I have been asked the tattoo question many times and have always hesitated to give a public answer for reasons not necessarily relevant here, but Doug Wilson’s post “7 Reasons to Not Tattoo You” seems like as good an occasion as any could be to offer my own thoughts.
As regular readers probably know, I am well-tatted, so it may be judged that I cannot be an impartial reviewer here. That may well be the case, but in my defense, I actually counsel young people against their enthusiasm for the ink more often than not, despite my general position of permissiveness. I’ll give you my lone reason why near the end.
Despite that lone reason, however, the reasons I normally hear against tattooing are fundamentally poor. Douglas’s stated seven are no different. They are, however, quite representative of the reasons most pastors and writers give, so let’s briefly review them in that capacity. Then we will give a brief look at my own views.
7 Bad Reasons to Not Tattoo You
The first reason is the Bible verse I have had repetitively needled with for years: Leviticus 19:28.
“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28, ESV).
There is so much to say on this it deserves a post of its own. We’ll be brief here. First, as Doug well knows, the translation “tattoo” here is gratuitous to his case. The Hebrew word is obscure, disputed by scholars, and appears nowhere else in Scripture to give us any idea of what it literally means. Why translators persist in translating it “tattoo” is beyond me.
There are, however, other parallel verses which address the same topic: cutting your flesh for the dead—whether in mourning or fear makes no difference. The other verses are Leviticus 21:1–5 and Deuteronomy 14:1. The context of these verses make clear that the infraction is not the cutting itself (and thus by extension any tattooing in itself), but ceremonial uncleanness derived through ritual or holy boundary violations. These are spoken of in the same context as priests touching a dead body, marrying a prostitute, or shaving their hair or beards (Lev. 21), and of God’s people violating the old dietary laws (Deut. 14).
If it were the cutting or incision itself that were wrong, as we desire to be literal like that, we must invalidate the whole of modern surgery and all medical shots. It is not, it was the ceremonial context that supplies the real nature of the infraction.
Here we can address Doug’s commentary directly. He says, “Here’s the verse. You are 21-years-old and are thinking about getting a barbed wire tattoo around your bicep. How settled and mature is your understanding of the relationship of Old Testament law to the question of Christian ethics?”
The first part of this is simply a straw man. Enthusiastic young Christian men are hardly pondering barbed-wire wraps. Most of them I see (scores of them) are interested in religious imagery, biblical images, verses, etc. Lowering the opposing view to a caricature is Doug making the argument too easy for himself.
The second part gets to the point: how well settled is your understanding of OT law and Christian ethics? Having just published a book on it, I’d say mine’s pretty clear. Could your views change? Well, yes they have. My views have grown much stricter regarding OT law since I got my tattoos in my early twenties, and yet throughout it all I have seen the clear ceremonial nature of these laws.
R. C. Sproul, Jr., provides a similar conclusion to Doug’s regarding tattoos, but mostly based on the idea that since we can’t really know what Leviticus 19:28 means technically, shouldn’t we be very careful to avoid what it may mean? Simply put: no. The contexts make clear that these prohibitions pertain to ceremonial boundaries proper to the OT ceremonial system. In the New Covenant, they have vanished away (Heb. 8:13).
Here’s how clear it is: if we are bound by the alleged “tattoo” passages in OT law, then we have no good reason to arbitrarily deny the shaving passages, dead body passages, and dietary laws that make up the bulk of the same sections and warnings there.
That being the case, we would then have to be just as observant in our churches today of the rest of the prohibitions in these verses and contexts. For example, the verse immediately preceding the one Doug lists forbids shaving the corners of the beards (Lev. 19:27).
I await Doug’s next article listing 7 biblical reasons not to sport a goatee.
Second, Doug relates that we should “love not the world,” citing 1 John 2:15–16. He asks,
All the energy in the tattoo industry is coming from the world. This is a thing, it is a fad, it is a fashion, and it is all these things because of what the world is doing.
