Christians often ask whether there is anything sinful about getting a tattoo. In answering the question, some cite the reference in Leviticus 19:28: "You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord." To properly address the question we need to understand and think about a few things. First, this portion of Leviticus is addressing Israel's behavior and also how they should interact with the pagan nations around them.
There are a number of seemingly odd verses in this passage, including verse 19 that says: "You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material." Wait a minute… Does God really care about things like wool/polyester blends?
Part of what God is doing in this passage is prescribing a variety of physical reminders for the people that hammer home spiritual truths. In verse 19, He's basically telling them that a garment made of a singular material is a reminder for them not to take the pure, singular faith given to them by God and mix it together with the pagan religions that were around them.
So why the prohibition on tattoos? Because one of the physical characteristics of the pagan communities around Israel was that they marked themselves with tattoos. God did not want Israel to identify themselves or be externally identified in any way with these nations, including how they physically looked.
By way of a modern day example: today it is perfectly fine for women to wear pantyhose. However, pantyhose were popularized by prostitutes in Italy hundreds of years ago. So, if an Italian pastor back then asked the ladies of his congregation to not wear pantyhose, it would be because he didn't want them to be identified with prostitution and thus telegraph the thought that the Church was involved in such immorality.
Scripture makes it clear that God cares about the inside of a person more than the outside. "Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person" (Mark 7:20-23).
Now, that said, God calls His people to be separate from the world, and this includes how we live and conduct ourselves from an external facing standpoint. The reason for this is that what's on the outside can represent what's on the inside. For example, a person who dresses very provocatively may silently be communicating a sinful desire that is in their heart. A person who dresses in Goth fashion is likely affirming the lifestyles and practices that define that subculture.
So the spiritual principle found in Leviticus 19 about tattoos and other such things still applies to us today. As Christians, we are to be in the world, but not of the world. Just as a boat is fine when it is in the water, but sinks when it becomes "of" the water, so a Christian is to live in the world but not become a part of the world. This includes various identifying 'marks' of the world, not just physical imprints on the body.
A Christian considering a tattoo needs to honestly ask him/herself what they're looking to achieve with it and if it would negatively impact their Christian witness. And as with any action, we need to remember Paul's admonition: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).
It is interesting that the chapter 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: "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" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
In no way do these positions imply that Christians who currently have tattoos are terrible people or anything close. Again, the critical thing is a godly character on the inside that is reflected on the outside. But we all need to think how any action we're considering may impact our Christian witness and reflect back on God. In this case, a believer should consider whether we have reached the point in this culture where tattoos are as benign as pantyhose, and if there are any groups or subcultures that have lifestyles contrary to Scripture that have tattoos as one of their identifying characteristics.
If, after reflection and prayer, a Christian does not honestly feel the answers they get back are in keeping with the spirit of God's message found in Leviticus 19, then the best thing to do is refrain from getting a tattoo.
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