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 which 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 it was 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.
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.
1 Cor 6:19 verse 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.
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 an sophisticated version of, “everybody’s doing it.” And everybody is doing it. In fact, no tattoo is the new tattoo.
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?