This has become a very live question in the church.
Our church hasn’t been alone in wrestling with this question, to be sure. But it is an interesting place to see the conversation unfold because of the unique chemistry of our church related to “the tattoo issue.” In our congregation are found all of the following (rarely all found in one church): (1) A large, wonderful, faithful, active and vocal Boomer population (and older) who by and large find tattoos distasteful; (2) A large, wonderful, faithful, and vocal Millennial population who by and large are intrigued by tattoos and are wanting them in increasing numbers; (3) A highly visible pastor on the senior staff and preaching team who has visible tattoos. (Said pastor shall remain nameless to protect the guilty/innocent… By the way, the photo to the right is not me. Tribal stuff just isn’t my jam. But to each his own.)
Given those factors, it seems responsible for me to speak clearly and biblically to this issue. The following are the questions I think need to be asked by anyone who is thinking about the “tattoo issue.” Not just those thinking about getting a tattoo, but everyone who wants to think in a biblically informed way about tattoos. I’ll begin with some “big picture” questions that can be applied to just about any unclear cultural or ethical question (questions 1-12), and end with some nitty gritty detail kinds of questions directly related to tattooing (questions 13-16).
1. Is it biblical?
Tattooing is never endorsed nor forbidden by the Scriptures. A text often lobbed into the mix is Lev. 19:28: “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.” At first glance the text seems to forbid tattooing clearly enough. But it quickly becomes clear from the context that the kind of tattooing most people are doing these days is not what is in view here. The text is not forbidding tattooing. It’s forbidding tattooing for the dead. In other words, the command is bound up with necromancy (cf. v. 31) and the worship of false gods, which is why the refrain “I am the LORD” occurs throughout the chapter.
As a matter of fact, it’s even more complicated than that. In order to bring Lev. 19:28 into the discussion you have to have some settled views about how you’re going to read the Old Testament and how you’re going to make decisions about what parts of the Old Testament still apply today—after all, rarely do people who object to tattoos on the basis of Lev. 19:28 have similar objections to trimming their facial hair (Lev. 19:27), planting two different kinds of seed in their garden (Lev. 19:19), or wearing a cotton/polyester blend (Lev. 19:19).
That said, people (usually on the younger end of things) who boldly proclaim, “The Bible doesn’t forbid tattoos!” and head off to the tattoo parlor are acting in far greater ignorance than those who want to bring Lev. 19:28 into the discussion. In other words, just because something isn’t in the Bible does not make it biblical. The “tattoo issue” is not settled by this first question.
2. Is it a violation of the laws of my city, state, or nation (Rom. 13:1-2)?
In Minnesota it is against the law for minors to get tattooed. If you’re 17 or younger, case closed. Fake IDs are also against the law, by the way.
3. Can I do this with a clear conscience (Rom. 13:5)?
It is very, very dangerous to do something you cannot do with a clear conscience. God has given us a conscience to guard us from falling into sin, and violating our consciences sears them and renders them ineffective eventually. If you cannot get a tattoo with a clear conscience, do not get one. Your conscience is far more important than some ink in your dermis.
4. Will this cause me to sin by feeding sinful desires (Rom. 13:13-14)?
Are you seeking a tattoo out of rebellion? Are you doing it out of vanity or pride? Are you doing it to gain acceptance in an unhealthy way?
5. Does my participation proceed from my faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 14:23)?
Have you prayed about it? Can you confidently say that you’ve met with God about your plans to get a tattoo?
6. Is it beneficial to my progress and maturity in the faith (1 Cor. 6:12)?
Not that everything you do will benefit your faith, but you must make sure (at the very least) that this will not move you in the direction of spiritual immaturity. This question is closely tied to question 4.
7. Will I lose self-control and be mastered by what I participate in (1 Cor. 6:12)?
Addiction to tattooing is real. People will go and go until their entire bodies are covered and only then do they realize, “Hm. This might cause some social and professional problems for me.” If you have an addictive personality, it may be wise to steer clear of the experience of tattooing completely.
