I had a conversation about this with a few people yesterday and it got me thinking more deeply about the topic. I almost wrote my findings down but then I found Matthew Lee Anderson’s article about tattoos on Relevant Magazine’s website. Matthew is a super-blogger and author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith, which sports a chapter dedicated to the issue of tattoos.
His article far exceeded anything I could have written on the subject so I am going to give you his highlights.
THE TATTOO TABOO
First, Matthew briefly addresses the traditional biblical concerns people have about tattoos.
It’s nearly impossible to draw a straight line from the Bible’s teachings on tattoos to today, as the meaning of tattoos has drastically shifted. The Bible knows nothing of tattoos for purely aesthetic purposes or as artistic self-expression. Instead, tattoos in the ancient Near East were punitive, expressions of fidelity to the local deity, or marks of ownership over slaves.
The debates over Leviticus 19:28 are officially worn out, and most everyone knows the exegetical troubles that come with trying to interpret and apply the Old Testament law.
The exegetical troubles mentioned are found when a Christian chooses certain Levitical laws to adhere to but ignores others, such as eating meat with blood still in it (sorry steak lovers, Lev. 19:26), eating fruit from trees that are younger than five years old (Lev. 19:25), and mixing kinds of cattle, seed, or cloth (that polyester blend you are wearing, Lev. 19:19).
The idea behind all of the commandments in the context of Leviticus 19:28 is not that these practices are sinful in themselves, but these were practices that the pagans were identified with and used for pagan worship. The people of Israel were not to engage in such acts because they were called to be different. Set apart.
Romans 14 shows that such ceremonial laws do not necessarily bind us any longer because our set-apartness is based upon our standing in Christ now. Our personal conscience now drives what we abstain from or indulge in—granted it is not illegal, outright sin, or causes another to stumble.
While the Old Testament may seem to have a negative outlook towards tattoos, Matthew finds a contrasting viewpoint in Isaiah:
The more interesting Old Testament passages are in Isaiah, where the Lord suggests that some Israelites will one day write on their hands, “Belonging to the Lord” (44:5) and that the Lord has written their names on His hands (49:16). In the former, the marking seems to be tied to the Israelites’ perfection as the people of God. Isaiah points to a day when the people of God will be so faithful that some will mark the name of the Lord on their bodies. The tattoo, or tattoo-like mark, signifies a permanent status—a physical expression of human faithfulness and God’s ownership.
Matthew’s conclusion on the Bible’s take on tattoos is this:
The record from Scripture is mixed. There aren’t necessarily any explicit prohibitions of aesthetic tattooing, but it’s not exactly endorsed, either. Instead of focusing on the diversity of self-expression through the body, Scripture repeatedly turns its attention toward the pattern for self-expression: the person of Christ and the means He established to bring believers into conformity with Him. The Christian identity is given in union with Christ and by a life within Christian community, as the book of Ephesians repeatedly emphasizes—not in tattoos or the histories written on a body. The primary concern of the New Testament is not aesthetics or fashion but faith working through love.
IT’S ABOUT THE HEART, NOT THE SKIN
While such a conclusion may cause people to quickly run out the door, rip off their shirts, and go under the needle, Matthew still issues a caution about Christians getting tattoos:
Yet in this, there may be reasons for caution. When self-expression takes a religious form through tattooing crosses or other iconography, there is the risk of obscuring how the Bible enjoins believers to express faith through their bodies. The faith, hope and charity that set Christians apart in the world are not aesthetic markings per se, but rather expressive behaviors that reshape a Christian’s muscles and organs (including the skin). Holiness, in other words, can’t be tattooed on—it can only be cultivated through the practices of the Christian life.
Whether any particular Christian should get a tattoo is, then, an open question. But Christians should think about them differently than they have. In short, the question of whether to get a tattoo should be a question of Christian discipleship, rather than purely individualistic forms of self-expression. (emphasis mine)
I think Matthew’s conclusion is spot on. In the end, it’s still all about the heart. Just because you have a Hebrew word on your arm does not make you anymore of a Christian than the puritanical old woman who thinks ear piercings are from Satan is more of a Christian. A Christianized tattoo is no substitute for picking up your cross and living a life for Christ.
Where is your heart at when you decide to get a tattoo?
Or is it more in line with the fashion whims of the world—trying to construct your own persona, making Jesus a piece of your identity instead of the entirety of who you are?
In his book, Earthen Vessels, Matthew ends his chapter on tattoos with this admonition:
Here and now, tattoos function as aesthetic expressions of meaning-making, as we attempt to navigate the hollow emptiness of the world in which we have been raised. The danger with our tattoo preferences is that in a consumerist culture where we are brands we consume, tattoos can function as a sort of polytheistic expression of devotion to our local deities—as it might have for the poor chap who covered his back with a Twilight tattoo. As Christians, we need to ensure that we do not place Jesus within the pantheon of gods and make him one option among many, but bear witness to his lordship as Christians always have—through sacrificial love, hope in suffering, acts of mercy, and the proclamation of the gospel. (120)
Is getting a tattoo a sin? It depends. Where is your heart?