Last summer, I had the privilege of taking an international trip in which I spent time in four nations. As modern travel dictates, I also spent countless hours in the airports of these nations, watching people come and go from across the globe. It was July—one of the warmest months in much of the Northern Hemisphere, and I was visiting Florida and the Caribbean. So, the passengers I watched wore less clothing than during cooler parts of the year in order to be more comfortable in the tropical climates.
During this trip in particular, I was struck by the overabundance of body art that I witnessed. I live in the United States and have been watching the advancing trend of tattoos for years. However, most of the travelers I watched on this recent trip were not Americans, but were of British, Eastern European, Asian, Latin-American and Caribbean descent. As I paid closer attention, I was amazed at the age-range of tattoo recipients— from teenagers to grandparents. I was astounded at the sheer number of bodies covered by multiple tattoos! If I knew no better, I would have felt left out because my skin was unmarred by needle and ink. Overall though, I was sobered by what I witnessed.
Tattoos have existed for thousands of years, and are referenced in histories around the globe. They have been used as decorations, brands of identification during times of enslavement and imprisonment, signs of social status or accomplishment, and symbols of individuality and personal freedom. The 21st century has seen a global resurgence of tattooing, but tattoos have been long-present—especially in some segments of society such as the military, gangs and organized crime groups. We now see the emergence of so-called “Christian tattooing”—an attempt to justify tattooing by using what are considered “Christian images.” Today, tattoos are also made more popular and are even glamorized by reality television shows featuring tattoo parlors.
Considering the increasing popularity, the improvements in design intricacy, and much-increased availability, we should ask: What does our Creator think about body ink? Does the axiom, “It’s my body and I can do to it whatever I want” really fit with God’s way of life? What does Scripture tell us? In Leviticus 19:28, God gave the following command to His people—a people He intended to be His model nation: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.” Although the original Hebrew does not have a single word that can be directly translated “tattoo,” virtually all translators agree that the words describing the process in Leviticus 19:28 can only accurately be translated in this way—“tattoo.” Sadly, many professing Christians today dismiss this command as being from the “old covenant” and thus “nailed to the cross.” Many others do not even know that this Bible verse exists! However, taken in the context of the entire Bible, why would God make such a statement—one that He never rescinded in the New Testament?
God created our bodies “fearfully and wonderfully,” as wise King David observed (Psalm 139:14). We are formed after the “image and likeness” of the Creator Himself (Genesis 1:26). But understanding God’s perspective on tattoos requires that we recognize the true purpose for the human body. At first, in ancient Israel, God dwelt among His people by pillar of cloud and fire. However, once the physical tabernacle
and then the temple were built, the Holy of Holies within was the only place on earth where God consistently resided. At the death of Christ, the heavy blue and scarlet curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in half (Matthew 27:51), symbolizing the reality that God no longer chose to exist separated from mankind, but that He intended instead to reside with and within mankind through the Holy Spirit.
Through the miracle on the Day of Pentecost in 31ad, when the Holy Spirit was poured out and made available to all whom God would choose to call (see Acts 2), God showed that the body of a Christian is the “temple” in which God, through His Spirit, will dwell. The Apostle Paul warned of the serious consequences that would befall those who defi le this temple. “If anyone defi les the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:17). And just as the collective “body”—the Church—is holy to God, so too are the individual bodies of those who are part of His Church!
But what about the idea that we can nevertheless treat our own bodies however we choose to, because they belong to us? In that same letter to the Corinthians, Paul also taught: “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit [which] is in you, [which] you have from God and you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God made our bodies. He blessed us with them—and, when we are baptized, He actually also lives in them through His Spirit. God has every right to dictate how we treat and take care of the bodies He made, gave to us, and desires to reside within through His Spirit. Keeping this in mind, then, when we really think about tattoos, we realize that they are a type of graffiti that mars the exterior of God’s Holy Temple. If God’s physical temple still stood in Jerusalem today, none of us would consider using a chisel or can of spray paint to etch our name or a unique image into its hallowed walls. Likewise, we need also to revere the condition of the body as God’s temple on earth today. Aside from some of the health risks, is it any wonder, then, that God forbade the use of tattoos?
