Recently I was interviewed on The B.A.R. podcast and the subject of tattoos came up. I thought I’d take this opportunity to write about it and express my opinion on this subject matter. Let me start by saying that I am no expert on any subject matter. I have, however, studied a bit and prayed through my decisions and feel like most of my decisions have been made in light of God’s Word and His expressed will in His Word.
Yes I said most, not all. None of us have made all our decisions according to God’s Word. Unless you’re the only one. Then congratulations.
Ok so let’s get to it.
I began to get tattoos close to 20 years ago. My first two were pretty small. One was a tribal on my left arm and the other was the Scottish flag on my right shoulder, both homages to strains of our family ancestry. They were easily concealable. Actually, even the idea of me concealing them spoke volumes.
I was raised in a household that demanded conformity. Not conformity like we all dress the same but conformity in that there was expected behavior and then there was behavior that was clearly morally “wrong.” Please understand that I’m not bashing my parents. They were really wonderfully loving, caring and godly parents who were raising me and my siblings in the best way they knew how.
But they were victims of the same thing lots of people fall victim to: performance based living. In other words, do this and you get “rewarded”, do that and you get punished. Not really their fault; that’s how they were raised. That’s how a lot of evangelical “Christians” live today actually. If we live in a certain way and do certain things then we’re good to go with God and must therefore be actual believers. But if we don’t behave in a certain way then we must be degenerate sinners.
Right? Isn’t that how most evangelicals live today?
How anti-gospel that is!
But I can’t chase that rabbit or I’ll get side-tracked.
So it wasn’t that my parents ever explained to my why they thought tattoos were wrong, they just expected me not to get any. Then I did. And they weren’t happy. Keep in mind I was in my 20s by then, had not been living at home since I was 13 (boarding school), had already finished college and was already in my career. So it’s not like I lived at home in my parent’s basement.
No one really noticed or said anything for awhile about my tattoos until years later when, at the age of 34, I came to Christ and made a public profession of faith. Then I started getting more tattoos, a lot more, and they were super visible. Like sleeves visible.
That’s when things got dicey. I got an email from my mom (an email ya’ll) in which she quoted Leviticus 19:28 to me. So let’s talk about that for a second.
Within the Mosaic Law given in the OT we find really two types of law. One was the ceremonial law and one the moral law. The ceremonial laws were those things that God commanded the people of Israel to do that set them apart clearly from the surrounding pagan nations. So things like how they were to wear their hair, what kinds of foods to eat, how to do sacrifices for sin, how the temple was to be built…all those things are part of the ceremonial law.
Then you have the moral law of God; those things that stand for all time and are based in the very character and nature of God. Think 10 commandments here.
So we clearly have two types of “rules” given to the people of Israel, one to distinguish them from the pagans and one for all God’s people for all time. Everybody with me so far?
So if you’re a Jew who still follows the ceremonial law of Moses then tattoos are forbidden to you. Then again so is shellfish and “harming the edges of your beard”.
Even Jesus Himself didn’t follow all the ceremonial laws of the time. He “worked” on the Sabbath, among other things. Jesus Himself said He came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17). So if Jesus has fulfilled the law, why are we still acting as though we are bound by it?
Those who are in Christ are no longer bound by the behavioral standards of the ceremonial law found in the OT. Jesus has fulfilled that and we are not bound by that. So let’s just all stop with that, shall we?
The real question I think people should be asking themselves when getting tattoos is this:
Why do I want to do this?
I think the question of motive should be asked of really all our decisions. So is this tattoo bringing glory to God or to you? If this is about you and you trying to be cool or hip or relevant in some way, I say don’t do it.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being cool. It’s the desire to be noticed that we should question.
Why do you want to be noticed?
Is Christ not good enough?
Is it not enough that He has noticed you, loves you and has given Himself for you?
I will say that, for me, my tattoos have created lots of opportunities to share the Gospel with others. I get asked often about the meaning of my tattoos and that gives me the opportunity to talk about Jesus since most of the larger and more noticeable ones are from Scripture. If that is you, take every opportunity to share His love and not how cool and hip you are.
A final word: Take care that you do not offend others who may need to hear about Jesus but are legitimately turned off by your ink. Be aware of where you are and the cultural impact of your self expression. I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, I went on a 2 week “missions trip” to India. I was informed that I needed to cover my arms up so as not to offend others by my tattoos and thus impede the opportunity to share Christ. I was happy to do so. I will admit that it was super hot wearing long sleeves in India but I didn’t dare stand in the way of the proclamation of the gospel because I wanted to “express myself.”
So let me wrap this up. If you have tattoos and people push back on you, be gracious in your response to them. Let’s give grace before we expect it from others. Secondly, examine your own heart if you are considering tattoos and ask yourself why you want to do it.
Let’s make sure that all we do is for God’s glory and the spread of the gospel of Jesus!
Soli Deo Gloria!