I did my first session of training to do laser tattoo removals yesterday at Homeboy Industries. If you don’t know about Homeboy Industries, check out their website. It is a gang intervention program that helps previous gang members and those who have been incarcerated get back on their feet with social work resources, legal help, job training, and more. Many people who come through have tattoos that hinder their chances of being hired (or marks them as an enemy in certain places), so one service Homeboy provides is free laser removal of tattoos.
Christians often ask whether or not they are allowed to have tattoos. Many people turn to Leviticus 19:28 “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” as a prohibition against Christians getting tattoos. You would think that verse would make a pretty slam-dunk case against tattoos. But I suspect not many who insist on verse 28 would hold strictly to verse 27 right before: “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.”
This gets into the hairy issue of what in the Old Testament still applies to New Testament believers. One good guideline is to see if the same command is repeated or modified by New Testament writers (love your neighbor, honor parents), or fulfilled in Christ (animal sacrifices for sins). Another approach to interpreting some of the “weird” Old Testament laws is to see if there’s an underlying principle the law is upholding.
We get a hint in the first part of verse 28 about not cutting our bodies for the dead. Perhaps that and the practice of tattoos were associated with pagan rituals or idol worship by Israel’s neighbors so the underlying principle would be to avoid any practices that would resemble or associate oneself with the worship of false idols.
So, in our day in which tattoos generally do not have that kind of association, it may be fine for Christians to get tattoos. Certainly there would be types of tattoos that Christians should not have, and perhaps in places where tattoos are strongly associated with a certain lifestyle, it might be wise for a Christian not to get a tattoo at all for the sake of Gospel witness.
And along those lines, 1 Corinthians 8 about food sacrificed to idols speaks of morally neutral situations that I think can be helpful in this discussion. Paul asserts that Christians have a great deal of freedom in their everyday life (contrary to what some non-Christians think), but what should govern our actions isn’t what we are free to do, but our love for God and fellow brothers and sisters.
The question then becomes, what will be most glorifying to God and loving to others. If a tattoo allows one to share about God, then I personally think that’s great. But if it might cause people to think differently of you and as a result, hinder your witness, then it is best to avoid tattoos. And of course if a fellow believer is stumbled by tattoos because of a previous association, maybe to gangs or certain cults, then we are not being loving if we insist on our Christian freedoms.
So can Christians get tattoos? All of that to say, it depends. By the way, even if we are free to get tattoos, I would think hard before doing so. One of the guys told me at Homeboy it hurts three times more getting it off than putting it on. Would I ever get one? No, I’m not cool enough. If I were to though, perhaps I would get something of a hybrid between my favorite sea creature and my favorite person:
That’s a jellyfish in case you couldn’t tell. Maybe on the shoulder with the tentacles streaming down my arm. What do you think?
Do you think Christians can get tattoos, and if you did get one, what would it be of?
“Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” 1 Corinthians 8:13