A New Way of Life
One of the incredible blessings of God’s calling is that He allows us to repent when we sin. Baptism is the ultimate experience of forgiveness, allowing our past, repented-of-sins, to be washed away in a watery grave. Christians who obtained tattoos prior to their conversion were forgiven of this “destruction of the flesh” when they were baptized.
What about the many brethren who have no tattoos, but who sometimes become uncomfortable seeing tattoos on their brethren at services? We must remember that conversion is a process whereby God calls sinners— not perfect people—to repentance. He calls sinners to cease from their sins and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). Although tattoos are essentially a permanent reminder of past sins, we must remember that when people truly repent and turn from their worldly ways, God has not only forgiven them; He has also “blotted out” or forgotten their past sins (Psalm 51:1–2)—despite the permanent “outward” reminder of sin that may remain. A true Christian must never hold the past against his brother or sister in Christ, but instead must bestow the outgoing love of Christ toward them (John 13:35), emulating Christ’s command to forgive. If we want to be personally forgiven, we must also forgive others. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:1–2).
Certainly, repentant Christians bearing tattoos should no longer feel guilty for their past transgressions. But neither should they proudly display their tattoos so as to show them off as a mark of God’s forgiveness. The Apostle Paul commented that although it is not a sin to eat meat previously offered to false gods, he would personally stop eating meat entirely in order to avoid offending some of God’s people (see 1 Corinthians 8). The point is that we must avoid placing a “stumbling block” before other brethren. When I was a boy, I recall watching one minister in God’s Church play basketball. He always wore a long-sleeved shirt and long sweatpants when playing, and I wondered why, since it looked like he would be very hot as he played. I used to go to the locker room with my father and the other players after the ball games, which made me feel all grown up. When I saw this minister remove his clothes to shower, I saw that his body was covered with tattoos. He had been in the military before his conversion, and had tattooed much of his flesh. God allowed him to repent and even to be placed into the ministry. Although he knew he had been forgiven, this minister worked hard to avoid putting a stumbling block before many who might not be as forgiving as God. That example of “love for the brethren” sticks in my mind more than 30 years later.
We all have sins in our past. Many sins leave non-physical “scars” that cannot be removed surgically— consequences that must be lived with. Similarly, many Christians with tattoos will find that surgical removal is not an option, whether because of the high cost, lack of availability, or the pain and side-effects involved. It is important to remember that there is no biblical “command” to cover every inch of tattooed flesh. However, out of love for the brethren, those bearing tattoos may want to consider covering as much of their tattooed flesh as they practically can when in public settings. Although a converted Christian can view tattoos on another converted person in light of God’s power to forgive, there remains the risk that some observers could easily mistake tattoos on a Church member as license to “sin and then repent.” As ambassadors for Christ and His way of life (2 Corinthians 5:20), we do not want to set an example that the world might view as “endorsing” a sinful behavior. As time goes on and we move closer to the end of the age, God’s Church will witness increasing numbers of individuals being called from various backgrounds. We will see more people begin attending Sabbath services with tattoos, body piercings and other visible results of sin. Although those being called will need to learn to repent of—and even at times literally “cover up”—the results of their past sins, those of us in the body will also need to be loving, forgiving, patient, kind, and gentle (see 1 Corinthians 13; Galatians 5:22–23). Jesus Christ made a very powerful observation on the night before His crucifixion: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). As Christ is willing to forgive any of our past sins as long as we genuinely repent, we too must do the same for others He calls, regardless of their past mistakes.
Those who come into God’s Church with a tattoo are no less Christians than those who come into the Church with no ink on their flesh. Indeed, a repentant tattooed Christian may be far more deeply converted than a self-righteous and judgmental person who recoils at the tattooed. Even so, repentant Christians with tattoos understand that they have an extra burden to bear, in order not to send a wrong message. Conversely, if we see tattoos on our brothers or sisters in Christ, we should remember that it is not our place to condemn those whom God has forgiven. Their bodies may be scarred with regretted tattoos, but we must be sure that our attitudes toward them are not scarred with self-righteousness. Rather, with or without tattoos, we must be sure always to present ourselves to one another in humility, displaying true godly love for each other. This is what God thinks about body ink!