Tattoos- Are They Moral?
Tattoos are one of those topics that are taboo in the Christian realm. The topic falls in line with some of the other gray areas of Scripture like drinking, dating, drugs and politics. Because believers try to leave peaceably with one another, they usually ignore the theology, philosophy and ethics of tattoos. But isn’t considering this controversial topic necessary to the full development of our beliefs? Rather than ignoring topics that make us uncomfortable, we need to strive to search the Scriptures and our hearts to see God views these topics, and in turn, how we ought to view them as well.
Growing up, my father always nailed into me the idea that tattoos were unbiblical and without a doubt contrary to the Scripture’s teaching. When I was a child, it was forbidden of me to put even temporary tattoos on my skin. I vividly remember when I was at camp in sixth grade and our counselor was putting tattoos on everyone’s hands. I recoiled in horror at the practice, and had to admit in front of all of my friends that I was not allowed to put things like that on my body. While I received a piece of candy instead and reassurance by my counselor for upkeeping my family morals, I questioned how something so wrong and detestable could be practiced by so many people, especially at a Christian camp.
Even in my teenage years, I was given the third degree whenever I would get a henna tattoo or write on my hand in order to remember the homework assignment. Sometimes I would get a henna just because I knew it would bother my parents. I didn’t get the big deal with why having marks on myself was such a big deal. It’s my body, isn’t it?
Leviticus 19:28 is the Bible verse that is forever engrained in my mind on the topic. It states, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves; I am the Lord.” While most people ignore this Bible verse’s validity because it is just thrown in Leviticus and who has the patience to read Leviticus, it must have been placed there for a reason. Most laws or rules are made because of a problem that has occurred due to the lack of a regulation. Therefore, I’m assuming that the Israelites struggled with the desire or need to tattoo their bodies. Rather than risking taking this verse out of context and applying it right to our contemporary culture, let’s explore the meaning of this verse.
I heard recently that the tattoos being referred to in Leviticus were actually cut and slash marks on the body due to ritual practices. This sounds much more painful and dramatic than our modern day ink and needle tattoos that we adorn our skin with. The Israelites were steeped in pagan traditions during the time this principle was uttered. The marking of one’s body was done in relation to the loss of a person, as a way of worshipping the dead person through our living body. Although I haven’t studied the validity of this claim in its entirety, it sounds feasible and like a much different application than we use it for today.
Another commonly used reference is in the book of Corinthians.1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “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, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Although I genuinely love this verse and use it to convict myself of many things I do that I fear may be displeasing to God, the very reason I love this verse is the same reason I hesitate to use it in defense of this argument. This is one of those verses that can be used to argue against a wide array of practices, not just tattoos. I have heard 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 used to defend against eating disorders, over exertion, sexual immorality and modesty. I do not discredit that this all of those topics are important and that God has an opinion on each of them, we cannot use such a broad verse to argue something so specific out of the original biblical context.
I realize that in using these two biblical claims I only addressed the two most common objections to tattoos using Scripture. As much as I would love to, I cannot pluck a verse out of the Bible to prove the theology or ethics surrounding tattoos. Amidst many other things, the Bible is not explicit in stating the rightness or wrongness of tattoos. Many Christians would assume that since the Bible doesn’t explicitly warn against tattoos that they must be right. Others would argue that anything not explicitly stated in the Bible as right is invariably wrong. I fall somewhere in between; just because something is not stated in the Bible does not mean that it is right.
I cannot imagine how unbelievers wrestle over issues such as the rightness or wrongness of tattoos, as they have nothing to base the ultimate standard off of. We as Christians base our decisions and beliefs off of our convictions. Unbelievers do the same, but they call it their conscience, which makes them feel better because they don’t need to submit to anyone other than themselves.
As I posed the question of tattoos on my Facebook page to see what sort of opinions my friends had, I was not surprised that my status blew up with passionate opinions on the matter, whether in favor of tattoos or not. Of course I had some people who merely recoil from tattoos because it affects their professionalism.While I have always felt this way too, many others pointed out that our culture is changing and has become much more accepting of controversial topics such as tattoos. My cousin, who lives on the West Coast working for Google, said that tattoos do not have as much of a stigma attached to them in that part of the country and have little to no effect on the likelihood of being hired for a position. Is the ethics of tattoos cultural? Universal? Transcendent of religion? Subjective? Objective?
To me the most fascinating facet of the conversation is the idea of entitlement. A girl from my late youth ministry commented that it is our own body, so we can do whatever we want. We are not affecting anyone but ourselves by what we have on our body. Is it right for us to feel entitlement about our bodies? Should we have the right to present ourselves as we wish, or ought we to leave our bodies the way God has given them to us?
Whether my opinion stems from my cultural bias, my personal background, my experiences or my beliefs, I know not. Although I have been tempted a few times to get a tattoo, I do not think I could ever decide on something that I want stuck to my body for the rest of my life. I give props to people who know what message they want conveyed that they will support wholeheartedly as long as their body should last. I do not have that ability, as my opinions are always growing and expanding with my worldview and knowledge.
I think there are too many extenuating circumstances to make a blanket statement about the morality of tattoos, because I know of so many stories that seem feasible motives for getting a tattoo. I cringe at those who get tattoos simply for aesthetic beauty, because they like it, or because it is a good evangelistic tool. My argument would be to wear a piece of clothing or jewelry to express yourself and your idea of beauty. If you want a good tool for evangelism, carry your Bible around. Don’t mark yourself up just to do it. The motive and reason why people get a tattoo is what I would base my decision of the morality off of. Overall, my initial feelings are that tattoos are unnecessary and wrong based upon my interpretation of Scripture and my convictions. Just as God extends grace, I extend my open mind and the admission that I have encountered extenuating circumstances that have made me reevaluate.