What does the Bible say about tatoos?

28 Aug 2021 3:17 PM | Josh Hunt (Administrator)

QA sermon in our church regarding tattoos has stirred a debate in our home, and I need your help to clarify a couple of things.

1. Based on Leviticus 19:28 and 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, would someone who gets a tattoo be honoring God with his/her body?

2. If so, how does this differ from ear piercing?

3. How can we apply one law from the Old Testament and discard others, specifically the laws in Leviticus about cutting hair on the sides, mixing crops in the field, etc.?

A The New Covenant is not composed of 50 percent of the Old Covenant. It’s not 60-40, 80-20, or even 95-5. It is all new. All of it. We cannot decide which Old Covenant laws, prohibitions, statutes, or ordinances are “in effect” and which have been nailed to the cross. No human being can do that—no minister, no priest, no scholar—for it is clear that nothing in the Old Covenant is binding/required for the Christian today. Nothing, as stipulated in the Old Covenant, is required for Christians.

There are laws and principles in the Old Covenant that teachings of the New Covenant are based upon, but when they are, they are clearly enunciated in the New Testament. If they are not, then there is no clear mandate that Christians have to pick and choose from the Old Covenant, or to teach that some of the Old Covenant is required for Christians while other parts are not.

What about your specific question . . . ear piercing, cutting hair, mixing crops, and tattoos? Sincere and well-intentioned Christians, church leaders, and pastors often decide that they need to make a statement and draw a line in the sand about what they believe to be a negative social or cultural trend. They realize that they should base their convictions in and on the Bible, so they do. They often search for and find a place in the Bible that agrees with their a priori conclusion. This practice is called proof-texting—or script-torture.

Years ago, when the Beatles first became popular, some Christians were convinced that their music was at the very best bad, and at the worst evil, because the Beatles had “long hair.” They thus condemned the Beatles and their music by saying that long hair is a shame to a man, quoting 1 Corinthians 11:14. But, 1) that is not what the passage in 1 Corinthians means, and 2) even if it did, there are many cultural difficulties with determining what constitutes long hair for a man. For example, Roman men, at the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians, wore their hair much shorter than did the Jews of Palestine. The Beatles, and their music, may have been good, bad, or somewhere in between, but to try to force the Bible to line up behind cultural values we prefer is biblically dishonest.

Regarding tattoos: the prohibition you note in Leviticus has to do with a specific practice in that day and age that had religious overtones, not the practice that most men and women (specifically the young) find appealing today. We should not try to infer that the Bible (and hence God) agrees with us, when in fact the Bible is silent.

I personally happen to believe that a young man or woman who gets multiple tattoos is one day going to wish he or she had not covered their body with these markings. Scarring your skin with the name of a boy-or girlfriend who may well not wind up as your spouse is not a smart, long-term decision; but for those who only live in the moment, it seems exciting. Perhaps the concern of a message, a sermon, or a discussion on this topic ought to be about long-term consequences of decisions that we make today—and how we all, young and old, need to keep that principle (which is biblical) in mind.

Greg Albrecht, Between Religious Rocks and Life’s Hard Places: 101 Answers to Tough Questions about What You Believe (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).

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