Do Tattoos Matter?

“Is God against tattoos/ body modification?” The question came to me simply enough last year when one of my students came in and shared an experience they had at another church. The youth pastor got up and started railing against tats… This particular teenager felt a little uneasy because they had several family members with tats. So I took some time and we explored what the Bible really does say about tats and body modification.

There are many reasons to not get a tattoo, but the bible doesn’t provide us with God’s explicit thoughts on the subject (It’s not the 11th commandment). The word tattoo is mentioned one time in the whole Bible. In the context it means “to write on yourself.” So if you did that in middle school with a pen then I’m pretty sure you’ve already broken this commandment … but let’s take a serious look at the verse about “tattoos” and use this as an exercise in understanding how to read the Bible in context.

“You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:26-28 ESV)

It is important to understand that the book of Leviticus was written to the nation of Israel and was written with the priests especially in mind. The gist of the whole book is to not look like the pagan cultures around. It is for a specific group of people that lived at a specific time in history. We can learn a lot from it, but we do so at a distance. We are not traveling through the desert about the enter the promised land that is full of pagan people who do these things.

The command prohibits cutting your body for the dead and marking yourself like the people around them were doing. The idea is that when someone died, evil spirits would be around, so you would disfigure yourself so as not to be recognized by the evil spirit. The tattoo stuff implies that you are getting inked with the name of a false god or demon… all of these commands are in the context of how people worship idols and fake gods…. So if you were planning on getting a lotus flower tat to honor the Hindu god Shiva… then I’d say God isn’t pleased with your tat (and that’s really just common sense… based on the first and second commandments). In the book of Revelation we see something similar with the Mark of the Beast (Revelation 13:16-17), to get THAT tat you are permanently marking your body saying that, “I belong to Satan.” So God’s definitely against that… but in those cases I think your bigger problem is your heart that that is living in rebellion to God, not the ink in your skin.

This command in Leviticus doesn’t forbid EVERY kind of cutting and tattoo, only those that are in service to false gods. Because this verse alone doesn’t forbid all tattoos/ body modification, etc. some people appeal to the New Testament where the Apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth that their bodies are the “Temple of the Living God” (1 Cor. 3:17, 1 Cor. 6:19, 2 Cor. 6:16). The logic follows that if your body is the temple of God, then you shouldn’t mark it up with tattoos (or any body-modification for that matter). The problem is that none of those passages actually say anything like that. In context they say, “God doesn’t need a temple like pagan God’s because you’re the temple.” “Don’t sleep around because if effects you more than you think.” And “Don’t worship false idols, it’s absurd to put an idol in the temple to the one true God.” … Nothing about body modification/ tattoo’s, stitches, heart surgery, stints, pacemakers, braces, fillings, etc…. “Your body is a temple” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misquoted passages of scripture. Seldom do I ever hear it quoted in context, most often it is used to beat someone up.

I actually have it on good authority that God is pro body modification. Every little Jewish boy around 8 days old got a permanent cut called circumcision. The difference was that this cut (body modification) was at the hands of someone else and it was to honor God (not an idol). The first big argument in the church was actually whether or not the church was supposed to force new converts to get this cut. In fact some people were going around saying, “you’re not a real Christian unless you have this painful body modifying cut done.” Check it out for yourself in Acts 15.

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
(Acts 15:1-5 ESV)

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”(Acts 15:19-21 ESV)

So do you see what is going on here? Someone is going around saying that unless you get the permanent mark on your body, you cannot be saved! (Sounds like a twisted parallel to the message my student heard, “you can’t have a tat and be saved”).  Indeed somebody else stands up and points back to the law of Moses (the law of Moses included the first 5 books of the Old Testament, including the book of Leviticus). The council makes a distinction here and says rather than forcing them to keep all of our customs and laws (which were peculiar to them as a nation), we are going to separate the national law from the moral law… The only thing we ask of someone who converts to Christianity is that they act morally.

This is very important by the way because someone one day is going to take something obscure out of the Old Testament Jewish rituals (which I think all foreshadow Jesus and are worth understanding) and say, “Why do you eat shellfish when they are unclean, or do you wear clothes made out of two types of fabric, etc when the bible says you shouldn’t.” The answer is easy and simple… because I’m not a Jew. God doesn’t require us to do that. Acts 15 tells the story.

