October 19, 2015

Tattoos and Skin Deep Hermeneutics (reprise)

by Clint Archer

It used to be easy for Christians to formulate an opinion about tattoos. Sailors had them. And some prisoners. Other than corpsmen and convicts the only ink you saw in church was on the page.

This is not a pointed tirade against tattoos, nor a defense of them; it’s a jab at bad hermeneutics. I have found that some like to decorate their arguments with Bible verses that have no place in the debate.

These are the three usual suspects…

1. Thou shalt not tattoo thyself.

Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.”

This one is the biggie. It is literally the only verse in the Bible to actually employ the word ‘tattoo.’ So if you can’t get this one to play for your team, you don’t have a team.

The immediate North & South context of the verse should provide a clear indication that an understanding of Leviticus’ place in the canon of Scripture is going to be a key. The verse below says don’t make your daughter a prostitute. I sure hope that still applies. But the verse above says you can’t trim your beard or the hair next to your ears. Ever been to an orthodox synagogue? The gents who congregate there (and keep the whole Mosaic Law—kudos for consistency) look a little different from those who attend the men’s breakfast at your church, right? If Christians don’t need to apply verse  27, then why do we have to obey vs 28 of the same chapter?

I experienced the arm wrestling tourney between Law & Grace when I preached through Deuteronomy. (See Bodily Fluids & Skin Diseases: Is Deuteronomy Relevant to Me?). It was in that laboratory where I examined how the OT and the NT dance in unison. To be sure it’s a greasy topic to grasp, but I’m confident we can all agree that the verses in Leviticus are not directly binding on the NT church in the same way that they were for Israel (Rom 10:4).

So, Lev 19:28 gets a red card and is sent off the field as too old for this team.

2. Your Body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit.

1 Cor 6:19 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,”

Here’s an oldie-but-goodie that also wants to come out and play every time someone lights a stogie or perforates their nose. Unfortunately for our tat debate, this verse is already busy opposing real sin, namely sexual immorality. It can’t be pried loose from that important function to join our debate team.

First Corinthians 6:19 is talking about sexual immorality being a spiritual affront on God’s holiness and a contamination of the Church Body. If this verse did apply to the physical damage we allow to deface the façade of our skin (“temple vandalism”), then we need to be consistent. Ever mowed the lawn in sandals, or without sunblock? You jeopardized the temple. Do you maintain your ideal BMI? Ever downed a can of Coke without immediately brushing your teeth? You see the thin edge of the wedge. Why draw the line at ink? So let us let this verse get back to work, while we audition another.

3. Do not be conformed to this world.

Rom 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world …” 

This verse is a strong candidate. I like this one a lot. I don’t get why some Christians try their darndest to blend in with what the world is doing. Being holy and worldly at the same time is a messy business.

A common defense is that of contextualization for the sake of the gospel, which is little more than a sophisticated version of, “everybody’s doing it.” And everybody is doing it. In fact, no tattoo is the new tattoo.

There are so many social non-conformists out there, to distinguish oneself one really needs to get creative about not being a non-conformist. A non-non-conf… anyway, I digress. We should be distinct from our cultural norms, if said norms jar with Scripture.Using skin as a canvas for art used to be a sign of non-conformity and an anti-establishment sentiment. Nowadays it’s more likely an indicator of boredom, herd mentality, or jejune impulsiveness.
But since tattoos are no longer associated exclusively with pagan worship (as in the days of the Celts and their inked druids perhaps), this verse doesn’t apply to this scenario. Nor is the phenomenon still linked with prison inmate pastimes and salty-mouthed seamen.The debate may have been trickier in the transition period, when tats began to go mainstream (say, the early 90s or so?).
But that ship has now sailed. The only ones clinging to the tattoo taboo are those out of touch with what the decision to get marked represents these days. It is no longer necessarily rebellious. Tattoo parlors are no longer limited to dingy alleys operated by seedy social misfits. It is no longer alternative culture.
So, we are forced to relegate this verse to the bench until “worldly” refers to tattoos again. I’m optimistic that the trend will fade as soon as this generation gets wrinkly. Bible verses contorted by sagging skin will convince our kids’ generation that long-term decisions have grotesque consequences when made on impulse, at age 17.
So, are there any verses left? I propose we stick to what God is concerned about: the heart.This body will be renewed sans scars later, but the soul needs to stay in shape now.When I counsel young people who want a tattoo, I ask about their heart in the decision.