8. Will I be doing this in the presence of someone who I think might fall into sin as a result (1 Cor. 8:9-11)?
This is the true intention of Paul’s warning in 1 Cor. 8:9-11. Sometimes people think “causing someone to stumble” means offending someone. But that’s not what Paul has in mind. People can choose to be offended by anything. People can choose to be offended that I like Pepsi more than Coke. Making decisions based on who’s going to be offended is no way to do ethics. Paul’s concern is for “weaker brothers”—people who lack the discernment and strength to say no to things that would be dangerous for them. In other words, if you suspect that getting a tattoo might lead a weaker brother in your life into sin of some sort, you have an obligation to abstain.
9. Am I doing this to help other people, or am I just being selfish (1 Cor. 10:23-24)?
What are your true motives in getting a tattoo? Creating an evangelistic tool is a good motivation. Self-expression isn’t necessarily a bad motivation (like getting your ears pierced or choosing a style of glasses to wear). But it’s worth searching your heart to see if there are self-centered motives at work. If self-centered motives are dominant you must weed them out and crucify them, or abstain from tattooing.
10. If I do this, or fail to do this, will I lose opportunities to share the gospel? (1 Cor. 10:32-33)
Depending largely on what your tattoo is, it can help or hinder your ministry as an ambassador of Christ. Carefully consider this as you think about both getting a tattoo and what you’ll get.
11. If you are living at home, are you obeying your parents? (Eph. 6:1-3)
I don’t care if you’re 28-years-old. If you’re living in your mom’s basement and she’s paying your bills and she doesn’t want you to get a tattoo, you must not get one. By the way: Grow up, get a job, and move out. It’s time, bro. It was time 10 years ago.
12. Can I do this in a way that glorifies God? (1 Cor. 10:31)
This is a “catch-all” question, but a very effective one. Can you get a tattoo to the glory of God? If you cannot, you must not.
13. Have you considered how you’ll cover it up in certain situations?
It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get a tattoo on my forearms. The reason is that it would be a distraction or an offense in certain social situations—particular among seniors—and I’d prefer not to have to wear long sleeves in every situation that demands covering up my tattoos. I also think it’s wise for single women to consider what kind of wedding dress they’d like to wear someday and whether they will like the look of a tattoo with that wedding dress. If you dream of a sleeveless wedding dress of any kind, you should give serious consideration to keeping tattoos off your arms and shoulders.
14. Have you thought this through from a “professional” perspective?
Most 18-year-olds have no idea what they’ll be doing professionally in a few short years. Those who know what they want to do will probably change their mind before they reach 22. So this question is closely related to question 13: If you end up in corporate America, or in a church that doesn’t take kindly to tattoos, or in any other sort of professional situation where tattoos might give you trouble, will you be able to cover it up easily? If you get a tattoo on your face, neck or hands, you are limiting your professional options.
15. Have you ‘thought’ through the eyes of a 70-year-old?
Put simply: Will you want that there in 40 or 50 years? When you’re 70, will you look at that stupid tiger-jumping-over-a-rainbow-that-has-no-meaning-whatsoever and think, “I can’t believe what a dummy 20-year-old me was”? If you’re going to get a tattoo, get something enduring. Something that has meaning and significance. Something that defines you. And for crying out loud, unless you’re Chinese (or are in China), don’t get a tattoo in Chinese. I mean, really?
16. Be. Careful.
If you passed through questions 1-15 successfully, do your research on tattoo parlors. They are not all sanitary, professional, competent, honest, or interested in excellence in serving their clients. Do lots of research, check what certifications your state requires tattoo artists to have and make sure the artist has them (not all states require them, in which case it’s all the more important to see what certifications a tattoo artist does have), check the place out in advance, and get a referral from someone who has a clean, unscarred, beautiful tattoo and who was very satisfied with the service they received. There is a huge market for tattoos right now. Which means there are huge opportunities for shady people to take advantage of impulsive dummies.
Don’t be one.