This is a summary of a longer article by Steve Cardno. The long version can be downloaded here.
Summary by Diane Eager
In recent years tattoos have become a fashion item, and some Christians claim having a tattoo is another way we can identify with people we are trying to win for Christ. However, Christians need to take their guidance from God’s word, not the world, so let’s start with the Scriptures.
Created in the Image of God
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 (ESV)
This verse proclaims our origins, as well as our spiritual and physical inheritance. A scriptural principle is neither to add to nor take away from what God has done. God made our bodies perfect, and just as He intended us to be. Even when God became the man Jesus, I don’t believe that He had any tattoos. And before any critics claim that neither were we born with hair-styles or jewellery, none of these things actually scar or permanently deface what God gave, in the same way as a tattoo.
God’s dislike of tattoos is affirmed in the Law of Moses, where he commands the Israelites: You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:28.
This is a clear, straightforward command to God’s people. Christians may claim that they are not the ancient nation of Israel, and we live under grace not law, but why would those who have experienced God’s grace want to do something to their bodies that clearly displeased God. Jesus taught that our righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees, not by having more laws than them, but by doing what truly pleases God, rather than ourselves or the surrounding culture.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 6:19) Therefore, we should not deliberately do things to our bodies that damage or degrade them. If a beautiful church built with fine stones was vandalised by spraying graffiti on it, do you think the builders would be happy about that? Why should God be pleased by people defacing their bodies with tattoo ink?
A tattoo is a permanent change to the skin, and can only be applied by causing real blood-spilling injury to the skin, and leaves a foreign substance embedded in the skin. Traumatising the skin in this way causes inflammation, and can be an opening to infection. Some inks can also cause allergies. Even if the tattoo is removed by modern laser techniques, the skin can never be returned to its former undamaged state.
Tattoos in the World
Why is it that outlaw bikie gangs and drug users almost always sport tattoos? And why do tattoo parlours often have names such as ‘Sin City’? Have tattoos historically been a source of glory to God? Or man?
Some Christians may try to justify having tattoos by having Christian symbols or even Bible verses tattooed. Other claim having a tattoo enables them to identify with the culture they live in. However, Christians need to remember they need to be prepared to stand against the surrounding culture in many behaviours, e.g. sexual promiscuity. Being prepared to resist fashions and fads, such as tattoos, should be good training in standing against the world in more socially-costly decisions.
Getting a tattoo will not threaten anyone’s salvation. Nor will having a tattoo prevent anyone from being saved. However, for anyone sincerely seeking to please God, we suggest that it is always best to err on the side of safety. Everywhere in scripture we are admonished to demonstrate a preferential love for God and to place Him first. Scripture makes clear to us that God’s blessing and our usefulness to Him very much depend on how obedient we are to Him. Luke 16:10 teaches us God’s attitude towards our behaviour: “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.” (NASB)
For a more detailed study of this issue, suitable for use in churches and youth groups, download the article Should Christians Get Tattoos? by Steve Cardno. PDF here
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