Light for our path: Tattoos?

Years ago, Christians considered tattoos to be wrong. Nowadays, it is common to see Christians, even students preparing for the public ministry, with tattoos. Did the Bible change? Did people change? 

James F. Pope

The answers to your questions send us to both the Old and New Testaments. Ultimately, we arrive at a conclusion that puts tattoos in the area of Christian freedom. 

Idolatrous images 

When Christians in the past considered tattoos to be wrong and appealed to Scripture, they pointed to Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” The words are very straightforward, but we need to consider them in context. The surrounding verses contain God’s instructions to the people of Israel as they traveled to the promised land of Canaan.  

Heathenism was synonymous with Canaan, and God did not want the Israelites to exchange his truth for the lies of idols. God’s wanted his followers to keep their identity as his people and reject false ideas that could infiltrate the heart. That called for avoiding outward identification with those false religions. Because Canaanite practices included tattoos, God instructed his people to avoid them. As that prohibition is limited to Leviticus, God’s directive involved only the Israelites and targeted the First Commandment, not the Fifth Commandment, which concerns our physical well-being.    

We are to take good care of our bodies. Consider this question and instruction: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19,20). Can Christians honor God with their bodies by injecting ink into them? This is where Christians may disagree as citizens of God’s kingdom. 

Considerate choices 

Christian freedom is a significant theme in the apostle Paul’s epistles. In Galatians, Paul directs Christians to be careful that others do not rob them of their freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1). In 1 Corinthians, Paul instructs Christians to think of others when they exercise their freedom in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:9). Going beyond that, Paul revealed how he was willing to give up his Christian freedom if that were in the best interests of others (1 Corinthians 8:13). 

How might these thoughts apply to tattoos and Christians—especially the young people you mentioned in your question? Those serving in the public ministry and those preparing for such service definitely want to think of others. They do not wish to be a distraction in any way to the message of God’s Word. That would suggest they evaluate the long-term meaning and visibility of potential tattoos. No doubt, a Christian symbol on a wrist can spark a spiritual conversation in a way similar to how a dubious marking on a neck might prevent a conversation from taking place.   

So, could I ever give an unqualified approval of a body marking? Absolutely! The Lord used the prophet Isaiah to relay this message to us: “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16). Imagine your name inscribed on God’s hands. That imagery illustrates how you and I are always in God’s thoughts and on his mind. 

If you ever question that, ponder what this season of Lent is all about.     

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to [email protected].



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 03
Issue: March 2018

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