Is it acceptable for a Christian to get a tattoo?
An online survey conducted in 2018 estimated that 40% of responders in the UK had received at least one tattoo with similar trends being observed for other western countries around the world.1 Whilst the results of this survey are likely to be an overestimate, they illustrate the increasing prevalence of tattoos today.2 Tattoos can also be seen on many high-profile sportsmen and women, musicians, and media stars. This could cause a young Christian (or indeed an older one) to feel under considerable pressure to get a tattoo when it seems as if everyone else is getting them. The Bible makes it clear that a general principle governing our lives is that we are not to be conformed to this world. Read Romans chapter 12 verses 1 and 2. The idea is that we should not fashion or shape ourselves according to the world. However, is there any biblical evidence that getting a tattoo is in fact wrong?
In terms of direct scriptural teaching on tattoos, Leviticus chapter 19 verse 28 states, ‘Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you [i.e., tattoo permanent marks upon you]: I am the Lord’. These Old Testament commands were given to Israel that they should be distinct from the pagan nations around them. The idolatrous nations of that day commonly practised making permanent marks on their bodies in dedicating themselves to their false gods, or for reasons such as appearing more fearsome in battle. Since such instructions are not repeated in the New Testament, one might conclude that these commands were associated with the Old Testament law and that a New Testament believer therefore has liberty to receive a tattoo. Is this teaching relevant for us today?
Whilst tattoos are not mentioned in the New Testament, there is clear teaching highlighting the fact that the way a believer treats their body is very important to God. Such arguments provide the basis for Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 when dealing with the issue of sexual immorality. Our bodies are the inner temple, the Holy of Holies, of the Holy Spirit, v. 19. As places where God dwells, our bodies, therefore, are unspeakably holy. When the Lord Jesus paid the price for us on the cross, our bodies were included in that purchase. This means our bodies do not belong to us, they belong to God, v. 20. As Paul states in verse 19, ‘Ye are not your own’. This profound truth attaches a dignity to the body of every believer. It also helps to answer questions over practices such as whether it is right or not to get a tattoo. Is it appropriate to take and physically mark our bodies which do not belong to us but belong to God? It is difficult to justify getting a tattoo when we take this biblical truth into account.
We need to beware of the possibility of double standards, however. If we argue that a believer should not receive a tattoo, an outward marking, because they are treating their body in a poor way, what about the way we treat our bodies inwardly? For example, a poor diet and little exercise can have a serious impact on the health of our bodies.
Do we take these matters seriously as well? Being good stewards of our bodies relates to all kind of issues including health, sexual purity, and avoiding addictive or intoxicating substances as well as marking our bodies physically. We need to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’ Matt. 7. 3.
We also need to be careful not to judge others based on external appearance. For example, it would be easy to make assumptions about the spirituality of a person because they have a tattoo. While appearance is important to God, e.g., 1 Pet. 3. 3, it is not as important as the heart of an individual before God, v. 4.
We need to remember the words God spoke to Samuel, ‘Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart’, 1 Sam. 16. 7.
As believers, we know that our physical bodies are temporary dwellings that are perishing and that the inner man should be the focus of our attention, 2 Cor. 4. 16 - 5. 8. This gives the believer a balanced perspective over the way we view our bodies. The investment of our time and energy should be focused on the spiritual inner person rather than the outward physical person.
Yet, at the same time, God views our bodies as something very precious and, ultimately, they belong to Him.
Editorial note: A Christian who may have been tattooed prior to their conversion should not, however, seek to remedy this matter after the event unless they feel compelled to do so themselves. In our view, their situation is covered by 1 Corinthians chapter 7 verses 18 to 20.