Monday, 18 November 2013
Christians and tattoos
Tattoos have been quite popular within Christian circles for a while now. Yet for every person with a cross or bible verse on their body there is another person out there who is willing to declare them “not really saved” because "real Christians would not get tattooed". So who is right? Is it a grey area? Here are some things that I think people on both sides of the fence need to consider. Oh, and to keep it simple, I am referring here only to Christian tattoos, not tribal tattoos, piercings, body mutilation and so on.
A Brief History
We know from Roman historians like Virgil, Seneca, and Galenus, that many slaves were tattooed around the time Jesus walked the earth. Tattoos, along with pierced ears, were marks of slaves or of a persons devotion to their god. This was common back then and even Paul may have been drawing a parallel on this in Galatians 6:17 when he refers to bearing the marks of Jesus on his body. He was obviously referring to the scars and bruises that he carried as opposed to actual tattoos but the connection is still there. Regardless, it did not take long for Christians, particularly in Egypt and Ethiopia, to start showing their devotion to Jesus with tattoos.
In the fourth century A.D., the Montanists, a Christian sect relying heavily on the Book of Revelation, began tattooing themselves as "slaves of God" (Rev. 7:2-3). It is documented that a monk who lived in the late fifth century had a tattoo on his thigh that read: "Manim, the disciple of Jesus Christ." The historian Procopius of Caesarea, who lived during the first half of the sixth century, reported that many Christians were tattooed, on their arms, with a cross or the name of Christ. When Constantine was in power in the fourth century, he had a law passed that Christians should not tattoo their faces (other places on the body were okay) because he considered the face to be the image of God, so it was clearly something that was popular at that time. The council of Calcuth mentioned two types of tattooing: one of pagan superstition, which doesn't aid any Christian, and another for the sake of God.
Tattoos within early Christianity were not about fashion, the Ethiopians were known for tattooing a cross on their foreheads, temples and wrists. This was to give strength to the faithful and make it impossible under persecution to deny their faith. Some scholars believe the Coptic (Egyptian) Christians learned this practice from them and they have actually continued the tradition to this very day. For centuries now they have tattooed a little cross on their wrists. These tattoos are not about teenage rebellion or trendiness, but about showing ones dedication to their King. For the Copts’, it may bring about persecution, with Egypt being a Muslim land where they are in the minority, but it also serves to protect their children from extremists who sometimes kidnap their children and force them to convert to Islam, including forced marriages of young Christian girls to Muslim men. Read more about it here.
But what about…
Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not tattoo any marks on you…”
I am sure you have heard this one; but an honest reading of the text should include the entire sentence.
You should not shave the sides of your head or the corners of your beard, don’t make cuttings in your flesh or tattoo any marks on yourself (paraphrased).
Even though I would not agree with someone who was opposed to tattoos based on this verse alone, I would totally respect anyone who prohibited tattoos but also spoke out against ear rings and beard trimming. At least that would be a consistent argument to make. But for now, let’s just say that this verse, even though it is the only direct reference to tattoos in the bible, is perhaps not the best one to bring up in an argument.
1 Corinthians 6:19 “…your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit…”
There are 2 considerations to make here, the first being the preceding verse, “every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.” The context here is regarding sexual immorality, the other thing to consider is that most institutionalized Christians still consider their buildings to be the “house of the Lord”, these temples are usually decorated with crosses and banners containing proclamations and scriptures, much like tattoos do. Is it possible to glorify God with your body (verse 20) like we do with our places of worship? And what about the use of make-up? It’s not permanent (at least not always) but it is permanently being applied anyway…I’m not convinced the temple argument is so clear cut either for those opposed to tattooing.
What did Jesus say?
Although silent regarding tattoos, Jesus does give us some insights in conversations with the Pharisees on what he may have thought. For the sake of space, I am not going to write them out here, but read Mathew 15:10-20 and Mathew 23:25-28. In South Africa, we have a saying, “Buitekant blink, binnekant stink”, which basically translates as “shiny on the outside and rotten on the inside”. This is pretty much what Jesus is saying in the scriptures referenced. He seemed far more concerned with the inner man than someone who had only an outward appearances of holiness.
A word of caution
Do I think it is a sin to get a tattoo? No, but there is a disclaimer that goes along with that. And if you are considering getting one (or more), please think, pray and check your motives first. If you want a tattoo because it’s cool and you are looking for more awesomeness points and attention, reconsider. Art is not sinful, but pride is.
Another thing is that tattoos are expensive, we are called to be faithful stewards of the things that God has loaned us and that includes our money. Do you need a sleeve more than your out of work neighbor needs some bread? Probably not. But if that verse or cross on your arm is going to help you witness or encourage you or others then I am all for it.
All things are lawful for us but not necessarily profitable for us. If you want to get inked, consider what has already been said above. To the other group who can look past shaving and ear rings but not the other part of Leviticus 19:28, please consider Paul’s words to the Galatians in chapter 6:13. I love the way Eugene Peterson says it in the Message,
“These people who are attempting to force the way of circumcision on you, they only have one motive. they want an easy way to look good before others, lacking the faith to live by a faith that shares Christ’s suffering and death. All their talk about the law is gas. They themselves don’t keep the law. And they are highly selective in the laws they do observe. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast of their success in recruiting you to their side. That is contemptible.”
I recently befriended someone who has eye brow tattoos because his immune system attacks his hair which has left him totally bald. I am sure it has not always being easy for him living with his disease, what would the way of love be in responding to this? To condemn him for his eye brow tattoos? Of course not. Let's be careful about the broadness of the brush we use when we make declarations and judgments on others.
I don’t really care about tattoos personally; I think they look cool on other people and that’s enough. There is no doubt that people sometimes end up with stupid tattoos because they took the decision lightly. But it maddens me to see freedom in Christ preached only so that we can afterwards tie people up again in bondage through conformance to our own religious standards. Let's show more concern for the inner man than the outward appearance, starting with ourselves.