I am not sure I buy this “all the energy” angle. Even if I did, it would not invalidate something or make it a sin. After all, the same could be said for the fashion industry, the make-up industry, or any of the various technology industries, and much more. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the vast majority of the energy behind Silicon Valley is coming from the world. Yet we post our article after typing them up on computers and using an internet connection. Worldliness!
If no unbeliever in the last hundred years had ever gotten a tattoo, you can be assured that it wouldn’t be such a thing among us.
This is the fallacy of “hypothesis contrary to fact.” The truth is, no one can say what would be the case if any given random fact had or hadn’t existed in the past. We simply don’t know.
Even if it were the case, it would again not prove a bad thing. The modern computer was invented by a homosexual. Does this give you pause when using your laptop?
So claims about alleged “evangelical copy-catism” don’t go so far with me. Doug needs to prove that Christians are doing something sinful in itself and/or for sinful reasons, and simply pointing to alleged “worldly” origins does not get there.
Third, Doug pleads the Fifth (Commandment that is, not Amendment, though the latter would have been more profitable for his case): honor your mother and father. Well, who could disagree with this? I myself have counseled teenagers not to get tattoos if they are under their parents’ authority still and their parents are opposed to it.
But then again, this is not an argument against tattoos, it is an argument about obeying your parents. If tattoos are at issue in the case, fine, but the issue then is not the biblical case for tattoos, but the biblical case for parental authority. The same would be the case about a great many things. If a parent forbids an at-home minor to buy a particular car or take a particular job, the same reasoning would apply. It would not mean that the car or job is sinful in itself; it would mean that in such a situation, the material issue is incidental and subject to a greater issue in God’s law.
And remedy here is merely to wait. Thus, the ethics of tattooing issue will arise again in a few years. Doug, I think, feels the limits of his argument here, so he adds, “I don’t believe that any human authority is absolute, but parental authority and wisdom is certainly significant.” Thus we must take parental honoring into account. But I simply agree with Doug’s whole statement here: parental authority is significant, and parental authority is not absolute. I leave it to the individual to decide when and where either “significant” or “not absolute” come into play. But as soon as the latter does, we have to return to the actual question at hand.
Fourth, Doug provides a subjective and hypothetical argument:
The tattoo removal business is a multi-million dollar industry, and growing. Most of their clients are in their 30’s and 40’s. How confident are you that you will not be in that number a decade from now?
Consider the parallel absurdity: “The divorce industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. Most of their clients are in their 30s and 40s. How confident are you, young engaged couple, that you will not be in their number a decade from now?” Ergo, marriage is a bad idea!
But, you say, marriage is something Scripture allows, indeed encourages! Yes, so what are you assuming about tattoos up front when making the same argument? That they’re forbidden? But that’s what we’re supposed to be debating here. Thus you can see why such admonitions from Doug are begging the question. I am quite sure he would not use an argument like the one I just created in order to run young engaged couples out of his counseling office, although he would tell them that marriage is not to be entering into lightly. Well, you do the math.
Fifth, Doug argues that tattoos are a way to demonstrate full committal to something. But, he warns,
You have done something that appears to be an irrevocable step. You are an “all-in” kind of guy. But if you cash this out, what you have is “all of the dedication, none of the accomplishment.” Another name for that is boasting, or showing off.
Castigating tattoos as “all of the dedication, none of the accomplishment” is one of those deep sayings that sounds profound when thrown against the things for which one already dislikes. But it unravels quickly. This type of purism not only disrespects the great strides a person may have already experienced in sanctification (to which a tattoo may actually become a lasting memorial, among other things), it cuts in a thousand directions. By this proverb, anything of any unnecessary outward purpose could come under condemnation a boastful or showing off.
It makes me think immediately about the ridiculous trappings of high (or higher) liturgy spreading through our churches today. Clergymen get a whiff that clerical robes are not forbidden, and then pretty soon a competition of the elitism of professional clericalism is driving them to prove themselves more committed than the next with proper chalices, canticles, processionals, paraments, bowing, crossing, incense, and what next? Each week it seems one is doing something more outrageous than the next, and the feeling among a neutral observer would be fit to quote Douglas here: “Whoa, he really did that.”
