Are Tattoos Taboo?
Then Jesus called to the crowds and said, "Listen to what I say and try to understand. You are not defiled by what you eat; you are defiled by what you say and do." Then the disciples came to him and asked, "Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?" (Matt 15:10-12)
Tattoos and whether Christians should get them is both a timely and controversial topic. An exploration into this taboo topic will help us understand the meaning of tattoos.
Humans have marked their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. These permanent designs sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, but always personal have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment.
Tattoos and piercing during the Old Testament days were done in pagan tradition and to mark slaves. Under the law in the Old Testament people were instructed in Leviticus 19:28, " You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD." Though we no longer live under the law of the Old Testament, many question if this now justifies various piercing in the flesh if not done out of pagan tradition.
The etymology of the word comes from the Tahitian word “tatu” which means to mark something; seems to be the distant ancestor of the modern word “tattoo”. Many different civilizations in the past and few in the current world have been performing the practice of coloring their body part for different reasons. In few groups or religions, tattoo is an integral part of their religion and each person following the religion is required to have that tattoo mark on their body symbolizing the person authority as a group member. Even modern day gangs are seen to have a particular mark on their shoulders, head, or in any part of their bodies signifying their group name.
In Exodus 21:6 the Bible tells us if a servant wanted to remain servant to his master he would have his ear pierced as recognition that he will be so forever. In Genesis chapter 35 Jacob was told to "put away the foreign gods" among the people and to cleanse themselves. In verse 4 this included taking out their earrings from their ears.
God gave this command to the Israelites around 1444 B.C. (right after the parting of the Red Sea) to forbid them from practicing the idolatrous customs they'd picked up in Egyptian captivity. Their captors had a nasty habit of slashing themselves to express grief and to appease their pantheon of imaginary gods. The Egyptians also tattooed their bodies with symbols of pagan gods. So Jehovah, the only true God, essentially said to the Israelites, I don't want you to practice those ridiculous superstitions anymore. You're my people, and I love you. The heart of God's message isn't about body art, but about reminding the Israelites that they belong to him.
If Christians today adhered to the literal application of every moral and ceremonial rule handed down to the Israelites, no one could eat shrimp or cheeseburgers (Leviticus 11); mothers would be "unclean" after childbirth (40 days of separation from society after a boy, twice as long after a girl), (Leviticus 12); menstruating women also would have to separate from friends and family for seven days during that time of month (Leviticus 15); no one could wear clothes woven from both linen and wool (Leviticus 19); and everyone who went out to eat after church could merit a possible stoning (Exodus 31).
The good news of the gospel is that Old Testament law no longer binds Christians. Avoiding tattoo parlors or Red Lobster doesn't make you righteous… only Jesus' death and resurrection does! While you need to keep in mind your body is still the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16), you don't have to let other people's sense of religious propriety constrain you.
Before you get the tattoo, examine Psalm 139:13-14 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful,” this will remind you how God thinks you're beautiful with or without embellishments. And remember, the tattoo of that pretty butterfly you get now will likely resemble a formless blob when your skin succumbs to the stretches and wrinkles of aging. Furthermore, tattoos can hinder your chance of obtaining the job you so longed for and are completely qualified for but due to the company's policy on forbidding tattoos.
Most important, consider your motives for getting tattooed. Certainly some people do so to rebel against authority; if that's your reason, remember all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23). Still, other people get tattoos for positive and deeply spiritual reasons. I personally know of a brother in the Lord have the Crucifixion tattooed on his arm. He told me the tattoo was a great vehicle for conversation with teenagers turned off by the conservative church culture.
"But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, then the veil is taken away. Now, the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, he gives freedom. And all of us have had that veil removed so that we can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like Him and reflect His glory even more." (2 Cor 3:16-18)