Christians who harbor a religious, legalistic spirit love to tout what they are “against” in the world. I am sure some are well intentioned and simply want to be faithful, yet many live their lives examining the lives of others to see where they line up or don’t line up to their understanding of the Bible.
One such area some Christians stand against is the issue of tattoos.
It’s interesting to me that most of the bible passages people use to bash other people with for doing something they don’t agree with are often taken out of context. As the saying goes, “if you take the text out of the context, you will make a con out of the text.”
If you take a passage from the Bible out of context or don’t see how certain words have been translated over the course of time in interpretive ways, you can make the Bible basically say just about anything.
So let’s take a look at the one passage in the Bible that some believe deals with the issue of “tattoos” today.
Leviticus 19:23-28 “When you enter the land and plant fruit trees, leave the fruit unharvested for the first three years and consider it forbidden. Do not eat it. 24 In the fourth year the entire crop must be consecrated to the Lord as a celebration of praise. 25 Finally, in the fifth year you may eat the fruit. If you follow this pattern, your harvest will increase. I am the Lord your God. 26 “Do not eat meat that has not been drained of its blood. “Do not practice fortune-telling or witchcraft. 27 “Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards. 28 “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord.
Seems pretty straight forward right? “…do not mark your skin with tattoos.” Not when we come to understand that though all the Bible is written for us, not all of the Bible is written to us. Furthermore, to assume that what was meant by a term in its Biblical/historical context is what it should mean for us today is a very dangerous interpretive tactic.
Thus, the importance of context. This passage in Leviticus, including the surrounding verses, is specifically addressing the pagan religious practices of the people living around the Israelites. The focus here is prohibiting cultic worship and witchcraft. God does not want them engaged in the same religious practices that could lead them away from trusting Him as the One true God.
Furthermore, check out verses 26-27, “Do not eat meat that has not been drained of its blood. Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards.” Obviously many Christians today eat meats and don’t groom like Sasquatch and in doing so are not participating in cultic worship and witchcraft. In the context of Leviticus 19, these customs were associated with pagan rites and rituals. Today they are obviously not.
Tattoos of today are dramatically different than they were for those of Leviticus 19 in purpose, meaning, and practice. Today, tattoos are an artistic means of self expression and bodily ornamentation. It would be nearly impossible to find a Christian today who doesn’t modify their appearance for beauty or expression in many ways such as fashion, makeup, plastic surgery, haircutting, coloring, tanning, weight loss, body-building, piercings etc. Many of these practices were associated with false religions in Old Testament times, but in our context today, they do not create nor symbolize an automatic connection with evil or pagan religion. The context today is entirely different for us and for God. Tattoos today do not link the wearer to cultic worship practices as they did in the context of the Israelites of Leviticus 19.
Yet another reason to believe all people, including Christians, are free to tattoo their bodies is that New Testament believers are not bound by the Old Testament ritualistic and purification laws in order to establish and maintain a relationship with God. If we were, we would also be shackled to rules that would restrict shellfish, pork, hairstyles, certain fabric combinations, and even eating cheese.
Some people feel that changing the body somehow defiles God’s creation. So, does piercing ears, correcting a physical abnormality, cutting hair, clipping our nails, getting a tan or using an orthodontist also defile God’s creation?
The fact that some Christians avoid getting a tattoo and project their belief about tattoos onto others because they are trying to impress God, maintain their relationship or good standing with Him, bolster their spiritual pride, or want to condemn or judge others is all the more reason why Jesus in fact loves tattoos. Religiously and legalistically spirited Christians love to try to find biblical perches from which they can stand over and against people. Fortunately, Jesus is the ultimate perch destroyer as He levels the playing field by making faith and the Christian life about His performance, not ours; His righteousness, not our religious rule-keeping. Jesus especially love tattoos because now they represent the freedom He purchased for all people to live under Grace, not Law; His righteousness, not rule-keeping.
Getting a tattoo certainly isn’t for everybody, and anyone can use a tattoo to communicate things that are not good nor of God. But tattoos in and of themselves are not evil nor unfaithful.
The refusal to get a tattoo for so called “Christian” reasons should be seriously examined for underlying spiritual pride, idolatry of religious performance, and legalism. The avoidance of getting a tattoo because “I want to be a faithful Christian” may just be a matter of Biblical misunderstanding or could very well be a spiritual veil to a life devoid of Grace.