  • motives (1 Cor 10:31)
  • parents‘ views (Eph 6:1)
  • level of contentment (1 Tim6:6)
  • view of modesty in dress (1 Tim 2:9)
  • understanding of dishonorable nakedness (1 Cor 12:23)

I like this insightful blogpost by Gareth Palmer, a young non-conformist who has some good thoughts on the issue (and no tattoo).

If examining the heart doesn’t work just have your arty teen turn to Leviticus. By the time they have matured enough to know they’ve been hoodwinked by skin deep hermeneutics, they’ll have outgrown the impulse for a tattoo.

What verses would you use to counsel one through making the decision?

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Johnny

    This was really good. I’m a generally ink-free dude and haven’t given much consideration to the issue, but I think you really nail it with I Tim. 6:6 in terms of contentment. We are amazingly made by God, and it makes me wonder if we need to improve upon our initial design by permanently marring the flesh with grotesque (and occasionally toxic) inks embedded in the skin?

    • As long as we agree not to judge other believers on their choices that are not outlawed by Scripture, á la Rom 14.

    • bumperk

      The contentment issue is a strange one to apply to tattoos because it can be applied to anything. For example, why do you comb your hair? Aren’t you content with how God made you? Why do you try to lose 10 lbs? Aren’t you content with your body? Why do you put on make-up, aren’t you content? Certainly not a very real-life argument unless you only use it to your advantage and ignore the fact that it doesn’t actually work in such situations.

  • rab

    Or, how about this for consideration:

    “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
    giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Col 3:17

    Or, it’s counterpart:

    “So, whether you eat or drink, or uwhatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

    In other words, our motivation for whatever we do is to be from a consideration of God’s glory. This includes tattoos (or the lack thereof), and everything else about our lives.

    To do anything apart from this consideration is the epitome of self-gratification…

    • Yup. Like meat, the one who abstains does so to the glory of God, and the one who partakes does so to the glory of God.

  • John Byde

    In a few years’ time the biggest growth industry in the US will be tattoo removal. Get in now at the ground floor, folks!

    • No stock tips please. 🙂

  • Horatio Socks

    “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
    giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Col 3:17

    “So, whether you eat or drink, or uwhatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

    In other words, our motivation for whatever we do is to be from a consideration of God’s glory. This includes tattoos (or the lack thereof), and everything else about our lives.

    To do anything apart from this consideration is the epitome of self-gratification…

    I have no idea where you are on the subject RAB, but I do ask these questions:

    Why wouldn’t tat’s be considered self gratification?

    What is glorious to God about tat’s? Artwork?

    Why would one be a tat artist, or get tat’s in the name of God
    What and why is one to be thankful about them?

    • An advocate could call you to consistency and ask why shaving isn’t self-gratification, or plucking your uni-brow for that matter, or getting an expensive hair-cut, or dyeing your hair, or getting a manicure, etc.

      • Susan

        I get to pluck my husband’s unibrow cuz he belongs to me, for the glory of God! 🙂

  • my2cents

    “Bible verses contorted by sagging skin will convince our kids’
    generation that long-term decisions have grotesque consequences when
    made on impulse, at age 17.”

    That’s a pretty bold statement to make. Not every tattoo results in a “grotesque consequence” or even any consequence at all. I really dislike the argument that “you’ll be sorry when you’re old and wrinkly.” I’ve seen older people with tattoos who still love them and don’t regret them at all. I have tattoos and they mean something very personal and real to me and they won’t be any less personal or real when I’m 70. Also, not every tattoo is an impulsive decision. More people carefully consider and think through their tattoo decisions than I think you realize. I think you’re correct to ask people where their heart is at when they’re considering getting a tattoo, because people absolutely get them for the wrong reasons. I was actually enjoying the article until you made the statement above, because it shows your bias on the issue when you began the article saying that you weren’t going to lean in a particular direction.

    • You make a good point. I guess by “grotesque” I meant an ugly looking sagging tat. But you’re right, that’s not a great reason to not do it. I can elaborate on your argument: a) the time you have it could still be worth it for you; b) it could be the type of tat that doesn’t sage (location and design); c) future technology might make this less of a factor anyway.