But I digress a bit. What is applied to the high liturgy rabbit trail applies also to any area of life. Take Bible reading for example, or charity, or street preaching. There is always a danger in any aspect of the Christian life to do something for the show of being more committed than one really is (or can be at the moment) in his heart. But then every recital of a creed or profession of faith fails that test, too, doesn’t it? Should we exclude these from our worship?
No. We can never in this life be as faithful and pure as we profess to be. And I see no reason to impugn the freedom to get tattoos with that type of radically-applied purism either.
Sixth, Doug says that we should examine the “distinctively pagan origin” or tattooing for its “hidden cultural drivers.” He suggests we should desire to look more like Edith Schaeffer than a Maori tribesman.
Aside from another straw man in that second part, this argument fails for the same reasons stated in reason two above. Moreover, I am not sure I want to look like Edith Schaeffer, either, but it does bring up a second point. How thoroughly have we examined the origins of western fashion and appearance? It could well be that what we consider proper conservative business attire derives from origins as arguably pagan as anything else. Would we invalidate it then?
One area where we don’t have to guess, and for which we have very clear and direct biblical discussion, is with female make-up and jewelry (1 Tim. 2:9–10; 1 Pet. 3:3). When was the last time you heard a sermon against braided hair, gold jewelry, and expensive dresses? When was the last time you heard mascara and lipstick examined in light of their “distinctively pagan origins”? In the Bible, these things are associated distinctively with Jezebel and with the collapse of godly civilization (cp. 2 Kgs 9:30; Isa. 3).
And the pictures seem to indicate that Edith Schaeffer may have worn lipstick.
As far as looking like Edith Schaeffer goes, I don’t know if anyone could get any closer to that than the current heir to that position: Franky Schaeffer. I am not sure how much an inkless and puritan appearance has helped his reputation, worldview, etc. In fact, one could argue that he looks quite modest and Christian. But if you give biblical substance priority over appearance, you would reemploy Douglas’s line: “all of the dedication, none of the accomplishment.” I’ll take the tatted-up bible-believer any day. (And no, I’m not opposed to make-up and jewelry, either.)
Seventh, Douglas appeals to the nature of Christian baptism as the only mark Christians need to have, and it is invisible. He concludes that when one entertains a tattoo, “He is either trying to erase his baptism or he is trying to supplement it.”
Of course this is false dichotomy. People don’t get tattoos for only reasons pertaining to the mark of Christian initiation, and not all marks are marks related to Christian initiation.
Instead, tattoos are an exercise of the freedom one enjoys under the mark of Christian baptism, that is, in Christ. They are no more trying to supplement the mark of baptism than, again, a woman’s makeup or a man’s latest fashion of suit, artwork, or pictures of your children hung on your wall. Tattoos may be of a more permanent nature than these other things, but they are no different in purpose. They are merely memorials secured within the realm of Christian freedom.
My own views and warnings
My own views, briefly, are that tattoos are perfectly acceptable for Christians, all else being equal. It is certainly true that there can be many external circumstances that would render it unwise in their particular contexts. I leave that consideration to the individual, with the understanding that a permanent mark is something you need to consider for its permanence. If you expect a career in politics, for example, perhaps a dragon neck-tattoo is not the best calculation.
My main reason for dissuading youngsters, or at least warning them seriously, is that good tattoos are expensive. People ask me if I regret getting mine. I always say yes and no. I don’t regret them at all in regard to the thing in itself. But they are not the best economic decision. I have probably around $1,000 on my arms (gotten over a period of a few years). Today, I have a family to feed and care for, and a future to plan. I would much prefer to have that grand in the bank than on my arm never to be retrieved.
So think wisely before spending all that dough. But if you decide to go for it, don’t let the various bad arguments brought against it infringe upon your conscience. Be Christian enough to live free and take responsibility for your decisions.