I think in the same freedom afforded you to eat bacon affords you the freedom to get a tattoo provided you don’t get one as an act of worship to a false god or idol. I think you would need to ask yourself the question, “Does this honor God?”

For the record. I don’t have tats. I don’t plan on getting any. I don’t want my kids to have them (until they are out on their own and they can make their own decisions)… but all for extra biblical reasons and as a point of personal preference.  Read carefully, I have not made a case for why you should get a tattoo, only that what you have on your skin does not indicate what has or has not happened in your heart. The real body modification that needs to take place for all of us is in the heart (Deut. 30:6, Romans 2:29).

4 thoughts on “Do Tattoos Matter?

  1. William Johnston

    Hey! Tiphanie and I were having this discussion recently. I was thinking, that since i can’t seem to keep a hold of a ring, that I would like to have a wedding band tattooed rather than something I can lose. I ran it through the portion of my heart that I use to pray and did not get a negative feeling and thought it would be alright. But Tiphanie wasn’t so sure and I didn’t have any biblical reasoning one way or the other. Your points bring together things that I already knew, along with some specific verses, that make your stance very clear.


  2. Hey William. Thanks for commenting! I know lots of folks who have tattoos where folks traditionally wear a wedding band. I think, if I were to ever get one personally, that a wedding ring type tattoo would be one worth considering. I really like the implications of a permanent mark in that instance.


  3. Gerald Mukere

    I agree with your conclusion on the matter, but some of your building blocks I wouldn’t go with them all.
    There is a bar of standard in Christianity that I fear is getting lower and lower because of what we Christians think is and is not right, and not the what the word of God really says… even today some are pushing for some doctrines that r ridiculous all because they are circumventing what was clearly forbidden. I think the law in Leviticus still stands because it addresses an issue, if I’m to construct my own conclusions on why it was put I can come up with any thing I want to push for.

    The coming of Christ never did away with the whole of the Old testament… “…no tittle from the book will pass away until it has been fulfilled”
    Some pagan practices were done for rituals then, but now just because people are doing em for fun doesn’t make them of no effect. I have had cuttings b4 on my body, though nolonger visible, they were for African rituals done to me when I was a kid b4 I got born again. I really think that from where it comes, there’s always a significance of somethings that happen in the spiritual realm, having to pacify their effect just because of the intention won’t be proper. The verse about a body being a temple of the Lord I think it also holds, if u really give some thought to it. Also the Bible, say “Do not be conformed to the standards of the world but be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind”…and at one point it says something like,”…being transformed into the image of Christ” and on many matters that may seem grey, I ask myself, if it were Christ what would he have done in this case?

    I wish we could meet face to face and discuss so that I may hear your views and share our thoughts maybe I could get a better understanding of what you’re saying.


  4. I think there is lots to discuss here. If you are ever in the Pensacola area I’d enjoy meeting you and discussing this over coffee (I’ll buy). Four comments:

    1. In general folks tend to reinterpret scripture through a cultural lens rather than seeking to understand what it meant to the first hearers and then make application. People see a word like tattoo and never give a second thought about what it meant to those who first heard this command.

    2. The lowering of the bar in Christian culture may be an over-reaction by younger believers in realizing that standard on certain subjects (tattoos, alcohol, etc.) was lifted higher than the biblical standard… In effect throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    3. If we don’t take “your body is a temple” in context and apply our own understanding to determine extra-biblical application we can make a case for any application we want because scripture is no longer our guide, something else is, like our own reason… So I could say your body is a temple, don’t take a blood transfusion, or don’t eat bacon, or use essential oils instead of medicine, etc.

    4. I can’t use “what would Jesus do?” In gray areas. This implies a works based salvation. I’m not saved by my works, I’m saved by his work. There are many things that Jesus did that I cannot do simply because I’m not Jesus (die for the sins of the world, live a sinless life, flip tables in the temple, etc.) Perhaps a better question to ask in the gray areas is, “what honors Jesus?”


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