The (Im)Morality of Tattoos

Tattoos can easily raise eyebrows in any circle. From Presbyterians, most certainly the Dutch-Reformed to even the other side of the spectrums like Fundamental Baptist, Pensacola Christian College and good ole’ Dispensationalist. The issue is always around three things; Lev. 19:27, the image of God and the body is the Holy Temple of God. If one knows me, better yet sees me they know my stance clearly from looks. The one paper I wrote on the topic 8-years ago, I thought could use some re-wording sometime soon. Until an old Word of Life friend sent me an email this past week of a paper he found in the Christian Research Journal (Vol. 28/ No. 06/ 2005) available at The author, Lorne Zelyck reserves all editorial rights and privileges of this paper, which I hope is okay that I post a PDF of it here on my blog.

If interested in tattoos, the issue and looking for a good read, maybe the best yet I have read, this is the one. I really would like to hear your comments, questions, and remarks on this and your thoughts on the issue so please, do not be shy of that little comment box below and look forward to hearing those of you who do leave your words.

The (Im)Morality of Tattoos

Christian symbols as a sign of ownership and devotion to Christ

Victor of Vita writes in 480 A.D. of a Manichaenan monk in North Africa named Clementianus, who was found having written on his thigh…

Mani, the disciple of Jesus Christ.

Christians throughout history have been tattooed with Christian symbols as a sign of ownership and devotion to Christ, may my body be found the same way.

In Response to R. R. Reno’s article “The Tattoo Fashion”

I do not know R. R. Reno, nor had I ever heard of him until I was reading Dr. Scott Clark’s blog, which said, “R. R. Reno is thoughtful and always worth reading.” Normally this wouldn’t have caught my eye, except that I saw the blog post title “Tattoos as a Search for Fixity in a Liquid World” on Dr. Clark’s blog. This is a statement that makes you think a little more than just the typical blog post.

Today, I’m not dealing with the issue of tattoos, nor the theology behind it in “yes they are a sin,” or, “no they are not.” However, being younger I have a totally different way of thinking in America’s postmodern culture when it comes to dealing with those that have tattoos. This may be something that those who are older should stop and think about; then again, maybe not. But after a little dialogue with Dr. Clark about the issue, I wanted to make mention of the article on my blog and write a response to a few issues I have personally with Reno’s post.

Issue #1 – Tattoos: A Fad or Not?

Reno starts his post looking at how Tattoo’s are a fad; that is, something that has only just come about and will soon be gone. He make’s comments like:

Everybody tossing off the horrible, oppressive conformities of bourgeois culture—together.

I’ve often looked at young men and women with tattoos and shaken my head. Don’t they realize how quickly fashions change? You can throw away the old bell-bottom pants, but a tattoo?”

I’m fairly sure that the tattoo fashion will expand.

Mr. Reno, I am sorry to inform you, but tattoos are not a fad, nor some sort of mere fashion among the postmodern culture. They have been around as long as 5000 B. C.

Don’t fads come and go? Fads are long hair, bell-bottoms, bleached hair, leather pants, shaving your eyebrows, wearing Chuck Taylor’s with your suit. Fads are the 80’s big-hair, or the Nike shoes that said “A-I-R” on the side in the later 90’s. Fads are not a way of culture that has existed since Ancient Egypt in the practicing of tattooing Mummies and Pharaohs. We know that Egyptians Mummies were tattooed, European Tribes were tattooed, even Julius Caesar, in his fifth book titled Gallic Wars, mentions tattooing in his culture. Lastly, Asian tattooing has been part of their culture for as long as we know, and the largest influence in the American culture was the European soldiers who had been influenced by the Polynesia islands–their culture and their tattooing.

My point is that tattooing has been a part of many different cultures throughout all of history. Just because of its more recent growth in American (which I agree has happened) doesn’t make it a fad, nor does it make it a negative fad just because it is something you do not understand or agree with. Whatever your view is on tattooing, it is always important to look at the “thing”—which here is tattooing—and see that no matter where it has been done, and when it has been done, that it is always placed with a culture and done for longer than 30, 40, 50, or even 100 years. It stays in the culture.

Issue #2 – Dealing with Tattoo’s and Professionalism in a Non-Offensive Way

My second issue in Reno’s post is dealing with his ending statements on tattooing and being a professional of whatever your job may be.

In Reno’s post he says,

“And it will become socially acceptable, perhaps even fashionable. Because at the end of the day, manipulation of our bodies creates an impotent symbol of permanence.”

And the following statement:

Thus, absent strong cultural forces that encourage and enforce limitations on the will, in the coming decade we will see all sorts of strange self-mutilations and radical commitments of the body. Self-mutilation will provide a powerful symbolic compensation for our inability to commit and bind the soul.”

If tattoos in many cultures reflect one’s spiritual convictions and beliefs, why can’t mine do the same for Christianity and Christ? And to many—believer or non-believer—tattoos do exactly that: they show what a person is, what they like, what they feel, and what is a part of their everyday life. So when dealing with the issue of tattooing, any negative notation is always going to offend a person who has them. My concern is that I should try not to offend the non-believer when dealing with them about tattoos in order to keep the heart, mind, and conversation open to relay the Gospel message to them.

It is funny to see how at times the Reformed faith is no different than that of the Fundamentalist or the Dispensationalist in the way they think and live. The Fundamentalist will preach that a professional minister must not drink, must wear a suit, must wear his or her hair a certain length, cannot smoke, etc. How is it any different when the Reformed faith does the same thing saying professionally you must be fine wine and cheese… wear nice clothes, drive a nice car, wear a tie, cannot have tattoos, and must smoke a cigar.

