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.


  1. Interesting article, my philosophy and understanding is as follows, if your habit or lifestyle is hindering your walk with God (not your Christianity, big difference) then it should be re-evaluated and reconsidered. As for criticism from from the church, I have been criticised as harshly for enjoying a beer or glass of wine as I have for refusing to wear a tie when serving communion.

    In the greater scheme of things, eat drink and ink but remember where the true love and salvation comes from.

  2. Great article. Gives a pretty balanced view. My personal preference is to err on the side of caution and not get a tattoo and to advise others against it. Jesus never had any nor did any of the apostles - and while there is only one verse that instructs against getting tattoos, their is still that one verse. Agreed - if you are to apply it legally then you would have to apply the hair and piercing part too - one has to bear in mind that the letter kills but the spirit gives life - what is the spirit of that law as opposed to the letter of the law? What I also like is in another verse in 1 Corinthians Paul states - “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. I think there is a danger of being mastered by almost anything and have noticed that while most people are content with one little tattoo or a pair of earrings, some end up tattooing and piercing every available bit of body cover. Another thing to remember is that Paul was not saying that we actually have the right to do anything - he was simply quoting a saying that people were using and in the context it appears that they were abusing their freedom in Christ to indulge the sinful nature. We also have to look at the verse in Deuteronomy in it's historical context - what God was basically instructing them is to not conform to what the pagans around them were doing - this is echoed in Romans 12 where we are warned to not conform to the pattern of the world. I do not think that getting a tattoo would mean that one has committed an unforgivable sin and is no longer a Christian - but I personally do not think it is a wise decision for a Christian to make. There are other ways to minister to the lost. However, if God has called you to minister to gangsters and/or bikers or something like that, and like Paul you believe you have to become all things to all men so that by any means you may win some; then maybe getting a tattoo under those circumstances would help break down barriers.

    1. Hi. Thanks for the feedback. At a personal level,I am in full agreement with you. For myself, I will not get anymore (I got a couple when I was younger), mostly because I have several friends who are totally against tattoos and I do not want to offend them. But when people I know are considering getting inked, I will never say "no don't do it", but rather, "have you considered this, this and that?". And if they are happy to still go ahead then I can truly respect their decision and appreciate the art itself (if it looks good). I guess it boils down to not forcing our views on someone elses conscience.

  3. Awesome article! If its okay, I will link my article to yours.

  4. Basically, since there is no Bible verse that speaks obviously and directly to the issue, I only ask people to use wisdom.

    My version of wisdom :) is this:

    There are hundreds of millions of people on Earth who think tattoos are disgusting. Perhaps a billion or more.
    (Of course the vast majority of those would consider the eyebrow tat you referred to as an exception.)
    I doubt there are more than a very few people who are offended by those who don't have tattoos.
    Why should a saint put up such a stumbling block that could hinder his/her witness?

    1. In many places in the world, tattoos are much more socially 'forbidden' than in the US.
      If you get a tattoo, you are limiting God.
      You're saying, "God, you're not allowed to send me to any of those places where tattoos are looked down on."
      I was a believer for 33 years before God sent me to the Philippines, where tattoos are much less accepted than in the US.
      For most of those 33 years, I had no idea I would one day be a missionary.