tattoos are permanent, which is the whole reason why people want them. However, we do hear stories of people who get a tattoo of their lover’s name, only to regret it when they break up. Moreover, a certain tattoo may be fashionable in 2020, but look regrettably outdated in 2040. And while some industries are accepting of tattoos, many are not, which means a prominent tattoo may exclude you from some job opportunities or prejudice particular groups against you, however unfairly.
EVERY DECISION WE MAKE SHOULD BE EDIFYING TO OTHERS AND BRING GLORY TO GOD.
So, what’s the verdict?
As Paul noted, “not everything is beneficial” even though you might insist that you have the right to do anything you want (1 Cor 10:23). Every decision we make should be edifying to others and bring glory to God. Instead of asking, “What is right and wrong?”, I have often found it more helpful to ask, “Who do I belong to?” This has helped guide me in many decisions, so that I can make them from the position of being a beloved daughter of God, rather than out of fear of punishment from Him.
The Bible is not always explicit about every matter, but part of Christian maturity is taking the time to do the hard work of studying the Bible on topics that are not so clear, drawing out the principles that are relevant to us today, then applying them to our lives. Thankfully, God has given us the church community to help us discuss and interpret God’s Word together! When you can make decisions based on your personal convictions and conversations with others and with God through His Word and prayer, you are growing as a disciple of God.