Some thoughts on tattoos

A friend emailed me asked me my take on tattoos. It does amaze me that tattoos have grown in popularity and seem to be widely accepted. I have an association of tattoos with people who have done prison time or are in gangs. But a number of people have them now who don’t fit either of those two cases. When I see young people with tattoos, I think of what they will look like as they get older. “Body modifications” seems a foolish fad to me. On this level, one’s like or dislike of tattoos would seem to be cultural or individual preference.

Leviticus 19:28 restricts Israelites from making body modifications: Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.

Some Christians are quick to object to any Old Testament command being applied to Christians. There are a number of OT commands that Israel was to do or not do which would result in separating Israel from the pagan nations around them. Certainly obeying Lv 19:28 would bring a distinction between the pagans who do those things and the Israelites who refuse to do such things. Some NT passages (such as found in Acts 10 and Galatians) make it clear that a number of things that are part of the distinction and separation laws are not binding on Gentiles or Jewish believers (though Jewish believers are free to follow such commands when they are around other Jews). If the restrictions in Lv 19:28 are merely part of a distinctive Jewish culture, Gentile Christians would seem to have a basis to not personally apply these commands.

But there may be more in the tattoo restriction than making simple distinction from pagans. Some Christians object to OT law saying that since we are under grace and not under law, these things don’t apply to us and thus we are free to do contrary to whatever the particular law commands. Except when we see the law say, do not murder, we do not claim freedom to murder because we are under grace. In OT law we find God’s righteous requirements which are binding on all people. How much more for Christians who follow Jesus teaching which goes beyond the command to core principles of righteousness. So a Christian not only isn’t to murder but must deal with anger and insulting words. (Matthew 5) So would Christians accept cutting ourselves for the dead? No we are not to grieve as those who have no hope. (1Thessalonians 4) So Lv 19:28 forbids pagan practices which for some reason are contrary to God’s righteous design and not merely forbidding certain practices to establish Israelite distinctiveness. I think this restriction on body modifications is consistent also the NT teaching that our physical body is a temple of God’s Spirit. Therefore, no graffiti on God’s temple. Lv 19:28 is applicable to Christians for Christians are not to adopt pagan practices and Christians are to hold a proper reverence for God’s creation, including their own bodies.

I have seen a number of young people who profess faith get a tattoo. Some have done religious symbols and say it is a faith statement. Perhaps if you are a zealous Christian and desire body marks, you should choose one that really is a statement of faith. Paul commends his marks, the stigmata mentioned in Galatians 6:17, where he was marked by others who persecuted him. Those marks are a glory and honor. In contrast, color designs done for style or ego don’t seem to merit being called Christian in anyway. At best, tattoos are a fad of our culture and a statement of our vainglory; at worst, they are an offense to God and a statement of our foolish accommodation and conformity to culture.

[Originally posted 3/10/10.]


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