Mr. Reno paraphrases Martin King Jr. saying, “It’s the content of your character that matters, not what you do with your skin. Like tattoos, clipping off the tops of your ears or removing your little toe won’t stand in the way being a slave to your desires and society’s demands. Tasteful self-mutilation is perfectly consistent with any life-trajectory.”

The fact that you say “self-mutilation” is perfect with the flow of life, I’d agree if you were taking about sin; but this is talking about tattoos. You will never get your point across to, nor will you effectively reach, those that are unregenerate and have tattoos. But then again, maybe you do not want to do that.

Being a professional of a particular trade is not your skin, nor what you place on it. It is how good you are at what you do. If I have a tattoo on my neck or my arm, does that make me any worse at the skill of my profession? To the old generation, they say, “yes.” To the new and young generation, they say, “no,” because we truly understand what it means when you so happily paraphrased Martin King Jr. saying, “It’s the content of your character that matters, not what you do with your skin.”

In case you were wondering about Dr. Clark’s blog posting, you can read the dialogue that went on over there yesterday afternoon. But I am done for now, and not wasting much more time on this topic. But always, feel free to comment.

Interesting Article: The Tattoo Fashion

Article on tattoos that I thought might be good or bad to take a look at, (depending on your take on the subject).

Tattoos and the Bible

Many, if not all of us, in the world of tattoo have had Leviticus 19:28 thrown in our faces “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.” Usually it is meant to condemn either our profession or our obviously decorated skin. So what is a Christian tattooist or tattoo enthusiast to say? Is tattooing indeed defiling the temple of the Holy Spirit? Are we callously ignoring God’s commandment? Let’s shed some light on the subject by looking at it through Scriptural doctrines the law with its conviction, and grace with its freedom. First, by researching references to Leviticus 19:28, we find it refers to a heathen practice meant to invoke the attention of pagan gods and usually by means of cutting oneself to “prove” one’s sincerity (see also Lev. 21:5, Jer. 16:6, and Deut. 14:1). It was an attempt to make one worthy to approach some graven image of a god through self-abasement. God rightly admonished His chosen people not to follow the pagan rituals of such false “religions”. However, some critics will still hold fast to the literal letter of the law and conclude that regardless of its textual meaning, the act of tattooing is still forbidden granted, the entire Bible is indeed the inspired literal Word of the living God, but it also represents a progressive revelation of its Author His nature, His grace and His plan for redemption. Taken in the context of God’s plan to restore mankind into fellowship with Him, the law was given to show us that we could not redeem ourselves by our own efforts. Paul writes in Romans that the law that it was given to reveal sin will justify no man. Only through faith in the free gift of God’s grace, found in the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ, can man be justified (ROM 3:20-26). In fact, Jesus actually redeemed us from the law and its curse (Gal. 3:13, see also Gal. 3:22). But if one wants to live by the law the Old Covenant then one must keep all of it (Jas. 2:10). Transgressing any part of the law means we are guilty of transgressing all of it. According to Levitical law, we may not eat the meat of rabbits or pigs (Lev. 11:6-7), nor lobsters, crabs, prawns, oysters or clams (Lev. 11:10-12). Hybrid breeding of livestock and mixing linen and wool in fabrics is prohibited (Lev. 19:19). Shaving the sides of your head (being clean shaven) or disfiguring the edges of your beard (trimming) is also forbidden (Lev. 19:27). So if you’ve ever eaten a pork sandwich, dined on Maine lobster, trimmed your beard or worn wool blend suit or have gotten a tattoo you’re guilty under the law! Thank God that He has provided a better way for us to be reconciled to Him! A New Covenant! Romans 5:1-2 says we are justified by faith, given right standing with God through the Lord Jesus Christ (see also Rom. 5:8-11). The entire 5th chapter of Galatians deals with this issue contrasting the law and liberty, the lusts of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit. Under the New Covenant, all the law is fulfilled in loving God with all your heart, soul and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-40). Jesus fulfilled the law and now our right standing with God is based upon His right standing. Our righteousness is based upon His righteousness not on the law. Galatians 2:21 puts it this way, “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” In Paul’s day there was controversy over whether a believer would be defiled by eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul addressed this at length. In his understanding, the eating of that meat was neither good nor bad of itself. It was the attitude of the heart that was important. Heart motive either cleansed the meat or condemned the eater. Yet while all things were legal to Paul, not all things were without consequences. (Read the 14th chapter of Romans and I Corinthians, chapter 8.) Paul affirmed the freedom we have in Christ, but he also warned us to beware that our liberty does not become a stumbling block for others. With liberty comes responsibility. A word of caution: do not flaunt your Christian freedom. One man’s freedom can be another’s downfall. Yeah, so what about our body being the “temple” of God? Doesn’t tattooing defile it? Well, let’s look at the context of those scriptures (I Cor. 3:16, 6:19, II Cor. 6:16). In the first instance, Paul is addressing envy, strife and division in the church at Corinth and warning them to be careful of what is built upon the foundation laid down by Jesus lest the temple be defiled. In chapter 6, he refers to sexual immorality as defiling the temple of the body. In II Corinthians Paul warns against tainting the bodily temple with idol worship. Jesus Himself said in Matthew 15:11 that it is what comes out of the mouth of man that defiles him that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt.12: 34-35). It is the love, purity and faith that come out of your heart that keeps your temple holy or it is the strife, immorality and unbelief within your heart that defiles it. Personally, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. As Christians we should take dead aim at the devil and his unholy minions, not at brothers and sisters in the Lord who happen to be decorated (or those who are not). Paul himself advises us not to engage in foolish disputes and arguments over the law. He calls it useless and unprofitable (Titus3: 9).