      • my2cents

        I guess where I’m coming from is that different people view “sagging tats” differently. Most people from the older generation (not saying you’re old, but you’re not a part of the millenial generation either), will view them as an eye-sore, whereas people from my generation (18-30ish) will see an old person with sagging tattoos and think “wow, that’s a cool tattoo. I wonder what the story is behind that, I wonder where that person was at in that particular time of life,” etc. Tattoos are often an outward expression of who a person is on the inside. Sometimes people get tattoos because they want nothing more than just pure attention focused on the outside, which I would say is immodesty. But sometimes they’re done with careful consideration and with a motive to start conversations with people, or a multitude of other reasons.

  • Vickie Ethington

    “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age,”
    ‭‭Titus‬ ‭2:11-12‬ ‭NASB‬‬

    • True. I guess one of the points in the article is that worldliness is subjective and a moveable feast of sorts.

  • So if I am reading you right, you are not ready to call it sin, although you seem to lean to the “don’t get a tattoo” side of the argument, Clint.

    So a good question is: can a tattoo be for God’s glory and how?

    Without disclosing my personal opinion on the matter, at least for the sake of argument I will offer the following verse to consider
    John 7:24 Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”

    and the story of a woman I am acquainted with who actually has a gospel tract written on her forearms – a creative way to get the Word out. I recall when she went via ambulance once to the ER hearing later of the EMS folks reading it.

    • I’m really not coming down one way or another on the issue. My point is just that we need to not use the wrong Bible verses in making a case either way.

      • If you believe it is sin and you are not saying it…then … that’s a bit disappointing…especially considering you wrote :As long as we agree not to judge other believers on their choices that are not outlawed by Scripture, á la Rom 14.”

        • Then let me be clear: getting a tat is not sin. It can be, the same way sex, alcohol consumption, and Facebook selfies can be sinful. But the act is not sin in and of itself, or God would have said to not do it.

          • Karl Heitman

            Facebook selfies a sin?! Boy, now you’re treading into sharky waters, Clint. 😉

          • Jason

            Which is not the ideal place to take a selfie, I might add.

          • E S Gonzalez

            But what if the response to this is, “He did. (say not to do it) You Christians are just notorious cherry-pickers where Levitical law is concerned. Some laws are specific to Israel and that time and place and context … Some are ceremonial … but some–the ones you like–still apply today … conveniently.”
            I got slammed with this, so I know from experience that this gets messy fast.
            The person who challenged me asked why it was OK to lock away some laws to that time/place/people but not others, like homosexual practice.
            I explained and believe I did so rightly, but initially, the question did stump me.

  • Also, if I am reading you right, it seems you would agree that getting a tattoo could be sin if done for the wrong motives of the heart. And a person who loved a brother could carefully try to pull that out in a conversation.

    And if we are going to compare eating meat…then couldn’t it be said that if getting a tattoo would cause your brother to stumble, e.g. brother at church, then you should abstain? So it would be wrong to get a tattoo if it would bother the older gentlemen at church who have a more traditional view?

    • Much that is permissible can be done with wrong motives, including haircuts.
      As for causing people to stumble, that is a legitimate concern, but stumble means to cause someone to sin; the context of the meat passage is that the person thinks eating idol meat is sinful, so he/she should not be pressured into violating his/her conscience by another believer who knows it is not sin. If my getting a tattoo would cause a weaker brother to get a tattoo, then I’d have to apply that verse. But in practice, I don’t think it applies too closely.

      • Agreed.

      • E S Gonzalez

        I disagree with that last point ONLY in the sense that I’ve seen young Christian men, who want a tattoo but are hesitant to get one, watch closely and even seek counsel/permission from their older, more seasoned/mature brothers in Christ; and the second they find out that older bro has one or has gotten one, they go for it.
        Now, pls don’t misunderstand, I’m not commenting on whether or not tattooing is sin–not here right now, anyway, lol. I’m just speaking to the idea of the actions/decisions of one provoking the same actions/decisions in another: I think it can and does apply here.

    • Christina

      I think the problem I have with this line of thinking is that a tattooed non-Christian that walks in the doors of the church and is greeted by the older gentleman with the traditional view can be led to Christ without outward judgement of the tattoos (we would hope) so why is the judgement of this same older gentleman directed toward a Christian who chooses to get a tattoo? I know that it is our tendency to hold Christians to a high standard, but we should ask ourselves why….is our standard about God or our own prejudice? Often I find in my own life that when I think to myself…’look at them misbehaving and they call themselves Christian’, it isn’t so much that they are breaking scripture, it is just not what I think is appropriate behavior for a Christian, not something I would do personally.

