A controversial topic for some is whether or not a Christian should get a tattoo? I do not necessarily want to offer another opinion that will likely not have any avail. I would, however, like to bring our attention to a particular verse that is commonly looked at when the topic arises. My purpose for this article is not to give a definitive or ethical answer; rather, I want to bring our hearts and minds back to the Word of God and read what is there and apply it in the ways that are appropriate. When many are confronted with the topic of tattoos, they often run to Leviticus 19:28. Often this passage is quoted to show God’s disfavor for tattoos; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” We need to be careful about assuming that this verse speaks directly to our modern culture. Was Moses talking about tattoos in the modern sense? Much of Leviticus is dealing with laws for the Jews in the time of Moses; this is evidently true when reading over chapter 19. Are these laws to be applied to us? To answer that, let’s look at the prior verse: “do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (Lev 19:27). Most Christians would agree that we do not need to concern ourselves with this law when trimming our beards. For the sake of consistency and not “cherry picking” from Scriptures, we would have to agree that Leviticus 19:28 does not apply to us either. These laws, although strange to us, had their divine purpose for the Jews during that time.
What was the purpose of the laws in Leviticus? Considering the relevance of such specific laws in the context of the days of Moses helps to clarify the application today. To understand the purpose, we must move forward to Leviticus 20:25-26: “You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” In this passage, we are first given a physical analogy by the author to assist with what he is about to say by reminding us of separation of clean and unclean animals. When we come to verse 26, the point is made—God wanted a people holy and separate from the pagan culture around them! These laws were the avenue to produce just that.
Let’s consider a few points. The Jews have recently come out of several hundred years of slavery in the land of Egypt. They have forgotten many of the verbal traditions handed down. Morality was diminished due to a fading of ethics. God wanted to bring his people back to being holy—being separate from the world, being separate unto himself. The first nineteen chapters in Leviticus serve one primary purpose: to create a people different/separate from the pagan culture around them. It seems evident at this time that the nations around Israel may have had strangely cut beards, probably as a service to their deity. It seems evident as well that the surrounding nations likely were accustomed to tattoos, also likely to be in reverence to their gods. With that being said, it seems, in the context of Leviticus, that tattoos, in and of themselves, even in the
days of the law, were not evil. It seems the primary concern of God was to make a people who acted differently, talked differently, worshiped differently, and even looked differently from the pagan nations surrounding—God was desiring a holy people.
When considering the culture that Israel was to be separate and apart from, we must realize that this was a culture in a setting several thousand years ago. I believe it is the principal that must be applied: how can I be different/distinct from the lost around me? It is evident that God does not require me to distinguish myself from the world by my beard style, nor would it glorify him. The question then arises: is refraining from tattoos a way that God wants us to be separate from the world? Is it permissible for Christians to have tattoos? I do not have a clear answer for that question. I truly wish Scripture were clearer. What I do have is my own conviction, but to be clear, it is my own and I will not dogmatically impress it upon you, but I will share it humbly. I do not believe tattoos are innately wrong, nor do I believe they bring the distinction from the world that God ultimately desires. However, we live in a world where, generation after generation, the culture of Christians seems to always drift toward the world. To keep it simple and concise, I believe it would be wiser and render us more effective if we would refrain from tattoos. Is it an ethical matter of right and wrong? I honestly do not think so. What is the heart of the matter?
The laws given in the chapters of Leviticus were to instruct the people how to be separate (holy). Writing to a battered group of Christians struggling to stand strong, Peter reminds them of this statute: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Pet 1:15). I don’t believe Peter was talking about beards and tattoos. What did it mean to be holy for the firstcentury Christians? You do not have to read far to realize that God still intently desires holiness, but there is a new focus inwardly toward the heart—one’s action, one’s character. Jesus reminds us as early as the Sermon on the Mount, you can act differently, but it is better to be different. God wants us to be different from the world by adopting his character and developing his personality (Phil 2:5-11). Would I encourage someone to refrain from getting a tattoo? Of course! But furthermore, I would moreover encourage them concerning inward matters of the heart.