Can Christians get tattoos?

Following on from this discussion How do we apply Exodus 28:36-38 to our lives?, I was inspired by @lakshmi ‘s question about the controversy over tattoos.

I’m curious to hear how different Christians view tattoos: are they culturally ok? Are they biblically acceptable? Is it breaking God’s commands? Is it a matter of conscience?

I grew up in a very conservative household that taught that tattoos were always wrong and that Christians shouldn’t get them. It was always explained with words like “the Bible tells us not to cut our bodies” or “God forbade it to the Israelites and it stands today”.

I never looked at the scriptures for myself, but accepted what I was told. Then one day, I saw that there are other viewpoints that encompass a different reading of scripture, but equally thought out.

The argument against tattoos is based on Leviticus 19:28

You are not to make gashes on your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.

This comes in the middle of a long list of commands regarding not mixing livestock, not mixing plant fabrics in garments, rules for sex with slaves, not eating anything with blood in it, not practising divination, not cutting the hair at the edge of the beard, not using mediums etc…

It’s very hard to say “those rules all still apply today” or “none of those rules apply today”.

I’d say any Bible believing Christian would agree that consulting mediums is still wrong today. However, I’m not sure that Christian men in the modern church observe the rule to not cut the sides of the beard. How many of us wear clothes with a mixture of fabrics in them? Of the meat eaters out there, who believes a medium rare steak is banned for us today?:grin:

Therefore, I think the whole discussion around tattoos needs to be done more thoughtfully and carefully.

Looking at the verse, the context is within the issue of remembrance of the dead. For the pagan nations around Israel, self harming, or cutting of the body was often a ritual around mourning the dead. To be set apart from the nations around, Israel had to make sure that self harm was not a practice they employed.

For those who argue that tattoos today are still a form of self harm, because they include a cutting of the skin, I wonder if the argument stretches to ear piercings, or vaccines which also both break the skin, leaving something permanent behind?

I find the whole passage in Leviticus really quite fascinating because the answers are not always obvious.

I have come to very different conclusions to the beliefs I was raised with regarding tattoos, but I understand why some people want to be careful and avoid tattoos. I think that sensitive consideration of the scripture is required to avoid outright statements from one side or the other. I also think that any Christian getting a tattoo has a huge responsibility to consider how this will affect their witness in the mission field, and whether the images being tattooed glorify God or not.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this?


Hi @alison,

I’m glad you raised this question because it’s a common concern.

To answer it correctly, we have to zoom out and ask a fundamental question: What is the purpose of the law? What is God trying to accomplish with these commands?

It’s a complicated question, but Jesus explains the heart underneath all the commands in Matthew 7:12,

Therefore, whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

It’s hard to disagree with Jesus! In the Sermon on the Mount, he argued repeatedly that God’s concern went beneath the surface of the literal commands to the depths of our hearts. For instance, God was not primarily concerned about murder but about hatred in our hearts. (Of course, murder is an extreme expression of hatred).

Likewise, Jesus states in Matthew 15:8-9,

Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said:

This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me.

They worship me in vain,

teaching as doctrines human commands.

Consider these scenarios:

  • You don’t get a tattoo. But, your heart is distant from God because you are trusting that your ‘pure’ body is better than those who have gotten tattoos.

  • You do get a tattoo - of a Bible verse! But, your heart is distant because you view your tattoo as giving you spiritual protection, and so you stop relying on God.

  • You get a tattoo depicting your gang’s symbols, and looking at it regularly inspires you to violence.

  • You get a flower tattoo, and it reminds you to worship God, who provides for the lilies of the field.

We could multiply a hundred other scenarios.

In each case, God’s concern is what’s going on in our hearts, not what’s depicted on our skin.

However, we do need to exercise wisdom. It’s hard for me to see how a gang tattoo would represent a heart that honors Christ. However, just because someone has a gang tattoo doesn’t mean they aren’t a Christian! Perhaps, by the grace of God, their gang tattoos now remind them of how deeply they are loved by God. We don’t know their hearts by looking at their outward appearance.

To give another example: In some cultures, not getting a tattoo would lead to unnecessary social exclusion, and refusing tattoos would make it harder to share Christ. In other cultures, getting a tattoo would set up relational barriers. If we’re married, and it isn’t an abusive marriage, I think it is respectful to consult one another before getting a tattoo.

These are some initial thoughts. I’m curious to learn from other people’s insights!