      And yes, I have tattoos and I personally think they accentuate the beautiful body that God gave me just like the earrings I wear (pierced), the “dread”-locs on my head and the makeup I wear. I realize that my ear holes can close and I could shave the locs off my head, so they are not quite as permanent as a tattoo, but it is still a major change to the body I was born with. My tattoos happen to be easily hide-able, but not because I am ashamed of them…..I just happened to like where I put them. I play in my church orchestra and take care that they are never showing, so as to never distract from the message of the music just as I dress modestly and use a lap-cloth to cover myself when wearing a skirt for the same reason. If I spent all of my time worrying about every action that could cause my brother to stumble, I wouldn’t leave my house.

      • Understood. I don’t see getting a tattoo as causing anyone to “stumble.” I was just talking it out.

      • SeekandYeShallFind

        I read much boasting here. I am not intending to be harsh, but that is what is being revealed.

        • Christina

          Boasting? Really. That is a shame since my intent was to show a different perspective using something that I know well…..myself. I will not profess to be the most humble, but I am not sure what boasting would prove in this discussion. I read judgement in your comment but who cares since it adds nothing to the discussion of tattoos. At least my “boasting” was relevant to the conversation.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    I don’t have, or want, a tattoo for a simple–and not a spiritual–reason: how I feel today and what I hold dear today (as expressed often with tats) will change in later years. Would anyone want a permanent public sentiment on them at age 50 that they composed at 25? What was your hot button 30 years ago? 20 years ago? Last week? We all change. Who I was at 20–even as a believer–doesn’t resemble me today. If you could still wear today what you used to wear in college, would you? How do you suppose you’d look? What events and people would you avoid out of fear of embarrassment?

    ‘Nuff said.

  • Jason

    Leviticus shouldn’t be written off because it is Old Testament. The reason for the prohibition is still relevant. Just like the beard and hair laws, the tattoo rules are there to prevent Israel from partaking in surrounding cultural behaviors that were impure.

    The motives for tattoos and cutting yourselves are expressly given here and again regarding the priests in chapter 21. It was to mourn the dead. It’s still relevant today, not just for the tattoo discussion but for all of those who fall into the pit of hopelessness due to loss of a loved one.

    While it’s certainly acceptable for people to mourn the loss of a loved one. Some people today take it to the point of purposely carrying that loss around with them, making a big public display of it, and mourning like those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Just as it was then, it is destructive to our witness today to carry on in such an intentional, permanent manner of hopelessness.

    Turning it around, we should also take the time to ask why people are getting tattoos today. Vanity, rebelliousness, etc… are all reasons that can come into play, and in those cases the reason to avoid them are the same as they were then. It’s a social statement of our worldliness.

    Personally, I won’t say there’s never a good reason for a person to get tattooed, because I don’t know all possible motives. All I can say is that I personally find that they look tacky!

  • SeekandYeShallFind

    If tattoos never existed, would Christians be getting them (at the break neck speed that they are)? The world initiated this practice and it is a practice that many Christians want to partake in. Guard against coveting the practices of the world (fashion, tattooing, music, etc…). It is a heart issue.

  • Jason

    I gave this discussion some more thought and 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and 1
    Corinthians 11:2-16 came to mind. How the world perceives our appearance
    factors into the discussion. Head coverings/long hair weren’t spiritually relevant
    in themselves, but to the Corinthians it was a sign of feminine
    submission and therefore was an appropriate way for the women to
    demonstrate their modesty. This is also the focus of 1 Timothy (though expressed by different means here).

    Our appearance is one way to convey to the world our simple, modest
    commitment to Christ. If the way a believer adorns him/herself doesn’t demonstrate modesty to others they’re missing out on an opportunity to be a witness in his/her actions.

    We live in a culture of self-glorification, and we’ve all been suckered into it in some way. Ideally, the way we dress, dye our hair, etc… would never be about drawing extra attention to ourselves.

  • Still Waters

    “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” (I Corinthians 6:12 & 10:23). I have at different times considered getting things like tattoos or body piercings, but eventually realized that they would serve no useful purpose and even get in the way of practicing my profession due to health and safety concerns.

    Just as an interesting historical/cultural footnote, there is an ancient tradition of using cross tattoos to identify with Christ within the Egyptian Coptic Church: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/bytopic/missionsworldchristianity/tattoosofthecross.html

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